What Am I Thankful For?: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 22 September 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. Listen in here.

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One Christmas Eve, my husband and I took a late flight to my hometown. We arrived after midnight to my sister and brother-in-law’s house, and crept quietly down the hallway so we didn’t wake our niece and nephew, aged 8 and 4 at the time. They had no idea we were coming.

At dawn, we heard them run downstairs, ready for presents. My sister texted us to make sure we were awake, then told the kids that their first gift was hidden under the duvet on the guest room bed. We heard their feet quick on the stairs, our door creaking open, they came in curious, we could hear them breathing, wondering aloud what the big lump under the duvet could be – two bikes, maybe a small pony?

Finally they pulled back the covers. We yelled “Surprise! Merry Christmas”, and their faces lit up with shock and delight. For a second they had no words, then they screamed, “It’s our uncles!”. They jumped onto us, laughing, full of love. I tear up just thinking about it.

My sister filmed it so we could watch how happy they were when they found us. To search for something ­– and to find it – is a beautiful thing.

But what I remember most from that Christmas morning is how wondrous it was for me to be found. Our niece and nephew did the finding; but my husband and I got to experience the joy of being looked for, being discovered.

Sometimes in spirituality we’re in active search mode ­– we’re looking for wisdom, we’re seeking hidden treasure. And that’s important.

But I think it’s also important to realise that we are the hidden treasure being searched for – and to let ourselves feel the gift of being found.

The old hymn says it: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, I once was lost but now am found.

As a Christian, I believe God has already found each of us. Before our first breath, actually, before our first opinion, before we know anything, we have been found. That’s what I’m most thankful for.

And when I forget, God reminds me again, in the moon seeing me on a night walk, in a friend calling out across the pub, in a child’s delight, in a song loving me through the radio. Thanks be to God.

My Proudest Achievement: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 15 September 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 – about learning to admit that I am wrong. Listen in here.

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I remember the night I sat across the table from my friend Mark, with a notebook in front of me. In the notebook, a long list I’d been making for weeks. Mark and I’d met in an addiction recovery group. And I was at a crucial place in the recovery process, which suggested that I make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself – and then admit it to another person.

Mark said, “why don’t you open the notebook and start by sharing the things you’re scared to death of telling me?”

The thing is, I was scared to death of the whole list! Some people’s proudest achievements involve conquering their fear by climbing a mountain or running a marathon. For me, it was jumping out of an airplane into sobriety and hoping that the parachute would open.

Now, I trusted Mark – he’d been there before, on the other side of the table – so I took a deep breath and jumped. I went through every item on that list: every resentment and my part in it, every story, every offence and failure. I surveyed the inner wreckage of my life – and to the best of my ability, I described the exact nature of my wrongs.

It is the most profound spiritual experience I’ve ever had – coming clean about everything, having it held by Mark with compassion, looking at it all with a liberating honesty. Later on, the recovery process suggested I make another list – of people I’d hurt – and that I try to make amends and put it right.

It’s weird, I know, to name this as my proudest achievement. It’s not something you’d normally put in a trophy case or on your resume of accomplishments! It’s not really even an achievement ­­– it’s less something I did and more something other people helped me into.

Still, it’s the truth. Honestly. My proudest achievement is that, quite well into adulthood, I started learning how to say: “I was wrong”.

And not just to say I was wrong, but I am wrong, because in my life, at least, there’s still plenty of daily material to confess.

In my opinion, the world would be better if we all tried this, people of faith, agnostics and atheists all together. Instead of signaling our amazingness all the time, can you imagine if prime ministers and presidents and all of us started with: “You know what I struggle with? Or “let me tell you about a time recently that I was wrong.”

We could all be proud of that.

Where Were You When?: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 8 September 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 – about Jesus and walls of oppression coming down. Listen in here.

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There was no Twitter in 1989, of course. I heard on CNN that the East German government was allowing crossing over the border into West Germany. The violent incarceration of a generation of people since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 – was over.

