Anxious Times

Driving through the Yorkshire Dales. Enjoying a film in the cinema. Coming back from a successful conference. Lying in someone’s arms. Stuck in a car park. Waking in the night. Watching over a poorly child.

If you’ve ever had a panic attack you probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing at the time. Sometimes totally unexpectedly, they can happen in good times as well as in difficult times.

While the ‘what if’ thoughts rise up occasionally, thankfully mine all happened some years ago now. But I still remember them. The most uncontrollable and frightening feelings I have ever experienced. Anxiety is, as a film  once put it, ‘like a bird of prey getting its claws in to you. It takes you to places you don’t want to go to.’

A panic attack is just one aspect of anxiety. When your body experiences a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms. The consequences often lead to then avoiding going somewhere for fear of having another one. Life starts to close down and the anxiety gets worse.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and it’s so good that attitudes towards anxiety as well as depression (which is also very common as this film describes), bi-polar disorder, psychosis, body image and other forms of mental ill health have improved considerably – especially over the last two decades. (If you want to know more about mental health conditions don’t ‘Dr Google’ it – go to where the reliable, evidence-based information is such as at NHS Choices.)

Despite those improvements, there are still difficulties for those who experience such issues, not least, alas, in some areas of the church. ‘It has…been the experience of many sufferers that the implicit message in church is that depression is “laziness”, anxiety is a “lack of trust” and that mental health problems can be resolved by greater “obedience to Christ”,’ observed Will Van Der Hart, director of The Mind and Soul Foundation. Thankfully, the church too is responding with initiatives such as the Mental Health Access Pack.

As a previous post considered, feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal.  But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When they affect our ability to live well.

Asking for help in such times is not a sign of failure. Although the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help can feel frightening. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or what other people will think. But as Jo Swinney put it, ‘Depression, anxiety and mental anguish are not signs you are a bad Christian.’ Or a bad person, for that matter.

Asking for help is a sign of strength. Seek help, don’t let it get worse. Recovery is possible.

It does take time and effort, though. So, here’s some links that may be helpful…

If you work for a church or Christian organisation, there are some free workshops to help explore what it is to live well and work well mentally – and also to help managers and supervisors support their staff team. If you don’t work for the church then get in touch with MINDFUL EMPLOYER, an NHS initiative which specialises in this area.

And why not share this post with someone you know who’s struggling? Simply send them this link: http://workrestpray.com/anxious-times

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Trains, Birds & Trees

So, Pooch and I are sat by the river in the sun as a steam train chugs its way past on the other side. (Yes, I know, we do live in an idyllic place…).

A man stops nearby and as he unpacks his tripod and camera, I ask “Trains, birds or trees?” “Trains.” He replied gruffly. “Who takes photos of trees?”

‘Shame you just missed it, then…’ I (almost) replied…

Lots of people rush through life like a train. Going full steam ahead even when there’s a  station nearby. Often running late. The equivalent of leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow are always getting in the way. When the train can’t take the strain anymore it often leads to a derailment. And I’ve seen hundreds of those…

It’s perhaps not surprising that the most read post on this blog is about when it all gets too much.  A recent article in the Church Times illustrates the nub of the issue astutely: ‘Wanting desperately to know how to improve his spiritual health and well-being, the American pastor John Ortberg asked advice of his wise spiritual director. The answer was succinct and to the point, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Ortberg jotted that down and waited for the next point, only to be told: “There is nothing else.”’

It’s worth thinking about your stations – the places where the rushing stops.

And what about trees. The above incident reminded me of a photo I took:

Not by a woodland river but in the hustle and bustle of central London, in Kensington Square, one of those lovely private gardens (although do try not to get locked in, as I did).

One fallen tree is held off the ground, supported by another.

It’s an image which is symbolic of the lives of many people. Some are fallen. Others provide support. Neither are upright.

But the lovely thing about this image is that despite those difficulties, both trees are in full leaf. Both flourishing due to the presence of the other.

You may feel you are one who is always giving others support but hopefully you have people who support you too? Such mutual support enables everyone to flourish.

As for the birds. One of Jesus’ most well-known sayings provides a helpful perspective on the things in life which can cause us to rush and fall over:

‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’ (Matthew 6:26)

Indeed, you are.

