stress testing

We have a chair at home from a well-known Swedish furniture store. It is pictured below and you’ll notice that it doesn’t have four legs. Instead it is made of shaped, laminated wood that is both strong and flexible. Indeed, to demonstrate its strength and flexibility the stores had an example in a Perspex box with a machine pushing down on it and then releasing, with a counter showing how many hundreds of thousands of times this had happened without the chair breaking. It was a public demonstration of stress testing.

The chair looks well designed and well built. It looks strong. It looks comfortable (at least I think it does). But the only way you will truly know how well it is built and how strong the wood is is by sitting in the chair. We recently had a visitor who was a little reluctant to sit in the chair and I suspect it’s because they were unsure how well it would hold them (or perhaps because I mischievously suggested that if they sat down too hard they would be twanged back out of it). To test the quality of the chair you have to put it under stress. Only then will you find out its strengths and any weaknesses or flaws.

And I think the same is true of humans. On the surface all may seem lovely and good. All may appear ‘normal’. But under stress we reveal our strengths, our qualities and our faults and weaknesses.

I think I have seen this in the responses that I have seen and heard to England’s men’s football team being beaten on penalties in the finals of Euro 2020 (delayed by Covid). I was disappointed that England did not win, but I do not feel there was any need to apportion blame and single people out. One commentator on the TV made a disparaging comment about the relative youth of some of those who took the penalties. Why? There is a minority of people who have made hideous racist comments about those who did not score their penalties. Did they suddenly become racist, or did the stress reveal this abominable fault in their character? Listening to the radio news this morning I was appalled to hear of the online racist abuse aimed at the players who did not score. But then I heard the announcer telling us the names of the players who had missed – apportioning blame and highlighting them over the rest of the team in a form of scapegoating. That was a deliberate choice to name those players – isn’t that also a form of attack? These attacks reveal far more about those who perpetrate them than anything else. While the attacks are heinous, and I pray for the protection from these attacks for those who have been highlighted, what they really do is reveal the character of those who have made these attacks, looking for someone else to blame.

Now, despite what Bill Shankly once said, life and death is much more important than football. And rather than highlighting the failings of others I find I need to look at myself first and see what flaws and weaknesses in me are revealed when I am under stress. I know that I get grumpy when I am tired. I know that I can lack patience when I am under significant pressure. I know that I can look for people to blame when things go wrong (and forget to analyse my own contribution first). Those are just a few of my weaknesses and flaws.

But I am not content with them. I don’t like them. And as a follower of Jesus I have alternatives – not self-help or therapy (which have their place) but spiritual transformation that God’s Spirit brings about in us. He bears fruit in us that is far more attractive than our flaws. We looked at this fruit in our church recently and recognised that all of them overlap with each other, but in a beautiful Venn Diagram all intersect in love. Love that we see revealed most perfectly in Jesus and is glimpsed in 1 Corinthians 13.

We can’t make these things grow on our own, but with God’s Spirit’s help he will grow them in us. I pray that all of us will experience that growth, and as the fruit grows that it will displace and replace our flaws, failings and weaknesses. And the incredible thing is that if each of us tends to our own fruitfulness the collective fruitfulness of our churches and communities will be transformed – one life at a time.

Be blessed, be a blessing

don’t worry

sabbatical clock 001The clock is running, the countdown has begun. This may be the last bloggage for a little while as I am expecting a brief stay in hospital at the start of next week. It’s not for anything life-threatening, but after the surgery I am hoping it will make life more comfortable for me. I won’t explain here in case you are squeamish but will put an explanation at the foot of this bloggage for those who are interested*. (I may blog from the hospital but they may be under the influence of anaesthesia or painkillers so may make even less sense than usual).

Are you like me: when big events are coming up do you tend to focus on them? Do you find yourself considering possibilities where there are different possible outcomes or filling in the gaps where your knowledge is limited? Is it the thing to which your mind wanders when you have nothing else to occupy it?

It’s not that I am worried. In fact I generally find that few things worry me. (Although when I was at school I lost count of the number of times teachers told me not to look so worried and I had to tell them that it was my normal face, I wasn’t worried). I think the lack of worry is because I know that the things of this life are transient. Even my time on this planet is limited (not because I am going into space). And that doesn’t worry me.

Jesus was pretty well spot on when he advised people:

Here is the bottom line: do not worry about your life. Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will drink. Don’t worry about how you clothe your body. Living is about more than merely eating, and the body is about more than dressing up. Look at the birds in the sky. They do not store food for winter. They don’t plant gardens. They do not sow or reap—and yet, they are always fed because your heavenly Father feeds them. And you are even more precious to Him than a beautiful bird. If He looks after them, of course He will look after you. Worrying does not do any good; who here can claim to add even an hour to his life by worrying? (Matthew 6:25-34 from The Voice version of the Bible).