I was born in 1975 in the US, in the middle of the Cold War. And its images were seared into my mind – from history books and spy movies. Images of a world split by hatred, divided by a wall of hostility and barbed wire and weapons.

But also images of people risking everything to cross the wall – climbing over it, tunnelling under it, jumping from windows, breaking through borders in the boots of cars. Sometimes successful, often not, but people never stopped trying because, as it’s said: “once a truth is seen, it cannot be unseen”. It lives inside of us – rising and bracing, until it shines out.

On the afternoon of November 9, 1989, I was 14, in front of the television after school, transfixed by crowds of people ­– young people, old people – dancing on the wall, hammering holes in it and reaching hands across to friends never met, busting barriers and popping champagne bottles.

At Christmas that year, my grandma asked me to write a prayer for the family dinner. I didn’t know how to pray, but I wanted somehow to thank God for the crumbling of the Iron Curtain. I found a Bible verse: “Christ is our peace. He has made us one and broken down the dividing wall, the wall of hostility between us.”

A couple years later, my grandma travelled to Europe, and she brought me back a fragment of the Berlin wall, a palm-sized chunk, you can see the graffiti on it. She said: “I remember what you prayed.”

A generation has passed since then. I’m 46 now, not 14, but I still have that piece of concrete. For me, it’s a sign that walls still need to come down ­– in Afghanistan, around the world, in my own judgmental heart – but it’s also a trust that their foundations are already broken beyond repair. The battle is not over, but in a sense, it’s already won, because what’s been seen cannot be unseen, and the truth is shining out.

The Meaning of Life: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 25 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 – about trees, physics, and falling in love with God. You can listen in here.

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There’s a tree I used to climb when I was a kid.

I loved its branches, sturdy and wrinkly as elephant legs – how they cradled my nine-year-old body and lifted me into communion with the sky and the rain and the bats that hung upside down in the leaves.

My parents weren’t really church-goers but I was a spiritual kid. And my first experience of falling in love with God was lying on my back in that in tree.

My first experience of grief was going to climb it one day and finding it on its side, blown down by a storm. As my friend lay dying, I walked into its muddy roots, as vast underneath as its branches on top. I saw weird creatures who lived with the tree on the other side of the ground from me.

Deeper in, the roots became a cathedral. I felt an energy flowing around me – the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

It’s not like I hadn’t known about roots before – I’d studied my science book. But there’s a difference between knowing about something and actually meeting it for the first time. This meeting gripped me: I realized there was so much stuff underneath the surface that I hadn’t seen before, and this unseen stuff had been holding me up all along.

Now I’m sure my younger self would not have said of that experience: “this is the meaning of life, this is ultimate reality!” But I believe that IS what I came into conscious contact with that day. Not only the tree and its roots, not only a new part of me – but an encounter with the life force in us both, the everlasting love streaming between me and the tree and everything else in the universe.

We name that mysterious connectedness in different ways.

A physicist calls it entanglement, where two different things separated by a huge distance are still somehow physically affected by the movement of the other.

As a Christian, I call it the Body of Christ, the fundamental unity of everything, seen and unseen, visible and invisible – all somehow held together by God.

The nine-year-old might just call it: Wow!

All those descriptions are good, in my opinion. But maybe the best is the nine-year-old’s. Because the meaning of life isn’t merely knowing about the meaning – it’s encountering it, meeting it, and falling in love. Wow, indeed.

My Eleventh Commandment: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 18 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 – about comedy classes, failure, and what to do when we mess up. You can listen in here.

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A few years ago now I signed up for an improvisational comedy class. Improv, as they call it. Now, I’m one of the least funny people you’ll ever meet, but I wanted a challenge.

Improv is a team approach to comedy. You create a story ­­– with others – in the moment. There’s no advanced planning. You start with an idea and you see where it goes. So my improv teacher might say, “Okay, Trey and Vanessa, up on stage. Here’s the scene: you two are long estranged siblings meeting for the first time in years. Go!”

