Freedom…

There’s been a fly buzzing around a windowpane in my room.

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It expended much energy and effort in relentlessly flying in circles, until my guiding hand re-routed it to the adjacent open window – and freedom.

Truth is, I’m sometimes a bit like that fly. Aren’t we all in one way or another?
When we feel trapped by circumstances or become entrenched by negative thought patterns, we can end up in ever decreasing circles. But if we took a moment to pause and consider possibilities, we might discover alternatives or recognise the need for radical acceptance.

Mindfulness and radical acceptance are concepts I learnt from Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. Although Reinhold Niebuhr penned these words before the inception of DBT, they epitomise ‘radical acceptance’:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

We all have a choice as to how we respond to life’s ups and downs.
The ‘trapped’ fly reminds me to use my energy wisely, and focus on the possible rather than the impossible. If we are to ‘know the difference’, we need to be mindful and notice what is really going on. It means being honest with ourselves, and spotting all the hidden agendas we carry. Yet how often are we ‘mind-full’ and distracted by our own self-centred priorities, assumptions, fears and anxieties.

I believe that God offers us all freedom in Christ. Like my hand gently guided the fly towards the open window and freedom, so too does God encourage us to move from darkness to light.

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We are easily deceived by what promises to fill our emptiness. We can be addicted to so many things – obvious vices like food, alcohol, drugs, selfies or pornography, but there are less obvious addictions too, like an unquenchable thirst for acceptance, approval, affirmation and affection. At one level, many of these urges are basic human needs, but they need to be met in a balanced way.
For over three decades, a prayer from the Iona Community has been shaping my faith:

God, you promised us nothing by way of success, recognition, possessions, or reward. ‘These things will come at the right time, when you walk with me’, you said.

Truth is… The truth shall set you free. John 8:28

What to wear…

‘What to wear’ is a topical question. With increasing concern about exploitation of both people and planet, questions are rightly being asked about the true cost of cheap fashion, and at this time of year, questions are being raised again about the pressures resulting from school ‘proms’, both financial and personal.

What we wear is something we can have strong feelings about from a very early age.
50 years on, I still remember the discomfort of having to wear a bright pink jacket. As a ‘shrinking violet’ it made me feel uncomfortably conspicuous. What was worse, it was bought for me with ‘growing room’, so as a slow growing child it blighted me for a long time!

Truth is, my desire to be inconspicuous came from a deep-seated lack of confidence. Decades later, an intuitive nun gave me an anonymous poem called Life’s Lessons from a Butterfly:

Let go of the past

Trust the future

Embrace change

Come out of the cocoon

Unfurl your wings

Dare to get off the ground

Ride the breezes

Savour the flowers

Put on your brightest colours

Let your beauty show

Putting on our brightest colours has nothing to do with buying fast fashion, or being the belle of the ball. It is about becoming our true selves and living life to the full, rather than being constrained by self-doubt, fear, guilt, anger or self-pity.

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There are many threads running through the Bible about clothing, and followers of Jesus are urged to clothe themselves in right attitudes. There’s a particularly eye-catching passage in the Bible, which the Message paraphrases:

…dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline… (Colossians 3:12)

That’s a wonderful wardrobe to wear, and as a believer, I trust God’s choices for me.
God knows how we measure up, and will not offer us, clothing that is ill-fitting, unsuitable, or inappropriate. So let’s step into what’s being held out to us…

Truth is… Regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (Colossians 3:14)

‘One day…’ or ‘Day One’

‘New Year, new you!’ is synonymous with January. A new and improved version of ourselves will apparently be ours if we buy this or sign up for that.

A new year with a new beginning is very attractive. Rather like newly fallen snow covers grime, New Year resolutions are sometimes seen as a way of obliterating imperfections. So we promise ourselves we won’t do this or that anymore. But all too often, a few hours or days or weeks later, our grimy side resurfaces like familiar landmarks emerge from thawing snow.
Truth is, my track record of keeping New Year resolutions is poor. So this year before making any, I’ve been thinking about why I’ve failed on so many occasions, and what needs to be different.

Resolutions are sometimes likened to activating a reset button.

