The one about…demons.

The ‘Good Place’, the ultimate afterlife destination, a heaven like utopia for the elite of humanity, an eternal paradise for those that are good enough or so you’d think…but things aren’t always as they seem and the Good Place is actually an experimental neighbourhood designed specifically for four particular human beings as part of an exploration into alternative torture; hosted by a demonic architect called Michael, the four humans are tortured; not with the more traditional fire and brimstones but instead simply by being, well, human.
It’s another one of those Netflix shows that sounds a little far-fetched and it probably is, the ‘frozen yoghurt in heaven’ concept clearly suggesting that the plot is not rooted in any kind of reality! Yet what if there’s more truth to be found in the ideas it does present, what if the theories it conceptualises are not as far from reality as we might think.
We all hold some thoughts about the afterlife; so whether we dismiss it completely, opting for a huge void of nothingness, or whether we calm our existential fears with thoughts of angels, harps and clouds (or a range of options in between) it’s a subject that we have no definitive answer to no matter how strong our religious (or non-religious) convictions are.
Heaven and hell; literal places we descend or ascend to when our time on earth is over or a metaphorical allegory (is that even a thing?) providing meaning to that which we can’t explain? Angels, demons, an omnipotent judge like character? It sounds the stuff of fiction and fable, more at place in a Phillip Pullman novel or as a plot in Good Omens; but what if demons are more common than we think?
Life isn’t always easy and even when it’s going well, we can battle some pretty tough thoughts in our mind. Those “demons” that taunt us about how we don’t deserve to be happy, who whisper horror over that new lump or bump that’s appeared or the way that mole has changed; demons that talk you into one more drink because really, what’s the harm? Demons that make you doubt anyone really likes you, that you were only invited because they were being polite and it probably would be best to send that text to say you’re not going to make it because you don’t want to spend the whole evening feeling like you don’t belong. Demons that torment you with all the bad decisions you’ve made whilst trying to parent that child, that tell you the reason she does that is because of what you did. Demons that tease you about your ideas for that presentation, that suggest its not good enough and that you won’t get the promotion so it’s best to give up now. Demons that laugh at your attempt at a costume for your child, reminding you of your own childhood humiliation at school plays and mufti days. Demons that haunt you with and uneasy paranoia about who you are and what you’re capable of. Demons that go out of their way to show you how you’ve failed, that remind you you’re not the wife, mother, daughter, friend, sister (or husband, father, son, brother) or maybe just not the person that you would like to be.
Demons can take all shapes and sizes and they can creep up on us out of nowhere, just chipping away at our confidence, at our self-worth, at our belief that we are enough and that we are doing OK.
Shawn from the ‘Good Place’ bad place might well just be a cleverly characterised attempt at mimicking Lucifer, the bad place might host some weird and wonderfully designed demons and it might all seem a little too far from the truth but what if there is something in the way humans are used to torture themselves that is quite close to the truth? What if we do actually create our own hell in the thoughts we believe and the way we respond, not only on a personal level but on a national and international level too? What if the concept of hell isn’t something reserved for the afterlife but a very present phenomenon right now? What if all this suggests that if we can create our own hell maybe creating heaven on earth isn’t as impossible as we think.

The one about…redefining Brexit!

Brexit…well, I’m not sure what’s happening with the British exit of the European Union so I thought I’d fill you in on the Bridges exit instead!

We’re on the move! It has been nearly three years since we started looking at jobs in the Church of England, knowing that Sid’s curacy would end and we’d potentially need to take up a post elsewhere. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotion; applications, interviews, emails and conversations, all an attempt to discern what we should be doing and where we should be doing it. Soul searching I think it’s sometimes called, although to be honest I always imagined soul searching to be a little more like walking along a beach pondering some deep, meaningful thoughts; but these years have been brutal, exhausting, real and raw, hopeful, exhilarating, energising, draining and a whole host of other somewhat conflicting emotions! Some moments have nearly broken us, as individuals, as a couple and as family; some very dark, seemingly hopeless experiences followed by glimmers of hope, anticipation and intrigue only to find out it’s not to be. We’ve taken jobs and turned jobs down, we’ve applied and then pulled out of interview, we’ve applied and not been called for interview, we’ve been interviewed and not appointed; but each experience, however random or seemingly nonsensical, has taught us something, something more of who we are and why we’re here. We can both honestly say that while that has been ridiculously hard at times, we’ve learnt things about ourselves that we could only learn by living this way.

