The one about…moving forward

However you understand the beginning of the universe there is general concensus among scientists and poets alike that the universe is expanding; that there is some form of ongoing creation, evolution and emergence as the universe is drawn onwards in a forwards motion.

It all began over thirteen billion years ago and a slightly oversimplified explanation goes something like: particles bond with other particles to form atoms; atoms bond with other atoms to form molecules; and then cells are formed (by molecules bonding with molecules) to create organic cellular life, these then progress to more complex life systems (like animals) and then eventually humans appear on the scene, quite a few billion years into the life of the universe. We’re quite a late addition but we’re here and we’re awesome. There is a general understanding that human consciousness did not exist in the earliest specailes of humans (which is why the phrase “he acted like a Neanderthal” makes complete sense!) Our ability to use reason or rational arguments, to express and engage with the vast range of human emotions, is an even newer concept within the universe than humanity itself.

The universe has been moving forwards, becoming more complex and increasingly unified since it began. It could be argued we’re still on that trajectory.

There is a widespread belief that there is a force at work in the universe driving this forwards movement. An energy, or a relationship of energy that holds the motion and draws it on. This energy has been named by some as God, for some that name isn’t helpful so it might be that “love” makes more sense as a name for the force that moves us forwards.

The bible, one of the most famous collections of historical writings, describes God as love. This collection of books also details human history over thousands of years and within its pages there is a very similar call to an onwards motion, a journey towards unity.

I don’t know enough about world history to present a definitive argument for continual forward motion but it does seem that there is progress to be seen, albeit sometimes slower than we’d like. Slavery has been abolished, but still human trafficking is an issue. The Rwandan genocide, the rise of Isis, mass shootings in schools; humanity is still capable of awful actions against fellow human beings. Whilst as a world we’re not rid of all atrocities we as a collective humanity are increasingly speaking up against the evil that we see. As a whole, humanity is moving forwards into a better way of being. British history is a great example, Henry V111 had six wives and he beheaded two of them, the monarchy doesn’t do that anymore. Children used to be forced to work in appalling conditions from a very young age, we don’t do that anymore either and we are increasingly aware of the countries that still do. There are complex issues but more and more western consumers are asking questions about the conditions others are working in and the wages they are being paid. I’m not na├»ve enough to believe progress is made everywhere or arrogant enough to suggest what progress should look like but I do believe that its happening.

Why is this important?

For me it’s important on two levels, firstly because I think it makes sense of so many of our experiences. When we’re jealous or envious of another person, when we feel angry with someone, when we say things that hurt someone else we know it’s not good, we don’t feel good because we’re going against the direction of the universe, those actions, thoughts and feelings are not bringing unity between us or within us. They don’t move us forwards.

This forward motion also makes sense of why we know we can’t go back to the ‘good old days’, why we know we get that feeling we shouldn’t return to that relationship or move back to that place, because even if we do “go back” we’ve changed, we’ve moved on and while sometimes going back works, it perhaps only does so with the acknowledgment that all involved have moved on, changed and progressed. Maybe we never really do go back.

Then there’s death. Death seems to hit us hard. Death does not feel like progress, death does not feel like movement forwards. Death feels like stumbling, falling, stopping. Death feels like a fog preventing us seeing the way, death doesn’t allow movement, death is static and final. Which is why it doesn’t make sense to us, which is why we don’t embrace it, welcome it or aspire to it. Death doesn’t seem to belong in the way the universe is moving.

The other reason I find this forward motion interesting is because there’s an implied suggestion that it’s all headed somewhere. What if there is a preferred future, an ultimate state, a better way; some space time continuum that we are being called on and into by love? What if in that place there is enough to go round, there is no more war, no more death, no more tears? What if we are actually headed towards togetherness, to a way of being in the world that brings peace, understanding and love. The bible calls it the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe there’s something in that?!

(Inspired so much by Rob Bell who does a whole show about this on YouTube ‘Everything is Spiritual’…worth a watch!)

