“Valentine’s Day”: a BBC Pause for Thought

Here’s the text for the 15 February 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Katie Piper on BBC Radio 2. Listen in here.

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I was dancing with my husband at our wedding reception, which we held in a street-front shop in a busy city neighbourhood. We didn’t have much money, but we splurged on the band and it was totally worth it. All night long the music was pumping, the dance floor  packed with our friends and family.

It was during a cover of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston, that I looked over the crowd and noticed two guys dancing together who I didn’t recognize. I said to Jonathan, “Do you know who they are?”

“No idea,” he said.

I thought maybe they were the dates of friends, but then again I was pretty sure I’d met everyone’s plus-one by that point. So I sort of danced us over to them and said “Hey, guys”. They smiled and waved.

I said, “Welcome to our wedding! Umm … Who are you?!”

They said, “Oh my gosh, you won’t believe this: we were walking outside looking for somewhere to eat, and we thought this place was a restaurant, so we came inside. A woman beckoned us in, we assumed she was one of the waitstaff, and we asked for a table for two. She laughed and told us it wasn’t a restaurant, it was a wedding party, but we should stay, have a glass of wine, some food, maybe even get out on the dance floor. So we did!”

I was internally processing this, wondering how much of my cake and booze they’d consumed for free, when Mary Lee, my brother-in-law’s mother, danced on over. She said, “Oh I’m so glad y’all met. Trey and Jonathan, these guys seemed like they needed a party, so I told them to come on in, there’s room for ‘em here.” She danced away into the crowd.

There’s a Bible story where – at a wedding party, maybe right next to the dance floor – Jesus transforms hundreds of litres of water into top-shelf wine. He does this, the story says, to show how extravagant God is – how God’s love overflows our stereotypes of God, how God expands our understanding of what love actually is.

At my wedding, Mary Lee stood in for Jesus and reminded me of that – of a divine love not just between me and Jonathan but pouring over to the wedding crashers, to Whitney Houston, and to everybody dancing anywhere – married, breaking up, searching, happily single, partnered, divorced ­– all of us, I believe, recipients of the extravagance of God.

“When Things Go Wrong”: a BBC Pause for Thought

Here’s the text for the 8 February 2022 “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 of the hardest experiences of my life was realizing I needed to ask forgiveness from a friend.

The wrong I’d done was no minor fault. I’d lied to him – consistently, over a long period of time, about something significant and personal. And in the process I’d also seriously lied to myself, so there was a hiddenness to my guilt. It was overwhelming – it had a gravitational pull that drew everything else in my consciousness right back to it.

I knew an email apology wasn’t adequate so I asked my friend if I could fly to visit him the next week – to tell him something. He said, “Of course, it’ll be great to see you”. And he met me off the plane, and we sat in the carpark of the airport, and I shared in detail what I’d done, how I’d gone wrong.

I said I wanted to make it right. And I asked his forgiveness.

It was weird and scary to admit my wrongdoing. It was also weird and scary to hear my friend forgive me and express his understanding, which I hadn’t let myself expect.

Receiving his compassion and grace felt like: jump leads hooked up to my heart, a sudden stream of life that shocked me and revived me at the same time.

This saving energy, which I believe was straight from God, came to me through my friend’s open-heartedness.

If I played any part at all, it wasn’t bravery but an honest acceptance of my own humanness. I don’t mean to excuse it or make light of it. I’m not saying “everyone messes up, so it really doesn’t matter”. By acceptance I mean seeing it, acknowledging it, maybe even letting it be a wound where God can enter. It was painful for me but it was also the greatest relief.

Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century Christian, believed that falling down, getting it wrong, is not only inevitable in human life, it’s essential if we want to grow up.

She wrote: “First the fall, then the recovery from the fall – both are the mercy of God.” I love that. First the getting it wrong, then the healing after getting it wrong – both are God’s great compassion.

I owe my friend so much – not just for his forgiveness, but for helping me fall – back into God and into life itself.

