The one about…believing!

It’s Christmas! It really is!! The music, the lights, the tinsel; the presents wrapped, food bought, cards written, nativity plays done, stockings hung…and now the final details come together to create the magic we love to believe in, as we wait to see what unfolds.

We watched a movie about two siblings experiencing Christmas after the death of their dad; the girl trying desperately to hold onto the magic while her older brother gets in with the wrong crowd and becomes angry, distant and cold. That is until they meet Santa. The theme that underpins the whole movie is “belief” and at Christmas there is so much to believe in…cheeky little elves who choose a family to spend December with, flying reindeer and of course the jolly bearded man himself. Then there’s all the details; the reindeer eating carrots and glittered oats, Father Christmas nibbling mince pies and drinking the milk or whisky! There’s the questions of how he gets it all done in one night and of how he gets in, even if you have a chimney! The whole thing is encapsulated in awe, wonder and mystery!

The Christmas experience requires belief. Even if we don’t “believe” anymore it seems that somehow, in some mysterious way, we do believe; we believe in the love that’s shared, the joy and delight it brings or at the very least we believe in creating the magic for others. We believe in Christmas!

Children are good at believing all year; the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the God character, heaven and hell…they immerse themselves in believing! Yet as adults we’re often quick to dismiss those things as childhood fantasies or ideologies we outgrew. But what if believing isn’t some childish, immature craze that we grow out of but a skill, an art form, an ability we should hone, one that is fundamental to human flourishing!

In ‘The Christmas Chronicles’, Santa Claus declares that:

People need Christmas to remind themselves of how good they can be.

I see what he’s saying, and I’d never want to contradict the big man but what if we need Christmas not just to be reminded of how good we can be but to be reminded of how good life can be?

There’s something about choosing to believe in the good that enables us to overcome doubt and suspicion. At Christmas we seem to make that choice more readily. We all know that that the reality of life is often brutal and painful. There’s way too much sadness and hopelessness in our world. We read it in the news, we see it in our communities and we know it within ourselves. Yet the choice to believe allows us, even if only for brief moments, to dream; to hope; to live.

What if, when we believe, the world becomes alive with possibilities? Some of the things we believed in as children we know to be from a world of fantasty yet what if to dismiss all of it leaves us sceptical, suspicious and somewhat sad. What if to loose that sense of mystery and magic means we loose our ability to see beyond what ‘is’ into what ‘could be’? What if so often we parcel up all thoughts of soul and spirit, of awe and wonder and put them away with the Christmas decorations as though they are only allowed to dance when Santa and his elves make an appearance?

What if as we shift our focus towards that baby born as a refugee, living his first years with a very real threat of death we see within his unfolding story a way of life that brought reconciliation, restoration, hope and love? What if we believe that the birth of that baby, at the very least, is symbolic of life, new beginnings and new possibilities?

What if Christmas is God’s way of saying “I believe in humanity”?What if at Christmas we hear the universe whisper “I believe in you”? What if knowing someone or something believes in us changes everything? What if Christmas is a reminder to us of how life could be if we believed in the mystery, and the magic; in love, in the goodness of others and in ourselves? What if believing in ourselves and others is how we’re then inspired to bring light to the world?

The one about…love (again?)

“Marian Diamond, one of the grandes dames of neuroscience, is known for her work on how experience molds brains…to develop properly, she told us, the brain must have certain experiences: good diet, exercise for good blood flow, challenges and love.

‘You know, I say that part about love in all my lectures and the men all laugh. They are scientists and they know it’s true, but they won’t say it,’ she said, as she carefully tucked the brain back in its tupperware bowl and closed the lid on the flowered hatbox. ‘Then, after the lectures, you know what those men want? They all want a hug,'”*

I’ve been reading a book called ‘Why are they so weird? What’s really going on in a teenagers brain.’ It’s a fascinating read and helpful as I attempt to navigate life with my tribe…but those paragraphs really connected with me. Love, it seems is really quite important, even the scientists agree!

But why? What is it about love that’s so important? What does love even look like? Is it that warm, fuzzy feeling we get when all is well in our “world”? Do I only feel it when the children are happy/ healthy/ behaving? Do they only feel loved when I say “I love you” or hug them or buy them something? I’m told God loves me and Sid says he loves me but what difference does that make when I’ve been yelled at about an unwashed PE kit, the missing script for the play, a forgotten water bottle and the inconvenience of putting shoes on, all in the space of half an hour! The barrage of abuse can leave you feeling drained, especially when your two year old wouldn’t sleep and you spent most of the night in bed with him. Where does love feature in that!? I’m feeling something but I’m not sure it’s love! So what is this love thing? Does love change anything when your world is shaken or when the story that’s unfolding is not what you hoped for and it hurts? What does love look like and does it make a difference? Those have been my thoughts since I wrote the last blog.

