To Think of Others BEFORE Myself

PURPOSE

I think my life’s purpose is
To learn to love
And to learn to love well.

At first I only had to
Reflect and imitate the love shown me.

Then after some tentative steps
I gave myself in baptism to
The full immersion of my whole self
Given to another.

Now I practise the
Daily
Hourly
Minute by minute
Prioritising of others’ needs
Before my own.

It isn’t always easy
I don’t always feel like it
I frequently fail.

And yet this is my life’s purpose:
To learn to love
And to learn to love well.

I wrote this poem last year and I was pretty satisfied with it. But, reading it back now, while I’m still recovering from a period of depression, I realise the sentiment, and the theology is incomplete.

One of the reasons I have lacked resilience to deal with unexpected traumatic events has been that I have been increasingly running on empty. Putting others’ needs always above my own has gradually depleted my reserves until I ran out completely.

It’s a particularly easy trap for a Christian to fall into. We believe in service and unselfishness and sacrifice.

Were you a Brownie who learned the Brownie law:
‘Think of others before yourself and do a good deed every day’?

Or do you remember the acronym for finding joy as prioritising needs in in this order?
1. Jesus
2. Others
3. Yourself

My trouble was that by the time I had done my morning prayer time (Jesus), then worked beyond my designated hours without a break (Others), and looked after my family (more Others), there was no time, let alone energy, to do anything for Your/Myself.

I’ve been challenged to look at this differently.

What if J-O-Y is better viewed as a triangle than a list? With Jesus at the top, Yourself and Others on a level at the base?

The Message translation of Jesus’ reply about what the most important commandment is this:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’” (Matthew 22.37-8)

‘Love others as well as you love yourself’. Not better than you love yourself. Not before you love yourself. But as well as you love yourself.

How well can you love others if you don’t love yourself much?

One great reassurance I’ve had whilst being ill has been the frequent reminder that I am God’s child and He loves me very much. And that He loves me because of who I am to Him not what I do for Him. So if I want to be like Him, how can I not reflect His love for me? How can I not take good care of someone He loves so much?

My counsellor repeats that self-care is essential if I also want to care for others – I need to prioritise it and make space for it. Sometimes that means uncomfortable, unfamiliar choices: saying no, delegating to someone else.

But looking after myself, making time for what does me good – yoga, gardening, resting – plus working more slowly, in a more considered way – taking a few moments to think before automatically saying yes or offering help – these will all make me better at my job, better as a wife, mother and friend. It means I will have more energy to do what I am called to. It means I won’t deprive others of growth and success. It means I will set a healthy and realistic example.

Or, as RuPaul puts it:
“If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Can I have an Amen?!

(Writing again this week from a prompt by Five Minute Friday https://fiveminutefriday.com/2020/02/27/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-before/ )

This Was Not What We Imagined

With my mind elsewhere today, I’m sharing a poem I wrote a while ago that I think fits this week’s Five Minute Friday prompt of RISK.  I love considering the parallels between our modern experience and Bible characters; it brings the characters closer, personalises them.

This was not what we imagined
This was not how we expected pregnancy to be
The timing all wrong
Me with my new job
And you before your wedding day
We had no preparation for the anguish and distress
My nonstop vomiting exacerbated by anxiety
Your risk of rejection and scandal driven disgrace
But we each had our Elizabeth
Our place and voice of refuge
And we thanked God for her

It was not the birth we hoped for either
No familiar faces surrounding us (except his)
Only the support of strangers
No security of homely surroundings
But unkind smells of disinfectant or dung in the darkness
I ached for a window in that long night
For a glimpse of the natural world outside
Of sky, of starlight
You had your Starlight
But did you get your glimpse outside
Of the universe on tiptoes outside your door?

When I needed help
God sent me a tall smiling doctor
With a voice to believe in
And an Alien faced midwife banshee shouting
God sent you men more used to delivering livestock
With a story of angel song
Still ringing in their ears
But your little lamb had already arrived

And after the excitement of announcing our boys’ arrivals
Telephone for me, celestial choirs for you
We found that first moment of stillness
Babe in our arms well sated
And we wondered
And pondered
God’s good guidance
And possible plans

 

SAMARITAN OR NOT?

The end of the week, the end of our journey, just our little hill to go. Storm Dennis continues to pour down on the windscreen and in rivulets down the tarmac as we squeeze carefully up the narrow twists and turns in first gear. It’s a bit more challenging than usual but manageable.

Or so we think.

At the steepest, tightest bend the headlights catch a woman on all fours and a man trying to lift her up. There’s no way round them so we have to stop. We consider getting out to help but attention quickly returns to the car as my handbrake is failing to hold it against the combined force of gradient and rain slicked road. I daren’t take my foot off the other brake. I can manage this hill forwards but there’s no way I can reverse safely down.

