The one about…the story we’re telling ourselves!

“You’re already telling yourself a story so tell yourself a better one!” The words jumped out at me and everything else seemed muffled or irrelevant. What if he’s right? What if it’s that simple? The thought stayed with me.

Psychologists talk about the “tapes” we play.* Sometimes it’s called self- talk, it can be positive or negative but at its very essence it’s the story we tell ourselves about our lives and it’s influenced by every encounter and experience we’ve had, good or bad.

We all have accounts we can relay of moments that have stayed with us, words spoken over us, experiences that have impacted us or memorable occasions that have changed us. There are millions of other encounters and conversations that we don’t remember but are stored somewhere deep within us. We all have parents, teachers, siblings, colleagues, peers, who have influenced us subtly and sometimes not so subtly. They’ve created a frame for how we see ourselves and what or how we believe our lives should be. We’re also influenced immensely by the dominant culture that surrounds us, music, news, film, literature; all shape what we believe to be true about ourselves.

Some people have had mostly positive messages spoken over them, others are better at filtering the negatives like Jack in the film Titanic who, when he’s asked if he enjoys his “rootless existence” replies:

Well yes ma’am I do…I mean I got everything I need right here with me. I’ve got the air in my lungs and a few blank sheets of paper. I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s going to happen or who I’m going to meet…Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now, here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people.”

Oh to interpret a story with such positivity!

Yet for others, the message they’ve received has damaged them and their ability to really know who they are and the tapes they play aren’t positive or necessarily even true.

What if it’s possible to start telling yourself a different story?

Whatever your opinion or understanding of the bible what the book does is continually take the story being told to a nation, tribe or individual and tell a better one. So slaves are told they are a people, the childless are told they will grow a nation, prisoners are told they will be free, women are told they have value, prostitutes are told they are loved, the outcasts are told they are welcome, the illiterate and uneducated are told they’ll change the world! Stories are re-told. Even the ones we read as primitive and barbaric are often actually a step forward for those people, in that time, in the way they interact with the world!** The work of the divine has always been to tell a better story.

Which takes us back to the question what if our stories can be retold? Maybe you don’t need it retelling, maybe you’re able to hold a positive, authentic, humble opinion of yourself with integrity constantly. What if though, there are times that challenge us, that daunt us, that leave us feeling less than capable? What if at times we feel anxious, insecure, bitter or frustrated and the story we tell ourselves just feeds deeper into those emotions? What if we’re able to take a step back, to review the story, to ask why we believe that about ourselves? What if we to dare to believe there’s a better story, another view, an alternative path, which that particular story can follow?

What if we choose to focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t, who we are instead of who we aren’t? What if we change the negative talk about that person and start seeing them as the more fragile human we know ourselves to be? What if we choose to believe we can do good in this world and as a result, in every interaction, we seek to record a positive message onto someone else’s tape? What if there’s a true story at work in the world that we can be part of? What if we’re all telling ourselves a story and it really is possible to tell ourselves a better one!

* tapes, a throwback to how life was but also a recognised psychological term!!! Maybe now we’d just have it all stored in our “cloud”??

** you’ll see what I mean!!! In “What is the Bible?” Rob Bell writes:

Does it surprise you when someone in the bible wins a battle and then gives their gods the credit? That’s what people did at that time.

Does it surprise you when after, winning, they wiped out the women and children and then said their gods told them to do it? That’s what people did at that time.

Does it surprise you when they won and then let no one escape but put everyone to the sword, and then said they did it with their gods power? That’s what people did at that time….

You find these stories violent and repulsive and barbaric because they are.

If you didn’t find them shocking and awful and confusing, something is wrong with you.

The violence isn’t that surprising; what’s surprising is that among all that violence there are new ideas about serving and blessing and nonviolence….What you find in the bible are stories accurately reflecting the dominant consciousness of the day, and yet right in among and sometimes even within those very same violent stories, you find radically new ideas about freedom, equality, justice, compassion and love.

The one about… death (it’s just the beginning!)

Death, we’re often so reluctant to talk about death, well the British are! It’s as though we just don’t have the words or the courage or any structure to naturally hold it, despite the fact that it’s the one thing we’ve all got coming our way.

Yet we’re intrigued by it, religions are built around trying to understand the afterlife; we read books or watch films, many of which feed our fascination with death. Halloween is fast approaching and so the trailers for the next big horror movie are being screened. I’ve never really been into horror films, the closest I got was Gremlins and that was by mistake!! Yet there’s something about horror movies that draws so many people in! I’m not a media studies expert, and I’m sure there are PHDs written on such subjects but there is something about the afterlife, about how it all ends, about the fear and the unknown, that we long to explore as we look to our own deaths and that of the planet. Yet, the reality is that, despite our fascination, when we have to confront it with friends or family we find it awkward, uncomfortable and frightening. We need outlets to explore death, a way to encounter it, safely?!