The one about…the necessary wildness.

The markings on the ground suggested that the place had once known civilisation. The concrete giving way to the green shoots of life as they pushed their way through. The faded paint marks were covered in moss and mud while the brambles entwined around the fallen metal poles that had once stood as the entrance to something. The bridge looked unnecessary, the entrance barred as the exit stopped abruptly in mid air, the steps down long since fallen, hard to decipher what it had once crossed. The edges of the concrete flooring blurred into the surrounding landscape and it was only a matter of time before nature completely reclaimed the space as its own.

It seems that, left to it’s own devices, the natural world is intent on restoring everything to what it once was.

I imagine something similar would happen to us if we weren’t so good at maintaining our civilised selves.

We often conform to the expectations of job, marriage or children. We so dutifully follow the well trodden route of school, study and career. We settle down, earn enough money to support the comfortable lifestyle that we expect to live and we raise children to do the same. Is that what it’s really all about? What happens if we stop, for a while, with the upkeep of this civilised existence and allow it all to degenerate? What if we allow the cracks to appear and the wildness of our inner being to take over? What if, just for a moment we allow ourselves to be reclaimed by nature?

It seems we put a lot of effort into fighting decay; exercise, healthy eating, not to mention the skin care regimes, Botox and hair colouring; all often an attempt to keep our bodies at the peak of condition or disguise the evidence of the toll time takes on us. We can’t really fight it though, nature always wins.

Maybe it’s important to acknowledge the natural course that life follows; to acknowledge that our bodies will change, decline and eventually be reclaimed back into the dust they were once a part of. Maybe as we do that we find that we’re able to hold life in a different way? What if we accept we can’t maintain our civilised existence forever and that one day we’ll all be reclaimed by soul or spirit into a mystery we are yet to comprehend?

The question is whether we’re willing to acknowledge the reality of our own decay and death. What if our wild, uncivilised selves long for a life that is authentic and honest instead of one that keeps us just far enough away from that reality? What if the maintenance of our lives too often comes at a cost and keeps us living at a distance from each other, too scared to admit to who we really are?

Maybe there’s a wisdom to the ancient concept of Shabbat or Sabbath, of a day set aside for rest and recreation. Maybe it’s important to take time to reconnect with ourselves, others and the Divine. It’s not easy to stop or slow down in a world that values busyness and production above all else. It sounds a little crazy to our 24/7/365 society but what if stepping aside from the everyday either for an hour, or an afternoon, or even a week or two allows us to see the beauty that we’d forgotten existed because we’re so busy maintaining what we have? What if that kind of rhythm to life is important if we’re going to embrace the wildness? What if the concept of Sabbath is an inspired approach to living which keeps us more in tune with our own heartbeat and more at peace with reality! What if, when we choose to immerse ourselves in stillness rather than busyness, we find there’s not such a distance between the wildness of our souls and our otherwise civilised existence.

The one about…expectation!

Life was spiralling out of control. It had been a year since she’d left home but her understanding of who she was and where her life was headed was not becoming any clearer. Her eating habits were becoming more erratic as she desperately tried to have control over something. She’d failed to gain a place at university for the second year in a row and she had sixteen rejection letters to prove it. As she neared the end of her ‘year out’ she was very aware that life wasn’t going as she’d expected, not only had she failed to meet her own expectations she knew she’d pretty much failed to meet everyone else’s. That’s when the cutting began.

Maybe no ones actually got it together, despite appearances. Maybe we’re all living with expectation in some form or another. We don’t expect relationships to require so much work, we’ve been brought up with the fairy tales full of “happy ever afters.” We expect that we’ll find a job we’ll succeed at and enjoy, after all we’ve spent so many years in the education system surely that’s what we’re entitled to. We don’t even expect our loved ones to die when they do, even though we know it will happen to us all eventually, we never really expect death. We’re not really prepared for what life expects of us and sometimes we don’t cope with that!

