The one about…coping.

Alone, she sat, the silver blade pressed against her arm. Slowly and deliberately she moved the metal across her skin, the gaping flesh making way for the trickle of the thick crimson blood.

She tried hard to work out how she felt as she watched the blood ooze from the wound. There was no anger or fear, she didn’t feel any pain, it was something else….relief, she felt relief.

Relief that she was still alive, the blood was proof of that much. Relief that she finally had something that was hers, something secret and special, her own way of retreating from the world. Relief that she could still feel, the tears had long since run out and she wasn’t sure she was capable of feeling anymore but for that moment she felt peaceful, content and alive.

The warm blood ran down the inside of her arm and for a while she watched in awe of the beauty, the colour, the warmth, the pattern it made as she traced the lines and then, very calmly she picked up a tissue and pressed it over the gaping skin, she lay back in the bed and for the first time in a long time she genuinely smiled.

She wasn’t sure how long she lay there for, or if she slept but when she did finally move she very carefully tended to her wound. It never crossed her mind that it might heal better with stitches, or that it could get infected….all that made sense was that now she had something to care for, a reason to look after herself and probably for the first time, something about herself that she loved.

The cutting continued for months, not every day and rarely as a result of anger. It was her secret, her moment of punishment and protection, penance and passion, revulsion and tenderness, a tangible expression of self loathing and yet also a reason to love herself. A living articulation of the great paradox of life; a way she could express, hold, contain and release some of those emotions she struggled to otherwise give language to.

She knew people judged her for it, labelled her as mentally ill, maybe she was but maybe most people were! Maybe they just chose the more socially acceptable methods of processing their emotions.

Those days, months, years were not my finest, not moments I’m proud of but I equally don’t regret living life that way. I guess I do regret the pain I caused to those who loved me, the worry and the disappointment they felt but I hold to the belief that those years shaped me. I also know that still, when life is overwhelming and the myriad of emotions that confuse any given experience seem to take over I think about finding a blade. I never have. I stopped cutting over fifteen years ago when I realised that it had become a habit rather than a release. I guess I’ve found other ways to understand, hold and express how I feel.

What I’ve also come to realise is that when those emotions dominate and all I want to do is hide away or distract myself from the intensity of feeling they demand, instead of employing yet another coping mechanism I’m now more able to name that emotion and mark it as holy! I know! Sounds a little crazy right!

Here’s how I now understand all of this: we all face times in life where emotions surface. Sometimes stirred by a song or a film, sometimes evoked by a smell or a sound. Sometimes storming to the forefront of who we are because of words spoken or words left unsaid; a response to our own or others actions. There are occasions of immense sadness and grief, others that cause us to fear or to doubt, some that just make us angry. Yet there are also times where a deep sense of joy and connection to something more releases feelings were not sure what to do with. I know now that there are many ways of releasing, burying or ignoring emotions; that extra glass of wine, an intoxicatingly wrong relationship, another evening spent watching pointless television or indulging in that extra piece of cake. Some of those ways we use to cope aren’t healthy, aren’t the best for us and others are deemed more acceptable, like an addiction to exercise or work. We all find ways of coping. Other times we don’t “cope” and we find ourselves reeling from the shock, embarrassment or disappointment of another outburst.

Yet what if we choose to name those emotions that hold us so violently. Fear. Doubt. Loneliness. Anger. Anxiety. Confusion. Grief. Hope. Joy. What if we draw a circle around whatever it is we’re feeling and allow it just to be. Not good or bad, just holy.

What if it sits in that holy circle either until the intensity passes or until we’re ready to deal with it, or more fully enjoy it? What if we listen carefully and calmly to what it’s telling us about where our life is at but we don’t allow it to push us into unhealthy behaviours or dependencies. What if we dare to stay awake, fully present in our own lives, in tune with who we are and where our lives are headed? What if some moments are simply holy, set apart as unexplainable, and uncontrollably beautiful? What if we have the courage to embrace that! What if that’s what it means to be fully human, fully alive? What if it all belongs? What if in that place we can truly know what love is?

The one about…soul! (Or church:part 4!!)

When was the last time you watched a movie that stirred something deep within you? Or listened to music so hauntingly beautiful that it spoke to you of something more? Or read a book, unable to put it down because it seemed to be telling your story? Have you ever found yourself lost in a piece of art, a photo or a painting or a sculpture or graffiti? Or maybe you’ve sat and stared at the ocean and simply known that it’s all going to be ok, whatever it is!?

