Rough Edges// FaithWalk

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I marvelled at the stones beneath my feet on the quaint Majorcan beach, glistening through pure, azure blue water. All shades and sizes, thousands of them swept ashore by uncontainable waves riding relentlessly into the bay.

Scooping up a handful, I examined the pebbles in my hand. Each one perfectly smooth with curved, though uneven edges. There were no sharp, offensive parts.

I began to think about their journey to the shore and imagined that each stone had most likely begun as a jagged piece of discarded rock, thrust into the water and thrown about by the forces of the all-surpassing sea. Stones of all shapes had been continually knocked against  each other until they reached their final destination at my feet on this idyllic bay.

I couldn’t help consider the parallels with our own lives, as we weather not so much physical forces of nature but rather an array of knocks or assaults. Like the stones, we’re often powerless against torrents and waves that threaten to overwhelm – whether those waves are illness, disappointments, setbacks or perhaps our own personal demons.

Wherever we’re at, life’s knocks hurt. But so often they help to hone off the rough edges of our character, making us gentler and more compassionate towards others who are caught up in personal storms of their own. As our worlds collide with those around us, each of us may benefit from the experiences we encounter, however painful at the time.

Our rough edges become smoother as we give up resisting interaction or pursuing perfection, and allow our circumstances and experiences to shape us into someone who’s open to being part of a beautiful, evolving tapestry.

An individual stone is not particularly attractive or enthralling. It’s only in the picturesque bay or vast beach setting that it assumes aspects of magical imagery. Without engaging others or allowing the water of God’s Spirit to continually run over me, my lone, insignificant pebble of a life remains irrelevant, having little impact.

If I let myself be cast into the sea of lives around me, daring to to be affected by those whom I encounter, and in turn touch or influence them, it’s possible for the rough edges to become smoother, without much intervention on my part. The water, which is also an image of God’s Word, can also carry me through whatever turbulence comes my way.

No man is a rock. We’re all little pebbles of varying colours from various places jostling for our place in this world as we journey together. When we start to see the big picture, it becomes clear that God’s intention for us has always been community and interaction – both with Him and the people He’s placed around us.

Surmountable: Risks and Rock Climbs

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If someone were to have shown me a picture of this rock (without the people at the top) and said, ”That’s a pretty easy climb, you could get up there”, I would have assumed they were either foolish or crazy thrill seekers.

Up there! That looks like a feat only for experts or skilled mountaineers with impressive equipment. Surely I couldn’t possibly entertain the idea of scaling that?

We were on a marked hiking trail in the hills of Northern Majorca. The sun blazed down, a calm breeze blew and we marvelled at the impressive views once we had reached this high point to the right of the trail. After veering off the path and clambering up some rocks, we could go no higher. But we were intrigued by the imposing rock opposite, that dominated the skyline.

We asked some hikers along the way about the route and discovered that it was indeed possible to ascend the rock, yet we were somewhat hesitant. We weren’t even equipped with our proper hiking boots, clad only in trainers, or in my case, pumps.

Yet lurking within me is a slight adventurous streak, emboldened all the more by the childhood years of being denied such risks and thrills. ”Get down!” ”Be careful!” “You’ll hurt yourself!”

It’s only in adulthood that I’ve climbed a mountain, learned to ice skate and rollerblade, jumped off a diving board, hitchhiked (with a friend), camped in the open, and stayed up all night. Glancing up at this apparently insurmountable obstacle before me, something stirs within me and I find myself saying “Let’s do this!”

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The start of the ascent up the rock, from a relatively easy hill climb, passes through this tunnel cut into the rock. At the other side follows an ultra narrow path, perilously close to the cliff edge. It looks frightening.

But it’s all a matter of perspective. As you walk along the rock face, there’s a sturdy iron chain anchored into the edge, which you can hold onto around the most dangerous curve. When you’re certain of your safety, you don’t mind dangling your foot out for an impressive photograph. Take away the iron chain, and it would be a whole different story.

Looking perilous?

Looking perilous?

Not only that, but when you see a variety of faces on their descent, from children to spritely pensioners, it reassures you that others have gone before you and accomplished the climb to the summit. If ordinary looking people without mountaineering gear can accomplish this feat, it makes you pretty certain that you’ll also be successful. If we’d only seen seasoned mountain climbers with helmets and ropes and hefty boots, I know my feelings would have been completely different. We would have undoubtedly turned back.

