Putting Marbles in the Trust Jar

I have been thinking a great deal about trust lately. It is one of those things, like integrity, which you can more easily spot by its absence. What is trust and how to do we build it?

Today, I was reminded of an incident that happened at work, not long after I had started my job. I had been enrolled in the pension scheme and my paperwork from the pension company had come through to my home address. When I read through it all, I was horrified to find that the pension company actively assumed that I had a husband, in order to provide me with projected figures for future pension payments. There was no recognition of the fact that equal marriage has been legal in much of the UK for several years now and that it was possible for me to have a wife, rather than a husband.

I wrote a letter of complaint to the pension company but also wanted my employer to understand how offensive this all was to me. I was a little hesitant, as I was new in post and the workforce appeared to be entirely heterosexual. I sent an email to the CEO and the two senior managers with responsibility for my team and for finance. I outlined my concerns and also explained why I felt so strongly about this issue – as someone who, in the relatively recent past, had been denied rights around employment, access to services, marriage equality etc. All three people I sent the email too are busy folk and I had no expectation of a rapid response.

Within an hour of sending my email, the CEO came to see me at my desk to thank me for my email, understood my concerns and confirmed that, when the pension scheme was being reviewed, they would consider my experience. One senior manager came to see me within the day and apologised for not responding sooner. The head of finance wrote to the pension company, saying that their wording and assumptions were not acceptable.

That day, that experience, showed me that I was truly welcomed and valued as my whole self at work. It gave me confidence to be open about who I am, in all my fullness. It built trust with those colleagues and showed me that the values of the organisation were not just words written in documents, but were being actively lived out in how staff were being looked after. If any of those three colleagues had emailed me within a week to acknowledge my concerns, that would have been great and would have totally met my expectations. The rapid response by all three and the fact that two of them came to talk face to face meant so much.

Brené Brown compares building trust with putting marbles in a jar. Each time you do or say something that helps me to trust you, it is like me giving you a marble to put in a jar. Trust is built through lots of little incidents over a long period of time, and the marble jar gets filled up. When occasionally, a large or significant event comes along, the marble jar is full from little moments to trust someone in the big moments.

We may never know when someone has quietly put a marble in our trust jar, because of what we have said or done. All we can do is keep saying and doing those small things that tell someone that we care about them and that their life and their experiences matter to us. That is how we build trust.

One Wild and Precious Life


“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention” Mary Oliver

I have been doing some clearing out and came across a beautiful card. At first, I thought I must have kept it for the image on the front. However, inside it also contained the quote from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

This is the last line of the poem. The rest of it describes how the poet is enjoying closely observing nature, feeling blessed and enthralled by what she sees.

I spent Easter weekend in splendid isolation in a cabin in the woods. It was a wonderful time, peaceful and restorative. I have been doing a great deal of thinking lately. Pondering answers to difficult and fascinating questions, trying not to wander too far into the future and yet also trying to make plans. A splurge of creative energy has brought with it a cascade of words and ideas. My brain feels as though it is never at rest.

Time just watching nature was the perfect antidote. I got out of my mind with all its whirrings and instead practiced mindfulness. I watched birds darting to and fro, as they collected material for their nests. Somewhere in the trees I could hear, but never quite pinpoint, the drilling of a woodpecker. Squirrels and rabbits came and went, scurrying at the slightest sound from me. One creature darted by so quickly, it took several days to get close enough to identify it as a weasel. The wildflowers dappled the woodland floor and I tried to be careful about where I put my feet, so as not to trample on any. The emerging buds on the trees completed this idyllic scene and I soaked it all in, rising with the sun and sitting for hours, watching and listening to all that was happening right in front of me.

I emerged from this tranquillity to the news headlines of the Easter weekend and all the carnage of the bombings in Sri Lanka. Not so long ago, we had the attacks on mosques in New Zealand, and this weekend, a deadly attack in a synagogue. Those who have carried out these killings chose to spend, and even end, their “one wild and precious life” snuffing out the precious lives of others, in hatred of a different belief system and in denial of the beauty of human diversity.

We are endlessly shocked by these violent acts, especially when they are perpetrated in places of worship. To counter this, people of all faiths and none also have a choice. We can choose to spend our lives creating greater understanding of each other, learning from each other and appreciating what we have in common. We can choose to work together to make the world a better place for everyone. Most of all, we can stand together in the space of love, and against corrosive hate. This feels like a good and useful way to spend my one wild and precious life.

Wells of Resilience

I work for an international development charity as part of my ministry. We work with East African farmers, living in some of the poorest of circumstances. In Zambia, severe drought is a real problem. We are helping farmers there to dig wells and use rainwater harvesting techniques, so that they have greater resilience during times of drought and can still produce crops to feed their family and sell to others.