A guy called Pete Rollins writes a lot about love (and I mean a lot…he has such mind blowing philosophical theological way of attempting to understand life…read his books…honestly!) He wrote this:

Love is the crazy, mad, and perhaps ridiculous gesture of saying yes to life, of seeing it as worthy of our embrace and even worthy of our total sacrifice.*2

What does it mean to say yes to life, to embrace life? Maybe we say “yes” when we get up, carry on, force a smile, stop and take a breath, slow down, make that phone call, change that plan, have that conversation, give that hug, write that message, mop that floor, open those curtains, the list could go on. I don’t know what saying “yes” looks like for you or how you embrace life but it often requires something more of us, we often have to dig deep and find an energy we didn’t know we had…and that energy? Love? What if there’s something powerful about saying yes to life, despite the tears, the fear, the uncertainty, because as we do, this force we call love transcends the moment?

What if love, actively choosing life, saying “yes” and embracing life, keeps these momentary (although sometimes seemingly eternal) problems, fears, frustrations, heartbreaks, in their place? In some senses all that we have is this moment, the past had gone and the future is unknown no matter how much we think we know. But what if we find each ‘now’, each moment, features in a bigger story at work in the world, a story which is more than the now, a story bigger than any one moment, or person, or power, or government, or leader, or illness, or celebrity, or prisoner, or child, or mother, or father, or sister, or brother or even death? A story that is held by love, a story which has existed from the beginning and continues into forever. What if in that story love has the first and the final say, we just get to play our part, and our part makes the story interesting but it isn’t the whole story!

Love then is not something we own, or something we wait to receive. Love is not something that relies on there being another to love. Love certainly isn’t just a word.

Peter Rollins suggests:

God is not approached as an object that we must love, but as a mystery present in the very act of love itself.

What if love is not something that is given but rather is understood as an action, or an attitude to life; and in that act of love we say yes to life, in that expression of love we recognise life as worthy of giving our deepest self to, sometimes in the inconvenience and the rethinking of plans because sometimes love requires us to sacrifice one way for a new way. As we love, as we give of ourselves to that moment and find ourselves in the bigger story, that’s when the mystery is manifest, the force, spirit, energy, divine otherness, God becomes more tangible, more real. That’s where we find that “God’s love” really does make a difference and “God’s love” changes everything because God is love.

*All credit to Barbara Strauch for her research and writing!

*2 The Idolatry of God: Breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction.

The one about…fear!

I knew it was going to be ‘one of those evenings’ when she said she couldn’t get to sleep! The wind was unusually strong, and eerily loud, especially through the huge yew trees which stood at the top of the garden.

“It’s just the wind”…I tried desperately to play it down but it didn’t help that last winter a large branch had fallen and narrowly missed the van parked on the driveway. I knew my attempts to convince her that it was ‘just a bit windy’ weren’t going to make any difference, no matter how many distraction techniques I tried!

I’d had about half an hour to myself, I don’t think I ask for much, just a little time to gather my thoughts, process the day and just be me once they’re all in bed…but best laid plans and all that! I took a breath and tried not to sound irritated, she was genuinely scared… “Ok, get into my bed, I’ll sit in there with you!” That was my evening gone!

I checked the oldest three were settled, and the rest were asleep. I put the dog to bed and texted Sid (he was out with friends) to warn him there was a child in his bed and he’d have to jump into hers when he returned, then I got into bed, the wind still howling…she took my hand and gripped it and then, within minutes I felt her grip loosen and her body relax, she slept…

It was the most beautiful moment. All my irritation and disappointment about “my time” melted away as I watched her sleep. The wind still howled, the trees still swayed and I was very aware that there’d be nothing I could do if they did fall on the house…but somehow I made her feel safe, somehow me being there was enough.

There were many things I thought about in that moment. I wondered why I’d got so precious about my time? (Had I not learnt that time is prodigal?!) Did I think I deserved an evening to myself, like it was something I’d earnt! Did I think I could clock out of parenting at 8:30pm because most of them were in bed? Had I learnt nothing in fourteen years!! There’s always another evening and I do know parenting is 24/7… it’s not like our youngest let’s me forget that!

I think the thing that bemused me most was the trust my daughter had in me, she found security and safety, not because I could change anything, but just because she knew I loved her. It was almost as if, in that moment, love overcame fear; as if love drove the fear out; as if love left no room for fear to exist.