Yet all of it eventually had to culminate in something, a decison had to be made, and the decision was not just about one person or even two, any decision had huge implications for our children too, it would impact their friendships, their education and their lifestyle; it would impact who they are and who they would become, for better or for worse. We moved here with only five of them and now there are seven, and while playgroup and primary were our only consideration five years ago we’re now well into secondary school, GCSE’s and considering the crazy world of post-16 too. Decisions can’t be made lightly!

The decision has been made and now we find ourselves surrounded by boxes, lists and cluttered piles of “stuff” headed for rubbish, recycling or the next charity shop collection. It is somewhat monumental, the reality of moving nine of us, somewhat surreal, as we look around the house and walk the streets of our neighbourhood where we’ve lived life together, through all its ups and downs. It seems strange to think that this chapter of our life is over yet we know that the beauty is found in turning the page and beginning the next.

So we move, not far away, neighbours will change but much of what we know will stay the same and the work we’re called to do, well that’s what’s giving us the energy and inspirtaion to pack up and move on. We knew we had to find work, vocation and a lifestyle that made our hearts and souls sing. We’re so excited by what we’re doing that all of the past confusion and hurt and disappointments pale into insignificance as we look to what we get to do each day.*

There’s so much that we have learnt and are continuing to learn from this journey but there’s something about the name Prodigal that is so important, more important than we realised when we created ‘Prodigal Collective’ nearly a year ago. ‘Prodigal’ was inspired by the story known as ‘the Prodigal Son’, found in the bible. For so many, ‘Prodigal’ conjures up images of a wayward child, squandering inheritance, reckless and extravagant and maybe that’s how some people see us!? For us though, ‘Prodigal’ defines the father, the God character, the divine source, energy or being that holds the whole story. ‘Prodigal’ is recklessly extravagant in all the right ways, a universe that lacks nothing, an ultimate reality that is wired in favour of humanity…prodigal is generous, unstinting, bountiful and abundant and that is what we have experienced as we’ve journeyed. That does not mean that every day we’re skipping along without a care in the world, the belief that the universe is wired in our favour hasn’t fully stopped the tears and the pain, it hasn’t completely removed the fear or prevented the sleepless nights but it has enabled us to move through all of those emotions knowing that they belong, that we’re held and that this is all headed somewhere good. Our understanding of Prodigal is what makes life worth it, it’s what inspires us and keeps us hopeful of good times even through the difficult ones. Our understanding of Prodigal is what enables us to do each day, it’s what’s teaching us to celebrate all that we do have and it’s showing us how to live life to the full.

 

If you’d like to know more about what we’re up to then check out our website: www.prodigal.org.uk

 

 

The one about…autumnal truth!

There are reminders all around us of a truth we’ve forgotten, the truth that the very essence of who we are is good. Autumn brings these reminders to us in such generous proportions as the air freshens, the birds begin to migrate and the leaves change colour; we’re reminded that each new season has its own beauty and wonder. There’s an awe and reverence to be found in observing the rhythm of the universe. The conkers are falling, breaking their rough, outer shell to reveal the shiny, smooth treasure inside. It’s a reminder of the beauty that creation holds, a reminder that there’s goodness within all that’s created, no matter how spiky the outer appearance.

So often we don’t see the goodness in ourselves or others and sadly the idea that we’re not good enough is often reinforced by the world as the whispers of “not enough” echo around; not successful/thin/wealthy/fit/popular/clever/________ enough! Often the teaching of the church tells us this too, tells us that we failed before we even began. It’s the doctrine of original sin, begun by the early church and adopted by our society, the idea of original sin haunts us and inhibits our ability to be fully alive. Even if we don’t subscribe to a religion, or that strand of one, it’s a belief that has found its way into our heads and hearts.

This belief, whatever angle it is approached from, is damaging.
It has damaged our relationship with the divine. God is seen by many as a wrathful figure who needs appeasing and the death of Jesus becomes about changing the mind of God about humanity rather than the ultimate act of love that changed the mind of humanity about God!*

It’s not only our understanding of the divine that has been skewed; the idea that we are sinful from birth, or that we are not good enough, has implications for our relationship with others from a personal to an international level. If we submit to the doctrine of original sin or the lies of ‘not enough’ then we don’t trust the fundamental goodness of the other instead we fear, judge and often hate simply because we can’t see deep enough to see the truth.

The teaching of original sin and the lies of not enough have also damaged our relationship with ourselves, we begin to really believe we’re not good and to compensate we fill our lives with things that makes us feel better about ourselves, anything that holds meaning, even if the meaning isn’t rooted in truth. We try to prove to ourselves, others, even a higher being, that who we are, what we have and what we’ve achieved is acceptable.