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But we are human beings, not machines.
We cannot ‘reset’ ourselves because our present is influenced by our past. We can’t delete our pain at the touch of a button, nor can we wipe sadness away in a simple stroke. But we do have a choice in how we respond to our life experiences – we can become better people with authentic empathy and wisdom, or we can become caustic and bitter.
So resolutions aren’t magic buttons that delete our past, but they can set us on positive paths – nudging us to change the things we can, while accepting the things we can’t alter.

Being realistic is probably the key to success. Frequently, resolutions are big and bold and while there’s nothing wrong in having high hopes, a goal without a realistic plan is just a wish.

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Wishful thinking is having a ‘One day…’ attitude and less likely to lead to fulfilled hopes than a ‘Day One’ approach.
If we make today ‘Day One’ and take one small step to our bigger goal, then it will be a good start to Day Two, and so on.

As well as being realistic in the goals we set, we need to recognise that we will have days when we fall short. How many resolutions are ditched at the first hitch – we do what we said we wouldn’t, or don’t do what we said we would, and so we give up and probably feel guilty. It’s at this point, that as a believer I remember that fresh starts are God’s specialism. An Anglican prayer of confession sums it up in the words:

‘Forgive what we have been,
help us to amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be’

God is sometimes perceived as the author of ‘thou shalt nots’, but actually I believe that ‘thou shalt’ is more God’s line. Our negative attitudes and actions are far more effectively resolved when they are displaced by positives. In the same way, New Year resolutions are more effective when they add something into our pattern of life rather than remove something from it.
Happy New year!

Truth is… Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new is come. 2 Corinthians 5:17 

Duty or desire…

My Assistance Dog Marshall has been with me for six months, and we now know one another well! He and I have a strong bond, rooted in mutual trust. I trust him to be my Hearing Dog; he trusts me to care for him and keep him safe.
The key to our strong relationship is that it’s reciprocal. I love Marshall for simply ‘being’ himself, and this love precedes anything he ‘does’ for me. Meanwhile Marshall flourishes in my affection and is eager to please.

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I think all this has parallels with our relationship with God. There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we do that makes God love us less. God simply loves us for who we are. We are after all, called human ‘beings’ rather than human ‘doings’. God must long for us to know ourselves loved, as this frees us to love in response, with any sense of duty being replaced by desire. Genuine love makes life better all round.

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At the beginning of our partnership, Marshall was dutiful. He was simply acting out his training, alerting me to sounds, or waiting beside me for my next command. But now he has got to know me and realises I have his best interests at heart, he’s no longer acting out of duty, he’s responding out of a desire to do his best.

Duty or desire…

Truth is, I’ve known what it is to be dutiful. As a convent schoolgirl, I was taught to be ‘good for God’ otherwise vengeance would follow. Fast forward a few decades, and I now believe in a God who builds us up, not one who beats us down. I only have to look at Marshall to see that it’s no good controlling him through fear. A threat might work in the short-term, but long term our relationship would be damaged. He would mistrust me and be fearful.
So we needn’t be slaves to fear and duty, we are called instead to receive God’s love and desire will follow.

Truth is… ‘So then, you are no longer a slave’ Galatians 4:7

Wait and see…

Sometimes there’s more to something than meets the eye. Like the tomato and cucumber plants my daughter gave me in June. We knew it was a little late in the season to be growing on, but ‘nothing ventured nothing gained’, and so they had house room in a sunny position for a few weeks before I moved them outside.

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While the cucumber soon established itself and quickly produced fruit…

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…the tomato plant looked unconvincing. So much so, that in August I nearly consigned it to the compost heap – it had finally come into flower, but the weather seemed to be on the turn and with not much between my garden and a Welsh mountain, I doubted if the fruit would have time to mature before summer’s end. My son however, persuaded me to wait and he was right – we are finally eating tomatoes!

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Sometimes it’s a good choice to wait and see. Truth is, I like things sorted, but life isn’t always black and white. The grey areas in-between can hold possibilities – potential that can go unrealised if we dismiss things too quickly, or at a particularly low moment, or when we feel drained.