Now, there’s no script – you’re improvising­ – so you have to listen, play, stay open. When it works, it’s hilarious.

It turns out, though: I really stink at it. Every class, I was bombing. One particularly humiliating night, I whinged to my teacher: “I’m so locked down on stage, I feel like I’m dying up there.”

She said, “Trey, you feel like you’re dying up there because – you’re dying up there. You’re trying to control everything. Let it go. What’s the worst that could happen?”

I said, “I could fail really bad.”

She said “Well, you’re already doing that. And anyway, failure is good for the soul.”

I dropped out of class, but her wisdom stuck. In improv, in life, we’re gonna fail. We’re gonna mess up – in small ways that bring laughter, in colossal ways that bring us to our knees. Failure is part of living a true story.

Writer Francis Spufford calls it “the human propensity to foul* things up”. We’ve all been there, we’ll be there again. The question is: what do we do when it happens?

My natural tendency is to ignore it or cover it up or – better yet! – blame somebody else.

But when I got sober, my recovery friends said “we’re only as sick as our secrets” and they challenged me to take an honest inventory of my messy life. To write down the epic failures, the micro-mistakes, the harm I’d caused others and myself. And then to share it all with someone I trusted.

It was scarier than improv, but accepting my failures with compassion has been so good for my soul.

So my eleventh commandment is not another moral from on high, but instead a suggestion for when we foul things up.

Here it is:

Be honest and ask for help.

In my experience, it will set you free.

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*He actually uses a different F-word that radio broadcasters don’t endorse. 🙂

Taking Care of My Mind: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 11 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 for Mental Health Awareness Week – about running, sobriety, and faith. You can listen in here.

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I read recently that seven million Brits started running during this pandemic year.

I’m a long-time runner, so I totally get it. On a stressful day, before a run, I’m like: “Everything’s falling apart, how’s the world going to make it, am I having a panic attack?” But forty-five minutes later, after a run, I’m like: “Life is miraculous! There is hope! Together we can change the world!”

Running seems to give me direct access to free medicine from God. Whether I’m on city pavements or trails in the countryside, I feel this transfusion of peace flowing through my veins. I feel my soul loosen up.

Running has been a big part of how I take care of my mind since I got sober.

When I first stopped drinking, I felt amazing – fresh, detoxed, with a new lease on life. But soon after, I started to feel like rubbish. This is a normal rite of passage for folks healing from addiction. As someone’s said: Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable. When you stop using your drug of choice, all the problems you’ve been numbing start to come to the surface, and you get to choose whether you keep ignoring them or actually face them.

For me, to face that backlog of misery that was messing with my mental health, I needed a lot of help. I needed a community of recovery, I needed a practice of meditation and prayer, I needed counseling and a couple years of anti-depressants.

But running has been the healing thread through it all.

At the beginning of sobriety, I ran mostly to escape the temptation to drink again. Whenever I felt the desire to open a bottle, I’d put on my trainers and hit the streets. I’d trade the buzz of alcohol for the buzz of a runner’s high. And it worked: thanks be to God, I haven’t wanted a drink in over 11 years.

All these years later, running is not so much an escape from life but an adventure deeper into it. I joined a running club and made loads of new friends. I ran a marathon and felt embodied in a way I never had before.

I still take my problems with me on runs, but now I try to use the extra oxygen to work through the problems instead of repressing them. At least some of the time.

The Bible says “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” For me, taking care of my mind – and my soul and spirit and body, for that matter – it’s about perseverance.

Day in, day out, whatever the weather outside, whatever the weather in my head, I’m learning that my job is to show up to life as it comes. And – sometimes quickly but usually very slowly – to welcome the healing that’s on offer.

My Favourite Walk: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 4 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. As you’ll read/hear, this one is for our beloved dog Jake, of blessed memory. You can listen in here.

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I feel like a bit of an impostor, because I haven’t always been a fan of walks. Maybe it’s because I’m from the US, where people drive more than walk. Many streets don’t even have pavements.