My first encounter with death was a relatively safe one! Toby, our cat, died when I was about 7. I cried as we buried him in the garden. Four years later death returned to our family, this time taking my dad. I was 11, my brother 9, he was only 41. Cancer. We found out at the end of the October half term and by Christmas he was gone. Six surreal weeks. I remember vividly the activity in and around the house in the early hours of December 14th. I stood outside the door of my parents bedroom…I could hear my mum talking to people downstairs. I opened the door and my dad lay there, the top of the bed sheet covering his face, just like in the movies, but this was very real. I closed the door and walked back to my bed. I don’t remember much else other than the devastating realisation that I’d not said goodnight, that night of all nights. We held his funeral five days later, the chapel packed and the house afterwards seemed even busier. My brother went to stay with friends for a few days, I stayed at home with my mum and grandad, my mum’s dad, who’d come to stay for Christmas. That night, after the last guests left, I went to bed with a compelling urge to go in and say goodnight to my grandad, something I didn’t usually do. He never woke up.

Those days were strange and painful and somewhat unreal. I remember returning to school before Christmas and no-one expected to see us, no-one mentioned what we’d been through apart from one teacher. It was as though there just weren’t the words, or there wasn’t a script written or a framework to hold that story in!

Three weeks after that my mum found my dad’s uncle hanging from a wardrobe and we found ourselves sitting in church again, staring at a coffin.

There’s much that could be said about all that! My mum is one of the most incredible women I know, the strength and love she relentlessly demonstrated despite her own grief is inspirational. I know the events of those few weeks changed me and my brother in ways we’ll never fully comprehend. I know the death of my dad still haunts me and that at times I still miss him. I also know that I don’t talk about him very much, that I rarely look at pictures and that I’ve never really understood how to continue his memory. I do wonder if the children will look like him, I didn’t know him well enough to really know if they’re like him in other ways. I know that I and many others, don’t really know what to do with death.

So, over the next couple of weeks, inspired by conversations with friends, I’m going to read up on how other cultures and countries embrace death and celebrate life, I’ll consider whether religion helps or hinders our interaction with death and try to figure out how love holds us within the bigger story as we navigate the path between this life and the next. We need to talk more about death.

The one about…fear!

I knew it was going to be ‘one of those evenings’ when she said she couldn’t get to sleep! The wind was unusually strong, and eerily loud, especially through the huge yew trees which stood at the top of the garden.

“It’s just the wind”…I tried desperately to play it down but it didn’t help that last winter a large branch had fallen and narrowly missed the van parked on the driveway. I knew my attempts to convince her that it was ‘just a bit windy’ weren’t going to make any difference, no matter how many distraction techniques I tried!

I’d had about half an hour to myself, I don’t think I ask for much, just a little time to gather my thoughts, process the day and just be me once they’re all in bed…but best laid plans and all that! I took a breath and tried not to sound irritated, she was genuinely scared… “Ok, get into my bed, I’ll sit in there with you!” That was my evening gone!

I checked the oldest three were settled, and the rest were asleep. I put the dog to bed and texted Sid (he was out with friends) to warn him there was a child in his bed and he’d have to jump into hers when he returned, then I got into bed, the wind still howling…she took my hand and gripped it and then, within minutes I felt her grip loosen and her body relax, she slept…

It was the most beautiful moment. All my irritation and disappointment about “my time” melted away as I watched her sleep. The wind still howled, the trees still swayed and I was very aware that there’d be nothing I could do if they did fall on the house…but somehow I made her feel safe, somehow me being there was enough.

There were many things I thought about in that moment. I wondered why I’d got so precious about my time? (Had I not learnt that time is prodigal?!) Did I think I deserved an evening to myself, like it was something I’d earnt! Did I think I could clock out of parenting at 8:30pm because most of them were in bed? Had I learnt nothing in fourteen years!! There’s always another evening and I do know parenting is 24/7… it’s not like our youngest let’s me forget that!

I think the thing that bemused me most was the trust my daughter had in me, she found security and safety, not because I could change anything, but just because she knew I loved her. It was almost as if, in that moment, love overcame fear; as if love drove the fear out; as if love left no room for fear to exist.

I know that much of the fear in our world could be overcome if we learnt to love others rather than hate or distrust them. I know that some fear is irrational and can be negated by logic and self-talk. But what about the fears that are deeply personal, the fears that haunt us about who we are, where we’re going and how this is all going to end? How do we face those fears?

It seems sometimes we distract ourselves from those fears; we shop, we work, we socialise, we watch TV, we read books, we flick through social media, the list could go on and none of the things we do are wrong or bad in moderation, but they can become avoidance techniques and in the long run they’re about as useful as me trying to play the ‘Greatest Showman’ soundtrack to my daughter to drown out the wind!

