Making comparisons

Oh, how I hated role-play!

Waiting for the moment when the enthusiastic, upbeat, uber-confident, staff trainer or presenter would make us act out what they’d been teaching us to do. ‘Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me,’ my inner voice repeated over and over again.

Thankfully on many occasions, it was the confident extroverts who had their moment to show everyone else how it should be done. ‘Phew, not me,’ says the relieved inner voice. ‘Until next time…’ I whisper back. I’ve had enough trouble playing myself at times, let alone trying to be someone else… They’re bound to be better in any case.

A previous post reflected on how, as human beings, comparing ourselves with others is one of our least helpful attributes. Usually applied negatively, doing so exacerbates feelings of stress, inadequacy and failure – especially when it all gets too much or we perceive someone is more successful than we are.

In a recent interview with Radio Times, the broadcaster Paddy O’Connell put it like this: ‘You don’t measure success in Volvos. Success is being the sort of person people want to bump into.’

So, what makes us that sort of person?

We all have our public persona and our private persona. Most people see the public, outer person we present. Many like the public version of themselves – for some it’s a role they can play with confidence. For others, the outside is a uncomfortable place to inhabit. Whereas, much fewer people (if any) meet our private, inner being. There also, in that location, some are happy with who they are, while others are deeply unhappy.

In her excellent new book, fellow BRF author, Cally Hammond reflects on what we can learn from the public and private personas of one the prominent figures of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. She writes one of the most perceptive comments I’ve read for a long time:

It is a mistake… to compare the outside of other people’s lives with the inside of our own life.’

We all do it. We compare our inner, private self with someone else’s outer, public self. But, if we think about it, how crazy is that? We’re being the person we are and they’re playing a role… no wonder we don’t feel happy or successful…

Whether it’s at work, socially or more personally, many relationships are built through those public, outside portrayals. However, the deepest, most special relationships are often the ones in which the role-play mask is put aside and the inner person is revealed. And it is in such relationships, the ones built on love, trust, acceptance and communication, that often we discover there are no comparisons that need to be made.

For deep down inside, many people are very similar to ourselves.

Think of those times when you thought you were the only one going through a particular experience. What a relief and reassurance it was when you discovered other people felt the same.

We are, of course, more than the sum of our parts and as life goes on, many people strive not only to like the person they are – both the inner and the outer self – but to love that person too.

One of the other prominent early church figures, St Benedict quotes words of Paul ‘By God’s grace I am what I am’ (1 Corinthians 15:10). It is one of the great joys of God’s love that we are enabled to draw closer and closer to the point of being able to say, ‘I am who I am’. Of accepting the person we are. Of accepting that God’s love is for the person we are.

Maybe that’s the sort of person we’d like people to bump into.

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Teamwork matters

There’s a story about President John F. Kennedy visiting NASA headquarters. Introducing himself to a janitor, he asked what the man did. “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” came the reply.

Whether it’s an Apollo moon landing or England’s cricketers winning the World Cup, success is often all to do with teamwork. Behind the ones who gain the adulation are many others who play a part and they too are to be honoured and respected.

Success is also to do with attitude. In the last 15 years of my paid employment, I was fortunate enough to work in a team where 9 times out of 10 the default answer to any situation was ‘Yes’. Or at the very least, ‘Let’s look at how we can do this.’ By the same token, as we all know, there are many organisations and situations where the default answer is ‘No… no, we can’t possibly do that.’

Such attitudes not only influence success (or lack of it) but also define the culture of a workplace and the team who work there. Indeed, the same is true in any gathering of people: voluntary organisations, churches, social or sports clubs etc. There are people who say ‘yes’ – and there are plenty who say ‘no’!

Whether they are ‘yes’ people or ‘no’ people, when individuals or a clique dominate not only do others feel ignored, isolated or diminished but what everyone does suffers and at worse becomes dysfunctional.  Communication deteriorates. Rumour outweighs reality. Skills are lost. Morale drops. People leave.

When the default answer is ‘yes’, successful teamwork is more likely to occur, but it’s important to be aware of what matters to both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ people.