I know that much of the fear in our world could be overcome if we learnt to love others rather than hate or distrust them. I know that some fear is irrational and can be negated by logic and self-talk. But what about the fears that are deeply personal, the fears that haunt us about who we are, where we’re going and how this is all going to end? How do we face those fears?

It seems sometimes we distract ourselves from those fears; we shop, we work, we socialise, we watch TV, we read books, we flick through social media, the list could go on and none of the things we do are wrong or bad in moderation, but they can become avoidance techniques and in the long run they’re about as useful as me trying to play the ‘Greatest Showman’ soundtrack to my daughter to drown out the wind!

The fear doesn’t go, it might be numbed or hushed for a while but often, deep within, our soul is still troubled, still uneasy, still fearful, no matter how much we try to avoid it. Admitting the fear exists is painful, it leaves us vulnerable. Maybe acknowledging that our soul needs to be held; that what’s deepest within us needs to connect to someone or something else; that our truest reality needs to know love, is the start to working with that fear.

Maybe that’s why the bible talks of God as love. What if in that moment where I held my daughter’s hand, the mystery that we call God; that divine force; that love; became a very present reality? What if it’s love that both awakens and calms our soul? What if love is one way we experience the something that is outside of us, something we know to be true but can’t always define? What if God really is love and love really does exist!

The one about…the prodigal pine cone!

Did you know that pine trees produce male and female pinecones? The female cones carry the seeds, and each female seedcone has two seeds in each of its scales…I tried to count the scales, there are a lot! There are a lot of pine cones on a tree (although apparently they take 2-3 years to grow so a tree never sheds all its pine cones at once!)…that said, that’s a lot of seeds from one tree! Pine trees are prodigal with seeds…doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue does it but there’s something about that word ‘PRODIGAL’…
prod·i·gal

adjective

1. spending money or using resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.

2. Having or giving something on a lavish scale.

Nature is prodigal, it’s also messy but it’s more than just mess, it’s lavish and extravagant and bountiful…which can also seem wasteful and excessive and imprudent! There’s something about the mess that is extravagantly excessive!

Yet we so often forget that the forces which surround us, whether we see that as a force of nature or a divine force, are excessive and bountiful and extravagant. Instead we live with scarcity.

Lynne Twist, in her book called ‘The Soul of Money’ writes

For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it… before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are reaching with a litany of what we get, or didn’t get done, that day….This internal condition of scarcity lives at the very heart of our jealousy, our greed, our prejudices, and our arguments with life…(pg 43-45)

Scarcity; restricted quantity, not enough, shortage, lack…those are the beliefs that permeate our culture! We’re constantly bombarded with messages that tell us time is running out, that encourage us to ‘get it before it’s gone’ or taunt us with that ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’…we stock up for Christmas even though shops are only closed for a day or we start shopping in September because the shelves are full and whispering to us that we’ll not get it all done in time!

If it’s not time that’s scarce then it’s resources, or hope, or joy. Have you ever been in a conversation where it seems as though the other person is trying to out do you on how busy they’ve been or how hard their day was? Like the scene from Notting Hill where they try to prove they have the ‘saddest act’ to get the last brownie. There’s something about a ‘being hard done by’ attitude that is fed by feelings of scarcity because the flip side is celebration of all there is and all we have. It’s as though scarcity feeds some kind of fear. This fear tells us that if I actually admit I’m happy, excited, joyful it might change or the fear suggests that this moment might be part of my happiness quota so I’d best not waste it on enjoying doing homework with the kids!

It seems we’re good at scarcity which is maybe why there’s a story in the bible, often called the prodigal son. The son is prodigal because he takes his inheritance before his father dies and wastes it on ‘wild living’ (whatever that is?!). He’s reckless and excessive, and so eventually the money goes and with it the friends he’d made until he’s left feeding pigs (not the top job in Jewish culture!!). The son ‘comes to his senses’ and returns to his father, ready with a speech about how wrong he’s been and how he doesn’t deserve anything…but the father, the prodigal father, lavishes gifts and unstinting celebration on his returning son.

It’s a feel good story of forgiveness and welcome and generosity… (although the actual ending is a bit obscure; there’s a jealous older brother who’s reluctant to accept the prodigals and we’re not told the outcome of that!) The story would of played havoc with the culture of the day, was Jesus actually suggesting that God could be that reckless and extravagant and excessive??

The thing is, all of creation points to a God that is just that, a God, a force, a power that gives without measure, that suggests there is enough to go around and that time is eternal…this power, this force invites us in to a flow, or a dance of extravagance rather than scarcity, of celebration rather than fear, of generosity rather than greed, of life rather than death. We’re invited to come to our senses!