How do you describe those moments where you lose yourself, yet find yourself in something beautiful? What language do you use to give that the meaning and honour it deserves? Sometimes we say it made ‘our heart sing’, other times we might talk about how it ‘just made sense’ or we ‘just knew’. It seems like sometimes it’s head, sometimes it’s heart, sometimes it’s both. Yet there are times when it’s something far deeper, far richer and far more a part of us than either head or heart! What is that? What language do we use to give that meaning?

Have you ever heard the phrase she put her ‘heart and soul into it?’ Or he was the ‘life and soul of the party?’ There’s soul music (Marvin Gaye…Otis Redding…Stevie Wonder) we talk of finding a soul mate, the disappointments we experience can be soul destroying and that friend we have who’s struggling to know what to do next we describe as a lost soul…some people bare their soul and we describe others as having sold their soul! All these phrases, these synonyms, they’re all attempts at describing an event or action that’s something more than we’d usually experience. When we use the word soul, even in these quirky phrases, we’re attempting to describe something that’s bigger, deeper, more meaningful than what we think we know to be true!

The soul is not often talked about, yet it’s there, hidden, not just in our language but in the very depth of who we are. So when we talk of those things that connect deeply within us; or the things that stir those feelings that have become buried under all that is life; or those interactions that spark fresh ideas of how it could be back into flame…what if we’re not talking about head or heart but soul?

What does all this have to do with church? When we talk of church being ‘the Way’ could it be that it’s the way of the soul? The teachings of Jesus which inspired the first church were teachings that connected with the hearers in a way that the rest of life didn’t. They were teachings that offered something new, more or different and inspired people to live a new or different way. Those teachings spoke to the soul! Teachings about not worrying, teachings about forgiveness. Teaching about true peace not the forced peace they lived with. Jesus taught about being blessed in times of grief, loss and misunderstanding. Jesus teachings took what people thought to be true and turned it upside down. There’s something about a way that challenges the status quo, a way that calls into question how it is and offers an alternative way that is richer, better, fuller than anything previously experienced that awakens our souls and invites us to dare to dream…to really live!

There is an invitation whispering through all of creation, an invitation to listen to the soul; to follow the path of the soul. It’s an invitation to continually discover more of who you are, to find your true self, and in doing so find a deeper understanding, connection, respect and love for others, the world and that which is outside of ourselves.

If church can be a space where that can happen…then that becomes interesting!

The one about…sports day!

There seem to have been an abundance of sports days in my world this year; key stage 1 and key stage 2 at primary, playgroup and then last week the two at secondary school had theirs! We also held the inaugural ‘Refresh Tots’ sports day! They all seemed to pass without too much drama, although I never did get to the bottom of why the ambulance was at the secondary school?! Across the board the adults involved did a great job of including everyone without letting it become too competitive, well at least from my families perspective of it all!

I don’t remember my school sports days particularly positively. I recall feeling as though I’d like the ground to swallow me as I trailed behind everyone else with the finishing line taking an eternity to reach. I still shrink back from anything competitive now, probably out of that haunting fear of failure rather than a genuine non-competitive soul!

It seems that, no matter how inclusive the events seem to be, sports day evokes some level of competition and comparison. I always knew I wasn’t as fast as, well, anyone…but especially the tall blonde girl who was good at everything (EVERYTHING!!) I would be crazy to think my children aren’t aware of their strengths and weaknesses and those of the others around them. That’s ok, normal, even healthy…most of the time!

There are times though as we navigate life where our ability to compare and compete becomes unhealthy and consuming. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s subtle!

What does this have to do with sports day? Well, even if the competition element of sports day is well managed, the seeds of comparison are sown. The message we begin to tell ourselves can often be “not fast enough”…”not strong enough”…”not good enough”.

A sociologist called Brene Brown gave a huge chunk of her life to studying human behaviour. As part of her research for her book ‘Daring Greatly’ she asked participants to fill the gap: never__________enough! The words that filled the gap were “good”, “perfect”, “thin”, “powerful”, “successful”, “smart”, “certain”, “safe”, “extraordinary”. Those words sum up lives lived out of comparison.