The fear doesn’t go, it might be numbed or hushed for a while but often, deep within, our soul is still troubled, still uneasy, still fearful, no matter how much we try to avoid it. Admitting the fear exists is painful, it leaves us vulnerable. Maybe acknowledging that our soul needs to be held; that what’s deepest within us needs to connect to someone or something else; that our truest reality needs to know love, is the start to working with that fear.

Maybe that’s why the bible talks of God as love. What if in that moment where I held my daughter’s hand, the mystery that we call God; that divine force; that love; became a very present reality? What if it’s love that both awakens and calms our soul? What if love is one way we experience the something that is outside of us, something we know to be true but can’t always define? What if God really is love and love really does exist!

The one about…mess!

Our four year old has discovered that conkers aren’t acorns, and it’s safe to say that acorns have blown his mind, especially the ones that still have their little hats on! The flip side to this is that the boys and I have spent our non-school hours searching for oak trees which are surprisingly rare in our part of Peterborough!! Upon discovering the said ‘rare tree’ we have then sifted through piles of leaves and twigs and conkers and dirt and stones and feathers and those things you throw in the air that spin like helicopter blades (I feel like I should know the proper name for them) in the hope that we’d find an acorn in a hat. We’ve picked up some rather rotten looking offerings which most definitely haven’t just fallen this autumn, infact I’m not sure some of them were even last year’s debris! It was in this beautifully simple activity that I realised the world is a mess and that somehow that’s important.

There was nothing neat or tidy or organised about the ground beneath the trees it was just a mess. The more I thought about it the more it made sense; nature is messy, with its mud and dirt and berries and all those bits that stick to your clothes or shoes…animals are messy, we have a dog that frequently trails muddy paw prints around the house and doesn’t appear to care! Then there’s birth, that’s messy, not to mention the follow on job of raising children, who by nature, are messy! The thing is we so often try to control, reduce or remove the mess. We invest so much energy in being tidy, neat and ordered. We teach our children to hang clothes up, to put toys away, to wipe their feet, to eat and drink without spilling their food, all of which seemingly goes against what they would naturally do! We spend hours cleaning and tidying or we pay someone else to do it; we constantly fight the mess. Hair needs to be brushed, grass needs to be cut, trees have to be trimmed, we’re fighting a force that naturally leans more towards mess than it does neat or tidy! Then it hit me, the trees aren’t stressed! They’re not trying to dominate or control or compete or be something else, they’re just there, being trees, in all their extravagant messiness!

Ok so I’m not writing a manifesto for messiness. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t tidy or clean but what if there’s something deeply freeing about accepting messiness, about not fighting it…and I don’t just mean the physical dirt and mess!

There’s something about living with or around other human beings that is messy; plans don’t always work out, others don’t always do things the way we’d like. Jobs are lost, people move away, friends fall out, loved ones die, there’s illness and worry, all of these things intermingle with love and laughter and celebration and the school run or the commute or the gym or all the other more mundane routines we have. Life…Is…Messy. The more we try to control, and organise and plan the more our stress levels increase because some of the mess we just can’t control.

I think that’s what I connect with so much in the Jesus story. Jesus didn’t avoid the mess, he cried when people died, he shared food with those no one else would, he befriended women who other men only used for one thing; he got tired, he needed head space, he partied, he had breakfast on the beach (sand is always messy!!) he made friends and lost friends, he had friends let him down and misunderstand him. Life, as Jesus knew it, was messy! The way of Jesus didn’t reduce or remove the mess, it embraced it. The way of Jesus didn’t give neat answers to the big questions it more often than not just exposed the question behind the question and left everyone even more confused!

The reality is that there’s so much that doesn’t fit neatly into a box, so much to life that can’t be explained, yet we constantly want answers, we want things to make sense, to be neat and tidy, maybe even perfect, but what if that’s not realistic or even helpful. What of some things aren’t meant to be easily explained?

What if, instead of a neat explanation, nature (along with the Jesus story) offers us a rhythm, a pattern, or a blueprint for life; a way of seeing the world in all its mess. What if we’re shown that there are seasons, that nothing is static, that we are always being drawn onwards into something new, even if there is still evidence of the old and we have to learn to live with the scars. What if there’s beauty in the mess, what if it’s OK for those tears to still fall and for that person still to be missed? What if it’s OK to have moments where we still yearn for what was and wish we could return? What if its OK to feel those twinges of sadness, regret, even despair, to acknowledge them and yet still move forward? What if it’s OK not to have it all together? What if we stop striving for perfection, stop thinking that there shouldn’t be pain and that all hurt should be healed? What if we just accept that there is mess? What if we take time to appreciate the mess of the world around us and see the mess within the stories of the bible? What if we celebrate, rather than constantly try to fix, the mess that is within our own story and in doing so realise that it’s OK to be messy!

Maybe in doing that we’ll begin to realise that it all belongs. That in embracing all that is we’ll find a richer depth to life. Maybe we’ll learn to smile more, to take a breath and simply know it’s OK, not perfect but good enough and maybe in doing that we’ll learn to live more at peace with others, our world and ourselves!