Success or Fulfilment?

Had a few days in Switzerland earlier this month. Speaking at a conference of business people from across Europe followed by being a tourist in sunny Zurich.

Sharing the conference stage with an English colleague, we were to be interviewed by globetrotting, all-Australian, Greg van Borssum. Martial arts expert, Mr Universe competitor, world champion pistol shooter, film director, fight choreographer and stuntman on Mad Max.

We’d talked beforehand by email and phone about how the panel discussion would go. Greg wanted to talk about my story. I didn’t. He said “It’s going to be a blast!”  “I’m British,” I said.

Greg went from failed school kid to Oscar winner via financial ruin and depression. He’d arrived the previous day after a 35 hour-long trip and had had a run in the mountains before breakfast. He had a high energy, high motivation, self-driven approach to life. We were poles apart on the ‘Frost scale of masculinity’. Follow that, I thought.

We sat down.

And, of course, it was fine.

He was the stereotypical gentle giant. And, yes, I did share some of my story. It was a good lesson in how not to compare oneself to others.

From our totally different approaches to life, we stood on common ground. Ambassadors for better mental health. Sharing a passion for enabling people to live and to work in a better place.

One of many things Greg said was that life is not about success but about fulfilment.

Society measures success by achievement. How high the salary. How large the house. How expensive the car. How big the bonus. How lovely the children are. Which university. How fashionable the clothes. What the job title is… But is such success fulfilling?

Fulfilling. Full. Filling.

What is it that fills us? What really nourishes the soul and the inner being?

Greg’s challenge was to look at life differently. In many respects, Christianity is also about looking at life – and living life – from a different approach.

Jesus’ approach was different. It remains, even today, counter-cultural. Sometimes counter-intuitive also.

‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ he said. (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31 & Luke 13:30)

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (The Beatitudes in Matthew 5)

Paul’s letter to the Romans put it another way: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

In a previous post we considered the tools for the toolbox alluded to in Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict. The same chapter says, ‘Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else.’

It’s easy to look upon those words from the Bible and the Rule and be daunted by such high standards. To feel poles apart from others on some imaginary ‘God’s scale of acceptability’.

But there is no scale. For the love of Christ is the toolbox itself.

The love of Christ is the centre of everything about us. Everything we do stems from that love. That is where fulfilment lies.

Fulfilment gained through experiencing the love of Christ in our own lives.

Fulfilment gained through expressing that love towards others.

Fulfilment gained by taking a different approach.

 

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Time for a Good Rest

‘Tiredness can kill. Take a break.’

A sign for the drivers who should have stopped the last time they saw it. For the doctor with one patient too many. For the precision engineer whose work is not as precise. The shop assistant giving out the wrong change. The vicar who’s now driven instead of called.

I’ve seen far too many people put everything in to everything only to be left with nothing for anything. Working so hard to prove themselves to themselves, let alone others. ‘We have to start breaking busy before the busy breaks us,’ as Alli Worthington put it.

This blog is called Work. Rest. Pray. This seventh post is about the seventh day. The day God rested (Genesis 2:1-3). The principle that provides for our lives.

Of course, many people work at weekends. So it’s not as simple as it used to be to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8-11). But creating ‘Sabbath moments’: setting aside times that are refreshingly restful and restorative, is possible.

There again, nobody ever teaches us how to rest, do they?

Resting is a skill. And like other tools in our toolbox, it takes practice.

I didn’t learn how to rest until I was over 30 – and even then it was because I’d become unwell. A 3 year-long period of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (M.E.) meant pretty much constant tiredness and nothing for anything. It was a doctor who taught me how to rest and pace life. When it reoccurred some 15 years later, those lessons helped. In between and since, the same principles have undergirded my personal approach to work, rest and play. And I still don’t always get it right.

“It’s OK to be tired” has been our ‘family motto’ for years. Partly borne from that personal experience but also an acknowledgement that life is tiring and that it’s OK to feel tired.

All the same, being tired a lot of the time is frustrating. It messes with our thoughts as well as our body. Other people can also find it difficult when all we can say is “Sorry, I’m tired.”

Jesus got tired. When a storm blew up one evening on Lake Galilee, he was asleep in the boat. Tired from teaching and being followed by crowds of people (Mark 4:38). He also ensured his disciples took time out to rest (Mark 6:30-32).

Having a good rest involves recognising the signs that we’re tired, understanding what helps us to rest, and making the time to do so.

Resting is not necessarily about doing nothing. It can be: whether a daytime resting of our eyelids or imitating Winnie-the-Pooh: ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits’ (both practised most days by this particular writer!).

There are also times when ‘a change is as good as rest’. Taking a break from normal, usual routines to do something refreshingly restful and restorative. It’s an approach which helps overcome the lethargy that accompanies tiredness too.

Take a break from thinking. You know, those times when we overthink a task or topic. Times when the trees get in the way of the seeing the wood. When we need to come up from being bogged down.

