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.

 

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.