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Switching Off

Picture the scene. The dog’s taking me for my daily walk (a retirement essential). Yesterday’s rain has swelled the brook as it flows gracefully between the trees. Dewdrops on thatched roofs glisten in the winter sun. Birds sing and the local chickens walk the lanes as if they owned the place.

This idyllic scene is broken by a telephone ringing. A hand dives in to my jacket pocket. But it’s not mine – the phone, that is (the hand was). An instinctive action. My mobile doesn’t even ring. Fooled by a landline.

I’d rank myself 7.5 out of 10 on the technological obsession scale (especially laptop and aforementioned phone). When it comes to social media, it’s the strangely-addictive Twitter and the slightly clunky, but nevertheless, useful LinkedIn which keep me posted (do follow me, he says obsessively…).

I do so enjoy the benefits and access to easier communication and information that technology brings. Life is for learning and one can learn so much from all that’s out there as well as communicate so easily with such a vast range of people.

And yet we live in a society which communicates so much but communicates so little too. In cafés and restaurants, people sat together are also sitting apart, conversing with their smartphone. Work colleagues e-mail each other in the same building (mea culpa). Messaging avoids the hassle of the face to face (ditto). Facebook friends number in the hundreds but ‘offline friends’ are few.

Technology has been key in developing the 24/7 work, rest and play culture in which we live and has brought both advantages and disadvantages.

And therein lies the rub. For many people, there’s no downtime. No way to switch off. Texts and e-mails come and go day and night. Mobile is the go-to number. The pressure is to be always on. Always on for what? Good customer service or fear of the boss? A need to feel needed? A want to feel wanted? A belief that there is no choice?

Many have become so dependent on the phone, tablet or whatever, that its absence causes them feelings of tension and insecurity. (Sounds familiar?)

So how do we manage these various aspects of modern living in order to flourish as people beloved by God?

Balance and boundaries.

In the previous post, we considered how living well is not so much about work-life balance but whole life balance. When it comes to technology, there’s another word beginning with b: boundaries.

So here are a few more tools for your toolbox to help reset things (some are from others, some are mine):

  • Don’t have work emails going to your personal smartphone (no-brainer that one…).
  • Working at home? Set time boundaries. Make a separate office space or if that’s not possible pack it all away when you’re finished.
  • When it beeps or vibrates, you don’t have to respond immediately. Put it in a different room if it’s a nuisance.
  • Day off means day off.
  • When at home be at home. The people you live or socialise with want you to be with them not someone else.
  • Going out with others for meal? First one to look at their phone pays the bill!
  • Think about where you have those calls. Do you really want other people invading your privacy?
  • Have a social media-free day each week – or even a technology-free one.
  • Switch off (yes, switch it off…) 30 mins before bedtime. Switch on no sooner than 15 mins after getting up. The bedroom is no place for a mobile – if you need an alarm, buy a clock.
  • Pray for wisdom about how best to use the gift of technology.

“But, what about…”

“I want to…”

“It’s important…”

Yes, of course. But you do have a choice also.

You’re far too special to be fooled by a phone.

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Time to Talk

Thursday 7 February is the annual Time to Talk Day. It’s another opportunity to raise awareness about mental health.

Many more people now speak openly about their experience of depression, anxiety or other more severe and enduring conditions such as bi-polar disorder or psychosis. With one in four of us seeking help from a doctor about a mental health problem at some point in life, it is encouraging to see the increased recognition of the importance of looking after our mental wellbeing.

Indeed, when we talk about ‘mental health awareness’, fact is most people are actually talking about mental illness. Thinking about the conditions, the problems, the stigma, the discrimination.

So, it’s important that we also think about our mental health – the ways in which we keep our mind healthy.

‘Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. (WHO)

That’s a very positive statement. A lot of people spend a lot of time, energy and money looking after their physical health – exercise, diet etc – but I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort in to keeping ourselves mentally well?

Being mentally unwell is not a weakness. Indeed, it is often those who are the most conscientious and dedicated who experience such difficulties. Depression, for example, has been called ‘the curse of the strong’. 