So why do some people say ‘yes’ to everything? Perhaps they just want to be helpful? To feel they’re as good as others? To feel wanted and valued? Or, by contrast, do they have an inflated sense of self-importance?

And what about ‘no’ people? Is it because they’re just plain difficult or lack confidence in their abilities? Carrying hurts or pain from the past? Worries about the future? Or a deflated sense of self-importance?

“If you want something done, ask a busy person…” Well, yes but maybe not always. People who aren’t busy often want to be. (Busy doesn’t always mean someone has the right skills either.)

Those who always say ‘yes’ sometimes need to be protected from themselves. They become the ‘go to’ people whose approach can be “It’ll be quicker if I do it” or “I’m a team player – as long as you do it my way”. Often refusing or not seeking assistance, they overload themselves and, paradoxically, end up saying ‘no’ to others who want to help. ‘Yes’ people often need to learn to say ‘no’ (and be allowed by others to do so). ‘No’ people may need encouragement and support to know they are valued too.

The value of teamwork is that everyone plays their part. More importantly than that, though, is that everyone is allowed to and enabled to play that part. Equipping others to feel valued and part of the team is not only crucial but also honouring and respectful. Leaders aren’t the only ones to facilitate that – it takes humility from all to be part of a team. Everyone has different skills and abilities. Some are yet to discover theirs. Many need encouragement and support to do so.

As we’ve reflected upon before, Jesus chose a mixed bunch to be part of his central group of disciples. Many other men and women followed him too. They squabbled but they also sought to learn. Jesus showed them how to do some things and enabled them to do more. They weren’t as hopeless as often portrayed (it takes a lot of skill to be a fisherman, for example) but they were, like you and I, ordinary people (sorry if I’ve deflated your sense of self-importance by calling you ordinary…).

When Jesus calls ordinary people to do his work, to play a part in his team as it were, what an astonishing privilege that is.

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Unnumbered Blessings

It’s very easy to focus on problems, isn’t it? Just like I did in the last blog post! Indeed, it seems to take far more effort to ‘count our blessings’.

Within the events of the last few weeks, some of which were described in that last post, God has also blessed. Living in yet another idyllic part of Devon, evening walks by the sea and time spent exploring the neighbourhood make us think, ‘Are we on holiday or do we actually live here?’! We have been made to feel so welcome – not just the 200 people who came to the licensing service but also our neighbours and individuals from all around the six churches who have been so lovely and so kind. (Oh yes, and then there was Wembley again. The Who. ‘What makes him so good…’)

But (briefly, this time) back to the problems. Within just 3 days of the ‘car mangling’, not only had the perpetrator settled and paid up, but we were also able to find a new to us vehicle. But the blessing wasn’t just finding a second-hand car in a very short space of time. Neither that it simply suited Jane’s practical needs. It was, perhaps more importantly, one in which she can locate her identity: a vicar in a bright red Fiat 500! It says something of the person God has made her to be.

And on that very same day… we met Daisy. Daisy is a 4-year-old Cocker Spaniel who’s just had her third and final litter of pups. As well as this other unexpectedly quick provision, what was also remarkable is that Daisy’s been living with a lady who we’ve never met before but who brought our last dog, Pip in to the world nearly 12 years ago. Daisy needed a home and we needed a dog (and need is not an exaggeration). A dog for our home, for our family and our ministry. God knew exactly what we needed – and it wasn’t ‘just a dog’.

These remarkable answers to prayer and underserved blessings weren’t just that God brought both things together on exactly the same day in the midst of all that was changing. If that wasn’t enough, it is also that God should provide these very practical, down to earth things in our lives when we already have so much.

God’s provision of the practical things in life is one sign – just one sign – of the enormity of his love graciously given and available to all. And it is sometimes a struggle to find the words to adequately voice our response to that love. So let me defer to two others who have done so – and perhaps you might find these words helpful when you are counting your blessings:

Mary, the mother of Jesus:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’ (from Luke 1:46-55)

Those words, from what became known as ‘The Magnificat’, inspired the first ever hymn written by English hymn writer and priest, Timothy Dudley-Smith:

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice.

Amidst life’s problems and its joys, it is often the unnumbered blessings that really give our spirit voice.

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