With those certainties – an iron chain and ordinary hikers – I felt inwardly confident. “I can do this.” “It’s not beyond my capabilities” – were my recurring thoughts.

It’s all about making judgements based on evidence before you, and considering perspectives at each stage. At one moment, I watched my teenage son turn sharply up and along what seemed like a dangerous short stretch, clambering over lofty rocks.

En route to the summit

En route to the summit

It seemed highly risky from my viewpoint, but he assured me it was fine. I was reticent but then I remembered that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad as it appeared.

It wasn’t. It was tricky, but it was doable for an adventurous and semi fit person like me. I just needed to take my time and scramble up the rocks, making sure I had a good foothold where it was slightly steep.

The next part involved pressing onwards and upwards – twisting from time to time, round rocky paths and minor inclines. There was no set path; you just had to choose which way round to tackle the incline. Most people would manage this part of the climb – you just had to keep going up.

Time for a treat!

Time for a treat!

The satisfaction of reaching the top was immense. It called for a minor celebration by eating some Kendal mint cake (which I discovered had lurked in the front section of my rucksack since last summer.) From the tunnel to the top had only taken about twenty minutes, but when you think about what was conquered, it inspired a sense of achievement. Especially for an average hiker like me who tends to avoid anything too risky.

The Rock

If I showed you this image, you’d probably say no way. If I showed you the safety chain, the winding paths away from the edge, and the flat summit with the breathtaking views at the top, you may have a different perspective.

View from the summit

View from the summit

And that’s how you conquer your fears and achieve the seemingly unachievable:  listening to others, following those who’ve gone before you, and telling yourself that it’s possible.  It’s amazing when you discover that something is actually surmountable or possible, simply by stepping out and having a go.  We’re often capable of far more than what we attempt to achieve.  Scaling this rock showed me that there are greater things ahead that are within our reach, if only we’ll take the risk. At church this morning, I was reminded by Adam Bradley that this principle applies not only to the physical realm, but also the spiritual – where stepping out in faith often involves elements of risk and challenges – challenges that are surmountable. Adam said that he’d learnt that faith is spelt R.I.S.K. Like most risks, there’s often a great sense of achievement and satisfaction in knowing that you gave something your all – and that is was absolutely worth it in the end. How awesome that God wants us to exercise faith and take some risks!

 

 

 

Faith Journeys: We’re all in a different place

Creative Commons: JayRaz

Creative Commons: JayRaz

You’ve been dating your gorgeous boy or girlfriend for three months, have just received a phone call confirming that you’ve got the job you always wanted, and you’re looking forward to an upcoming holiday in the sun. Life is good and you can’t help skipping along the street or walking around with a ridiculous grin on your face. Worship on Sunday morning is a sheer delight; you’re just so thankful for everything.

Or maybe you’ve experienced the pain of losing someone close, you’re suffering with persistent health issues and you’ve just opened yet another rejection letter. Nothing seems to be going right in your life and you’re greeted by Mr Happy as you reluctantly slink into the church service, five minutes late, wishing that you hadn’t bothered coming at all. Life is miserable, and you don’t feel like clapping along to some hyper praise song with snazzy guitar riffs.

Perhaps the incredible thing is, that the two people described above could be one and the same person, just 5 -10 years apart. Those statements could more or less describe me. Life can be a rollercoaster sometimes.

I remember it well: We were on a boat off the shore of San Francisco’s bay, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and the vague outline of hills in the twilight beyond. Having tucked into a wonderful four course meal, as a live band played  on board, we were then called out on deck to watch an amazing firework display. Hand in hand, gazing into the sky, we couldn’t believe our luck. Here we were, my husband and I, on an all expenses trip that only my husband and a few others from the UK had been awarded courtesy of his company.  The drinks flowed, the sky dazzled and everything seemed so perfect. It was as if we were momentarily caught up in the centre of a live movie. We would return later to our room at the downtown 5* Marriott Hotel with its huge 6ft wide bed and glamorous marble bathroom. Life was good! It seemed a world away from the reality of Birmingham, which we called ‘home’ at that time.