How do we develop emotional and spiritual wells of resilience to sustain us in times of drought? Every morning, I have a quiet time. Sometimes it is profound, sometimes it is ordinary, sometimes I am barely present. I may sit, half awake, already reaching into the new day with all its busyness, rather than resting in the silence and letting God love me. The point is that I show up every day. I am intentional about keeping that space in my day, even if I don’t always use it wisely.

“Spiritual discipline” sounds like a rather harsh and old-fashioned term. It may conjure up images of monks scourging themselves or endless fasting and prayer vigils. For me, it is just about the commitment to keep showing up, to keep a sacred space in each day. Over the years, I have listened to music, read scripture or other books, written in my journal, done art work, practised different breathing techniques or sat and watched the birds in the garden during my quiet time. Different activities work at different stages of my journey. Just now I am reading the “Just for Today” card and reading a passage a day from a book about living more consciously.  I have a small altar and a candle, which I light. The candle reminds me that God is always present. The altar may hold whatever is relevant to me right now. It changes over time.

I have no desire ever to train for a marathon, however I do know that you train before it happens, so that you are prepared for the distance that you have to run. You build up physical, mental and emotional resilience in preparation for the day of the race. As you run, you may have to dig deeper than you thought was possible, overcoming setbacks, such as injury or difficult running conditions. The training and preparation that you have done for the race comes into its own.

There have been times in my life when I cannot be still or find peace. Life is difficult, even painfilled, to the point of despair. It is then that the spiritual resilience I have built up kicks in. I have done my prep. I know what sustains and helps me get through difficult times, I may have to draw deep from my well, but I have a well from which to draw.

At my lowest points, I have been able to draw from the well of others. Their prayers, their faith, their hope has sustained me when my own well has run dry. That is one reason why being part of a faith community is so important. We can share our precious faith resources, when one of us is experiencing severe drought. That is a real blessing.


Walking the Labyrinth

Labyrinth, Sheldon Retreat Centre, Devon, UK

I love labyrinths. Not the ones of Greek mythology, rather the spiritual pathways that you find in all sorts of places these days. I first walked a labyrinth in the heat of Florida sunshine at an MCC Women’s retreat in Sarasota. Eagles were flying overhead, and I was reminded of God as mother eagle, helping her young to fly (Deuteronomy 32:11).

On an early morning walk through downtown Chicago, I discovered a labyrinth by St. James Cathedral. As I walked it with head bowed, I could hear the sounds of the city around me, as it slowly came to life. The gardens surrounding the labyrinth were incomplete. I started my journey back out of the labyrinth and then the landscape gardeners arrived in their truck. They patiently waited until I had completed my pilgrimage out of the labyrinth, before they got out of their truck and started to unload their equipment for a day’s work. It was a wonderfully reverential moment.

Labyrinths have only one route to the centre and back, so you cannot get lost. Instead, it is an opportunity to journey prayerfully to the centre of the labyrinth at your own pace. It is a time to be in tune with yourself, your body, your thoughts, your feelings, your spirit and the presence of the Divine. Through many twists and turns, you follow the path until you finally reach the centre.

 As you re-trace your steps going out of the labyrinth, you may feel released from whatever you have left in the middle, or perhaps feel enboldened to step back into the real world. There are many ways of walking a labyrinth. The photo above is of the labyrinth that I walked on my recent retreat. Last year when I walked it, I can remember trembling with anger at God, my stomach clenched tight, for all that seemed to be wrong with my soul’s journey at that time. It was such a visceral experience that I couldn’t bear to walk it a second time during the retreat, and instead stood at the edge and threw sticks into the centre.

This year, I entered the labyrinth in a different frame of mind and spiritual space. I took time to stop and gaze at the view beyond the labyrinth, as well as being mindful of my own responses as I walked. I was reminded of the unfolding nature of our journey with God. How often we seem to be the furthest from our destination when we are almost there. I remembered all that happened since I had last walked that labyrinth, and how, actually, things did turn out for the best, even though I really didn’t feel it at the time. I was reminded that even when I don’t know what the future holds or where I am going, God is enfolding me and is on the journey with me. Amen

Brexit

The ratings for the BBC Parliamentary channel must have gone through the roof over the past week or so. The archaic goings on of our UK political system, with Speaker Bercow bellowing “Orr-dah”, the language of the “honourable Member” and the MPs shuffling in and out of the Chamber to vote, seem a million miles away from 21st century technology and the complexities of the modern world.

It also seems a million miles away from the impact that Brexit is having and will continue to have on the lives of ordinary people. From the price of Marmite going up to uncertainty over employment and warnings of real or imaged potential shortages, it all adds to a sense of unease and unknowing about the future.

EU citizens are finding their way through the paperwork to be able to stay in the UK, where many have lived and worked for years. Academics are seeing funding opportunities narrow down and many business owners are stuck in limbo, wondering which direction to take their company. The impacts of leaving the European Union are so much more complex and are still so much more unknown, than most of us could ever have comprehended, when we were asked to vote in the referendum. At the same time, the potential benefits may not be evident for a while to come.