Yet, what if there’s a way to undo some of these lies? What if the role of religion, at it’s very essence, is to remind us of the truth that we are good? What if religion or church or any contemplative practices are fundamentally about creating ways for us to step aside from the lies we’ve come to believe and actually connect with who we really are?

What if then, our understanding of Jesus, of church or of our religion, has the ability to reconnect us with the truth about ourselves? What if the Jesus story offers us the truth about all we have ever been, all we are and all we can be. Truth that says “we are enough”. A truth that has been forgotten but a truth that at it’s very heart, is a call back to our true self? What if the Jesus story speaks of a different way because the way we so often choose isn’t good for us, isn’t the way of the soul but instead to live the way of the soul is to live knowing who we are, that our story has worth and that from that place of peace we can bring life and love to this world.

*my favourite Richard Rohr quote!!

The one about…an immoral Jesus?

People often describe him as a good man, regardless of belief in his divinity or the resurrection. There is something compelling about him, people were drawn to him 2000 years ago and talk of what he said and did has continued for centuries. His existence as a good moral teacher is widely recognised, I often talk to people who say he had a good moral code or words to that effect. But did he? Were his stories, actions and behaviour morally acceptable?! Or is there a case for an immoral Jesus!?

It’s probably important at this point to define the word “moral”, so a quick Google exploration reveals the definition as:

standards of behaviour; principles of right and wrong

So Jesus had good standards of behaviour? He held to high principles of proper conduct? Did he? I’m not convinced!

Jesus spoke to women, talked to them as if they were interesting, as if they had value. The thing was that in first century Palestine women were not valued outside of the home, they had their place, at home! Zhava Glaser, an expert in Jewish history writes:

By publicly including women in his ministry, Jesus shattered the prejudicial customs of his day. Why was it unusual for Jesus to speak with women? Nothing in the Mosaic Law prevented men and women from conversing with one another! Yet the society of Jesus’ day, with custom dictated by rabbinic Judaism, differed strikingly from the Old Testament social order…women were not allowed to testify in court. In effect, this categorized them with Gentiles, minors, deaf-mutes and “undesirables” such as gamblers, the insane, usurers, and pigeon-racers, who were also denied that privilege.

It wasn’t just women that Jesus’ engagement with was questionable; one of his disciples, one of the people closest to him, was a tax collector. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman Empire, the oppressive regime occupying the Jewish land. Tax collectors collaborated with this evil force, they took money from fellow Jews and gave it to the Romans, actions seen as somewhat traitorous. Tax collectors kept money for themselves so were also known to be liars and cheats, untrustworthy individuals, not people to befriend. So to hang out with tax collectors was also questionable behaviour.

I’m reading a fascinating book* about Jewish culture in the time of Jesus, the author describes Jesus’ interactions with tax collectors:

“Imagine, for instance, how it would of felt to follow Jesus through the door of Matthews house, eating with tax collectors, sinners who were considered the stooges of Rome…for the disciples to eat with such despicable men would of been scandalous.”

That’s who Jesus ate with, laughed with…maybe his morals should be in question! It wasn’t just who he ate with, it was also the stories he told about who shared meals; like the father who prepared a feast for the son who’d wished him dead, or the story about the great feast which some guests refused an invitation to which ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame on the street’ were instead invited, people you wouldn’t eat with, people who wouldn’t eat together! Eating together was significant.

“Jeramias notes that in the east, even today, to invite someone to a meal was to extend an honour, an offering of peace, trust, forgiveness. Jesus meals with sinners weren’t merely social revenues or just signs of his empathy for the lowly, though he was compassionate. “*

Did Jesus take compassion too far? He allowed a prostitute to pour oil over his feet, and wipe them with her hair…imagine it, a rabbi and a prostitute? Really?

His compassion also extended to Samaritans both in person and in parable. He talked with a Samaritan woman at the well and he told the now very famous story of the ‘Good Samaritan’, as Rob Bell identifies, the phrase good Samaritan was an “impossibility”!**

The Samaritans were hated by the Jews, considered unclean as half Jew/ half Gentile(non Jewish) people with their own understanding of Jewish law and their own expression of worship, the division went back hundreds of years. So this story of the good Samaritan was ‘brilliant, clever, subversive’!**

Jesus taunted, almost mocked the Pharisees, the keepers of the law. He provoked them with his radical teaching and he worked on the Sabbath. He was accused of blasphemy, his seemingly immoral behaviour and constant challenge to the religious system and those who ran it, along with his refusal to conform to the empire which occupied the land all led to his death! Just a good bloke? I’m not so sure!