At 22 my life had been pretty stress free and enjoyable for the most part. My childhood had generally featured fun and friends; my teens and beyond marked by opportunities to dive into travel, drama, youth events, and hanging out in pubs. Even my foray into the world of work had been fun, as I found my skill at evening telemarketing earned me lots of money in commission for every appointment I made.  Everything I aimed for seemed to work out; every door seemed to open for me. I was accepted into my first choice of university, met my husband to be on the day I arrived (yes, really) and within a few years we would find ourselves living in New York City. Pretty sickening, eh? I had even enjoyed quite good health up until this time; the only problem I experienced involved a few dental operations.

Not long after this trip of a lifetime, things began to change. I didn’t get the jobs I wanted, friendships were hard to come by, and I noticed that things often didn’t work out. I felt unsettled, but hopeful that things would soon turn around for the better.

When we started a family,  that was probably the biggest change of my life. Whilst five years of marriage had been pretty much a breeze, this parenthood business was no easy feat.  My first son was colicky and difficult; my family were across the Atlantic. Even when we moved back to the UK in 2000, we arrived back to the wettest November in 200 years (similar to what we experienced just this January and February), and then I was hit by morning sickness of a second pregnancy. For  several years, life seemed challenging or disappointing in so many ways. (Yes it’s possible to be married and feel lonely or miserable – even though your partner is wonderful. Feeling constantly tired doesn’t help.)  Although things started to pick up work wise, and a few opportunities came my way over the next few years, I began to suffer from several health problems and sometime later watched my wonderful dad slowly degenerate due to cancer, dying  within a year and half after a couple of surgeries.  I’d never lost someone close before; my heart ached.

Through the hard times I grappled with sadness, wrestled with God and learned to accept that life will never be all round perfect all the time.  Compassion and empathy are developed during the times of adversity we experience. I’ve learned to read people better and listen more, my eyes now opened to the realisation that everyone is at a different stage of their life. Not so much in terms of age or marital status, rather the joy or pain they’re experiencing at that time. It’s good to develop sensitivity in view of that knowledge, and be open to hearing others’ life stories.  That subdued looking person at work or church could be you in a few years’ time. We all go through highs and lows; disappointments come to us all.  It’s crucial to give people the space to reveal where they’re at and what their struggles are.

As I grew and developed in my relationship with God in that time,  I also learned about waiting, disappointment, regret, anger and anguish. I discovered my weaknesses and fought with failure. I began to see situations differently – to not have an easy answer for everything. And I learned acceptance – acceptance that we can’t possibly explain why certain stuff happens in our lives. I finally began to grasp what was meant by that phrase ‘character building’ – which is far from sentimental – instead raw and tumultuous – and painful. It’s navigating through trials and troubles that shape and define you, that chip away at self until you learn to be desperately dependent on God. I basically grew up in my faith at the very time that God seemed most distant.

For me, creativity was also developed out of the tough times. I wrote poetry and a novel during my darkest hours – evidence of the beauty that can spring out from the dirt of a broken life.

Conscious Uncoupling & Coldplay’s heartfelt lyrics

 

After the high profile celebrity couple announced their separation yesterday, it seemed poignant to post Chris Martin’s latest release. Despite the hype surrounding the choice of words to describe their split, this song hints at the raw side of relationship breakdown.

For further thoughts on this, check out my latest article – Gwyneth, Chris and Conscious Uncoupling – over at Threads.

 

 

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Write A Book (And The 1 Reason Why You Should…)

Photo: marsmet (CC)

Photo: marsmet (CC)

