The one about…is it only me who…?

There are times when we all believe we’re the only ones to feel the way we do; sometimes because we’re so unbelievably happy, like at the birth of a child, or when we meet that person we know we want to spend forever with or when we get that promotion we’ve been hoping for. No-one can possibly feel so besotted, so in love or so ecstatic, and we don’t really want to believe anyone else could ever feel as happy as we do because what we’re experiencing is so amazing we want that to be just ours. Yet we get this inkling that possibly, just possibly other people do know what it’s like and that other people have felt very similar emotions. There’s something about these experiences being moments we talk about, experiences that we share and as we talk and share we discover a whole world of magic and mystery that others have journeyed into as they encountered these events in their story too.

Yet there are other occasions where we experience deep, intense emotion that breaks us, like the death of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship or the loss of a job. We know other people must have experienced something similar but because the feelings that come with these experiences aren’t always easy to put into words we don’t share what it’s really like and we are left wondering if anyone else really understands.

Yet, what about those other less extreme experiences, the day to day realities that niggle us, get us down and cause us to retreat just that little bit more into ourselves. These experiences aren’t as acute as death and loss or as awesome as birth and success, they’re the everyday thoughts and encounters that play on our mind, like how we feel about our weight, our inability to hold down a job, our obsessive behaviours, our fear of death, that anxiety we can’t describe, the difficulties of parenting that child or being married, and a myriad more issues and concerns that often convince us that we really are on our own and leave us believing that we are the only ones to feel the way we do. We generally don’t even dare to acknowledge that anyone else has ever felt like we do because they might look at us like we’re insane, or laugh at us or even worse pity us. So often we believe we’re the only one struggling, the only one having to put a brave face on or hide behind that mask or the only one not coping, terrified of the responsibility of being alive!

What if it’s not only me that wrestles with these thoughts and feelings? What if we’re not the only ones to feel those things? What if we realised that our experiences are often filled with emotions, fears, truths and concerns that are universal the world over.

I guess the question is how do we know? How do we dare to believe that other people share similar emotions or fears to us? It’s not always easy to talk about our thoughts and feelings, not everyone has that best friend they share everything with?

For some people the act of meditation, prayer, mindfulness or other contemplative practise centre them just enough to find a peace within themselves and allow them at least for a while, to accept who they are and where they’re at. These practices are being rediscovered in our 24/7/365 culture but they are an art form, something that needs practise, not always activities we find ourselves naturally disposed to and for so many it’s hard to know where to start. What if there’s a way in to meditation or contemplation that begins by simply becoming more aware in the day to day of what the universe is actually saying. What if the truths about who we are, how we’re wired and what’s normal actually echo out from all around us, and if we simply stopped to listen for long enough, we’d find that we’re not going crazy after all.

What if there’s something in the way certain song lyrics resonate, like Memories by Maroon 5 or Photograph by Ed Sheeran, what if there’s some deep truth in the words these and others write which is why certain songs sell. What if comedians like Michael Mcintytre make us laugh because he calls out the truth that all of us know, like what we all do when we have the opportunity to explore google earth!* What if the character in a movie speaks lines we could never have thought of yet sums up what we feel? What if all of these artists are prophets in their own way, calling out the truths of our humanity. What if we choose to listen to the truths around us, to stop, just for a moment and hear that reminder and let it work on us, even when that reminder is said through Ed Sheeran or Michael Mcintyre? What if the words they, and many many others use connect with our story in some way and simply by taking time to really listen we find that we’re not as crazy as we thought, that others have similar fears, similar doubts, have been hurt, or let down, or go through similar encounters and experiences.

What if to actually apply that to life means we start to listen to the repeated themes in the conversations we have or the situations we’re exposed to? What if as that track plays on the radio and that one line connects, we find five minutes to listen to it again in the quiet and stillness and just allowed it to work on us, to figure out what it’s saying? What if we wrote down some of those one liners, or quotes that we read as we scroll through Facebook or hear in a film and just re-read them a few times when we got a moment, would we find that this was a way in to reconnecting with ourselves and rediscovering that we’re not alone, the beginnings of prayer or meditation, of awareness. Maybe then we’d feel more equipped to take the next step but more on that next week…

*Michael Mckintyre: https://youtu.be/q38RT3JvKw8

Photograph by Ed Sheeran: https://youtu.be/nSDgHBxUbVQ

The one about…a thought on grief.