These are not the actions of just another good moral teacher, they are more the actions of a subversive rebel. Jesus would probably be more at home on ‘Have I got news for you?’ than ‘Songs of praise’! What if so many of us miss the revolutionary, radical, controversial teaching of this first century Rabbi! What if far too easily Jesus gets written off as a long haired, Swedish looking hippie with some good ideas rather than the religious and political threat he actually was? What if that’s why they killed him?

So where does that leave us? Do we keep Jesus locked in a box with the Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny (although that would make a fab film!?) Do we write him off as a historical figure of some note but now not so relevant? Do we place him on a golden cross at a safe distance and respectfully bow the knee? Or do we find a way to re-read what he taught, seeing it for the life giving, energizing, hope filled news that it was and actually still is? Do we allow what he said, how he lived, who he was to shape who we are and how we live today? Could his questionable moral actions 2000 years ago have significantly shaped morality of society today? Do we acknowledge that within all the Jesus talk, there is mystery and wonder and awe? Do we acknowledge that within us, all those things exist too because that’s part of what it means to be human? What if there there really is something to the whole Jesus thing?

*Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg.

**What is the Bible? Rob Bell.

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www.prodigalcollective.co.uk/home/#podcast

The one about…the moon!

Belief, it’s an interesting concept, something we often dismiss because we’d rather understand and control; we’d rather have proof and logic than just seemingly ‘whimsical’ belief.

It’s fifty years since man first landed on the moon. There are people who don’t believe it to be true. There are whole websites, probably books, maybe some peoples’ life’s work devoted to the arguments for and against the first moon landing; conspiracy theorists looking to prove it a hoax and Nasa scientists devoted to proving it true.

My mum was twenty six when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. She was working nights, listening to the news broadcast on the radio in the nurses station as she and her colleagues staffed the maternity ward. She tells me that she remembers that night so vividly, looking out of the window into the darkness, seeing the glow of the moon and whispering “they’re walking on you right now”. She describes the wonder, the awe, the incredulity of the momentous occasion taking place. She believes. As that incredible event took place, around 238,855 miles away from where she stood, right there in the rooms around her women were giving birth to tiny human beings that they had grown themselves, hidden for months in the womb and then released into life on planet earth, to eventually take their first steps on our incredible planet. We’re not short of things to believe in.

Sure enough both the moon landing and childbirth can be explained in rational scientific terms, some would say its not rocket science but one of them clearly is and the other possibly requires a nursing degree to fully understand the intricacies of the finer details of conception, growth and birth. We can talk about each event in a rational, logical way but there’s something about our logical, reasoned explorations into space and our ability to reproduce that is overridden at some point, for most people, by sheer awe, wonder, mystery and magnificence. What if it’s in those moments of mystery we find that joy and hope are rekindled?

So as we watch the replays of the moon landing this week and are reminded of that ‘one small step for man’ let’s not lose sight of the gift that it is to believe. Perhaps over the next few days, as we catch a glimpse of the moon for ourselves we too might stop and just for a moment lose ourselves in the mystery and the wonder. What if we were to find joy in choosing to simply believe? What if there are more opportunities for belief than we’ve ever really appreciated? What if the rediscovery of belief, wonder and ultimately hope is the ‘giant leap’ mankind now needs to take.

 

The one about…time.

Some things just take time; like moving a family of nine to a new town, or settling into a new job or school, or understanding a new way of being in the world when something significant has changed. We live in a world of instant, fast and quick, we don’t always like the reality that some things just take time. We do however talk a lot about time; about not having enough time, or time running out. We talk about time being of the essence, we use words like ‘anytime’ and ‘sometimes’, we enjoy time off or time out and we work full time or part time. We have a good time, a hard time, a rough time and some things happen all in good time. Sometimes we’re in a race against time, living on borrowed time; or having a whale of a time, the time of our lives, wasting time, at the same time or ahead of time. Time; the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present and future regarded as a whole or a theoretical construct established by humanity to enable us to place or plan events in some kind of order? We make good use of the concept of time, yet across our world time is viewed very differently.

Some cultures don’t place anywhere near as much emphasis on time as we do in the West, or atleast they understand time so very differently. We are monochronic, we are time obsessed, schedule dictated and busy. I read a book* a few years back written by a son of American missionaries who spent much of his childhood in a small African village. His village was visited one day by Frenchmen (but they could have equally been British or American). These Frenchmen asked many questions of the villagers about the future of their village, questions which the village elders were unable to answer. The chief gave this explanation:

“We are not like them. To them, time is everything. Did you see those silver circles on their wrists? Those things measure the day into very little pieces….Frenchmen think that counting time is important. A day can be divided into twenty-four parts, and each of those parts can be divided into sixty smaller parts…the smaller the men can measure the day, the more angry they seem to be. For the Senufo, the movement of the sun is as much measurement of the passage of time as we need. We know when to get up. We know when to work the fields and when to hunt. We know when to rest in the shade. We know when to go home. We know when to sleep. Children, it is enough.”