Feeling anxious or depressed at certain times is perfectly normal. We’re bound to feel anxious if we’re facing an important exam or a relative is in hospital, for example. It’s natural to feel down or low after a bereavement or the break up of a relationship. Indeed, those emotions and responses are a necessary part of who we are as human beings – and integral to our ability to cope with difficult situations and to live well.

But it is right to be concerned when those feelings or symptoms affect our ability to function. When they affect our ability to live well. When we feel bothered by them. When work, sleep, family life and other everyday matters are increasingly affected. If such things are happening every day for more than two weeks, help needs to be sought.

The difficulty is that a lot of people don’t seek help that quickly. We feel we ‘ought’ or ‘should’ be able to cope. We might tell ourselves ‘not to be so stupid’. Others might tell us to ‘pull ourselves together’. It can be difficult to talk – but as this short film shows it’s important to do so.

Asking for help is not a sign of failure. Although the act, or even the very thought, of seeking help can feel frightening. We may be scared of ‘what will come out’ or worried about ‘what’s wrong’ or what other people will think.

Asking for help is a sign of strength. But it is important to be realistic. Although God can and does enable miraculous healing, generally speaking, there is no quick fix. Medication may help but isn’t always necessary. However, it will take time and effort – which is in itself part of the reason why so many people end up struggling for so long: simply because it takes so much time and so much effort.

The good news is that people get better. Recovery does happen. Unlike many physical health conditions, though, recovery from a period of mental ill health may not mean the complete absence of symptoms but it will see the return to a more comfortable level of day to day functioning. To once again live well.

So, what do you do to look after your mental health? Are you working all the hours God sends and missing out on all the other things God wants to give you?

It’s not so much about work-life balance: it’s about whole life balance. It’s about work, rest and pray. It’s about having time for others perhaps through work (be that paid or unpaid; or in the family home or elsewhere); time for ourself through rest and recreation; time for God through prayer and listening.

As quoted in a previous post, ‘You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.’

The above is an edited version of a sermon preached by the author at Portsmouth Cathedral on 3 February 2019 on Mental Health Awareness Sunday. Listen here to full talk.

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A Case of Mistaken Identity

Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night tells the story of twins, Viola and Sebastian. Shipwrecked, they become separated. On reaching land, Viola dresses as a young man, calls herself Cesario – and falls in love with the Duke Orsino. However, Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia. But Olivia falls for Cesario (who’s really Viola). And then Sebastian arrives. A flood of confusion and mistaken identity. Spoiler alert… Sebastian marries Olivia; Viola reveals she’s really a girl and marries Orsino. A tale of hilarity and heartbreak amidst the end of the Christmas season.

With Christmas now past, we recall another tale of mistaken identity. January 6th is known as The Feast of the Epiphany. A day to remember the visit of the three kings… not that we know how many they were (it’s three gifts, not people)… not that we know exactly who they were either (kings… wise men [and women too perhaps]… the Magi [a Greek word meaning astrologers])… and, sorry all you Nativity Play lovers, they weren’t at the manger in the stable either (not that it was a stable…). Jesus was probably a toddler by the time they arrived.

Nonetheless, whatever their identity, they are important figures in the Jesus story. Bringing gifts of gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship on earth; frankincense (perfume or incense) as a symbol of his deity; and, foreshadowing the significance of his death, the embalming oil of myrrh. They had searched for the Messiah and they had found him. It was their Epiphany moment – and their gifts reflected Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

In a previous post, we considered making time in the Christmas period to think about what you’ll be searching for in the year to come. Maybe you had an epiphany moment? (OK, maybe not… sometimes they do take time to find.)

‘New year, new job’ is a widely used mantra. Indeed, January is the most popular time of year for both vacancies and job searching. For many people, work is a large part of life and integral to their identity. Work  occupies many hours, weeks, months and years of our lives. Having a job provides something to talk about and perhaps impress others with. We often define ourselves by the job we do. (By the way, do pray for workplaces using the new feature on this site.)  

Yet, for people without paid employment, those hours, weeks, months and sometimes years are often very empty. There is nothing to talk about. If we have no job we may feel we have no identity. Instead of being a somebody, we are a nobody.