I first met grief when I was eleven. My dad died of cancer, six surreal weeks from diagnosis to death. Five days after his death, on the 19th December, the night after my dad’s funeral, my grandad, who was staying with us, died in his sleep. Somehow we ‘celebrated’ Christmas, and then at the beginning of January my mum found my dad’s uncle hanging from a wardrobe, and we found ourselves staring at a coffin again.

I remember some of it so vividly and other moments just blur, leaving me unable to comprehend how we actually got through those days, weeks and months. We did, but I didn’t do it alone, grief began to journey with me.

Grief is hard to comprehend, there are many well intentioned words that attempt to appease it and far too many clichés, or offers of advice, which all too often only serve to create even more distance from the reality we once knew, making us feel even more isolated and alone. As an attempt to begin to unpack some thoughts on grief I wrote the following:

‘Grief cannot be ignored or put on hold, grief cannot be fixed, it does not fit in a box or respond in an ‘appropriate’ way. Grief is not a problem to be solved. Grief is real, it is unpredictable, and overwhelming, it is intense and powerful; grief needs to find expression, to have a voice, to be heard.

Grief forges its own path, taking us in a different direction to the one we perhaps thought we’d walk. Grief journeys with us, sometimes loudly and sometimes in silence, sometimes holding us back, sometimes pushing us on. Grief is full of contradiction, a swirl of anger and love and fear and laughter and tears, of strength and weakness, causing us to run away and to run home, to turn others aside and to draw them close, a mix of inconsistent and extreme emotion.

Over time, somehow,  it releases its grip a little, changing its tack, becoming softer, more malleable, perhaps reminding us more gently of those memories and moments that brought us to this place. Yet it remains, a subtle interruption to the life we’re trying to live, whispering words of fear, taunting us with the darkness of despair just enough to leave us feeling uneasy, with a sense of foreboding, like a menacing cloud that hangs at the periphery of our vision.

It seems that grief will always have a part to play, leaving us with the challenge of discovering how to allow it to live alongside us, while we rediscover a life that feels authentic and real. As we learn to live this way, we find ourselves with opportunities to use our grief as a force for good, to channel the creative energy that grief has awoken because grief, whatever form it takes, is simply an expression of love and love holds all things, even death.’

I wrote this reflective piece about grief, born out of experience but also in response to some of what Sid and I find ourselves in the midst of, as we do the work we do. We would really appreciate comments and contributions based on your experiences of grief, appreciating that there is no right or wrong expression and that words can sometimes be limiting, whilst acknowledging that we all have different experiences of grief and we’re all at different stages in our encounter with it.

What we hope is that by sharing our thoughts we might inspire and encourage each other as we journey through life and that some of the thoughts shared might really help someone else. Thanks in advance…oh and feel free to share. Deb x

 

The one about…a brand new year!

The children must be getting older because for the first time in our married life Sid and I stayed up to see the New Year in! Usually the need for sleep far outweighs any desire to stay awake beyond 10pm. I don’t like feeling tired, I’m irritable, impatient and vacant and with seven of them who exhibit similar qualities to me when they’ve not had enough sleep it makes life interesting. Therefore it usually means that on New Year’s Eve we shoe-horn them off to bed at the usual time while Sid and I crawl into bed not long after, waking briefly when we hear fireworks at midnight, whilst murmuring happy new year before drifting back to sleep, hoping that noise outside will not wake the children.