  1. Everybody is doing it. There was a time when writing a book was seen as a major, commendable feat; authors were held somewhat in awe. Not anymore. Since the typewriter was ditched and we all got our hands on new technology, writers have been springing up all over the place. The advent of the internet and the ability to self publish has enabled an explosion of authors into the marketplace. Just look around on Amazon Books for a few minutes and you’ll get the idea (if you hadn’t already realized). Nearly every fifth person on social media sites seems to have written a book or a novella or a travel guide (well, at least if my followers are anything to go by), while virtually every other person expresses an intent or desire to one day write a book. So, yep the market for books is beyond saturated, and if you’re going to write something, you better check that it’s unique or in demand.
  2. It will consume far more time, energy & mental exhaustion than you could ever imagine. It may consume your every waking moment. Just consider your most stressful project, dissertation or creation to date, and how much it took out of you to complete it. Now quadruple that, or even times it by 10 (depending on the length, complexity and genre of your book), and you’d have a vague idea of how much work will go into this brilliant book idea of yours. (For more on exactly what’s involved, check out this article). Despite what you may have heard, writing a book is work, not a stroll in the park. Are you willing to invest that much of your heart, mind and soul into getting your book into print? Thought not. Think again. There are other vocations out there, you know.
  3. It’s not just about churning out text for the content of your idea any more. You’ll really have to look into expending effort into producing a website (or outsourcing it to a professional), and think about additional social media channels devoted solely to your book. Yep, basically more time, and probably a hefty sum of money to get on the writers’ bandwagon these days. If you think such things are an unnecessary extra that really wouldn’t concern you, you better do some research. Even the big publishers are looking for authors who are willing to go the extra mile with establishing an online presence and connecting with readers.
  4. If all that hasn’t put you off yet, maybe this will: The project doesn’t end after the book has been written, or even published. Next comes selling hard copies to friends, neighbours, colleagues, twitter buddies, random strangers etc. It’s all about marketing yourself, chasing leads, requesting reviews and making friends with others who’d happily advertise your book to their friends and followers. Yet again, even if you land yourself a deal with a top publisher, they’ll expect you to do your part in marketing your book. You are no longer just a bona fide writer, you are now expected to be a promoter and marketer. Believe it. Could you actually do this, or does the mere thought scare you silly? If so, now’s the chance to forget that vision of becoming an author and put your ideas on the slush pile of Silly Ideas To Be Forgotten, Never To Be Resurrected Again. Just think of all the stress you’d save yourself, not least the embarrassment of having to sell an actual product to the wider world.
  5. And finally – and this is the most convincing reason of all… In pursuing your dream to write a book, you will subject yourself to the greatest tension ever known to writers everywhere… No, not waiting to see if anyone will buy your book; no that’s really not that bad. After all, you don’t have to tell anyone how many copies you’ve sold! No, the ultimate fright comes after you’ve sold a few and the reviews start coming in – from readers you don’t even know. Yes, waiting for reviews, and along the way requesting reviews, often having no idea what they will say, could possibly be the scariest moment of your life. Are you ready for those 1* reviews to come in from those who think your book is the biggest load of rubbish they’ve ever read? I have not asked anyone for 5 stars, not even my over enthusiastic big sister – and yet a few glowing reviews have rolled in. But I am not naïve. When I think about it, I don’t think I would even give myself 5 stars! I know those 1* reviews will likely soon come in. How am I so sure? That’s easy, just check out the reviews for your most favourite book ever, or a well known blockbuster that comes to mind. Scroll down. Yep – there they are – the 1* reviews from disgruntled readers who really weren’t impressed with the story or style of that hyped up book! Do you really think that if J.K.Rowling couldn’t avoid 1* reviews, that somehow you’re so special that you won’t get any? You must be joking (unless you only ever sell 5 or 10 copies to your best friends and family.)

The 1 Reason Why you Should Write a Book…

If all the above has failed to deter you from pursuing this writing malarkey, then here’s the one reason, and one reason only, why anyone should actually press on and write that book they’ve so wanted to write. And here it is (drum roll, please)… The ONE reason you should ever write a book is because YOU HAVE TO! Because it’s stirring in your bones & your soul, and you finally relent & accept: ‘This is what I absolutely must do. I will get no peace unless I get the words out, printed on the page/screen/scrap of paper.’ If this is you, then what are you waiting for? Get on and get writing your book! We want to hear about it. Tell us about your book idea in the comments below.

And while you’re here, why not check out the links to my novel and book website? Thanks!

‘You just make mistakes when you rush.’ A reminder to slow down…

Creative Commons: Ell Brown

Creative Commons: Ell Brown

I’d just finished writing an article and looked forward to settling down to my tasty stir-fry leftovers for a quick lunch before our big supermarket delivery was due to arrive. I hadn’t received a text saying exactly when within the hour they were likely to come. Alas, in usual Murphy’s Law fashion, I had just taken the first bite of the spicy dish, when the doorbell rang. Drat.

‘Oh well’, I thought, ‘I better just unload everything quickly so I can settle down to eat afterwards.’  As I unpacked the vast amount of items (there was practically no food left in the house), I engaged in a little small talk with the delivery guy. I apologised for ordering so much stuff and said I’d try to hurry up, knowing that the drivers have several deliveries to fit into their daily schedule. His laid back response stunned me…

‘No hurry’, he said calmly. ‘Take your time.’

