On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

On running, walking, losing weight and receiving grace

pexels-photo-1003685.jpegThere are many losses associated with chronic illnesses. I’ve written about this before, so it’s really nothing new. One of them, for me, has been taking part in sport that I love. First is was football – which at one stage I was playing twice a week. When you have a disease like Ankylosing Spondylitis, a contact sport like football really isn’t a great idea; before I was diagnosed I would end every game with what I thought were excruciating shin-splints. I haven’t played any sort of football since then; even kicking a ball too and fro for 10 minutes with my foster son will now leave me in significant pain later in the day and into the next. Then there’s a running. I was never the sort of runner who would take part in races or even run that far in the scheme of things. But I did do it, and I did enjoy it. However eventually the resultant leg and ankle pain became too much and I had to take a pass. Then there’s the gym; which I also quite enjoyed – but the advent of foster children meant we could no longer afford that.

So what to do about exercise? As it turns out, not much. Apart from walking a bit, nothing really. It turns out (who knew?) that a lack of exercise, especially when combined with combatting depression with food, isn’t great for me. You’d have thought I’d have noticed my ballooning waistline, and I kind of did, but I’d been too preoccupied with becoming a parent, dealing with stress at work and in other places to notice. Now that one or two (but by no means all) of those stresses have lessened, the issue has been forced to my attention by a confluence of factors which I can’t really talk about here. When I asked my therapist why I suddenly found myself dealing with this now when it seems like it’s been an issue for a long while, the response was simple; it’s the next thing on your list, and now you can get to it.

As a result, on Saturday morning I found myself awake much earlier than I would otherwise have chosen to be, on the path around a local park with about 900 people, the self-penned refrain of ‘You’re fat, ugly and disgusting and everyone will be laughing at you’ careering round my head. It was my local Park Run. There are 1000s of these round the world and they are, it seems, undeniably a Good Thing in the democratisation of a sport which can seem reserved for Other People. Park Runs are free, community organised 5km runs for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds; there’s probably one not too far from you. For me it was more a Park Waddle – like many, I walked the whole way. I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but neither did I hate it and there was a pleasing variety of dogs along for the ride with their owners.  Sadly, there was none of the post-exercise adrenaline high and mental stimulation that I used to get. What it was, was a welcoming, non-judgemental, relaxed environment – which for at least a morning got the recurring litany in my head to shut up. Maybe that should be enough of a high for now.

I need to go back, to make this regular – and more than once a week. The day I’m writing this is the Wednesday after the Saturday, and I haven’t done much since. I won’t be able to go this Saturday as I have a pre-booked meeting I can’t (and shouldn’t) get out of; but I should be back the week after.

Having lived, and preached, and prayed for many years now I know experientially as well as intellectually that I’m not accepted because of my bank balance or preaching ability or ministry amongst the poor or my health or my looks or my weight or anything else, but simply because of what Jesus has done and says about me. Every time I think I’ve grasped it properly, another layer is peeled off to help me realise I haven’t and I like everyone else am addicted to earning approval and love instead of receiving grace. Here I go again, battling to receive what’s free and desperate to earn what I’ll never properly get.

One of the supposedly little things that makes it harder is that it feels like so many people I know run, and run effortlessly. At least 2 people I know have just completed an Ironman Triathlon. It feels like I can’t move in my social feed without details of someone’s run: a map, distance, time, calories burned etc. You know the drill. If they can, the lie goes, I can. And should.

Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. I want to stick at it; I hope I will. I don’t know if my AS will allow me to run, or if my park run will forever be a park walk. Hopefully it won’t be a waddle for too long. If I lose a little weight, and allow myself to receive grace a little more and strive after acceptance a little less, then it will be worth it.

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Losing Christian Privilege

I blame Jesus. If he hadn’t said that stuff about being blessed when you’re persecuted, then I don’t think we’d be where we are today. St Paul’s not much better, who made a great show of listing all the persecutions and opposition he faced as somehow ‘proving’ something about his ministry. Yep. It’s God’s fault.