What if we choose to believe this truth? What if that leads us to be people who enjoy the moment rather than endure it? What if we’re people who dare to admit we’ve had a good day rather than list all the occasions where it was a bit full on? What if we’re people who look for the opportunities within our hectic schedules to enjoy all that there is and in doing so realise that some things can wait? What if believing there is enough in our world for everyone means we genuinely start to look for opportunities to share more fairly? What if believing there isn’t a lack means we don’t need to stockpile at the expense of others because we will all get a share? What if somewhere in the extravagance of the pinecone there’s an invitation to life in all it’s fullness, to a life of richness and meaning that’s not based on material wealth but on an unending supply of all that we really need!

The one about…what we forgot!

There are reminders all around us of a truth we’ve forgotten, the truth that the very essence of who we are is good. The truth that the centre of our being is holy, right and beautiful. Autumn brings these reminders to us in such generous proportions as the air freshens and the trees shout of the faithfulness of the universe! The conkers are starting to fall and I feel a strange kind of awe, I watch the children as they find creative ways of breaking the unopened outer cases to reveal the shiny, smooth conker 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!

Yet so often we don’t see the goodness, and sadly much of Christian teaching suggests we’re not good enough, that we failed before we even began, it’s the doctrine of original sin; it haunts us and inhibits our ability to be fully alive. Even if we don’t subscribe to a religion, or that strand of one, there is a whisper around us that we are not enough; not successful/thin/wealthy/fit/popular/clever/________ enough! 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. There are even hymn lyrics to that effect! 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 also damage 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. I talked with a friend who told me of an elderly lady, who on her death bed did not feel ‘good enough’ for what was coming next, which suggested she’d never discovered the truth about herself; that she is good.

What if the Jesus story is a reminder of the truth that we are good? What if the teaching of Jesus is, at it’s very heart a call back to our true self? What if Jesus speaks of a different way because the way we so often choose isn’t good for us, isn’t the way of the soul? What if religion, at it’s very essence, is about reminding us of this truth? What if religion is about creating ways for us to step aside from the lies we’ve come to believe and actually connect with who we really are. Sid found this quote:

Religion:
The root, ‘re ligio’ (latin) rebinding re-ligamenting is not doing its job if it only reminds you of your distance, your unworthiness, your sinfulness, and your inadequacy before God’s greatness.

Reconnect
re = again
ligare = connect

What if 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 calls to us in the most unlikely of places.

There’s a Jennifer Lopez song called ‘Feel the Light’, used in the movie “Home”…

Feel the light
Shining in the dark of night
Remember what we forgot
I know it’s a long shot
But we’re bringing it all back
We’re bringing it all back
Feel the light
Shining like the stars tonight
Remember what we forgot
I know it’s a long shot
But we’re bringing i
t all back

There’s something so deep, so mysterious to remembering ‘what we forgot’. There is a light that shines into our story, even in the darkest of moments, that reminds us of who we are, that brings it all back and allows us the opportunity to re-imagine religion, reconnect with ourselves, and restore a right understanding of the divine. There’s a call to return home. There is also something about a reclamation of orginal goodness that could change our world!

*A Richard Rohr quote and then lots of thoughts inspired by J.P.Newell’s book ‘Christ of the Celts’- worth a read!

The one about…soul! (Or church:part 4!!)

When was the last time you watched a movie that stirred something deep within you? Or listened to music so hauntingly beautiful that it spoke to you of something more? Or read a book, unable to put it down because it seemed to be telling your story? Have you ever found yourself lost in a piece of art, a photo or a painting or a sculpture or graffiti? Or maybe you’ve sat and stared at the ocean and simply known that it’s all going to be ok, whatever it is!?

How do you describe those moments where you lose yourself, yet find yourself in something beautiful? What language do you use to give that the meaning and honour it deserves? Sometimes we say it made ‘our heart sing’, other times we might talk about how it ‘just made sense’ or we ‘just knew’. It seems like sometimes it’s head, sometimes it’s heart, sometimes it’s both. Yet there are times when it’s something far deeper, far richer and far more a part of us than either head or heart! What is that? What language do we use to give that meaning?

Have you ever heard the phrase she put her ‘heart and soul into it?’ Or he was the ‘life and soul of the party?’ There’s soul music (Marvin Gaye…Otis Redding…Stevie Wonder) we talk of finding a soul mate, the disappointments we experience can be soul destroying and that friend we have who’s struggling to know what to do next we describe as a lost soul…some people bare their soul and we describe others as having sold their soul! All these phrases, these synonyms, they’re all attempts at describing an event or action that’s something more than we’d usually experience. When we use the word soul, even in these quirky phrases, we’re attempting to describe something that’s bigger, deeper, more meaningful than what we think we know to be true!

