The poison of comparison

I met up with a friend for breakfast the morning, so that we could catch up on what God has been doing in each of our lives. I was really struck by a question she asked: do you find it easier to talk to women who aren’t Christians? It sparked a conversation about whether, as Christian women, we can have a tendency to wear masks around each other because we feel we should have everything ‘together’ as it were. I also pondered whether we can enter a conversation unsure of how much to divulge because we are comparing ourselves to the other woman all the time – and feel we fall short.

I came away still thinking about that particular part of our conversation, so I wanted to share the start of an article I wrote on this very subject, which is featured in October’s Woman Alive (the full title is: Why can’t I be more like her?). To read the rest, which focuses on practical ways we can avoid comparing ourselves to other women, do buy a copy of the magazine or consider subscribing to it.

I am continuing to explore this theme in the book I am currently writing: Taking off the mask: learning to live authentically. You will probably hear a lot more about that over the coming months! 🙂

comparison-piece

 

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Letting go of worry

nature-sky-sunset-man“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

Yesterday we looked at the negative affects of worry. I’m now going to share some things I have found have helped me during those times when I know I’m allowing worry to overtake me. If you have a tendency to worry, I hope they are useful for you too.

  1. Be honest with yourself – and God

Look at what it is that you are worrying about and decide: is this a legitimate concern or an irrational worry? Then take it to God and ask for His help. If you feel you are really struggling with a particular worry then it can be helpful to share it with a close friend who can pray with you and keep you accountable on the subject too.

  1. Spend time each day focusing on God

Remind yourself of who He is and what He is capable of. With a different perspective, our problems and worries can seem to literally shrink before our eyes.

  1. Remind yourself of God’s promises

Look at the particular thing that is causing worry and ask yourself: what can I do and what should I simply leave up to God?

If you are struggling with a particular area then it could be beneficial to do a study on God’s promises specifically about that. So, for example, if you worry about finances look at what the Bible says about God providing for us.

  1. Learn to ‘pray continually’

If we get into the habit of talking to God throughout our day – bringing Him the big and little things – then it is much harder for worries to overtake us and blow us off course away from him. Here’s another great quote from Corrie Ten Boom: “Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.” In her book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, Weaver describes how she consciously learned to turn every little worry into a prayer.

If you know your thoughts are mainly made up of worries, try turning those thoughts into prayers.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

  1. Learn to be thankful

This is where a journal can be so helpful. If we record all the ways that God is faithful and how He has worked in our lives, we have a constant supply of practical reminders of how He does look after us and how He “will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

There are a few of us in our book group who have spent time either writing in a thankfulness journal every day or tweeting three good things about our day each evening. Each one of us commented on how it has made us more aware of those little details that made our day special, but which are so easy to overlook without such a discipline (as our minds have a tendency to focus on the difficulties). If you know you find it hard to be thankful or recollect positives, why don’t you try writing down three things you are thankful to God for each evening?

  1. Actively ‘take captive every thought’ (2 Corinthians 10:5)

We can so easily let thoughts come and go in our minds, feeling that we have no control over them, but the Bible is very clear that we have a part to play in ensuring that what we think about is beneficial and edifying to us:

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Have you ever stopped and reflected on what your mind has lingered on in the previous 10 minutes? It can be really revealing – and challenging!

  1. Change what you meditate on

We can think that reading and meditating on the Bible is far too difficult a practise to do daily, but we are often very well versed in meditating on our problems and worries! We simply need to re-educate our minds to focus on those things that will help us rather than hinder us.

Why not try replacing a specific worry with a scripture that speaks directly to it? Each time the worry pops into your head, speak the scripture to it.

Worry is one of those things that we know the Bible tells us not to do, but we can so often struggle to be free of. Putting some of the above simple ideas into action can help us form new habits. Because worry is a habit in itself – and a toxic one at that. Learning to recognise when a worry rears its ugly head, and being equipped with some simple ways of replacing or dealing with it, can be so helpful.

This is taken from an article that first appeared on Christian Today.

What worry does to us…

Stressed-Woman

“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength – carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.” – Corrie Ten Boom

I love that quote – it is so full of wisdom. But it also challenges me, because I know that I can allow worries about future events to overshadow my present.

While the Bible is full of instances of God telling us not to fear (he says it in various ways more than 350 times), most of us struggle at one time or other with fear or anxiety.

What is it about worry that means it affects us even after we profess that we trust in God and are seeking to serve him and look to him for all our needs?

It is reassuring that God knew that the human heart has a tendency to fall prey to worry. That’s why, I think, he reminds us so often not to fear!

We can worry about so many things. How we are going to pay our rent/mortgage, what a meeting at work is going to be like, dealing with teenage children’s hormones, getting enough sleep… So why is such a ‘natural’, everyday thing as worry so deadly for us?

