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Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Joy and Sadness

Two things have impacted me quite profoundly in the past month: the first, somewhat ashamedly, is Pixar’s Inside Out; the second is Brene Brown’s thinking about vulnerability. Hamish and I watched Inside Out together a few weeks ago.

I bawled.

Not just those little corner-of-the-eye-tears that can be hastily mopped up, but shoulder-shaking sobs reminiscent of those induced by the first five minutes of Up.

I could blame being pregnant and hormonal (and did), but I genuinely think that Disney’s portrayal of Joy and Sadness touches on something pretty deep within the human condition.

In the film, Sadness’s character is ostracised by the other emotions (Joy, Disgust, Anger and Fear) in Headquarters (the brain of 11 year old Riley). No one can quite see the point in her existence. All she does is make things, well, sad, tainting everything she touches with her blue aura of depression. At one point, Joy even draws a chalk circle and shoves Sadness inside it in a desperate attempt to stop her from contaminating Riley’s memories.

The film takes Joy and Sadness on a journey together through the murky recesses of Riley’s brain until – finally – Joy starts to understand that Sadness has a function. Tears are not inherently bad. Crying is not simply something to be swept under the carpet. Some of our profoundest, and most beautiful, experiences in life are possible only because we experience painful emotion. 

This is not something that I like to admit.

I don’t like being sad. I hate crying. Especially in front of other people. And, most of the time, I wish I could just hide my sadness in a corner (or a chalk circle) and ignore it completely. We don’t want to engage with things that are hard and painful or complicated so – for the most part – we don’t. We do what Joy does to Sadness in Inside Out: ignore, avoid and try to get a handle on it. 
A couple of years ago, I was really struggling with being sad. I can’t quite explain where the sadness came from, but I was just quite sad. It was difficult to talk to other people about because I didn’t really feel like I had a legitimate reason for being sad. Nothing particularly awful or tragic had happened. I just felt down. Life felt grey and slightly pointless and even though the things that I knew to be true were still true (God loved me; Hamish loved me; my friends and family loved me), I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps they weren’t. I didn’t know how to explain it and was ashamed to try with most people because I feared their judgement or – worse – their helplessness. I didn’t want to superimpose my sadness onto other people in case they felt like they had to try and do something about it, and then felt bad when they couldn’t.

I have deleted and re-written that last paragraph several times because it isn’t something I have admitted to many people and, if I’m honest, I didn’t really have any intention of admitting publicly on a blog. But that, I think, is precisely the point: we don’t know how to talk about sadness. We don’t know what to do with not being ok, and with other people not being ok, so we don’t do anything. Ignore. Avoid. Get a handle on it. That is our strategy.

Which brings me to Brene. A friend recommended one of her TED talks a long long time ago, but I had forgotten about it, and then, last week, my friend Izzy lent me her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. I consumed it in about three days. I can’t do the book justice now, and am hesitant to reduce Brown’s research too much through summarising, but what resonated most with me was Brown’s insistence that when we try to avoid (or numb – her word) the painful emotions of life, we limit our capacity to really feel life’s beautiful emotions. 
She writes, “The most powerful emotions that we experience have very sharp points, like the tip of a thorn. When they prick us, they cause discomfort and even pain…for many of us our first response to vulnerability and pain of these sharp points is to not lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but to make it go away. We do that by numbing and taking the edge off the pain with whatever provides the quickest relief.” (The Gifts of Imperfect, p.70)
All of us have our own “numbing” strategies: the more obvious addictions of alcohol, drugs and food; and the more subtle ones of work, Facebook, perfectionism, and busyness. We use these strategies to cope with pain, with sadness, with thorny feelings that we aren’t sure what to do with. But, and this is the part of Brown’s research that surprised her, when we do this, when we take the edge off our sadness, we dull our capacity to experience joy: “There is no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light…joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage with a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.” (pp.72-73)
I think this is true.

I don’t quite understand why it is true or why we react this way, but I think it is. I recognise in myself the fear of being joyful (which I know sounds paradoxical). Sometimes I am afraid to allow myself to be truly happy. I am afraid to give in to the joy and beauty and wonder of a moment because – in doing so – I acknowledge that the moment might pass, that joy might be lost, that it is transient and unpredictable. Denial becomes a bizarre process of self-protection: to not be joyful is less costly than being joyful and having that joy snatched away. 