Recently I felt like stepping out of an energy sapping situation but realised there were uncertainties that were preventing me from making a clear decision, so I’ve chosen to wait. Waiting isn’t necessarily a passive state. Sometimes there are actions we can take to optimise positive outcomes. A bit like giving the tomato plant a final chance – removing fruitless stems, placing it in good light, and keeping it watered but not water logged.
I believe that if we choose to engage with God, we too will find ourselves in clearer light with our true needs met. It will call us to look honestly at ourselves, and our situations, and make informed, balanced decisions.
Discernment is a process. I don’t believe in a God who waves a magic wand, but in a presence that wills the best all round. What flourishes and what appears to fail, is part of this, so I wait and see…

Truth is… “Watch for the new thing I am going to do…” (Isaiah 43:19)

Ready, steady, go…

Sports Day, and children lined up waiting for the teacher to start the race with the words “Ready, steady, go”. Sometimes there are ‘false starts’ with someone overstepping the mark, and they have to be called back into line.

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– I remember that scene from my own school-days, and truth is, as an adult I sometimes find myself running ahead in life.
Fear is like a starting pistol. Something fires off, and I find myself propelled into the future with thoughts like ‘What if…?’ ‘Then what…?’ ‘How will I… ?’ ‘How will they…?’ And running ahead in my mind, I stumble.

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I haven’t got the answers, because the answers aren’t yet in sight – they are round the next bend on the track, and clearly in God’s sight. I believe that God has the answers, but we won’t see them until the time is right – simply because we wouldn’t understand. This is a thread that runs through the Bible:

God – “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”
(Isaiah 55:8)

St Paul – “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror…what I know now is only partial”
(1 Corinthians 13:12)

So where are we on the track of life?
Are we in the right lane, or do we need to realign ourselves? Are we ready and steady, with God as a firm foundation?  Are we set to go, trusting God to enable us?

At times when I find myself making a false start (fuelled by fear) or overstepping the mark (propelled by panic), I find it helpful to remember that at school I was a competent cross-country runner. I had stamina. It came from commitment, perseverance, and wanting to do my best. All these qualities are transferable to daily life and faith in God.

It requires trust though. Trust that God knows what’s going on in our lives, and can weave our circumstances into a bigger picture, where different strands of different stories come together in ways we cannot imagine.
I’m grateful to a friend who reminded me of this recently:

Truth is…. Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life. (Philippians 4:7)

If the shoes fit…

As a child I loved imaginative play, including playing ‘shoe shops’ where I would gather every pair of shoes in the house and try them on for size. My brother’s rubber soled shoes were my favourite, because they were what the ‘Famous Five’ wore on their adventures. With my footsteps silenced by rubber, I felt I was there alongside my hero(ine) ‘George’!

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I didn’t take to my mother’s high heels though, and 50 years on, I sometimes catch myself wearing mis-fitting ‘shoes’. Truth is, I tend to be over responsible, so I sometimes step into shoes that aren’t really mine to wear.

The shoe analogy is quite fitting! Too big or too small, too high or too low, shoes can cause a myriad of problems. They can pinch, rub and distort. They can cause us to roll over, stumble and fall. But a well-fitting pair is a different experience altogether, and I believe this is what God holds out to each one of us. As Jesus said:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. (Matthew 11: 38-39)

So in our daily lives, finding ‘shoes’ that fit, is important.
The odd blister now and then is to be expected, and just like shoes can require ‘breaking in’, we may need to give ourselves time to become comfortable in a new situation.
Seeing how we measure up is a useful guide. If we are having to shoe horn ourselves into an overly narrow fit, or if the shoes we’ve put on are a loose fit, it may be that we need to consider alternatives.

My granddaughter has just learnt to walk, so she’ll soon have her feet measured for her first pair of shoes.

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Care will be taken to make sure they fit well, but include a little bit of growing room. As she gradually fills her new shoes, she’ll be re-measured and re-fitted.
I could do well to apply the same criteria to the ‘shoes’ I consider wearing – how about you?

Truth is… Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
(Matthew 11:38-40)

Standing tall…

As a child, I was the smallest in the class. I felt swamped by people in other ways too, as I was also bottom of the class. It took me a while to reach my full height in more ways than one, and truth is, I’ve got more ‘growing’ to do!
Haven’t we all…?

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Growing more fully into our true selves is a life-long process. It’s about standing tall, not being a shrinking violet; it’s about taking our place in the sun, not lurking in the shadows. But this doesn’t mean standing on others, or trampling them underfoot.