‘But won’t you be late for your next delivery?’

‘There’s no point worrying about that, I just take my time. And you just make mistakes when you rush.’

I relaxed, emptying the boxes a little less manically.

The young employee explained further: ‘All the drivers get really stressed and talk about it in the canteen at work. They all moan about how hard the job is and how they have to rush around to get the deliveries done on time, but I’m just not that bothered. They say to me ‘Aren’t you worried about being late?’ and I say ‘Nah, I take my time’. I end up making the deliveries on schedule most of the time anyway, and there’s nothing you can do about a customer being slow to unload, or a traffic jam en route.  The others tend to make mistakes ‘cos they’re in such a rush.’

I slowed down some more, deciding that after putting away the food for the fridge freezer, everything else could wait until I’d eaten my lunch.

I couldn’t get that line out of my head. ‘You just make mistakes when you rush.’ How true – in so many areas of  life. I thought about the couple of typos in my novel (hurriedly checking the final proof before it went to print); I thought about the times I’ve left something important at home or at work, because I’ve dashed out the door without checking my bag; I thought about missing a crucial email after hurriedly scanning through my inbox.

Rushing makes us feel as though we’re being productive and using our time well. Ironically, the converse is true: rushing often slows us down, as we have to go back and remedy the errors or mistakes we make. Rushing also robs us of a calm, relaxed demeanour.  Instead of simply getting on with a job or task at hand, we’re constantly looking at the clock or feeling on edge. The young man delivering my shopping was able to work efficiently at a moderate pace, without letting his job get him down or stressed.

Slowing down as we work certainly has its benefits: A relaxed attitude, a cheerful manner and a more pleasant individual for others to work with. The many health benefits of living stress-free have also been well documented by researchers. Slowing down doesn’t mean being lazy or inefficient; it simply means pacing yourself and working consistently, often allowing you to achieve more than if you had hurried.

So I’m going to purposefully implement this laid back philosophy into my work ethic and family values. Rushing, quite simply, isn’t worth it.

The Greatest American Export

Creative Commons: dok1

Creative Commons: dok1

There are numerous American imports and influences which we Brits despise: fast food eaten sloppily on public transport or while walking along the street, relentless chewing of gum, the blatant misuse of the word ‘like’, the tendency to be loud and obnoxious, the wearing of white sneakers and baseball caps by middle aged, wealthy tourists… The list could go on. Surely every nation has a catalogue of deplorable habits or practices that are caricatured by outsiders?

But no matter how much one criticises American trends, culture and politics (George W and Sarah Palin being particular recipients of mockery), most of us still remain appreciative of the following: American movies, and sheer optimism.

Yes, love them or loathe them, Americans exude optimism and promote looking on the bright side of life. Unlike the British, renowned for our moaning and complaining (especially over our dull weather), the people on the other side of the Pond have an infectious inclination towards cheerfulness, positivity and resilience.

And why not? It’s running in their genes – the history of their forefathers, who against the odds set out across the Atlantic, suffered extreme weather and multiple setbacks, and went on to build towns and form a nation. Every Thanksgiving is a reminder of their former poverty in the face of their current abundance. The legacy lives on, through the ‘can do’ spirit of those who reject notions of giving up or settling for second best.

Excessive self promotion and flaunting of wealth may well be cause for criticism, along with consumption of too many doughnuts (yes, that’s how we spell it over here!) but in my view there is little more depressing than the constant whining and negative pronouncements from a growing class of disillusioned, disgruntled youth.

The internet age is a time of the greatest opportunity: Anyone can start a blog, sell on eBay, create an app, put a video on Youtube or promote photography on Flickr. The optimistic are pursuing these avenues and seeing how they can realistically make their mark. Is it any wonder that developers from the United States create more successful apps than any other country?*

Optimism is surely the greatest export from the States, not Coca-Cola or any other manufactured thing.  Like a breath of pure, fresh air, optimism is refreshing, pleasing to the soul and, best of all, free.

If only it would be promoted more in our education system and work ethic, and revived among the young, rather than the sugary, fizzy substances, which are now frequently peddled in school corridor vending machines.

* “In terms of engagement, American apps reign supreme, securing 70 percent of the total number of users and engagement this year.” (Source: Inc.com)

“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”, Philippians 4:8, the Bible.