And, as one anonymous blogger put it, ‘Resting is an act (of) faith… Trust that (God) will continue to work and take care of things even as we are resting,’ Things will still be OK if we need to take a break for a while.

There are different ways of creating those Sabbath moments. Whether short or long, setting aside times that are refreshingly restful and restorative.

Don’t be left with nothing for anything.

Make time for a good rest. Whatever that means for you. However that works for you. Add more tools to your toolbox.

Here are some words of Solomon in Psalm 127:

‘Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain…

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.’

You are the Lord’s beloved. The Lord builds the house for you to work, to rest and to pray.

 

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Star Baker or The Apprentice?

Back in the Boardroom, Sugar, Brady and Littner are giving the aspiring Apprentices a masterclass. Teaching them the hardnosed, ruthlessness of surviving in business. In previous weeks, David dared to point out problems and faced the pointy finger. Tom led from within and was lucky not to go out. And Frank was fired simply for being himself. All good attributes but being loved by your neighbour, it isn’t.

In the gentler atmosphere of the Bake Off Tent, the desire to win is just as determined – and Hollywood and Leith can be just as brutal. Ruby’s opponents almost saved the collapsing showstopper and everyone comforted the distraught Manon. And don’t you just want to take Rahul home with you!

It all makes for good television – and, of course, we only see what the producers want us to. But what do these programmes say about comparing ourselves with others? Do we see our lives as always waiting for a Sugar-coated finger or a Hollywood handshake?

As humans, comparing ourselves with others is one of our least helpful attributes. Applied negatively more often than not, doing so exacerbates feelings of stress, inadequacy and failure – especially when it all gets too much. “If only… I was as good as him, had her friends, their house, job, money, health, faith…”

All that time and effort. Wishing we were like someone else. Only to miss out on being the person we are.

Oscar Wilde said: ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’ Sounds simple, but how does that work in the complex reality of our lives?

Well, there is a clue in something Jesus said: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Mark 12:31)

Now, most of us probably feel comfortable with the ‘love your neighbour’ bit… thinking of others, being kind to people… “Yep, I can do that. That bit’s OK.”

All the same, it is difficult to love those we don’t like or don’t get on with. We often have a choice about the friends we keep or don’t keep, albeit street neighbours or work colleagues can present challenges, for example. But, pretty much, the act of loving our neighbour (wherever they are) can be fairly straightforward and comparatively easy.

But what about, ‘as yourself’?

To love ourselves in the same way as we love others.

Umm… tricky that.

Many of us focus on our failings. The bad bits. The mistakes. The wrong words. The difficult memories. The hurts. The things we messed up. The times when the finger pointed.

There are good things in all of us, though. It may be hard to focus on them, but they’re there. The things we got right. The successes (they don’t have to be showstoppers). The compliments we receive (even if we struggle to actually believe them). What we’re good at. What we like about ourselves.

Loving ourselves requires having a balanced view of who we are. Having a balanced view enables us to see what God, in his love and grace, has made good within us. The ways in which God not only shakes our hand but also embraces and holds us.

All the same, what if you still feel you’re not exactly a Star Baker?

God’s love isn’t based on success and achievement. You don’t have to prove anything. Hired or fired, God loves you no less than anyone else. Complete with all the good bits and all the bad bits.

Thing is, it’s easier to accept that’s true for other people, isn’t it? It’s that comparison thing again. “Me. God loves me? I mean, what about this… don’t forget that… oh, and there’s these other reasons too, Lord…”

We’re probably all apprentices in some respects.

So ‘In this week’s task…’, have a think about these questions:

• What makes you you (and not just the person you want others to see)?
• What do you love about yourself?

God’s got a treat lined up for you. And you don’t even need to go back to the Boardroom to get it.

 

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When it all gets too much

A while ago, one Sunday morning after church I met my son and daughter at a local café. They went upstairs while I got the drinks. I set off up the long, wide, wooden staircase carrying a tray full of hot chocolate, teapots, milk, and cups and saucers. And then disaster. At the very top of the stairs. On the very last step. Down I went. Drinks splashed and cups smashed. Down the stairs it all flowed. And yes, I did cry over spilt milk. It had been a hard week. A very difficult weekend. And now this. A symbol of it all getting too much. The tray of life was too full and too heavy.

We all have times like that, don’t we? (oh, please tell me you do too…) When the load we are carrying is too heavy. When work and home life all gets too much. When we fail, worry and make poor decisions. Times when our behaviour towards others changes. We become irritable, quiet or stick our head in the sand. We might even call it stress.

Stress is a much overused word but there are times when we struggle to cope, whether at work or home, or both. There is no such thing as ‘good stress’. We all need a degree of pressure to get things done, to perform well, to do a good job or to please others. But when those pressures exceed our ability to cope with the demands upon us then that’s stress: and there’s nothing good about it.