Eventually she staggers over to a small parking space and we struggle past, a slightly worrying burnt smell coming from my clutch. We think again about going back to help as we unload in front of the steps up to our house but, by the time, I come down from our own parking space further up the hill, others have gone to their aid.

 (Here’s the road in the daytime. At the top of the view is the sharp bend left where the woman fell and between the house and the blue and white fence is where we had to stop). 

The experience left me thinking about the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the viewpoint of the passers by.

I wonder what their reasons for avoiding helping were. Did they think the man by the road was drunk so not worthy of help? But is that a valid reason? Did they have others waiting at their destination, relying on them, so any delay by rescuing this man would have caused distress or harm to someone else who needed them?

It’s easy to cast the priest and Levite as simple villains, self righteous or afraid. And to assume that we would never behave like that because we know the lesson from this familiar story so well.

But human behaviour is rarely as straightforward as in a short story, even one told by Jesus. How do we balance the needs of more than one person who needs us at a time? Does God call us to be a neighbour to everyone? Or does He call us to particular needs and people?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts. But I am grateful for an experience that has made me confront a familiar parable from a different angle, even if I haven’t reached any conclusions yet.

This post was written as part of this week’s Five Minute Friday Link Up with the prompt ‘experience’. Find more here https://fiveminutefriday.com/2020/02/13/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-experience/

The Parable of the TALENTs

I wonder if God smiled to Himself at the first telling of the Parable of the Talents, knowing that the English translation of the word for money would have a second meaning? So, rather than consider how we manage our finances, we can’t help but hear the story in terms of what we do with our God given skills.

How do we invest and multiply our gifts? Or are we guilty of hiding and burying them? And do we realise that God wants us to grow what he has given us?

But how do we do that?

Well, I guess, first of all we need to recognise what we have been given. So it’s worth asking ourselves what has been put in our hands and laps. Is it time or finances? Is it a dining table or a spare room? Is it an aptitude for numbers or art? Is it a love of gardening or languages? Is it a joy in seeing others succeed or in the natural world?

As a young Christian, trying to work out my direction in life, I was given the wise advice to look at what I was good at and what I loved doing as a starting point. Even the parable talks about ‘each according to his ability’. God isn’t a spoilsport so go with your abilities and see where it takes you.

But to make the most of what God has given us, we need to invest it and invest in it. We need to put time and energy and discipline in. No one became a great musician or led church worship well without practising. Likewise, I can’t become more patient  without frequently forgiving other drivers or a good listener without giving my family my full attention when they talk. It’ll be hard at times but with continued application, taking the opportunities that come our way, our talents will grow.

Sometimes we can feel that we have few talents, few resources to invest. We think it’s only the great that really counts. But God doesn’t see size, fame, or significance as we do. He is a God who loves small things, seeing such significance and potential in them. He loves a widow’s last pennies, mustard seeds, and a boy’s packed lunch. He loves a child’s pocket money donation to charity, a prayer said, a cup of tea made with care.

He takes our small investments and honours our attempts to use them in His service. And then He multiplies them. Seeds grow into vast trees giving shelter to a range of wildlife. A couple of fish sandwiches more than feed an enormous crowd. The exhaustion and pain of caring for a loved one with dementia turns into a precious gift and memory. A few encouraging words act as someone’s  lifeline.

We don’t always see such results. But God does. And when He sees us making the most of the talents He has given us, that definitely makes Him smile.

Joining in again with the fabulous Five Minute Friday community on this week’s prompt of TALENT. Find more here: https://fiveminutefriday.com/2020/02/06/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-talent/

LIFE in All Its Fullness

2019 wasn’t an easy year for me. Illness, depression, disappointment have blanketed out much of my good memories from it. But if I search hard enough, there were bright spots too: trips to Cornwall, family celebrations, renewal in our garden, progress in my writing. It reminds me of something Martin Luther King said:

‘But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars’.

That light may be far off but the darkness makes you appreciate it more. And, to be honest, during my time off work, I feel that, strangely, I have learned and gained so much, as if pain has proved to be an uncomfortable but rich fertiliser for growth.
It’s made me think about that statement Jesus made:

“I came to give you life – life in all its fullness.”  (John ch 10 v 10)

When life goes wrong, our (or certainly my) natural reaction is to complain about the unfairness of it. It’s as if we think the norm to be happiness and straightforward progression in life, not just as an expectation but as a right. So when something dreadful happens it comes as a shock and an affront to us.

But if we look around us, some form of tragedy comes to everyone. A job loss. A relationship breakdown. Illness. Death.

Now I’m not trying to minimise pain or grief or trauma. But what if ‘life in all its fullness’ includes the mix of ups and downs? What if there are lessons to be learned and riches to be found as much in our difficulties as our successes? What if our journey in life is meant to go through both hills and valleys? And, rather than stamping our foot like an angry child against it, what would acceptance of both positive and negative look like?