When I was training to be a priest (20 years ago), it was often observed at the conservative college at which I trained that Christians in Britain were too lukewarm; they took their faith for granted, were wooly on some important doctrines, too much drawn to liberalism, weak on evangelism and generally a bit of a let down. What was needed, it was sometimes touted, was a good dose of persecution. Some people even prayed it would be so. People actually prayed that the country would change so much that Christianity would be illegal and that people would die for their faith. It seems an odd thing to pray, to say the least, when this is the daily reality of actual people in some parts of the world, but there you have it.

20 years later, it seems a given in some conservative quarters to state that these prayers have been answered. According to some, the recent court decision in London to put an exclusion zone around an abortion clinic to prevent prayer and protests outside is seen as a threat to religious freedom. The BBC, some insist, is blatantly anti-Christian and – worse, in the eyes of those who protest thus – promoting a gay agenda. Here in South Africa, some Christian groups are loudly defending their God-given ‘right’ to physically discipline children; to disallow that, is to threaten the freedom of the church, it is said. In America the religious right have hitched their wagon to the lucrative gun lobby, and assured anyone who’ll listen that the Constitution’s second amendment enshrines a ‘God-given’ right to own assault rifles.

Pointing out facts is, it seems, unpopular. No one’s threatened with serious trouble over graciously and peacefully (and there’s the key words) presenting a ‘pro-life’ perspective; you don’t have to search the BBC website for long to find stories and programmes which show the Christian faith in a positive and realistic light. I could go on, but the point is probably obvious by now – this isn’t an argument about facts. It’s about perception. Christians feel like they’re losing ground; the Bible shows us we’re blessed if we’re persecuted; look – we’re being persecuted!

The reality is that in all 3 of these countries – and many others – that we Christians are losing ground. And that’s OK. For many years, way before the current generation was born, we were living in a ‘Christendom’ reality. This is the idea that Christianity is assumed as deserving of a preferential hearing. Christianity was the privileged religion, and it was treated as such. These were Christian countries, it was assumed. As the world changes, society is globalised and the influences are more diverse. Suddenly, Christianity is no longer assumed to be primary; it is questioned, in many cases found wanting, and certainly no longer deserving of privilege.

Which is as it should be. Be it in post-apartheid South Africa, levelling the playing field between men and women, or giving other religions than Christianity a share of the platform, the loss of unearned privilege can feel like persecution. But it isn’t. It’s just the lop-sided playing field levelling itself. If the Gospel is as winsome and powerful as we think it is, then this should not worry us and we should not protest it. Jesus and the early Christians were not known for protesting their own rights or demanding a privileged hearing; they were rather more focussed on the rights of others – and in Jesus’ case, emptying himself of all he was really, truly entitled to.

In fact, there’s more to say still. The Gospel tells us that we have no rights of our own before God, but he graciously gives us all things in Jesus. He was all about laying down his rights. If the playing field really is levelling to all religions and world-views, then we should welcome it as a chance to be like Jesus and empty ourselves of all unearned and undeserved power and privilege and see a real demonstration of the power of the Gospel to which we claim to adhere. Further, if we really think we have a God-given right to protest outside abortion clinics or to own a gun or to hit our children (3 very different things, of course), then we need to be asking ourselves some serious questions as to how far we’ve drifted from the Bible we claim to hold in such high esteem.

Maybe, in some mysterious way, God has answered those prayers. He hasn’t given us persecution – though, of course, he remains perfectly entitled to do so. He has simply taken away a privilege that was never ours to begin with; it only ever belonged to him. Let’s let him worry about getting the hearing he deserves; our role is to, like Jesus, empty ourselves of power and simply serve him – where we find him. Which will so often be in the form of the people we were previously loudly protesting against.

In praise of snowflakes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the next generation will be criticised by the generation that immediately precedes them. You heard it from your grandparents most probably – the repeated complained comparison about what it was like ‘when we were young’. How exams were harder, jobs were more scarce, world wars more likely.