Worrying only increases stress levels and prolonged stress is not good for us. So there are health benefits to trusting God!

And here’s where we come almost full circle. If I am able to make God’s priorities my priorities because I trust him I will find that the things that are important to him start to fill my mind when I have nothing else to occupy it. I find that he starts to nudge me in the right directions, he prompts me to make the right phone call at the right time and other ‘coincidences’ happen. I find that my relationship with him becomes more naturally part of who I am and less something I have to work hard at.

It starts with faith. And God can use the tiniest bit of that to do amazing things!

Be blessed, be a blessing.


* I have a wonderful gadget implanted into me – an occipital nerve stimulator – to reduce and eliminate chronic migraine and cluster headaches. The unit needs to be relocated slightly because where the cable comes out of the unit it is a bit close to the surface of my skin and can make the area tender and sometimes a bit raw. The operation is to make it more comfortable.

a face of grace?

laughing ladyWhat are your pet peeves? What are the apparently insignificant things that cause you stress that is out of proportion to the size of the item causing that stress? Let me suggest a few common ones and see if any of them tick your boxes.

Management speak (like ‘tick your boxes’) instead of plain English.

Toilet seats left up.

Toothpaste tubes squeezed from the middle.

People who are walking along and then stop suddenly in front of you.

Automated calls offering you loans or to recover your payment protection insurance.

People who cough without covering their mouths.

People who don’t say ‘thank you’ when you have stopped your car to let them through.

This list is not entirely autobiographical, I promise. It is based on inadequate research (aka Google search (other search engines are available)). But the last one is one of my own personal ones. It does not take much – even a brief wave of the hand – to acknowledge someone else’s courtesy. I have written bloggerel in the past about having an attitude of gratitude and have probably complained about this lack of thanking on those occasions too. I have even taken to thanking people with a wave when they don’t thank me, which rather confuses them.

But I have decided that alongside an attitude of gratitude I need a face of grace. Who am I to decide that someone else should thank me? Why is my action deserving of a response? Am I so shallow that I want recognition for stopping my car? Is that how Jesus would respond?

So I have resolved that instead of the wave to those who don’t thank me (which is, if I am honest, delivered with a hint (or more) of irony) I am going to smile at them. I am going to ask God’s blessing on them (and on those who thank me too), and instead of getting stressed about it I am going to try to be blessed about it. I think it is a similar approach to ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘walking the extra mile’. It is a response of grace in place of irritation and agitation. I suspect it will also cause me less stress.

Go back to your answer earlier about your pet peeves. How can you show a face of grace in response?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

There was once a young man who, in his youth, professed his desire to become a great writer. When asked to define “great” he said, “I want to write stuff that the whole world will read, stuff that people will react to on a truly emotional level. Stuff that will make them scream, cry, and howl in pain and anger!”

He now works for Microsoft, writing error messages.

“Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?”

Face - Trying to copeSo begins one of the all time classic songs, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

I had an experience where I felt like that this morning. I had a vivid dream in which I was left feeling really exasperated and upset by a fictional person in my dream. There were a lot more details, but in essence this is the dream:

In the dream Trevor Peacock, the actor who plays Jim Trott in The Vicar of Dibley, was supposed to be selling me a railway ticket but deliberately delayed it until my train had left. I was getting more and more frantic because the time for the train’s departure was getting closer and closer and he was not doing anything. Finally, just as I could see the train pulling away, he pressed the button to complete the transaction which meant that I had paid for the ticket but it was useless.

For a moment as I gained consciousness I was left wondering whether or not it was real because it was so vivid. I was left feeling the stress, strain and exasperation of the dream. The feelings it had generated were real, even though the dream was fictional.

I would rather none of you attempted to analyse my subconscious mind through that dream. I don’t think it is a dream of biblical proportions where God was trying to tell me something. I once heard dreams described as the way that, while you sleep, your mind files all that has been happening to you. I like that concept. It is quite neat and cute. But if it is true about that dream I think it is safe to say that the filing cabinet needs some attention!

So, what deep and meaningful thoughts have I gleaned as I have reflected on this today? The thought occurred to me that I can be the cause of exasperation, stress and upset for others. If they feel as badly as I felt this morning when I woke up it is something that needs to be dealt with. It might not be anything that I have intentionally done but I need God’s help to be discerning and to have the grace to respond if I have done that.

As communities of followers of Jesus we need to have the grace and courage to tell someone if we are upset by them too. It’s not easy, it can be painful, it can be awkward, but it is worth it as God pours his grace into the situation and the process of healing and reconciliation begins. And somehow, if we all have been honest and vulnerable, God takes that brokenness and makes something stronger out of it. That’s his way, of course, it’s the way of the cross.

Be blessed, be a blessing