Worry affects us physically. There is research that shows it can weaken our immune systems, cause depression, heart disease, muscle tension, memory loss, respiratory disorders and digestive conditions.

But worry does more than that, it also affects us spiritually. When we allow fear to overtake us it also pushes out faith and, as a result, we start to feel cut off from God’s presence.

My church’s monthly book study group is continuing to work its way through Joanna Weaver’s Having a Mary heart in a Martha world, and we have just met to discuss her chapter on worry and anxiety. She has a great way of describing how anxiety can be seen like a fog that blocks out our view of God:

“While physical fog may seem dense and almost solid, scientists tell us that a fog bank a hundred feet deep and covering seven city blocks is composed of less than one glass of water. Divided into billions of droplets, it hasn’t much substance. Yet it still has the power to bring an entire city to a standstill… So it is with anxiety. Our mind disperses the problem into billions of fear droplets, obscuring God’s face.”

One of the things I found so useful was how Weaver defines the difference between worry and concern. She recognises that our world is full of struggles and pain, and that there are many legitimate concerns we face every day. But while a concern is specific, and about a legitimate threat, a fear is often general and unfounded. Allowing our minds to be full of worry means that we can start to obsess about a problem and see more problems as a result (worry breeds more worries). We also can forget to turn to God – he seems to be last place we look to for the answer. With a concern, however, we look to address and solve the problem, and involve God in that process. Weaver quotes pastor/teacher Gary E Gilley:

“Worry is allowing problems and distress to come between us and the heart of God. It is the view that God has somehow lost control of the situation and we cannot trust him. A legitimate concern presses us closer to the heart of God and causes us to lean and trust on him all the more.”

I can recognise how I respond when I allow fear or worry to take a hold in my heart: I feel panic literally rising and overtaking me and I cannot concentrate on anything else. The problem or difficulty blows up out of all proportion and I find it hard to talk to God – or anyone close to me – about it. I become totally irrational, can get angry or tearful and lose sleep. Can you recognise the symptoms of worry in your own life?

This is part of an article that was first published on Christian Today. Tomorrow I will look at how we can let go of worry.

 

In the Garden…

Garden-of-Gethsemane-Jerusalem

In Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22 we have similar accounts of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. His heart is heavy – he describes it as ‘overwhelmed with sorrow’. He needs some time with his father, but also wants his friends to stay nearby.

Just imagine the intensity of emotions Jesus is wrestling with now. They reach their peak where he cries out, ‘Abba Father…everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me’. I can sense some panic in the human voice Jesus uses – and yet his spiritual being still submits, ‘yet not my will, but yours be done’. Luke’s account indicates that once he submitted in this way an angel appeared and ‘strengthened’ him. But, even after this visitation, the anguish was still upon him, his prayer intensified and his sweat became like ‘drops of blood’.

Matthew’s account reveals how Jesus went back to his friends – presumably for support and to check they were praying for him. Three times he went to them… and each time found them asleep. It seems they hadn’t grasped the enormity of the situation, and so allowed tiredness to overtake them. He must have felt so let down and alone.

I can’t begin to compare our own situations with Jesus’, but I do know there are times when we are overwhelmed with loneliness, sadness and despair. Perhaps your friends have let you down – by not doing something or by acting in a way that hurt you. Perhaps God is asking you to face a situation you feel is too difficult – why would he ask it of you? How do you respond – to your friends, and to God? I think Jesus is modelling the most helpful response to us in the Garden – pour it all out to God in prayer; the hurt, despair, pain, sadness. At the end he then says, ‘Rise, let us go!’ He uses his time in prayer to be real about his emotional tussle, then meets the situation head on.

One thing to try if you have been hurt or feel overwhelmed is to write a letter (to God or the friend). Express all your emotions as you do this. Sometimes it is necessary to speak to the person, in which case the letter can be a good way to vent your intense feelings before working out the best way to approach a meeting with grace. At other times it is simply right to bring the letter before God, read it out and then tear it up, asking him to take away the pain as you do so – or to enable you to face the difficult situation with his help.

This reflection first appeared in Quite Spaces.

‘In the run up to Easter, I keep thinking about how Jesus was totally betrayed by one close to him – with a kiss. What was going through Judas’ mind? How could he actually do what he did?’ This is an extract from my latest piece for Christian Today, which looks at how the Bible can help us when we are not sure who to trust. To read more, please click here.

Slowing down during Advent

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I love Christmas. I love the preparations, the waiting, the build up of excitement, the putting up of decorations, the time spent devising menus. I love being involved in the music for carol services, watching our children’s excitement as they prepare for the nativity play. But, if I’m honest, I also struggle with the stress.