The current generation to be on the receiving end of this is the millenial generation. Roughly speaking, these are the people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. The perceived truth is that this a generation that has never had it so easy – technology, healthcare, no conscription, travel, and so much besides, are all more free for them than for their forbears. Thus criticisms come – of a snowflake generation in desperate need of safe spaces, scared of giving offence and easy to offend. You can’t move on Facebook for memes about how easy they have it, and how despairing my generation (Generation X) or the one above (Baby boomers) are. It’s no wonder that they are leaving Facebook in droves or just not signing up for it; it’s not a safe space.

Whether it’s true to say, or whether it’s a perception bought about by social media, it seems that the millenials may be the most criticised generation in history. It would be nice to be able to say that Christians were showing a different way – more encouraging, more kind, more willing to see the good. And I’m sure that some are; but by and large what I see and hear from Christians my age and older is much the same as what I see and hear from those outside the church – complaint and criticism. If it’s little wonder, then, that millenials are leaving Facebook, then it shouldn’t surprise us that they’re also largely absent from our churches. Now this is a complex issue – I’m not suggesting that inter-generational criticism is the only reason that millenials are not in church with us; but it seems to me that it is one of the reasons. Would you want to go to a church if it was full of people who regularly and loudly criticised you or people like you? Of course not; history shows us that where this happens, people leave church and don’t come back – or start their own expression of it.

We all need to be called out on stuff every now and then; we all need wiser heads to come alongside us and help us take a good, long look at ourselves. But we all know that people win the right to do that if they have first spent a good time being with us, knowing us, loving us. You don’t just walk up to someone you’ve never met and tell them they’re weak (at least I hope you don’t … ); no. You build a relationship, you point out what’s good about them – and you do that a lot; then eventually you find you have won the right to say “Have you ever thought about … ?”

I see much that’s good in this generation. This is the generation, after all, that’s willing to walk out of school to protest the right to attend school without the fear of getting shot; this is the generation willing to run with #metoo; this is the generation of Malala Yousafzai, for goodness sake. Of course, there are things to criticise, as there are in every generation. It would be better, though, if people my age and older were more willing to listen, more able to confess their own failings and help those that follow us learn from our own mistakes; it would be wonderful if our churches saw the stirrings of faith and courage coming from the younger end of the spectrum and gave space to them to flower and flame into life; that we were humble enough to learn, slow to speak, quick to listen.

After all, it’s written somewhere that a little child shall lead them.

On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.

What’s normal anyway?