In Inside Out, Joy cannot tolerate Sadness. She is terrified of allowing sadness to infiltrate what could otherwise be happy. We do the same thing but, in doing so, we allow our fear of what might be lost to prevent us from ever truly enjoying the thing in the first place: “We’re afraid to lose what we love the most, and we hate that there are no guarantees. We think that not being grateful and not feeling joy will make it hurt less.” (p.82)

Again, I know that I do this. I put a dampener on joy. I cut it off lest it get out of hand and something else cut it off instead. Withholding from myself the full experience of how good and joyful something actually is is my own peculiar self-preservation. It protects me from the potential vulnerability of someone else poking fun at my joy, at my joy being popped and ending up in a heap on the floor.

It is also not very fun.

As ever, I don’t write these things with answers or dogma or solutions. I try and write them with honesty. I want 2016 to be a joyful year, a year in which I cultivate and practice joy and allow myself to feel it. A year in which I am grateful and thankful and celebrate and dare to enjoy the goodness of moments even though they will fade, or perhaps precisely because they will. This does not mean that 2016 will be a year without sadness or hurt, but it is a year in which I want to resolve to allow myself to be joyful: to dance around the living room even though I look silly, to laugh too loudly in places where I shouldn’t, to drink in the moments of our daughter growing up in awe and wonder without fearing about her future, to live, as Brown suggests, wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


It is difficult to write about death without being morbid. Or complacent. I do not wish to be either of those things. Death is a painful reality for all of us. Especially at Christmas. This is a time when we remember those who used to be with us, when we look back at old photos of Christmas dinner tables that looked very different, when we grieve for those that we miss.

This is good and right. My friend Inge died at Christmas time, and advent is tinged by the sadness of her passing. This time of year reminds me that she isn't here. And that I miss her. Sometimes that missing is a light and beautiful nostalgia; at other times it is the heavy pain of loss. I feel like I might drown in it.

Jesus understood grief. He wept. (John 11:35) When Jesus' friend Lazarus dies, he does not shrug off his death as though it does not matter. Even though he knows that he will raise Lazarus from the grave, he weeps alongside Mary and Martha as they mourn for their brother. He is moved by the sight of their pain and their grief, and he stoops down into the dust so that he can share in it with them. Our God is not unaffected by our pain. He is with us in the midst of it. As we hurt in this hurting world, we are confident that God hurts with us.

But Jesus does raise Lazarus from the dead. There is not just empathy in this story. There is power. There is a hope that transcends death and goes beyond the grave. Death is not the end.

Last week, Hamish reminded me of 1 Peter 3:15, "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." My instinctive response to this verse, to a querying of my own hope, is to focus on the hope that I have for this life: hope that no one is beyond the remit of God's grace, hope that transformation is possible in the hardest of hearts, hope that lives can be healed and made whole in the here and now, that God will break into the darkness and bring his beautiful light.

And I do hope for these things. I do hope to see God's goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27:14), to see God's kingdom come on earth, to catch glimpses of the new creation now.

But last week, my friend's Dad also died. I did not know him well. I had only met him once, at her wedding. His death has challenged my understanding of hope. It has not lessened the hope that I have for this life, but it has reminded me that, ultimately, what Jesus promises us is hope for the next.

As I read Philippians 1 with my god daughter last week, we came to Paul's assertion that 'to live is Christ, to die is gain.' It is easy to gloss over this verse. It has become somewhat sentimentalised, converted into an iconic tattoo that looks good when your sleeves are rolled up but - perhaps - doesn't really mean anything. To Paul, it meant everything. There is nether morbidity nor complacency in his view of death. He does not want to die. He prays that, if it happens, he would be given the courage to face it without being ashamed, and yet he is utterly convinced that death is gain. To die means being with Jesus and that is a whole lot better than his current circumstance hauled up in a prison.