As adults we still function far too easily within the constraints of comparison. We measure ourselves against friends, neighbours, colleagues and/or family…we look to the dangerous world of social media where Facebook and Instagram (among others) can scream at us of the ways we just don’t quite make it. The wider input of television, the internet, the press and celebrity also taunt us with ways we haven’t succeeded or don’t quite cut it! If we don’t guard our hearts and souls we can very quickly lose sight of who we really are.

So where us the good news in this? Do the message of faith traditions offer any helpful insights? The Christianity I grew up with only really fed the ‘not enough’ theory…telling me I didn’t pray enough, I wasn’t holy enough, I wasn’t committed enough, basically I wasn’t good enough for God and apparently that’s good news!?

I heard a podcast by a Celtic poet called J. Philip Newell, so I bought his book! He writes:

“I do not believe that the gospel, which means ‘good news’, is given to tell us that we have failed or been false. That is not news, and it is not good. We already know much of that about ourselves…rather the gospel is given to tell us what we don’t know or what we have forgotten, and that is who we are, Sons and daughters of the One from whom all things come. It is when we begin to remember who we are, and who all people truly are, that we will begin to remember also what we should be doing and how we should be relating to one another as individuals, as nations and as an entire earth community.” J. Philip Newell: Christ if the Celts.

This idea that we have forgotten the truth about ourselves, that we look to make sense of ourselves far too often in comparison to or competition with others, means that as a result our ability to be fully alive is hindered.

What if instead we rediscover who we are? What if we stop playing out the lie of “never______enough” and look for the answer to the questions behind those lies.

Those questions we have as we compare ourselves to others are something like: Am I ok? Am I worthy of love? Am I enough?

The answer to those questions echoes through the Jesus story, it cries out from the Jewish account of creation…the answer speaks to your soul as you sit in awe of the sea or sky; the answer whispers to you as you gradually slow down, pause the busyness and still your mind, the same answer leaps out at you as become fully present in this moment, right now…the answer? YES! YES you are ok…YES you are worthy of love and YES you are enough!

Who you are is, at its very essence, good! That is enough. That is good news.

The one about…feeling brave.

Bravery, it’s a quality that draws us in. As children we adore the hero….we delight in the fairytales of the brave prince or knight, we dream of being the rescuer or the rescued. The bible stories that we remember are often of hero like characters, people who were brave; David and Goliath, Noah, Joseph with that coat, Daniel and those lions?! There’s something about bravery that connects deep within us, that stirs our soul (that part of us that yearns or longs or simply believes there’s so much more to life!?)

There are moments in life where bravery is required. We admire our armed forces and emergency services, those that stand up for what matters, who speak out….but bravery doesn’t always show itself as obvious. Sometimes bravery is unseen and known only to the individual or those closest to them.

There are times when life asks us to step up and take a risk, to follow a calling or a challenge that takes us out of our comfort zone into something new.

It’s why we love films like The Greatest Showman! We admire Barnham as an entrepreneur and we get drawn in to his ability to dream, to risk and to create but he’s not the only one who’s brave. Philip Carlyle, his apprentice leaves behind a life of privilege and wealth to step into a whole new way of being in the world. There is immense courage in walking away from all that you’ve ever known to be true. Then there’s Charity, Barnham’s wife, who keeps on believing, trusting and journeying with Barnham into the great unknown! That’s brave too! There are also “the oddities” those people who don’t fit into society who step out of the shadows into the light, who allow themselves to really be seen. Now that really is brave because, but I think if we’re honest we all know that there are things about us that are odd! There are elements of who we are that don’t fit with the ‘normal’ or the expected! To stand up and say “this is me” no matter what others think takes a whole new level of courage!

All these ideas we find in this film echo throughout life. They’re ideas of risk, trust, faith, bravery, challenge, journey, belief, courage; and they all find meaning and momentum when we’re encouraged.

encourage

ɪnˈkʌrɪdʒ,ɛnˈkʌrɪdʒ/

verb

1 give support, confidence, or hope to (someone).

This concept of offering support or confidence or hope, of being someone who encourages others goes hand in hand with being brave. The two flow into and out of each other.

We all have our part to play in this crazy thing called life. We all bring something to the world. We’re all here for a reason and we all have a purpose. The challenge is to step out and offer you, your gift to the world because without it, without your unique offering the world will not be all it was intended to be. So the challenge is to live that, to find those who will encourage you and to find those you can encourage. That’s community, that’s really living! That’s bravery, right there!