‘In the world around us,’ writes Tim Chester:    

Activity (what we do) -> Identity (who we are)

‘In other words, who I am is based on what I do.’ He continues, ‘The grace of God turns the world’s ways upside down:          

Identity (who I am) -> Activity (what I do)

‘In Christ I am someone who does good works. My good works don’t make me who I am.’

In his reflection for the New Year, Martin Gee also challenged our sense of mistaken identity: ‘It matters a great deal how we work; perhaps it matters less what our work is.’

Or as Pope John Paul II put it, ‘The basis for determining the value of human worth is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.’

Our identity is a complex thing. At times, we may feel a bit like the Epiphany travellers and not sure who we are. Or like Shakespeare’s Viola, we try to be someone we’re not. I know my sense of my own identity is different now to 40, 20, even 10 years ago. Our identity develops as we grow and mature – and diminishes if we’re always trying to be the person we used to be… or think we ought to be…

Maybe there’s an epiphany moment in there somewhere.

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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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Tools in the Toolbox

Chances are, your computer or smartphone is using software called SQLite. In fact, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Skype all use it. So, when the product’s Christian founder, Dr D Richard Hipp quoted the Rule of St Benedict in ethical guidance for programmers, he certainly caused a bit of stir.

‘Anyone who follows The Rule will live a happier and more productive life,’ he writes on the company’s website. Needless to say, social media was full of, how shall I put it, frank opinions!

Hipp focussed on Chapter 4 of the Rule: ‘The Tools for Good Works’. In the two previous posts we reflected on two foundations for life: being and loving ourselves and finding rest and strength through Christ. In order to build on those foundations, we need some tools to do so.

Summarising Chapter 4, these tools might be described as:

• Reading the Bible – also called lectio divina (‘sacred reading’)
• Prayer – setting aside specific times and places
• Saying sorry and changing from past behaviour
• Listening to the teachings of others
• Living in a holy way
• Fidelity in relationships
• Controlling anger
• Respecting other people
• Making peace with others
• Having hope in God’s mercy

They are, if you like, tools in our toolbox. Tools for spiritual wellbeing.

When we open a toolbox, we may only pick out one tool at a time. We use it, put it back and then choose another one. We don’t always know how to use a tool straight away – it can take practice. Sometimes we need someone to show us how to. You might be using some of Benedict’s tools already. Maybe there are some others you could use too.

Day to day 21st Century living also means we may need some contemporary tools to complement the Rule’s tried and tested methods of 1500 years ago. So let’s take a look at two that may be helpful.

It’s well recognised that there are five areas of our lives which are key to our mental wellbeing:

Connect – with other people around you
Be active – some form of physical exercise (don’t automatically think ‘gym’ or ‘marathon’: do what you enjoy and can manage)
Take notice – of the beauty of creation and of what’s happening for other people
Keep learning – a hobby, a course, reading: we can indeed learn something new every day
Give – to others, whether that’s in church, at work, in family life or volunteering or through those simple, but often very meaningful, random acts of kindness.

These also take practice and if any feel unfulfilled, our wellbeing may not be as good. Maybe have a think about what you do that relates to each of those ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing

Another tool is based on an approach called Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). This is a really straightforward and practical concept. Anyone can use it.

In its very simplest and stripped back form, it involves writing two lists:

• Firstly, what we do every day to keep ourselves well (e.g. taking a lunch break, going for a walk, reading a book, a set time for prayer) and also do occasionally (e.g. meeting a friend, going to a concert, gardening, baking, receiving communion).
• Secondly, the signs that it’s all getting too much (e.g. disturbed sleep, more irritable, physical aches, muddled thoughts).

The point being: when we notice the signs – is it because we’ve not been doing what we do to keep ourselves well?

The value of this particular tool is in the writing. Written down and kept somewhere as a reminder. A reminder of what we know works. A reminder of what it is that keeps us well.

Having the tools that God provides helps us live a happier and more productive life.

As someone once put it: ‘You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.’

 

 

PS There are other things that can be added in to a WRAP – other action to take, people to contact or not contact, for example. It could be shared with someone who can help keep us well. Click these links to download a long or a short version or for more information from the originators, Mental Health Recovery.

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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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