We all respond to stress in different ways too. Stress affects us physically (palpitations, eczema, muscle ache, sleep disturbance, for example), emotionally (anger, worry, tearfulness etc) and behaviourally (irritability, restlessness perhaps). People talk a lot about ‘work-related stress’ but the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence are non-work related issues. Financial difficulties, care for the elderly, care for the children, relationship problems, difficulties at church and numerous other factors affect the ability to work. Left unmanaged, stress causes health problems and affects our mental wellbeing.

Of course, it’s nothing new. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (7: 22-25a) ‘that which dwells within us turns us against ourselves, the law of our body is at war with the law of our mind’. Paul also sums up the feelings we have about ourselves: ‘Wretched person that I am’. Stress exacerbates our inadequacy: “I am so stupid. I’m hopeless. I am such a failure.”

So amidst this rather depressing passage (and this rather depressing post), come some surprising words. Paul writes, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ A simple statement of a fundamental truth but also a far too simple statement. Profound and deeply meaningful and yet one that trips off the tongue in glib repetition. When I fell at the top of the stairs, thanking God through Jesus Christ was not at the top of my list.

And yet, all the same, let’s turn to Jesus own words: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)

Familiar verses. There will always be burdens and heavy loads to carry, but it’s what we do with them that matters. At times when the tray is full (or, preferably, before then) we can hand it over to Christ and receive the promise of rest. Through that rest comes strength: a strength that is made perfect in our weakness. Alleluia!

And what do we do next? We take it right back again, don’t we (oh, please tell me you do too…).

Over the next couple of posts we’ll look at managing such loads and gaining that rest and strength. We’ll consider the difficulties of comparing ourselves with others, some practical ways of addressing the balance of work and the rest of life, and looking after our mental wellbeing.

We may still have to carry the tray, but Christ can make it lighter.

 

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Leading from within

It was the farewell lunch for a long-standing employee. It had been a difficult few years. Change and uncertainty. Redundancies. A pensions black hole in to which the business was falling. Restructure after restructure wrought havoc among the team. It wasn’t simply that they lacked leaders – it was also that some decided not to follow. Returning for the occasion, the former Chief Executive, whose success had been measurable, spoke fondly of the good days: “A time when all the noses were facing in the same direction.”

“Different people have different definitions of leadership,” said former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. “I believe that leadership is not about the individual. When you have macho leaders who believe that they have to shine and it all has to be about them (they are) forgetting that what is required is the welfare of society and the people they serve.”

Leaders will tell us there is no ‘I’ in team yet some behave in a way that says there is no ‘u’ in me.

As Methodist Church leader and Human Resource specialist, Janet Arthur put it: ‘While it (is) necessary to have vision, passion, make firm and decisive decisions and ensure (others) do not suffer… It is equally important for a leader to demonstrate nurture and care for their people so they remain motivated and willingly come along with (them). Different leadership approaches may be suited to different people and issues… leadership has to have a purpose; and a key part of the leader’s role is to work out which approach will best enable them to drive positive change.’ (Parenthesis mine)

The classic Biblical image of a leader is that of a shepherd. In some countries, the shepherd goes in front of the flock and the sheep follow. Each shepherd has a particular sound they make and the sheep recognize and respond to that call. Elsewhere, the shepherd drives the sheep from behind and they may have one or two dogs to help. In a sense we need both types of shepherd. Both types of leaders. We need people who will lead from the front: bringing ideas and a vision of where we are going. And we need those who lead from behind, encouraging us to move forward. And yes, we need a dog or two – people who will keep us together. People who help to keep our noses facing in the same direction.

But there is a third type of leader. The one who leads from within.

We see this in Jesus. Jesus’ ministry was a collaborative one. He called people to be part of it – to follow him. He led a mixed bunch of people – not just the core team of twelve disciples but others such as Mary Magdalene, the siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus, Joanna, Susannah and Salome. Numerous men and women followed his leadership, sometimes at risk to themselves, like the high-ranking Jewish leaders Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.

Jesus was a leader who saw potential in people. He accepted their questions and doubts. He knew they would make mistakes. He taught them. He listened to them. He affirmed them. He corrected them. Instead of doing everything himself, he equipped others to do what was needed for the purpose of his work. There was a humility in Jesus’ leadership. His leadership wasn’t about himself. His leadership was about bringing glory to God and enabling people, everyone of us, to experience God’s love in all its fullness.

Christians don’t have the monopoly on good attributes and good works (indeed there are some churchgoers in whom you’d be hard pushed to see a connection between belief and behaviour) but in Jesus we see a role model for leaders.

Leaders who see potential and accept questions, doubts and mistakes. Leaders who listen, teach, affirm, correct. Leaders who don’t do everything but equip people to do it for them and the organisation. Leaders who are not in it for themselves but are in it for others.

It can’t be that difficult, can it?

There are leaders and managers who display those attributes and plenty of them. Next time, I’ll tell you about someone who was such a leader.

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