Thinking about this reminds me of Michael Henchard compared with Donald Fairfax in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Or contrast Jean Valjean and Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It is the height and depth of their experiences and emotions that give Henchard and Valjean the richer lives, unlike Fairfax and Javert, who live respectably but emotionally stunted without empathy for others. Of course, Valjean experiences redemption that forever redefines him and enriches his life.

Perhaps that’s the secret to experiencing ‘life in all its fullness’ – allowing God to constantly remake us and enlarge us, accepting all joys and pains as His gifts whilst looking for the blessing in both, and walking hand in hand with Him through the hills and valleys, appreciating the view from both.

Joining the weekly Five Minute Friday community writing from a shared prompt word. Jpin the party here: https://fresh.inlinkz.com/party/07330876dfa144f08a472aabe52c4e02.

DISCOUNTS, VALUE, AND THE TWIRLIES

When I was a teenager, I had a part time job in a local supermarket as a Produce Assistant (that’s the fruit and vegetable counter to you and me). Two evenings a week and all day Saturday in an unflattering uniform, on my feet the whole time, with only a few short breaks, it was tiring and often boring but my adolescent heart loved the increased independence it brought.

Back then, most shops closed on Sundays so all the fresh stock was discounted to get rid of as much as possible at a particular time on Saturday afternoon. That was my favourite part of the job.

It was up to my manager to decide what would be marked down and by how much and mine to weigh and tag the purchases. But about half an hour before the reductions were announced, the Twirlies would arrive: a group of gregarious older ladies, keen for a bargain, who would always greet me with a smile and:

“Hello darlin’. Am I too early?”

The discounted stock tended to be a little substandard, bruised, overripe. So the Twirlies loved to bag up their chosen, perfect purchases in advance and then bring them back later for the lower pricing. It irritated my boss immensely.

But I enjoyed turning a blind eye and letting them have the bargains they craved. I guess I also liked getting one over on my boss and the company. I figured a few bargain apples and carrots would make little difference to the organisation’s budget but could make a significant one to the Twirlies, who relied on only a basic pension to get by and had learned their budgeting skill during the War.

There’s an Oscar Wilde quote that defines a cynic as someone who ‘knows the price of everything but the value of none’. And that reminds me too of the Bible story of the widow who gave the tiniest amount of money in the Temple (she may have been a Twirly in her day) but was honoured by Jesus because He saw what a significant proportion it was for her. He saw the cost and the value rather than the price.

We get our ideas of cost and value in this world terribly mixed up and upside down compared to God’s. It broke my heart in that job when I was seconded to the bakery counter where every evening we threw out mounds of bread, cakes, and patisserie – because the company refused to sell it discounted to staff or customers, let alone donate it to homeless charities who would have made such good use of it, unworried by Best Before dates. I hope that supermarket chain has a different policy now.

I’m glad some things are changing, that we are starting to reject the throwaway culture we’ve been living in too long of plastic bags, cheap clothes, food waste, and ignorance. But we’ve a long way to go. The planet is already paying for our greed and laziness and we are all losers for that.

Let’s go back to some of the values of that Twirly generation. Let’s learn to value what we have. Let’s learn to ‘make do and mend’, and to plan our meals and shopping lists, turning leftovers into something delicious. Let’s embrace reducing, reusing, and recycling. Let’s choose ethical over cheap.

Let’s consider the cost of our choices for us and others. And let’s remember value more than price.

This is my contribution to the Five Minute Friday community, who write weekly on a prompt word (COST this week) and then share the results. You find other responses to the word here: https://fiveminutefriday.com/2019/11/21/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-cost/

TESTIMONY (Five Minute Friday)

There’s a saying, isn’t there? ‘If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’

Scary thought.

If I were in the dock, who would be my witnesses? I guess the key ones would be those closest to me, those who know me best, those who see how I behave every day.

My family certainly know about my faith and how integral it is to my life. They have seen over the years how it is at the core of my decision making and choices, opinions and priorities. They know I pray daily for them.

But they also know better than most how imperfect my faith is, how often I don’t live up to the standards my faith calls me to. Because they love me, they forgive me much.

And when I get it right, how much, I wonder, do they realise is down to God and not just my original character and upbringing? They didn’t know me before I became a Christian. Most of the people in my life now don’t. So how can they see what a difference Jesus has made to me?

I’m no evangelist. I am honest about my beliefs if people ask. But I don’t shout about it. And I am terribly aware of how often I get it wrong – my impatience, anger, or unkindness.

Called to the witness stand myself, I can only tell you that God is Who keeps me going when life feels overwhelming, gives me the means to grow as a person, and daily opens my eyes to the wonders and beauty of this world around me.