I see the start of Advent, and know that it’s a time of reflection – and I long to have the time and space to really enjoy it. However, I’m sad to say, the busyness of life so often crowds in as I rush to finish deadlines before the kids break up from school.

At this point in our calendar I’m focused most on getting our son’s birthday party celebrations organised, with the ever-growing list of jobs to do for Christmas weighing on my mind.

Even among all the activity, though, I can sense a longing in my soul. I am desperate to connect, to find the deeper meaning in this season. And I am desperate for our family’s experience of Advent to go beyond chocolate and calendars.

I am drawn to rediscover the meaning of waiting this Advent. Drawn to the character of Mary, and what this time meant for her. When we first meet her in the gospels she seems like a vulnerable young woman; betrothed to a respectable man in her neighbourhood. But one visit from an angel changes everything.

Mary’s response to that angel, after a few somewhat understandable questions, is simply ‘I am the Lord’s servant… May your words to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38) Incredible. I could never be that calm.

After visiting Elizabeth, Mary creates what is often referred to as the Magnificat, her song of praise (Luke 1:46-55). Through it she reveals she understands the way that God has blessed her for a special purpose. Mary recognises that God is a champion for the poor and oppressed too, and that God is fulfilling His promises to Abraham (and Israel) through what is to take place.

Whenever I look at those verses I am always taken aback. Granted, Mary has had a visitation from an angel, who has taken the time to explain things to her. Elizabeth has also recognised that the baby inside of Mary is the Lord so Mary has someone she can talk freely with. But still…

While Mary herself recognises she is highly favoured, she’s also in a time of waiting that is filled with so many unknowns. Will Joseph stand by her? If he does, will their society cast them out? And then, once the census was decreed, how will she cope with the long journey to Bethlehem and where will she give birth? (I’m sure that the idea of a stable never once entered her head!) What would her son be like? How would He make Himself known as the Messiah?

So many questions, yet the biblical account doesn’t reveal much about Mary’s state of mind. There seems to be a peace amongst the anticipation while the reality must have been messy, and deeply painful, at times. What surrounds this part of the Christmas story for me is stillness and patience; the atmosphere thick with pregnant hope.

While I pause for a moment to reflect and write this, I pray that I too can find that stillness and patience. That I too can look forward to the coming celebrations with hope, not allowing the stress and busyness that can so easily accompany this season to rob me of the precious gift behind it all.

This blog was originally published on Christian Today.

Why scrubbing loos is a good idea

cleaning_the_toilet_s

What is it about the human condition that makes us look around the people we come into contact with day to day and compare ourselves to them? It is something we have to work really hard not to do, which means the comparison culture inevitably infiltrates our church communities too.

I’m sure we’ve all had those moments: times when we’ve see others in a role that we wish we had and felt slightly jealous. Perhaps we even feel entitled to that role – or think in our minds that we could do a much better job than the person currently doing it.

 Or perhaps we end up in the mindset that thinks we have to contribute to the service each week – by bringing another word or reading another portion of scripture out. Why do we do that? A desperate need within us to connect with God, or a deep-seated desire to look more holy than those around us?

I think we need to ask ourselves those difficult questions regularly about our motivations for serving within our church communities. None of us is immune to selfish ambition and desires, but it is much easier to nip them in the bud early rather than letting ourselves get carried away with them.

Indeed, in Philippians 2 we are told: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (v3-4).

Jesus had some really harsh words to say about those people who put on a show of holiness in church: “Everything they do is for men to see” (Matthew 23:5) and “Woe to you … you hypocrites!”, which he repeats in verses 13, 15, 23, 25, 27 and 29. With that amount of repetition I think we can see Jesus really wanted to get his message across!

Speaking about the teachers of the law, it was the difference between their public show of purity and piety and their everyday lives that angered Jesus the most. Indeed, He instructed His disciples and the crowds “you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (v3).

Ouch.

Harsh words or the simple, honest truth?

To read the rest of this post, please click here – where the reason for the title will become clear 😉

More than Writers site

I am really excited that today the first of my regular contributions to the Association of Christian Writers’ blog has gone live. The site is called More than Writers and already I have gleaned a wealth of encouragement and challenge from the bloggers this month. Please do check the site out – and comment on my post today if you want to, which is all about learning not to compare ourselves with others 🙂

comparison is the thief of joy

God isn’t put off by our negative emotions

looking wistful out window

Recently I’ve been spending time reading psychology books, mainly about infant attachment and parenting styles, as research for my own book. I have been really struck about a particular aspect: how a secure self learns not to be threatened by negative feelings.

I’ve read how sensitive parenting allows a child to feel those negative emotions and also teaches him/her how to deal with them through both support (unconditional love and empathy) and challenge. The child is also reassured that the source of their security and love is not threatened by such negative emotions either.