This year however, with our five eldest, some friends and neighbours, take away Chinese, mulled wine and few other tipples, not forgetting the homemade mince pies, oh and an accompaniment of some of the best 80’s classics (but no fancy dress in sight!) we made it to the fireworks awake and sang our own garbled rendition of Auld Langsyne complete with usual tradition of standing in a circle holding crossed hands (a rather bizarre concept for some of the younger members of the party)! We met the new year with smiles and laughter. A great start to the new decade.

So now the new year is here and it brings with it a plethora of good intentions; exercise more, eat well, a good deed a day, less screen time, no alcohol (at least for a month), read more, shout less. All a heady mix of self-improvement and don’t get me wrong, I’m as keen as anyone to “be the best me” to give myself a fresh start, to be happier, more fulfilled, more who I am meant to be. But it got I’m thinking (of course I might just be tired, I tend to over think when I’m tired) but why do we make new year’s resolutions? What is it about being human that means we crave a fresh start? Why is it that we want to be a better version of ourselves? Surely its more than just the pursuit of happiness?

What if new year resolutions speak into some deep void within us, the haunting knowledge that there is a gap between who we are and who we could be? A seeming separation between where we are and where we want to be? It’s a gap that we endlessly try to fill with all sorts of things; drink, food, films, work, money, sex, fame, children, friends, church, golf, exercise, music; some good some not so good, some OK in moderation but none of them really fill the gap, so when new year comes, or that milestone birthday or a significant event we grasp at the opportunity for a fresh start, for a new beginning, a moment to be better because this time, maybe, it will all make sense. Yet it rarely does, within a matter of weeks we’re resorting to all to familiar behaviours, slightly disheartened, feeling a little more lost but still clinging to the hope of next time, next month, next year.

Yet, what if there is no gap? What if this urge for self-improvement is all a hoax, a cleverly crafted lie fed to us by a combination of the media, our culture, the story we’ve inherited and the worldview we live within? What if we already have all we need? What if, within us, maybe deep within our soul is the truth that we are enough, loved, whole, complete, and that we belong, that we are accepted and have an essential contribution to make to the world, just as we are? What if the challenge is to not fill the gap but to realise that there isn’t one? To realise that no matter who we are, or aren’t, what we have or don’t have, were all capable of love and we are all loved and that realisation negatives any perceived void. So this year, as we journey into the months ahead, maybe we’re invited to move from this moment into the next, discovering the awe in the ordinary, the magic in the mundane and the energy in the everyday knowing that love holds all things and that it all belongs.

The one about…after Christmas.

What do you do when it’s all over? When everything you’ve prepared for, shopped for, anticipated, dreamt about and looked forward to is all done and all that’s left is crumpled paper, cold potatoes and that feeling that you might have over indulged just a little?

Do you sit back and smile, replaying the best moments in your mind? Do you breathe a sigh of relief because it all came together? Do you look ahead to the new year with anticipation wondering what new adventures await, or with a slight sense of dread, a little unsure of how it’s going to be? Do you drink a little bit more in the hope it will stave off reality for a little longer? Do you stare blankly at the TV trying to ignore all those things you have to face up to in the coming weeks? Or do you just simply enjoy the moment?

This time between Christmas and New Year, known apparently as Twixtmas or the Crimbo Limbo, invites us into a time between, it offers an opportunity to reminisce of Christmas past, to smile, laugh or cry about what was and to relive the year gone by. It also invites us to plan ahead, to discuss resolutions for the New Year, to dream of what we hope to do and the plans we hope will take shape.

Or maybe this week between invites us into a time of waiting, a lull before the storm. For some, this week is a gentle easing back into the familiar rhythms of life, for others it’s a more brutal return to reality as the alarm sounds before the sunrises and a bleary eyed drive to work is embarked upon. Either way reality has to return. The email has to be sent. The phone calls has to be made. The PE kit has to be packed. The uniform has to be ironed. The food has to be ordered. The dog has to be walked. The bathroom has to be cleaned.