It’s Good to Talk: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 1 February 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. The theme is related to “Time to Talk Day, the nation’s biggest mental health conversation”. Listen in here.

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I come from a family of chatterboxes. When we get together, it’s never quiet. Stories are spun, jokes are told, laughter abounds.

My Dad is like this everywhere he goes. He’s a motorcycle-riding, fire-fighting, pint-buying, hard-living, exhaustingly-exuberant guy who wants everyone he meets to join the party. His friends call him “Wild Bill”. One time at a pub he convinced everybody in the room to push their tables together into one big, raucous conversation. He moved through the crowd like a cruise director.

I’m not as gabby as him but I am definitely his son: I love a good natter almost as much as he does. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve noticed another similarity between us. We both love to talk, but we’re also both emotional bottlers. We don’t easily share our feelings. We’re prone sometimes to stay on the surface of things, and our chattiness can be an anxious way of avoiding the uncomfortable stuff inside of us.

Maybe because Dad struggles with that, too, he’s been a source of great help to me.

Like when I told my family I was gay. In 1995, in the American South, coming out was really controversial. When told my parents,  very unlike him – Dad didn’t say anything for a while. Finally he spoke up: “Son, I love you, I’m getting us a pizza, we’re gonna talk, and everything’s going to be okay.”

Or a time later in life, when I sank into an unexpected depression that absolutely walloped me. I didn’t know what to do, so I called Dad. And he didn’t rush in with empty words, he didn’t say “push through it” or “don’t worry about it” or “stiff upper lip” or any of that nonsense. He just said: “tell me about it”. And he listened as I discovered how important it is to talk.

There’s a Bible verse where Jesus says: “Don’t be afraid: nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed; nothing is secret that won’t be made known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light.”

Dad’s not really a church-goer, but he’s taught me so much about God. How talking vulnerably – how bringing the deepest and sometimes scariest stuff into the light – is not only good for my mental health, but is also healing for my soul.

My Favourite Tourist Destination: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 29 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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On the first morning of a holiday, I get up early and go running. Wherever I am, a run shifts my body-clock, gives me the vibe of the place, and serves as reconnaissance for the best coffee joints.

I’ve been lucky to travel in life. Looking back on my journeys, it’s the running I remember most: hurdling tree roots in the Costa Rican jungle, sprinting around Istanbul’s Taksim Square, racing the clouds along the River Liffey in Dublin.

But you can’t holiday every week, so I was thrilled upon moving to the UK to discover parkrun ­– a national movement of free 5K runs for the whole community. Every Saturday I can show up to my local London park, or be a tourist ­at one of more than 700 parkruns across the country.

If I’m not on holiday, it’s my favourite tourist destination….

…Where diverse people gather to run, or walk, push a pram, roller-skate, jog a dog. If they don’t want to run, they volunteer ­– or just cheer. That was a shock at my first parkrun in Birmingham. All around the course, people clapped for us, rang cowbells, yelled “Come on! You can do it!”

I was like: “Am I actually in Britain? What is this bizzare experience? Oh wait! It’s affirmation and public joy!” At parkrun, even the stereotypical British reserve is transformed. It’s so good for us that GPs have started prescribing it.

As a Christian, I think the inclusivity of parkrun is something many churches could learn from: how to celebrate diverse community, how to help people speak of the goodness running through life, how to welcome newcomers.

Once at a Brighton parkrun, the host gathered all us tourists and first-timers and said: “One of the main impediments to trying a race – one of the biggest fears people have – is that they’ll humiliate themselves and be the last person across the finish line.”

“But don’t worry about that,” he said. “We have a volunteer whose job as tail runner is to make sure everybody else gets across the line first. At parkrun, no one has to worry about finishing last.” I mean, how good is that?

I thought of Jesus, whom I believe always takes the place no-one wants: the last place, the losing place, so we don’t have to worry, so we can experience a life run not by fear but by freedom.

So, happy tourist running, good people. May you be surprised by a good vibe and public joy.

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.