Is there anything to be learned from all of this? Is there anything spiritual to be gleaned? I am struggling to find anything, and yet there must be. If I believe in a God who imbues all of life, then there must be a Divine aspect within all these political twists and turns. Perhaps God is in the voice of justice, those who speak for the most vulnerable and at risk in all the changes. Perhaps God is in those politicians and campaigners who speak with honesty and principle, when expediency and pragmatism are being urged. Perhaps God is in the journalists who endeavour to explain all that is happening, without bias towards one side or another.

Or perhaps God is simply in our prayers, as we wait for the result of the next parliamentary vote, and the next, and the next.

If Brexit is dividing us as a nation, it is the will and actions of the ordinary people that will best overcome that division. We will all have to come to terms with whatever the new reality is and how that affects each one of us. Whatever happens, there will be plenty of opportunities for each of us to be the voice of justice, integrity and truth within our own communities. In that healing, is perhaps where we will most likely find God.

Just for Today

Sunrise at Uluru April 2017

 I was chatting recently with someone who is in a 12 step programme (AA, NA etc). He gave me a copy of the “Just for Today” card, which sets out a series of statements, each starting with “Just for today…” They are designed to focus on the day in hand and living well within these 24 hours. It is a powerful reminder to me that I can spend a lot of time thinking about the future, and putting all sorts of worries there, instead of focussing on and enjoying the here and now.

He also shared with me the emphasis placed on gratitude in the 12 step programme. People commit to spend time every morning and evening writing and reviewing gratitude lists. I already think of something that I am grateful for in the day, when I say Grace before dinner each night. I realised though that I could take a little more time to “count my blessings” each day. Three areas of life came to mind – success, security and stability.

For me, success means being in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing and making a difference. When I review my day, I look for those moments where I have been successful according to these criteria. It might be a task completed or a good conversation with a colleague. Even on days that don’t seem to stand out, I am starting to find something to be grateful for, in terms of success.

Security for me means all the basics – enough food, shelter, money to get by. On days when I feel the pressure of not having enough, it is good to remind myself of all that I do have and the options open to me if I do need help.

Stability for me means home, family, friends. It is great to be able to look at my day and see how I have connected with someone I love and care about. If I haven’t done that, then it is a reminder to me to make sure I do something to say “Hi” in some way or another.

Starting my day with a reminder to live in the moment and ending my day with time to be grateful for what I have are good ways to put my life in perspective and to see blessing rather than lack. As the Just for Today card says “Just for today, I will be happy. Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. “

Ugly Hope

Some time ago I was given a present from South Africa. It is a shwe shwe poppi (doll) and the label reads “These dolls are based on the drawings of some of the kids at a crèche in Soweto, South Africa, run by the African Children’s Feeding Programme, which feeds over 32,000 needy kids daily. Each is uniquely handcrafted by mothers and grandmothers from the community and each tells a positive story of hope and creativity”. There are several lovely things about my little doll. It was chosen for me because it has the word ‘hope’ stitched across its body. What I also really liked about it is that the adults involved in creating the doll have not tried to tidy it up or make it more standardised – the two eyes are different shapes, the mouth is green, not pink or red. There might be a hand, there might be a tail – who knows what those bits at the side are? The child created the image and the adult brought it into reality. A heart is stitched on the back, which speaks of the love in the whole project. As we sat looking at this little creation, we agreed that it was not the most beautiful doll in the world, we called it “Ugly Hope”. It sits on my desk as I write, some four years later.

I like that – ‘ugly hope’. When we are thinking about changing something in our lives, we sometimes get lured into a sense that the new thing or situation will be effortlessly achieved, without mess or stress, or things going wrong. In our daydreams, everything goes perfectly and our new situation, job, home will be completely without fault or downside. In his book, ‘Let your Life Speak’, Parker Palmer describes the different seasons and reflects on them relating to times in life. When we are in period of winter – cold, bleak, dark, we long for spring with its lighter days and shoots of new growth everywhere. In between these two seasons, the snow melts and it gets muddy and messy underfoot. The beauty of the crisp white snow is replaced with sludge and we can find it hard to walk without slipping about. Places of transition and change can be uncomfortable, awkward, unnerving. It may take a while before we finally settle into whatever our new place or thing is. We hold on to our vision, our dream, our creation, until it comes into full fruition. In the meantime, we squelch through the mud of ugly hope.

As we continue to uphold our siblings in New Zealand in prayer, we hold onto ugly hope too. There is so much terrible pain, there is righteous anger and perhaps even the desire for revenge. Human emotions are frayed and ragged, just like the stitching in the doll. Yet the heart on the back of the doll is a reminder that love can shine through, even in the most tragic of circumstances. The outpouring of solidarity, the personification of Divine Love in small acts of human kindness and the actions toward justice all give hope in this ugly situation, and the promise of greater bonds between communities going forward.