It can feel as though the return to reality is quite overwhelming but what if reality never actually left. What if the build up to Christmas, full of anticipation, hope and wonder, is reality? What if Christmas Eve, as we fall asleep caught up in the magic, minds brimming with possibilities and potential is reality? What if Christmas Day with family, food and all the festivities is reality? What if that rather sad, ‘was that it’ kind of feeling that murmurs within as Christmas Day draws to a close is also reality? What if the simplicity of Boxing Day, where the pace slows and as my mum says “nothing normal happens” is reality too? What if the crazy New Year’s Eve or the quiet one, the surreal dawning of a new day and a new year rolled into one (which happens every day of we choose to see it) is reality as well?

There’s so much said about living in the now, about being present in the moment and appreciating the reality that is. There is something about seeing ‘reality’ as the moment we are currently in, for me, writing this, sat on the sofa at my in-laws while the children play and my brother-in-law cooks food, this is reality, it’s my reality right now but all my ‘right now’s’ make up my story, my reality, just as all your moments of reality make up your story too. ‘Now’ is essential, however we’re still shaped by our past, it has made us who we are and it should be celebrated and we also need the hope that the future offers us, the gift of looking forwards, of dreaming, hoping, planning; both past and future feeding into ‘right now’ and shaping who we are and the decisions we make.

So as we live these days before the new year dawns may we know what it is to embrace right now, may we enjoy life at a different pace, caught up in those twelve days and the peace that they offer. May we see every moment as reality and live it, not dreading the return of reality nor waiting for the next opportunity to escape it. May we know what it is to embrace where we’ve come from and find that looking ahead fills us with hope, and then as the new year comes, may we live each day, embracing reality, living our story, fully alive.

The one about…a Christmas that belongs!

It’s nearly here, Christmas, the “day” we’ve all been preparing for, the reason the decorations are up, the presents are purchased and the food is prepared. Life and time seem to gather pace as Christmas approaches and opportunities to stop and reflect are somewhat rare. I guess that’s one of the privileges of finding time to write, or of taking carol services and hosting crazy Christmas gatherings; they all offer opportunities to think about what and why we celebrate. As Sid and I have talked and prepared and shared thoughts this year we’ve reflected a lot on Christmas and so this blog is a summing up of the blogs, talks and thoughts that we’ve pondered together.

It seems that there are five Christmas stories…

Firstly, the perfect Christmas; the one created by the movies and the music, the one where families get together and everyone gets along, where lovers meet under the mistletoe (whilst listening to Michael Bublé) and spend forever together, the one where there’s food in abundance and the mulled wine doesn’t stop flowing. The one we all want to exist, the one we strive for every year, in the hope that this year will actually be all we’ve ever dreamt of.

Then secondly, there’s the real Christmas, the one where the children fall ill or fall out, where words are said that shouldn’t have been, where the wrong present is bought or where presents can’t quite be afforded and the usual trimmings are somewhat lacking. The Christmas where those you want to spend it with can’t be there and the one person who promised you everything delivers nothing. The Christmas that is not quite the one imagined, tinged with a little sadness and hidden by a smile that prevents anyone from really knowing the truth, that this isn’t really what was hoped for. The Christmas that’s mediocre, mundane or maybe just ordinary.

Then there’s baby Jesus, the “Christmas Story”, the one that’s rolled out in nativity plays across the land, often with a unique angle, like dinosaurs in the stable, a disorganised angel or the story told from the insects point of view (yes, I’ve been to them all and I’ve even watched Jack Whitehall’s nativity musical “Emu”!) The nativity story is one that we love to hear, the infant Jesus, the perfect baby, a baby that didn’t even cry, or so the carols would have us believe. The reality somewhat different though, a little more like the contrast between the perfect and the real Christmas we experience today.

The fourth Christmas story, the real Jesus story is about a baby born to a young Jewish couple, out of wed-lock, rejected and out-lawed by their friends and family, disgraced and unwelcome; why do we think there was no room at the inn? A birth story coupled with the harsh reality of an unsettled world, a land of enforced peace, citizens required to bow to the Emperor, pledge allegiance, pay taxes and adhere to Roman rule or face torture, slavery or death. A time of fear, of uncertainty and decreasing hope. Yet a baby is born, a baby that brings love, hope and peace. That’s the Jesus story.