To those whom much has been given much will be expected – or something like that. It’s the Bible’s equivalent of the maxim directed at Spiderman: ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Much what, though?
To two learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, ankylosing spondylitis, I recently had added a diagnosis of AD(H)D. I but the ‘H’ in brackets because we’re not sure yet quite how much ‘h’ there is in me – the hyperactivity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I’ve been on Ritalin, the medication of choice for this, for a couple of months now and the effect of it has been transformative. Is this what I’ve been missing out on all this time? Does everybody really have the capacity to sit down and just get on with stuff and not be fighting a permanent battle of distraction? I thought my magpie mind was symptomatic of the human condition, not a quirk of my brain.
There’s often a worry with treating this kind of thing that in doing so you lose some of the spark that makes someone unique, the fire of creativity, the fingerprint of the personality. I’m still learning about that, and how to make sure my whole family gets the benefit of the more focussed me – not just those who happen to come across my orbit in working hours. There’s much for me to learn, and yes I’ve been leant A Useful Book that does actually appear to be useful.
It’s quite a cocktail of diagnoses now. One would be more than enough, but there’s web of corollary, apparently between them. People with A.S. get depressed; people with depression get anxious. People with ADHD have learning disabilities. Chicken? Egg? Who knows.
None of them are going to kill me (I suppose you could argue that depression could, but you know what I mean); all of them are limiting, restricting in some way. It’s quite a collection of limits that I’m constantly learning to live within, to navigate around. Someone said to me that I now have a better idea of what makes me unique and special which is an interesting way to look at it. I’ve been living with me for a long time now and don’t think of me as unique – in my eyes, I’m normal. No matter if I’m normal or unique (or both), it feels as if this collection of defining characteristics is enough to be getting on with. If much is required of whom much is given, then what exactly is the much expected of me? Some days getting out of bed feels like an achievement (I spent 3 hours in a hospital waiting room for someone else yesterday; as a result of the dodgy chairs my A.S. is flaring which makes every moment of ‘normality’ today a victory); some days, filling out a form by hand is too much (thanks, dysgraphia!). Is the much that’s expected of me just to live, exist in a way that most people would recognise? Or is there more? What’s God’s call? To live within the limits, or transcend them like a bad afternoon tv-movie?
If only we all came with some sort of personalised users manual, telling how to get the best out of us. Everyone has to wrestle with these issues, of course – what am I for? It’s just that when you seem to have more quirks than others, it feels trickier to navigate.
We don’t come with user manuals, of course. We do come with an image, an imprint of a creator but that feels increasingly marred and chipped and cracked. And how do you speak of that when there’s so much about you that feels like it doesn’t bear the stamp of a wise and good creator? Is the image of God about perfection because God is perfect, or is it something more complex than that? There’s something there about our calling  – to steward creation on God’s behalf, and that creation presumably includes ourselves. So what does stewarding myself mean when the reflection is warped?
Questions, and few answers. Assuming that I now have the last of the diagnoses – at least for a while – maybe I can start to discern a way forward. Today this is less of dead-weight then it is a challenge to be surmounted, a puzzle to solve. It doesn’t oppress me today, but it does present these questions to which I struggle discern answers.
My only conclusion: normal is an illusion. There is both no such thing as normal; and also that normal is whatever your state is, wherever you habitually land. It’s not a target to be reached; if you see it that way it will always be out of reach. Instead it’s simply what you are.

West Wing Leadership Wisdom S1E4: “Five Votes Down”

1. Personal life can fuel leadership – but the former must always be in a healthy, life-giving blend with the latter.
2. Relationships count. Invest in people who might seem insignificant – some of the five votes down are people who might seem insignificant but feel neglected. In reality nobody is insignificant.

3. The alcoholism which we learn about Leo and Hoynes living in this episode shows us that no one is immune from addiction. Get help, whoever you are.

imdb.com plot summary

When an admittedly weak gun-control bill the White House has been backing turns out to be five votes short of House passage, Josh makes deals and threats to several Democratic reps, while Leo appeals to Hoynes for help. Elsewhere, while working the bill, Leo misses his anniversary, which he tries in vain to atone for, but eventually his wife Jenny decides to leave him.

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode

West Wing Leadership Wisdom: S1E3 “A Proportional Response”

1. Good friends and colleagues – like CJ and Leo – tell you what they think and then work to protect you, even when they disagree with you. Foster those relationships; make them your first port of call.
2. In your anger do now sin. Anger in itself isn’t sinful, but ut can often lead us to do is.

3. Leaders are held to a higher standard – both by God and by people. It doesn’t feel fair – especially from people – but it’s true.

4. Even righteous anger can be dangerous – listen to dispassionate and trusted people, willing to speak truth about the dangers of your course action.

imdb.com Plot Summary

After being offered “a proportional response” to the Syrian military’s downing of a U.S. military plane on a medical mission (and carrying his newly named personal physician), the president demands an option that will have greater impact. Leo gradually must talk him down, while Bartlet snipes at everyone, including Abby. The president ultimately agrees to the initial option, but is not happy about it. Charlie Young is introduced as an applicant for a messenger job whom Josh decides to hire as Bartler’s personal aide (note: he mentions being sent to Josh by Mrs. De La Guardia, who is later introduced in season four as Debbie Fiderer, who becomes Mrs. Landingham’s replacement)

A series of blog posts in which, after listening to The West Wing Weekly Podcast and then watching the relevant West Wing episode, I suggest some mutually beneficial leadership insights from the episode