It’s the little things in life…

It’s Bake Off season at the moment!
– The ‘Great British Bake Off’ is a television baking competition that takes place in ‘the tent’ (a marquee). A baker’s dozen compete against each other in a series of rounds, with a contestant being eliminated each week.

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It’s become such a popular series, that there’s an additional weekly programme, ‘An Extra Slice’, which takes a humorous look at the week’s round and features the eliminated baker.
I found this week’s edition unexpectedly moving, and it got me asking myself what makes life meaningful?
– Home-baked cakes could be one answer!
But actually, if we stop to notice, it’s the little things in life that can make a big impact.

This week’s eliminated baker was a young man, Jamie, who in just two episodes has endeared himself to many:

You can tell how old a Bake Off viewer is, simply by whether they want to marry Jamie, or adopt him! (Twitter)

Jamie appeared to be without guile, and when asked by Jo Brand (the Extra Slice host) what he would miss most, he said:

“…the small things, like the little pack lunch boxes”

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He could have highlighted many alternatives, such as being on camera or being with the celebrity judges, but no, his instant response was ‘the small things’.

Jamie also got me thinking about what constitutes ‘success’.
It’s refreshing to watch someone who keeps things in perspective, and the filming of his time in the tent, captured this well.
Later, when Jo questioned him about the 3D biscuit guitar he’d made (that contributed to his elimination) he said:

“It was the best I’d ever made, so I was really pleased about it.
Obviously compared with the other biscuit sculptures it wasn’t in their league, but I was happy with that”.

Truth is, I can fret about my perceived failures. But God only calls us to do the best we can and to be happy with our good efforts. So let’s treasure Jamie’s attitude, for:

The only thing we can agree on in the UK in highly divided times, is how much of a national treasure Jamie is! (Twitter)

Truth is… Mean spirited ambition isn’t wisdom James 3:14

If you go down to the woods today…

I’ve just returned from a walk in the woods with my daughter, and she pointed out something I’d never noticed:

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I’ve always thought I was quite observant, but this sign had completely missed my notice despite the fact I’d walked past it countless times! And it’s got me thinking – what other things have I not noticed? Maybe there are other interesting things I haven’t spotted, or more importantly, perhaps I’m not noticing things that need my attention.

This sign on the tree was obviously nailed there years ago, but over time the bark has covered it and now the message – which I presume was some kind of warning – is lost.
My guess is that familiar routines and habits can sometimes blind us to what needs our attention. Also, we learn through our mistakes, but over time lessons can be lost as we slowly slip back into old ways. Our conscience becomes dulled, and like the bark growing over the sign, there are no warnings.

Truth is, I need my conscience to keep me on the right path. When the sign was fully visible, it probably directed walkers to keep to the footpath and not wander off course. I need that reminder daily in my life!

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I believe that God hopes that each one of us will respond to the Spirit’s nudges. Doing this will keep us on the right track, where we will positively discover that we are truly significant and secure in God.
Although I was brought up to fear an angry judgemental god, I now sense that God wants us to keep on track for our own good. We don’t have to do anything for God to delight in us, but if we’re off course, we’ll prevent ourselves from knowing this delight.

So the message nailed to the tree is a reminder to keep on track, by being alert to my conscience. May we all ‘nail it!’

Truth is… Let us put everything out of our lives that keeps us from doing what we should. Let us keep running in the race that God has planned for us. Hebrews 12:1

Beauty or beast…?

Our inner beauty isn’t always obvious to us – our perceived inadequacies can make us feel ugly. We can be very harsh on ourselves, and years of critical self-talk can result in us feeling insignificant, unsuccessful and insecure.

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Truth is, I went for years without questioning my inner critic. The monologue about my inadequacies was unceasing – because I never challenged it.

We can get so attuned to our inner critic that we don’t hear or doubt, what other trusted people – and God – have to say. And so we paint black & white pictures of ourselves that miss the beauty and colour that others see in us!

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A positive way forward can be to focus on ‘opposite action’ where we notice the distorted thought and act otherwise. So ‘I can’t’ becomes ‘I can’ – and it’s not necessarily about adding to a ‘to do’ list!
Just as important, is taking time ‘to be’. Self-care isn’t necessarily selfish – we all need to take time ‘to stop and stare’.

What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare…    (W H Davies)

‘Being’ and ‘doing’ in ways that challenge distortions will help us to paint a more accurate picture of ourselves.
Not a perfect portrait, but one with colour and detail – and the odd smudge here and there! The truth of the matter is that none of us is perfect, but we’re all significant and secure in God’s sight.

This can be hard to believe, when our perception of ourselves may be distorted by past or present experiences of relationships. Many interactions are based on transactions, and if we feel our worth is dependent on what we do, we can be ‘people pleasers’ and life can be an endless search for approval and acceptance. But God offers us a different experience. If we start believing that God’s love is unconditional and that the Giver delights in us for who we are, we will naturally want to grow into truth.
So let’s believe the truth at the heart of the matter, and start to see a fuller picture.

Truth is… ‘You are precious in my sight, and I love you’ Isaiah 43:4

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.

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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)