Collectively, these Christmas stories tell us something. They tell us about another version of Christmas, the true story, the story that tells us that all our realities, with their aches and pains, the awkward moments or feelings that we don’t quite like, all do belong. Of course we would rather they didn’t and we’d rather that no one suffered or struggled or wrestled with inner demons but they do, we all do.

Jesus was born into a broken world, he shared light, he decorated the darkness with his message of hope. Eventually, he was put to death by the people he came to love, his revolutionary manifesto for the Kingdom of God didn’t lead to worldwide institutional change but it did lead to a new understanding of life and love, and it still does offer a new way of being in the world. A way that’s different to the way those in power and authority often exemplify, a way we can all choose no matter who we are, how influential we are or how much we have.

So, in light of all these stories, may you know that the reality of your Christmas, however happy or however sad, is actually a truly beautiful one, because it is the only truly authentic one. As you laugh or cry this Christmas, may you be full of hope despite the shadows of fear. May you allow it all to belong and may you know an unconditional, extravagant love, and dare to believe that there was something special about that baby who came to bring love, hope and peace to life. May you know the magic within the mundane, as you peel potatoes, wrap presents or tidy the house; may you have a chance to glimpse at the awe in the ordinary, discover the mystery in the mediocre and may you find a moment to be still and consider the gift that it is to be alive.

Happy Christmas!

 

The one about…the darkness.

There’s an awkward reality to our existence, one we’d rather ignore. It’s a reality that plagues us, a reality that we’re desperate to resolve, on that we long to rise above, or eradicate; a reality we don’t want to live with, one that we try numb or distract ourselves from. Yet no matter how religious we are, how much we drink, how busy we keep ourselves, how much we try to channel ourselves into all the right things in an attempt to find meaning and purpose, the reality exists. The reality is there, sometimes gently reminding us, sometimes brutally forcing itself upon us; the reality that life hurts, that pain and sadness exists, the reality that we’re not always happy. The reality that things do go wrong and that other people make mistakes, let us down and even die and the reality that we ourselves make mistakes, let ourselves down and one day too will face our final hour.

It is not easy living in the shadows of this truth, carrying on with life while the darkness hovers, never that far away. At times the darkness is overwhelming, at other times it lifts, at least for a while, although darkness still exists, just as when the sun rises over our land, in other lands it sets.

What if this reality, this darkness that we would love to eliminate, could instead be embraced? What if the shadows all have their place in this thing we know as life? What if there’s a deeper reality, one that says that the pain and sadness belong? What if true reality says that you don’t have to live only for the good times, that there’s more to our existence than happiness and laughter, a truth that tells us the testing times, the fear and the tears are OK too, that we don’t have to avoid them at all costs, because experiencing the whole range of human emotion is part of being fully alive.

What if the stories we read in the news, the political climate we live within, the everyday difficulties we face, are all part of it? What if what the darkness requires is not to be eradicated but to be decorated? What if we have misunderstood the darkness, seen it as something to be vanquished when instead our role in this world is to decorate it? What if to decorate it is to smile, to offer kindness, to be generous, patient, understanding; to listen and to share, to go the extra mile, to give of ourselves and to love.

What if this week, as the Christmas light decorate the darkness of the winter evenings, we choose to decorate the darkness of the world around us, within our immediate family, our community or in the wider world? What if we see this season as an opportunity to decorate the darkness within us, to allow the darkness to create even more opportunities for love and peace and joy to exist? What if in this practice of decoration at Christmas, we also find that we learn how to decorate the darkness at other times too? What if it teaches us that joy and peace can exist despite the circumstances we face not because of them, and that by embracing all emotions we find that they really are all part of this experience of being human and in time we learn to accept the darkness too, to allow it to be, but to always know that love shines brighter.

The one about…our Christmas story.

Everyone’s talking about it, the shops are fully stocked, the music is playing, the trees are decorated, the lights are twinkling; people are busy planning, shopping, baking, dreaming and now the calendars are counting down. The world (or that’s what we’re led to believe) is getting ready for the big day!