Sometimes He sends people to teach me these lessons. Sometimes circumstances show me. Sometimes a sentence in the Bible shouts His reassurance or direction at me. Sometimes as I write in my prayer journal to Him, the way becomes clear. Sometimes it’s like a gentle whisper in my head and a sense of peace as I follow.

This is my testimony.

Stop Before You Need To (PACE Five Minute Friday)

I’ve been running another of our regular fatigue management courses at work recently.

It’s the most common symptom our palliative patients get and sadly we can’t magic them back to the levels of energy they had in their youth. But we can help them make choices about how to budget the energy they have now.

One of the strategies we teach is the 5Ps. And one of the Ps is Pacing.

It may translate as something really simple like stopping halfway up the stairs to catch your breath rather than trying to rush to the top in one go. Or it may mean a change in routine like sitting down for a coffee break during a morning of housework. Or even some complex planning ahead, like arranging a taxi and carers to take a wheelchair bound patient home for a rest in between a wedding service and reception.

But the real trick with pacing is this: Stop Before You Need To.

Many of us keep going until a task is finished, even to the point of exhaustion. We feel if we stop, we won’t be able to get going again and complete it. But if we stop before our muscles, lungs, minds, or emotions get over burdened, after a break, we can often keep going for longer so that we actually end up doing and achieving more.

It’s a lesson I need to apply to my own life too.

Too easily I fall into the trap of not taking lunch breaks and working late to get something finished. Too frequently I have let that become routine. Too often it leaves me too tired to do other things in the evenings or at weekends that are important to me.

It’s so easy to forget that God calls us to pace ourselves, to take breaks, to stop before we need to:

‘Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work.’

‘Be still and know that I am God.’

Not only do we see Jesus doing the same:

‘After He had dismissed them, He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray.’

But actually, God set this example from the very beginning:

‘Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done.’

God might have finished the work of creation at that point but there was going to be plenty more for Him to do as time went by. But He took a break. He paced Himself. He stopped before He needed to.

Who are we not to follow His example?

Once AGAIN (Five Minute Friday)

Those Matt Redman lyrics keep circling in my head, with hints of the rest of the tune:

‘I’m in that place once again, I’m in that place once again.’

And I wonder what place I am in again?

Sometimes it’s a geographical place, or a longing for one, Cornwall in particular. The sound of seagulls, the salty smell of the sea, the reassuring rhythm of the tide as the river rises and falls in the harbour, that sense of a more peaceful pace in the wild beauty of the landscape.

Sometimes it’s the repetition of an emotional place – grieving the loss of my parents again, a monthly mood drop for no other reason than hormones, or the familiar fight to loosen anxiety’s tentacles that come back as reliably as bindweed.

Sometimes it’s social: the routine of a family get together, the joy of having my kids back together with us, the familiar strength of my husband’s arms around me.

But the song is about something, somewhere different. It’s about being back in a place of awe for all that Jesus has done for us, for me. It’s about remembering His ultimate sacrifice. It’s about never taking Him for granted.

And, like anyone else we love or who loves us, it’s far too easy to do just that, to forget the enormity of it all, to step out of our daily routine to express our gratitude.

And that’s the place I need to be in again most of all.

Here’s the full song and lyrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkK4YHy-wNg

(Joining the weekly five minute free write with the fabulous Five Minute Friday community. You can find more on the prompt word AGAIN here: https://fiveminutefriday.com/2019/08/08/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-again-guest-post-by-niki-hardy/ )

RISE (Five Minute Friday: ‘Take’)

Sometimes I’m inspired to write something new and sometimes I do a search through other poems and pieces for something that includes the prompt word for Five Minute Friday http://fiveminutefriday.com/community/. This week it’s the latter.

This piece was sparked by a plane trip – I find those aeroplanes great spaces to write in (so much time to fill) and so many metaphors to find in the whole concept of air travel. I wrote it some time after my mum’s death (strange how pain can be such a spur for poetry), coming across it again when I went through an old prayer journal from those years. Grief and regret can lie heavy with me but I try to hold onto the hope and renewal that God offers.

In my head, this sounds like a hymn but I am no musician – so if anyone wants to collaborate and would like to compose a tune for it, let me know.

RISE

From runway soaked in rain’s steel rods
We rise up blind through storm dark clouds
To vistas clear, perspective blue
Into the light to be with You

Despite the dark You are my light
Beyond the clouds You lift me up
Whatever loss You fill the space
You take my burdens, dry my tears

When I forget Your calm and peace
When I cannot see Your clarity
Reach out Your arm and take my hand
Lift me up to where You are

When clouds roll in of deep despair
When grief lies heavy on my soul
Take hold my hand and lift me up
To Comfort’s throne where I know love