Message from Geoff Lanham on 29th July
I wonder how you are enjoying the Olympics at the moment. I’ve learned fascinating stuff about Tae Kwondo, surfing and diving. However, I think the greatest learning point of these games will prove to be the decision of the American world champion gymnast, Simone Biles to walk away from the competition in order to prioritise her mental health over winning medals. Biles has explained she decided to quit to protect her “mind and body”, rather than just do what the world wanted her to do. We saw a similar decision from tennis player, Naomi Osaka, at the French Open. We’ve been given a glimpse into the pressure these champion athletes operate under every day of their lives. Their lives are dominated by performance anxiety. In a pre-Olympic BBC documentary, gold medal winning swimmer Adam Peaty talked about developing a mentality of preferring to die rather than lose. He swims with the sense of a target on his back with others constantly chasing him. Wow, we think! What a way to live! But is it so different from the way many of us approach life?
One of the most oppressive thought patterns to afflict us is the idea that we have failed to meet our own standards. Our sense of failure quickly leads to shame. Then the inner critic cranks up and we get swamped with self-attacking inner talk. We even get attached to the inner critic, because we think it helps keep our standards high. There is, of course, a cost to this attachment to standards and the feeling that we always have to present at the top of our game. A long-term survey in the Guardian has just produced findings showing that more than one in three middle-aged British adults are suffering from at least two chronic health conditions, including recurrent back problems, poor mental health, high blood pressure, diabetes and high-risk drinking. The fact is that none of us can operate all the time at the top of our game. We can’t all get medals in life. When we don’t win or perform to the best level, what does it do to us? Olympians start to fantasise and plan for the next Olympics. We can’t do that, so how do we see ourselves and how does God see us when we fail? Simone Biles has bravely shown us that it’s ok to admit we’re struggling. Sometimes we push away hard, difficult, anxiety inducing feelings as if we feel ashamed of them. C.S Lewis used to advise a different approach when he wrote, “We must lay before Him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.” The psalmist was never afraid to tell God how it was. He found it acceptable to admit that he was not ok. Think of Psalm 25,
16 Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 Relieve the troubles of my heart
and free me from my anguish.
18 Look on my affliction and my distress
God never thinks any less of us for facing honestly what is within each of us. Churches can be scary places for such honesty. Somehow, we imagine we should be living the victorious life and that by admitting mental pain or anxiety we might be letting the side down. The truth is we are all smashed up and broken in different ways. The Christian life is not about holding it altogether or beating ourselves up for failing. The comedy writer Alan Bennett has observed wryly “When people are on their best behaviour they are not always at their best.” Church should not be a place where we’re on our best behaviour all the time (like visiting an old aunt when we were young children!) Sometimes, we might need to ‘walk off the stage’ and admit” I’m not ok.”
I was reading recently about Graham Gooch, the former English test batsman, who’s scored more first class runs than any other English cricketer. He makes the point that playing and missing at a cricket ball does not make you a bad batsman. This is maybe a helpful metaphor for life. Admitting that we can’t cope or not performing at the top level doesn’t make us a hopeless person. It makes us human! Accepting ourselves as we are with our strengths and weaknesses, fears and failures, is liberating. Church should enable us to live in a judgement free community, where we are loved simply for being who we are. This doesn’t mean our goal is not co-operating with God to enable inner transformation. It doesn’t mean we are not striving to be renewed. As Christian author Magdalen Smith puts it. “…we are eternally in a state of becoming.”
Performing to consistently amazing standards looks great on T.V at an Olympics, but it’s a tough way to live. St Paul knew that he wasn’t the best of speakers. There were others out there more eloquent, with bigger reputations. He couldn’t always wow the crowds at a human level. Paul admits to his sense of inadequacy in 1 Corinthians 2:3,
I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.
His inadequacy was not a problem for God. He is expert at working with under-performers and still using weakness to achieve great things. God will work with our weakness and limitations to achieve his purposes. So, the good news is we can get off the treadmill of high expectations, both of ourselves and of other people, and be sure that God still loves us and views us with compassion.