The 25th of December (or for some the 24th) has become such a big event. One day where everything has to be ready; food prepared, presents bought, gifts wrapped, cards sent, houses tidied, people invited…all for one day, all for the illusion of the perfect Christmas. Thing is, it is an illusion, it’s rarely perfect, despite the stories we hear and the adverts we see – oh and of course those Christmas movies which create the perfect dream.

The reality is more likely to be about a child who changed their mind on 23rd December about what they wanted from Father Christmas, leaving the parents dreading the look of disappointment on Christmas morning; or about the mum who’s had to go into work so now Christmas dinner will be at 7pm rather than 1pm and it feels like the usual traditions are in question; there’s the sombre reality of the first Christmas without that loved one, leaving a hole way too huge, along with the return of the tears you thought you’d just got control of; there’s the dad trying to put a brave face on the fact he hasn’t got the kids until Boxing Day because they’re with their mum this year; there’s the newlyweds who can’t work out who they should spend Christmas with because either way one set of in-laws will be disappointed; there’s the widow down the road who’ll eat alone like any other day except for some reason Christmas Day feels even more lonely…like I say, it’s rarely perfect.

I guess part of the challenge is to stop seeing it as one ‘Big Day’, and instead to embrace the season of Christmas. It’s not easy when our chocolate calendars count us down, we measure the month by how many sleeps there are to go, and Facebook reminds us of how many shopping days we have left.

What if we were able to hold it all far more lightly though, to see Christmas as a season rather than a day and to make more space for the tears and disappointment in the midst of the laughter and the song. Christmas is truly beautiful, it is a reminder of hope but it’s also often a reminder of reality!

The first Christmas was real, not the fabricated “new baby delight”; it was a young Jewish couple, in violation of acceptable social conduct, giving birth to a Jewish baby in a land oppressed by a cruel regime that saw many of their fellow Jews being massacred for not adhering to Roman rule. It was a time of fear, of uncertainty and of decreasing hope that life would ever be OK again. These were real people, in a real place, in real time, facing the very real prospect of invasion, torture or death.

Jesus Christ was born during the time of, ‘Pax Romana’ – which stood for Roman Peace. A period which spanned approximately 200 years  and recorded as a time of peace. Yet Roman Peace was utterly consequential and incredibly brutal, all were required to bow to the Emperor, pledge  allegiance to the Crown, pay taxes and adhere to Roman rule which in turn allowed for the prospering of the elite in the Empire.

Imagine living with this, growing up with this kind of brutality. Into this reality a baby is born. Birth and new life represent hope, future, possibilities and this baby would grow up to create a new story in the world, or maybe more accurately to tell the true story of the world.

He would tell a story that spoke true love, unconditional love into the very depth of people’s beings, that spoke the hope of a different way into the systems that had been established, a story that spoke peace into a nation that had never experienced true peace, a baby that brought joy and celebration into a land that had very little to celebrate. A baby that would present the very real presence of a new Kingdom, a new way and ultimately a new King. The King began life on planet earth as a refugee seeking shelter but would later be the one who would welcome the outcasts in. His story shows that there is hope, joy and peace to be found in the unlikeliest of stories.

Our story is part of that story too, and despite the seeming setbacks, the disappointments, the confusion and the fear, despite the unlikely characters that play their parts, the story keeps unfolding, sometimes fun, sometimes sad, sometimes uncertain but always moving forward, always brimming with possibilities and promise.

So as schools and playgroups perform their nativity plays, as the carols are sung and the cards with all the smiling characters are sent, as the movies are watched, the drinks drunk and way too much food is eaten, what if we remember that Christmas is more than just one big day? What if we make the most of every day this season, find every opportunity we can to share with others, to welcome friends and family, to give to someone else, to remember and reflect?

What if we choose to see this as more than just a story of a baby in a crib but to see it as our story, because in the same way that Jesus Christ brought hope and peace into the world, our story can too.