I’m inspired by Nikesh Mehta, a deputy director of GCHQ (the UK Intelligence Agency) who in a short BBC video speaks about daring to be different. He packs wise words into just a few minutes, and one of the things he suggests is finding a ‘champion’. He says:

It’s really important when you’re breaking new ground to find somebody who will encourage you to be yourself.

I guess we all benefit from having a champion in our life.
I believe that God, as our creator, is our ultimate champion. Having created each one of us with a unique combination of traits and gifts, God is clear about our potential and where our true fulfilment lies.
But God is not a remote controller. Rather, I believe that God can champion us through the words and actions of others. Champions come in many different shapes and sizes, so it can take an open mind and open mind to spot them.

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Champions sometimes confirm and affirm, other times they question and challenge, but always with our best interests at heart. It may be that they have the perspective to point out something that’s right under our nose, or maybe we are helped by them ‘being in our boat’ as we ride out a storm, or perhaps we gain courage from their belief in us.

As well as benefitting from champions, we can be champions ourselves. The world is a better place when we stand up for others and stand alongside them.
Life’s too short not to stand tall!

Truth is…  Listen, stay alert, stand tall in the faith, be courageous, and be strong.
(I Corinthians 16:13)

Behind the times…

My impression is that with the millennium, style and makeover programmes were all the rage. Maybe it was something to do with leaving the past behind and putting on the new. I’m not a follower of fashion, but such was their impact, that even I was aware of Trinny & Susannah and Gok Wan being fashionistas!
Stylists advise regularly taking a fresh look at one’s wardrobe to keep it up to date, and it strikes me that an analogy is to be had with our inner lives – what do we cling onto when it really doesn’t fit? What is outdated and needs replacing? What doesn’t really reflect our personality?

Out with the old, in with the new

Past experiences, including childhood circumstances, teenage tribulations and adult adversities, all have the potential to keep us behind the times. Truth is, I can sometimes slip into old thought patterns. Recently a friend commented that I don’t recognise my own value. Bang on, and it reminds me I have a choice. To continue to clothe myself in self doubt and dismiss the affirmation of others, or to step into the present and see myself as my friend sees me, as someone who quietly uses their God-given gifts, often in the back room.

Isn’t this true for all of us, that sometimes the past pulls us back? Echoes from the playground, the classroom, the office, or the clique in the corner, can catapult us back into previous life.  But we needn’t slip back into old thoughts and positions, like donning old, outgrown clothes.
As a child I loved the story of the Elves and the Shoemaker and the picture of the Shoemaker making perfectly fitting new outfits for the Elves.

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In a sense this is what God does for us today. Renewed and resourced, we can put on our true colours and be even more our true selves. Maybe for some it’s having the courage to try the ‘next size up’ in an area of life to see how it feels, while for others it may be to try something different.
As Gok says:

It’s all about the confidence

No more being behind the times then, in our inner lives!

Truth is… Baptised… you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ himself. (Galations 3:27)

Lost for words…

There have been several times when I’ve been at a loss for words – I’ve opened a blank Word document and begun writing, and at some point later, discovered that all my words have been lost. Sometimes this is my own fault – I’ve forgotten to ‘save’, while other times it’s a fault lying in the computer.
My response has varied from ‘it’s a crying shame’ through to ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’

It reminds me of choices, and the tracks we take.

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At times I make wrong choices, some of which are my own fault, while others result from ignorance. My errors are echoed in the words of an Anglican prayer of confession, in the line:

God, we have sinned… through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault

So, what do we then do?
Do we keep looking back to the past, with guilt or regret?
Do we try to re-write what cannot be re-written?
Or do we ask, as the prayer continues:

forgive us all that is past, and lead us out of darkness to walk [in] light

Truth is, I sometimes struggle with taking a fresh start and walking in the light. The darkness of regret pulls me back and weighs me down, and I struggle to believe I am forgiven by God.
Negative self-talk keeps us in the dark, but choosing to learn from the past and to put right what we can, leads us into the light.

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So, the choice is ours – to remain paralysed as miserable sinners, or move forward, forgiven and freed by God.
My head tells my heart to believe in God’s compassion, and so I’m going to choose the latter.
The fresh start that God offers, leaves me lost for words!

Truth is… Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come  2 Corinthians 5:17