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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What the devil is going on?

Well, dear reader, it’s been quite a fortnight since the last blog post.

Having supervised her two charges through their ecclesiastical removal, Pip peacefully moved on to her heavenly kennel. (Yes, there will be dogs in heaven – after all, dog is God spelt backwards…). Her loss is huge both to us as a family and, in particular, to Jane’s work – not least as she begins the next stage of her ministry.

Then, after going to a rather disappointing concert by Fleetwood Mac at Wembley Stadium, the Vicar’s husband returns home to discover that the Vicar’s Mini had been recycled by the recycling lorry (reversing clearly not being the driver’s strong point…). Thankfully Jane was not in it at the time – indeed, not even at home when it happened. But another loss all the same.

So, not the trouble-free period we’d hoped for. Here we are, sent to this new place to do work for God and this all happens. What the devil is going on!

Many Christians talk about having a personal relationship with the living and loving God but fewer openly acknowledge the presence of a living and not so loving Devil. ‘Evil’ is ‘Live’ spelt backwards and the Devil does have ways of making such living difficult. We might even talk about being under ‘spiritual attack’ – for example, doing God’s work but facing opposition in it and believing that things that go wrong are from the Devil.

So, were Pip’s death, the car being written off, a disappointing concert and the impact of the loss of familiar places and routines things of the Devil?

No. He’s more intelligent than that.

Were they symbols of spiritual attack? Yes, quite possibly. But not in themselves. They were, as Lemony Snicket might put it, ‘a series of unfortunate events’.

However, it can be the case that the Devil uses such events to ‘attack’: challenging and undermining our sense of identity and our faith and trust in God. He tells lies and distorts the truth. He touches our weak spots. He messes with our minds and our understanding about God. ‘Oh, so you thought you were doing what God wanted you to do, did you? Well, look at all these nasty things that have happened. You must have got it wrong… perhaps you’ve even sinned and this is your punishment…’

Thankfully, we know where the truth lies – and that has been shown by what happened next. It was quite remarkable! But more about that in the next post on 8 July (why not Subscribe so you can be sure to find out what happened!)

Jesus himself had such an encounter with the Devil – and it came immediately before he began the next stage of his ministry. Out in the wilderness for 40 days and nights, he was tempted by the Devil three times: (1) ‘You must be hungry… turn these stones in to bread’ (2) ‘You think you are so powerful… and you can prove it, can’t you? Go on, jump.’ (3) ‘Worship me – and I’ll give you everything in the world!’ (Matthew 4:1-11)

The Devil tried to mess with Jesus’ mind and his mission. The late Bob Gass wrote “Satan tried to get Jesus to succumb to three different kinds of temptation, and he’ll try the same with you.”

Yes, life is difficult at times. Bad things happen. So where does the truth lie?

Describing God as a being a like a mother hen protecting her brood from a marauding fox (aka the Devil), Nadia Bolz-Weber once said, ‘The mother hen offers us a place of shelter and love so we know where we belong. The fox still exists. The danger is not optional. The fear is. Under the protective wings, we are loved.’

Protected and loved. That is where the truth lies.

As the Psalmist put it…

‘I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
    my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
    my shield…. my salvation, my stronghold.

‘His way is perfect;
    the promise of the Lord proves true;
    he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.’ (Psalm 18: 1,2,30)

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What’s in a Name

In the team I used to work with, a sign that people were struggling was an increase in swearing. That’s fine: it acted as a release mechanism – rewarding as the work was, it could also be difficult. I recall one occasion when a lovely colleague of mine walked in to the main office and said very loudly ‘Jesus Christ!’

It spoke of their frustration at a situation: they meant no offence and probably didn’t realise it could have caused any. And while not offended, I was a tad surprised, it has to be said.

Quite rightly, we call ‘foul’ on chants of racial abuse at football matches and it’s important to challenge anti-Semitism and expressions of Islamophobia, for example. But it is strange that Christianity continues to be seen as somewhat of an easy, unprotected target.

From the day to day occurrences, such as the incident mentioned above, to that heard on TV or expressed in other ways (‘Alcohol – put the “good” in to Good Friday’, as one greetings card put it) it is seemingly ‘acceptable’ to do so. Even the ubiquitous ‘Oh, my God!’ is voiced by both unbeliever and believer alike.

So, as we now stand in Holy Week and prepare ourselves for Good Friday, is the continued use of such language in this way somehow symbolic of society’s and individual attitudes?

Symbolic of continuing to metaphorically bang the nails in to the crucified Christ perhaps…

As Christians, we believe that Jesus, God’s son, died on the Cross in order that everyone could enter in to a personal relationship with God. To receive God’s love and to gain eternal life with God in Heaven. Hence, why it’s called Good Friday.

And if that wasn’t enough, on the third day – Easter Day – we learn that that same Jesus has been brought back to life. The Resurrection. Yes, intellectually, that bit is more of a struggle. Nearly 40 years ago, it was that bit which held me back from believing in any of it. How on earth can someone come back to life? Impossible.

It does takes a leap of faith. If one can believe that with God nothing is impossible then, therefore, why couldn’t God’s Son be brought back to life?

I started this post by using Jesus’ name in a particular way and it is this same Jesus who says our name too.

John’s Gospel tells us that early on that first Easter morning, one of Jesus’ female disciples, Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb where Christ’s body lay. It was still dark. The stone had been rolled away from the entrance and the tomb was empty. The body had gone.

No doubt, as she sat weeping, Mary recalled Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection. And yet the body had gone. Imagine the confusion. She spent 3 years following this guy and believing what he said and now… nothing. Even the appearance of angels did not bring consolation. Then along comes a gardener and she poured out her distress to him. What on earth was going on?

And then one word changed everything. A word charged with emotion. A word which  encapsulated all she was, covered all her confusion and distress, and brought together all her faith and hope.

‘Mary.’

The 16th Century Italian artist, Savoldo captures the moment beautifully in his painting, Mary Magdalene – it’s the one on the front cover of A Story to Tell. In this one word, the simple utterance of her name, Mary has found not a gardener but the risen Christ. And Christ has found her. In the deep heartfelt calling of her name, Mary had found the true fulfilment of who God had made her to be. She turns to face him. And, John’s Gospel tells us, she says his name in reply.

When someone calls our name, it attracts our attention. We turn to face them. We respond to the voice. We see the person who says it. Hearing our name spoken makes us turn in the right direction. And if we are looking for someone we’ve lost, we might call out their name. And such is the joy when we find them – and such is the joy of the person who has been found.

Through the resurrection, Jesus calls each one of us by name.

Believe it or not, he’s saying your name right now.

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