29 July 2021
Message from Geoff Lanham on 15th July
This week I’ve been reminded of something my dad used to say to me when I played cricket as a teenager at school. After another run of low scores as a batsman, he would say to me that batting was very ‘character forming’. I don’t think I appreciated it much at the time! I was too poleaxed by the weight of disappointment. Of course, my dad was right. Failure can be a gateway to change and growth if we are able to respond to it in the right way. Disappointment has loomed large across our national psyche since last Sunday’s defeat to Italy. Apparently, we should be grateful that it didn’t result in social unrest and criminality as it did back in the Euros of 1996. However, we have witnessed the disgraceful phenomenon of our penalty taking black footballers being racially abused on internet platforms. Their crime was having the courage to step up and take the risk of taking a penalty when others might have run away from the prospect. Many column inches have been written since exploring the meaning and lessons to be learned from this penalty shootout. Writing in the Guardian, Marina Hyde reflects interestingly on the post-match response of Rashford, Saka and Sancho,
These are the lessons you might want to teach your children. That having been brave in the first place is ultimately more important than having failed in the moment, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time. That facing up to things is hard, but right and helpful for the future. And may be that saying sorry even when it really isn’t necessary can be a decent and humble gesture.
People have asked what the fallout has said about us as a nation. Quite rightly the focus has been of exposing latent and overt racism. This is something the church should always lend its weight behind. Nevertheless, I found myself reflecting on how people generally cope or don’t cope with disappointment in life.
Disappointment is something that affects us all. The only person who is disappointed is the person who expects nothing at all. The Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin once said,
“My first biography written in ’73 was not ‘Journey to The Moon.’ It was ‘Return to Earth.’ Because for me, that was the more difficult task – disappointment.”
Returning to earth is a good metaphor for the universal experience of disappointment. We’ve all returned to earth after the heady optimism of the announcement a few weeks ago about the coming of “Liberation Day”. I’m sure that many of you will be feeling disappointed that we have not lifted restrictions on church services for the moment. Disappointments have piled up for all of us this last year and it doesn’t get any easier. The question is: how will we choose to respond. Disappointment becomes corrosive when it morphs into discouragement. The experience of Joseph in the Old Testament is, perhaps, helpful here. Joseph had a special ability to hear God’s voice in dreams. Unfortunately, he was an arrogant lad who made his brothers jealous. So, one day they chucked him down a pit and left him for dead. Changing their mind, they sold him into slavery. In Egypt he served in an official’s household. But Joseph gets imprisoned for standing up to the advances of the official’s wife who tries to seduce him. Betrayed by the family who should have protected him and abused where he should have been supported and encouraged, Joseph knew the pain of rejection and the injustice of being persecuted for standing for righteousness. He spends a couple of years rotting in an Egyptian jail, before being released to become the administrator of the whole of Egypt. All those years of frustration when he must have wondered what an earth God was doing. But behind the frustration God was forging his character and preparing him to steer Egypt through the crisis of a terrible famine. There’s a moving scene where Joseph’s brothers come up to Egypt looking to buy food. Joseph doesn’t carry bitterness or revenge in his heart for the disappointments of the past. Instead, this is what he says,
” You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50: 20)
It’s a wonderful picture of God weaving his purpose behind the scenes. I’ve often seen qualities forged in people through major disappointments that could not have been grown otherwise. When we’re feeling disappointed, sometimes we need to recognise we don’t see the whole picture or understand the way God weaves out his good purposes. We don’t always understand God’s timing. As we wait that next bit for this covid surge to recede and restrictions to be lifted, may we remember two things. Firstly, God’s greatest ambition for us is that we come to know him, continue to love him and be known by him. The apostle Paul wrote these words from prison having lost his freedom,
” I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3: 10)
Only a relationship with Jesus is the answer to our basic needs. That remains true in all circumstances. Secondly, we need to know that ultimately, we are grasped by God’s enduring love. The resource of His love can help us overcome every challenge. Romans 5: 5,
and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Those who continue to hope in God through their disappointments will emerge into a place of perspective and ultimate satisfaction. Let us keep holding onto Jesus and the hope He brings, for we of all people as Christians have to model a different way of responding to life’s disappointments.
15th July 2021