Perhaps these words are easier to write in a prison cell than in the midst of my life. Heaven does sound preferable to chains and misery (although, interestingly, Paul determines that he will live rather than die such is his concern for those whom he has started to tell about Jesus) but, what about me? Do I view heaven as better than what I have at the moment? Better than the joy of an imminent new life; better than friends and family and laughter and the sound of birds singing at dawn; better than watching the sun sink slowly in a haze of pinks; better than the taste of slow-cooked roast lamb; better than the feeling of falling asleep in safety and comfort beside the one that you love.

To live is Christ. To die is gain. His love is better than life. (Psalm 63:3)

For us in the West there is more challenge here than comfort. For our persecuted brothers and sisters suffering under tyranny in Iraq, it is surely the reverse. For those that know the reality of incredible pain and grief, immense pressure and horror, death is gain. To be with Jesus is, as it was for Paul, better. 

I do not know what to do with these words this morning. 

In moments of doubt, of which there are many, I question whether I actually believe in heaven at all. Whether I actually believe in an eternity with Jesus that surpasses any earthly experience, an eternity that would make any sacrifice or suffering or loss for the sake of Christ worth it. Do I actually believe in the bodily resurrection of those who have followed Him? That, in the twinkling of an eye, we are changed, we do meet him, and each other, caught up in the glory of his presence? 

And then I think of Inge. And I think of her dancing. I think of her body free from pain and healed of every trace of cancer. I think of her as a young woman, even though I never knew her then, with arms outstretched in praise, laughing, giddy with the joy of abandon and surrender. And somehow, this is enough. My weak faith is cemented by the certainty she had - even if I cannot claim it fully for myself - that the hope that we have is hope of resurrection. 

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Are you listening?

Are you listening?
Excuse me.
I. Said.
Are. You. Listening?

The sharp sound of teacher’s disapproval
The did you hear what I just said?
Quit your daydreaming
Your misty eyed glaze
Your what if what next where to anywhere but here
And listen.

A different voice


Are you listening?

The voice calls my name

Insistent but not invasive
Easily mistaken for something else
Crowded out by Starbucks’ Christmas Carols
The buzz of busy thoughts
To dos and have dones and whoops I forgot
The voice fades
Slips away
Hidden once more
But still there



Are you listening?

Not a demand -
a request
Can you spare a minute?
Can I trouble you for a moment of your time?
Can you just… stop?
Be still.
Be still. And Know.
Know that I am here.
Know that I am.
I am the One who knows your name.
And you know my voice.

Are you listening?

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A Stress Remedy

The meaning of Advent has been somewhat lost: hidden under piles of to do lists, Christmas decorations, brightly coloured adverts demanding that we yield to their tempting offers and a rather large dollop of stress as we consider how exactly Aunt Mabel is going to avoid making a slurred and offensive comment across the turkey under the influence of too much Sherry.

Advent is a season of preparation, but it's not entirely clear what we are preparing for. There is a somewhat daunting pressure for this December 25th to surpass the extravagance of last year: for better presents, crispier roast potatoes and happier family members. We struggle against the tide of consumerism and, despite our best efforts, succumb to buying presents that aren't really needed. Then berate ourselves for doing so.

I hate that I give in to festive stress.

A phrase that has been bothering me for a few weeks is "make room." There was "no room available" (Luke 2.7) for Jesus when he arrived. He came to us but we were too busy, too warped by our own needs and preconceptions, to notice him, too preoccupied to receive him as the precious and beautiful gift that God intended him to be. (John 1.10 - 11). I don't want to be too busy this Advent. I don't want to miss all the beautiful gifts that God has given because I am panic present shopping.

And so, this year, we gathered our little Sunday lunch community together to "make room" for others this Advent. We sat and prayed and planned, a subversive collective trying to wage war against consumerism. Wide-eyed and giggling, we determined to so some serious baking: to secretly present a little bag of edible goodies on the doorstep of someone in our community each day of Advent, to show the love of God through gingerbread made with sticky fingers and tags smothered in PVA glue and glitter. To surprise our friends with a reminder that they are loved and special and that we want to "make room" for them amidst our own busy lives.

Today is Day One. I'm pretty excited to wait for the stories to start piling in; for surprised statuses on Facebook as people celebrate being celebrated and, for a moment, forget about their to do lists.

As a remedy for festive stress, I can highly recommend it.