We do not live in a small African village following the pattern of the sun. Instead as Green Day so eloquently summed up “time grabs us by the wrist, directs you where to go,” we are slaves to our calendars, diaries and schedules and we are often stressed. So is there any way to hold time differently?

What if we start by admitting that there’s something slightly mysterious about time? What if we start to see time as a gift? A tool for us to use but not to be controlled or defined by? What if we were able to literally make better use of time? It seems that time can offer us a lot of comfort as we negotiate some of the more difficult opportunities life throws our way, as though time does have mysterious healing properties. Given time, events that once felt raw, painful and insurmountable become less so, time seems to reduce the pain, intensity and impossibility of some of the circumstances we experience. Time is mysterious in other ways too. There are days where time seems to stand still and days where time seems to fly. Yet we believe time always passes at the same rate? How can some things seems like they happened yesterday when actually it was five years ago and other things seem a lifetime ago despite only a week having passed? There are those moments where time stands still, moments where we witness an incident but it all seems to happen outside of time, we can’t get there quick enough or move out of the way fast enough, its as though we’re not functioning within the usual parameters of time. It seems there’s so much more to time than our narrow one dimensional view, although I’ve heard it said that we actually live in a half dimension of time because we can only move from the present forwards.

Which raises the question of what if there’s something or someone that exists outside of our constraints of time; a being, force or energy that isn’t limited by our understanding of time. An entity that holds all time and sees our past, present and future as a whole? What if we were able to comprehend time in a different way? How would that affect our understanding of death and loss? How would that impact how we hold the present? What if there is mystery to engage in, mystery that enables us to begin to grasp that this isn’t all there is, that what we hold to so tightly isn’t as important as we believed it to be and as we begin to realise this we also begin to let go of some of the things that we thought mattered and begin to celebrate life, here and now, in this place, in this space because time and space are inextricably linked. Here and now will always be where the joy is because here and now are all we actually have.

*Too Small to Ignore, Dr W. Stafford pg 84-85

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one about…it meaning something!

“I can’t do this anymore”. I lay down, closed my eyes and stared intensely at the back of my own eyelids hoping for inspiration; a picture, an image, an idea…nothing, just darkness. I sighed and rolled over. It was going to be a long night.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt trapped like this, don’t get me wrong, it’s not an awful place to be trapped, we’re ok, we’re living life. We can’t stay where we are though and we still can’t see a way forward. It feels a little like I’m in one of those horror movies where there’s no way out and the space is slowly filling with water; something has to make sense soon or I am going to drown.

There are occasional glimmers of hope, possibilities that might come to something but nothing ever seems to be straightforward. Yet in the midst of all the job applications, interviews and conversations about our future, the ‘everyday’ takes place; the real demands, joys and sorrows of raising children, seeing friends and sharing life with each other happens; life happens.

It’s easy just to sit and write about love and hope and adventure; to be passionate about the divine, soul and mystery; it’s at this point though that it has to mean something. It has to mean something when life is hard, when there isn’t a plan, when you can see those around you hurting and you can’t fix it. That’s when all the whimsical theological theorising actually has to be true.

This is where I have to believe that this story, the one I find myself living in, makes sense in a bigger story.

This is where I have to decide to love; to be kind and patient with those around me even though other feelings overwhelm me. This is where I also have to choose to love and forgive myself when I don’t love others as I would like to.

This is where, when fear taunts me, I acknowledge it’s existence but I don’t let it take the steering wheel. It’s where, when grief engulfs me, I allow it to do it’s work but I also take a deep breath and dare to keep hoping.

This is where I have to acknowledge that I can’t meet all the expectations placed on me by myself and others, where I admit I don’t even want to meet some of those expectations. This I where I accept that I don’t always cope and that it’s OK not to.

This is also where the tension between science and soul exists, where the logical reasoned approach to life meets the mysterious whisper of what could be and leaves me torn, not really knowing which route to take. This is where I’m left clinging to the belief that it will all make sense despite the fact that sometimes all I really want to do is hide under the duvet and stare at the inside of my eyelids!

So, this is where I choose to believe in the Divine; in a force that holds all things and where I admit that I believe that same force will renew, restore, refresh and resurrect all things, even my story.

This is where what I write means something. Right here, right now!