But all that changed a decade ago when we adopted a rescue dog – a big, grey Weimaraner named Jake. Very quickly I became a walker. Three times a day Jake pulled me along the lakefront in Chicago, where we lived. We moved to Birmingham, he pulled me down canal paths – and once he pulled me right through the doorway of very surprised new neighbors. We moved to London, he pulled me down busy streets.

My favourite walks in life have been with him. Especially the walks where Jake wanted to explore – and pulled us from the street into the park, or off the park path into the woods.

At first that frustrated me – I didn’t think we had enough time, I didn’t want to get my shoes muddy, I didn’t want to navigate brambles with 40 kilos of clumsy canine joy – but eventually, I learned to accept it as a gift. If I followed Jake’s lead, I might find myself in a grove of stately pine trees, staring up with him into the swaying canopy. Or crawling on my belly into the undercroft of an ancient hedge. Or taking off my shirt and shoes and walking into a lake to swim, to watch the geese at eye level across the water.

John Muir, the Scottish-American environmentalist, said:

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt”.

Jake would definitely agree.

I’ve been lucky in life to hike the Grand Canyon, in Cappodocian caves, on Icelandic glaciers – but I’m not sure I would’ve said yes to any of those invitations if Jake hadn’t taught me how to walk.

Some people think of faith as merely a list of beliefs you say yes or no or maybe to, but as a Christian, I think faith is more a willingness to walk where I did not plan to go. A willingness to be led into a life more interesting than I can construct by myself: led out of my apartment into the world, out of my head into friendship, off the map into the wild.

Jake died just a month before the pandemic hit, at the gorgeous age of 13. After thousands of miles together, one of our last walks was on a Welsh beach.

Jake wasn’t pulling me anymore; we sort of ambled together across the sand, into the surf.

We looked out across the water again – this time, for that other shore.

Thank you God, thank you Jake: for the gift of muddy shoes, and a faith that life is more beautiful than we can imagine alone.

World Book Day: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 5 March 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. You can listen in here on the BBC website, starting from 1hr13:20 or so.

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I remember packing for a family holiday once, I was about seven, and I filled up my suitcase completely with books. It weighed more than me, but somehow I dragged it down the stairs, ready to go. My mom said: You might need some clothes and a toothbrush?! But honestly, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. If I had enough books, I knew I’d be okay.

At that age, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series popular in the 1980s. In these books you the reader were also the main character. Every few pages you had a couple of choices, each of which would unfold a few pages later into more choices, and on and on until one of many possible endings. The bookcover said: “You’re the Star of the Story!” and I loved exploring all the different paths.

Exploring ourselves – knowing ourselves well – is so important in life, and books can help us figure ourselves out. I remember being 13, nervously pulling a book from the library shelf and reading for the first time about being gay. Or at 19, diving into the Bible and finding ancient descriptions of mind-blowing spiritual experiences like the one I was having 2000 years later. Or at 32, opening the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and feeling like someone had taken pages straight from my journal.

Knowing yourself is important, but let’s be honest: if you’re always the star of the story, it gets boring, narcissistic, even dangerous: if the only information we take in is from people just like us, with the same backgrounds, politics, and beliefs, we risk living in the echo chambers that are killing our society.

Good books help us know ourselves but they also help us know others. I recently read Bernardine Evaristo’s wonderful novel, Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize in 2019. In its stories of 12 mostly Black, British women, I was struck again with the truth that we are not all the same, we’re different, and that’s actually a beautiful thing. The best stories always unfold into the stories of others. The best endings are the ones where our differences don’t isolate us but hold us together. Life is not just about me, it’s about us.

There’s a verse from the Bible, about the ways Jesus meets different people right where they are. The verse goes: If these stories were all written down, the whole world wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written (John 21.25).

That’s a lot of books, that’s a lot of life. Way too much for me to fit in my suitcase alone, and that’s a beautiful thing.