The soul is not often talked about, yet it’s there, hidden, not just in our language but in the very depth of who we are. So when we talk of those things that connect deeply within us; or the things that stir those feelings that have become buried under all that is life; or those interactions that spark fresh ideas of how it could be back into flame…what if we’re not talking about head or heart but soul?

What does all this have to do with church? When we talk of church being ‘the Way’ could it be that it’s the way of the soul? The teachings of Jesus which inspired the first church were teachings that connected with the hearers in a way that the rest of life didn’t. They were teachings that offered something new, more or different and inspired people to live a new or different way. Those teachings spoke to the soul! Teachings about not worrying, teachings about forgiveness. Teaching about true peace not the forced peace they lived with. Jesus taught about being blessed in times of grief, loss and misunderstanding. Jesus teachings took what people thought to be true and turned it upside down. There’s something about a way that challenges the status quo, a way that calls into question how it is and offers an alternative way that is richer, better, fuller than anything previously experienced that awakens our souls and invites us to dare to dream…to really live!

There is an invitation whispering through all of creation, an invitation to listen to the soul; to follow the path of the soul. It’s an invitation to continually discover more of who you are, to find your true self, and in doing so find a deeper understanding, connection, respect and love for others, the world and that which is outside of ourselves.

If church can be a space where that can happen…then that becomes interesting!

The one about…church (part 3)!

Our church theme this week was ‘encounter’. I’d asked the children how they encounter God…to which at least four of them enquired “what does that mean?” “Hmmmmm…encounter? Well kind of like ‘experience’ or ‘meet with’?” Trying desperately to clutch at words that they might hang some meaning off without suggesting answers. “Erm …what helps you know God’s there?” I left it at that and let them think about it for a few days!

We gathered together in our usual chaotic style, some sat round the table, two refused to leave the train track in the other room and one was there fully focused on her iPad! Our seven year old had a friend round so they decided to build “the way to church” out of duplo…again! Whatever works I guess!

And then we talked and it was awesome! Our eldest talked about needing ‘quiet time to think’ and that helped him meet with God…one of the girls said she liked to read the bible ‘because of the wisdom’ and if she didn’t understand it it she’d ask God what it meant….one of the others said she told God her feelings…another said “well I pray”…we talked about noticing how nature reveals something of Gods character, the abundance and the faithfulness of creation…Sid talked about riding his bike and the head space and freedom just to be.

As we talked we realised that everything we’d shared with each other in that moment was about solitude and space…not one of us talked about encountering God at church! Which really made me think! Why go to church?

So I left to walk the dog and as I walked through the woods I meditated…? Mused? Prayed?! Which got me thinking about the very beginnings of church!

There was something about the first church back two thousand years that believed a different way was possible. A new community was born, sometimes referred to as ‘The Way’*, inspired by the teaching of Jesus. This community, this “way” offered a radically new or different lifestyle to the dominant one around at the time…and throughout history the true church has often found itself victimised, persecuted and questioned because it was so contrary to the worldview being lived out in society.

Today should be no different, as we seek a way of love, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation; a way that delights in original goodness; a way that offers hope and life in the midst of fear and death; that “way” should create a community that is radically different to the dominant culture! If church really is offering a different way then it would make sense that we go to church to be encouraged, to find others who are wanting to live in a way that offers something more than the way the world offers…and then to share the stories of how we live that out!

An American pastor/writer/professor called Eugene Peterson wrote:

“I was now well on my way to learning that congregation (church) is a place of stories. The stories of Jesus, to be sure. But also the stories of men and women…it is never just my story; it is a community of stories. I learn my story in company with others…we’re looking for meaning to our lives. We catch a thread and we follow it, receiving the good news that God is gracious…and then we bump up against someone else’s story that we don’t even recognise as a story…”

The Pastor pg 106/107

This ‘bumping up’ against other stories, this is how we grow, how we learn, how we encourage and are encouraged. Sharing our stories of encounter, listening to stories of encounter with God, with something or someone other, inspires us to keep following The Way! To believe, as Richard Rohr writes, that “a new or different life was possible”.**

The question this all raises though is what actually is ‘the Way’? What did Jesus teach? How do we live lives that are radically different? What does this new or different life even look like?

*see the book of Acts in the bible!!

** Richard Rohr Daily Meditations May 7th 2018