I’ve looked at how behavioural patterns learned in childhood get transformed into our adult lives. They affect the way we respond to, and interpret, the actions and words of those around us.

I was challenged by one particular book that linked the way a child approaches negative feelings to the way we respond to God when we are experiencing negative emotions.

We are His children and yet has the parenting style we’ve experienced by our earthly parents affected the way we anticipate His responses? I’m sure it must do.

For example, if you are feeling angry, bitter or sad do you feel God will condemn you, pointing out all the reasons why you are feeling like that – and revealing that it is your fault?

To read the rest of this post please click here.

Fasting: why do I bother with it?

Fasting_4-Fasting-a-glass-of-water-on-an-empty-plate

The rumble of my stomach, the light wooziness I’m feeling in my head, the need for mints while I drink endless water and tea…

That’s right, I’m fasting.

 No, I’m not super holy and yes, I do struggle with it.

I’ve tried to build fasting into my life regularly over the last few years but today it feels particularly difficult. It may be due to the amount of exercise I did last night, general tiredness, feeling a little under the weather…

Whatever the reasons it feels hard today. But, let’s face it, fasting is hard. And I think that’s part of the point – it isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s about focusing our attention; using that time that we would normally be eating to come before God.

Now that in itself can be quite a challenge. I have skipped breakfast, but I certainly didn’t have time to pour out my heart in prayer to God while making sure the kids got ready for school. It’s now, after the school run, that I have a bit of space and that I can focus on coming before Him.

Fasting is one of those strange disciplines isn’t it? We are under grace, so we don’t have to do it, but, if we look at what Jesus said about fasting He referred to ‘when you fast’ rather than ‘if’, which means He expected it to be a part of the disciples’ lives.

To read the rest of this article please click here.

Let’s celebrate – and fight for – marriage

As we are in the middle of Marriage Week in the UK, and Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, I spent time reflecting on what marriage means to me in my latest column for Christian Today. To read the article please click here. If you enjoy it, or find it useful, please could you indicate by using the ‘like’ button on their webpage. Thanks so much.

I ended up with far too much material for that piece, so I’ve collected some of my other thoughts below. (They will make most sense read alongside the Christian Today column.) As you’ll see, I’ve learned a lot about my own weaknesses through being married: I certainly believe marriage holds up a mirror to the ugliest parts of our character. It does give us the opportunity to grow and change though, thankfully. Marriage also does not make us immune to the difficulties and trials we inevitably encounter in this life, but hopefully we learn to help one another up those mountains when they come…

couple-climbing-a-mountain

As a couple, we’ve certainly been through some crazy and difficult adventures. I’ve said before that one of the biggest surprises and challenges for me was when my husband became a pastor – I didn’t sign up for that, and really struggled to accept it to begin with. Now I view it as a privilege to be a part of his calling, as well as following my own wholeheartedly.

So here’s those points that didn’t make it into my latest column…

My husband needs me to learn to keep my mouth shut in public

I can be quite sarcastic and my humour often involves winding up people that I’m close to. But I have learned over time that my husband finds it incredibly difficult if I am sarcastic or make a joke of something he’s done or the way he’s been in front of other people.

I am also one that can’t bottle up my feelings but being angry or having an argument with my husband in public does not do our marriage any good. Keeping quiet while in public also gives me a chance to calm down and be a bit more objective – which I’ve never been that great at! 😉

Fighting for ways to feel connected is so important

There can be times when I’m at the end of myself – juggling work, looking after my kids, my roles within church and as a school governor can totally wring out me out to the point that I feel I have little left to give. I know as a busy pastor my husband can often feel wrung out by the end of a day too. And yet it is so so important to keep fighting for those moments of connection. We can work hard both separately and together. In those seasons when we are both focused on very different things, it can almost feel like we are like ships that pass in the night – roomies at best, strangers in the worst moments. But if we just stop for a few moments and check in with one another we both instantly feel like we are working towards a common goal and can support and understand where the other one is at. Somehow it lifts what can be a time of struggle, as we realise afresh that we are not alone.

We need to fight for marriage

I could make all sorts of points here about the way that society is diluting marriage, or how high the divorce rate is – but, while that’s all true, it’s not what I’m focusing on. While writing this I was reminded of a stark image I saw firsthand while visiting friends in another part of London. Right the way down a street were bits of ribbon tied to the telephone lines. I asked what they were, and was gobsmacked by the answer: each ribbon represented a Christian couple. Apparently there was a high proportion of witches in the area and they very openly shared that they cursed Christian marriages and called on powers to break them up. That really shook me, and made me realise the spiritual battle that we can be in as married couples. If we aren’t praying and fighting for our marriages then who will?