The Real Me: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 26 Feb 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Jane Middlemiss on BBC Radio 2. You can listen to the audio clip here on the BBC website.

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The Real Me is sort of a weird person, and so I know this is a bit unusual: I see a spiritual director every month. She’s a mixture of therapist, mystic, personal trainer, and general straight-shooter.

For example, she tells me how much God loves me, but in the next breath, how full of rubbish I can be at the same time. The real me is apparently wonderful and also quite a mess.  

But welcome to being human! This is us – we’re a mix of things that don’t seem to go together but actually do. We’re courageous and yet we colossally screw up. We’re luminous but a mere pixel in the universe. Beautiful and broken ­­– not either/or but both/and. And life is about navigating these double-truths. 

I remember experiencing this in my mid-twenties on a gay cruise in the Caribbean. A cruise is not my general idea of a good time, but my then-boyfriend, a jazz singer, was playing a concert on board and I went along for free. Free is my idea of a good time.  

It was a week of sun, cocktail parties, and dancing until dawn on the Lido deck.

One afternoon at the pool, I got chatting to a woman who turned out to be the chaplain on board. When she discovered I was a minister, too, she asked me to help with the worship service that day, which was Ash Wednesday.  

Ash Wednesday’s the first day in the season of Lent, which began last week ­– a time when Christians remember what it means to be real.

And to get started, we mark our foreheads with dirt crosses and, though we’re still alive, we hear the words: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. It’s one of those weird double-truths: You’re going to die, but you’ll be okay. 

Later that evening hundreds of folks gathered in the ship’s rooftop bar and we put ashes on each other’s faces. I remember old men in wheelchairs, two women partnered for 60 years, and loads of fresh-faced university students with their whole lives before them. All of us crowded in to mark the glorious weirdness of being human, the truth we’re all facing in these pandemic days: we’re going to die, and here’s to life. 

The worship service in the bar flowed onto the dance floor that night. Our bodies pulsing in the light of the moon, you could still see the ashes on people’s faces, shining in the dark. 

My Biggest Temptation: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 19 Feb 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Jane Middlemiss on BBC Radio 2. You can listen to the audio clip here on the BBC website.

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The first time I went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was doing research for a sermon on addiction. From my own experience of active alcoholics in my family, I expected to hear a load of whingeing and blaming other people for their problems. 

But this meeting felt different. Laughter filled the room. I was welcomed, given a coffee. Someone helped me find a seat.  

The meeting started with celebrating sober anniversaries. One guy said, it’s been hard but today it’s a year without a drink. And the crowd clapped and whistled.

Other folks said: it’s been 90 days, or it’s a decade, or today I’ve got a week sober.

I could feel a lump forming in my throat. 

Then people told deeper stories – of what had gone down in their lives, stuff they’d done, what they’d lost, the secrets that were killing them.

But also stories of how things had changed when they found the courage to be honest, when they shared the secrets, when they admitted they had a problem. 

Their stories were diverse, but there was a common theme: everyone who was getting better had realized they couldn’t get better by themselves. They couldn’t make it alone. Instead of blaming other people for their problems, they’d discovered that other people could actually help. Someone said: Welcome to being human. 

That lump in my throat had turned into tears.

A woman offered me a tissue. I said, thanks, I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just here for research purposes. She looked at me, she looked into me, really. She said, okay baby, okay. She knew. 

I knew, though It took me two more years to admit my drinking problem.

But the biggest obstacle to recovery for me was asking for help, learning that I need others.

My biggest temptation still is control freakery. I think I can sort it all out by myself. If I work hard enough, focus, organise, do enough yoga, I can fix anything. I’m a recovering alcoholic, but I’m also a recovering control freak.

But I’ve come to believe that everybody’s addicted to something. If we’re honest, we all struggle with some substance or behavior or attitude that’s just draining the life from us, and we cannot fix it on our own.

But that is actually good news: because it pushes us outside of ourselves. And help is only another human away.