Maybe we should be taught to manage our expectations; maybe then we’d cope with those feelings of anger, grief, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear a little better. I imagine though, if we did learn to manage our expectations, that we’d also manage out the joy, laughter, hope and excitement and life would become incredibly monotone or mundane. So we’re left living with the challenge of expectation! Maybe if we could understand expectation our understanding of what it means to cope, or not, would make more sense.

Often in the ordinariness of the everyday we deal with a whole range of emotions because that what life invites. What if intertwined somewhere in those ordinary emotions that we all experience we also juggle that set of expectations placed on us either by ourselves or by others? What if just below the surface of our lives, we’re constantly managing those expectations? Like the pressure from the media to look a certain way, eat certain food or shop in a certain place? Or the pressure from our own family, friends or belief system to live up to a particular way of being in the world. We expect, or are expected, to cope and when we don’t we’re left somewhere between bewildered and depressed.

I know many people grow up with a strongly ingrained set of beliefs and a fierce loyalty to family. When we break away from that and find ourselves “free” of parental control or tribal constraints we take on the challenge of living those expectations. There’s a whole new world to explore. Many of us carry with us throughout life the expectations of the family that raised us, it acts as our moral compass, our marker for how to be in the world! For some that’s intertwined with “religious” belief, for others it’s simply family values. The expectation we get a job, earn money, buy a house, find a partner maybe even have children. Even if we feel our family don’t expect much from us there’s still social expectations that we’ll supposedly conform to. Somehow we learn to cope with those expectations but sometimes we find the demands of them stifling.

Here’s the thing, what if there’s some value in not coping, in not conforming, at least for a while? What if mental or emotional lapses, where we “don’t cope” actually are moments where we discover more about ourselves? What if some breakdowns in stability, some rebellion against societal expectation, or some failure to meet familial goals, are opportunities to reconnect with ourselves, to actually discover who we really are?

It seems that some of the greatest musicians, lyricists, writers and artists often struggled with depression or other issues which compromised their mental health. Some of the most beautful, creative and inspiring work is borne out of that place of pain. What if not coping provides opportunity for creativity to flourish? What if in those moments there is a deeper connection with soul, with meaning and purpose?

What if to some extent we need to celebrate our inability to cope rather than rush to find a quick fix? What if, when the temptation to meet all those expectations takes hold along with the stark reality that we either can’t or simply don’t want to, instead of adopting our usual coping strategies we take time out, to listen to ourselves, to reconnect with who we are and learn from what we’re experiencing because it is actually teaching us something! What if that’s really the role of religion in the world; not to place more expectation on us but to provide spaces and places to reconnect with ourselves and others, to encounter something more and share in the story we find ourselves in. What if then we find we’re better placed to navigate all that life asks of us? What if there’s something about being more honest with ourselves and others that allows us all to realise everyone’s just figuring it out, no one is completely sorted and everyone else is doing today for the first time too?

The one about…rest!

I like to run. When I was pregnant with #6 I ran a marathon a week for the last ten weeks of my pregnancy, we moved house six weeks before he was born so to some extent running was my escape, my way of coping. When #7 was four months old I ran a half marathon pushing him in the buggy, again running was at best a therapy, at worst a distraction, as I came to terms, or tried to come to terms with having no more children! I love to run.

Then just over a year ago I picked up an injury, my achilles, it literally was my achilles heel! I couldn’t run, not properly, not for nearly a year, and still now I can’t run every day. I’ve had to be creative with exercise and I’ve had to rest! Why do I tell you this? Well Friday was a cold, crisp, beautifully sunny autumn morning, the perfect day for a run after school drop, but I’d run the previous two days and I knew my ankle would shout at me if I ran again so I chose to follow one of my running routes at a much slower pace. Frustrated, I began to walk, incredibly tempted to jog slowly, I tried focusing on the positives, fresh air, sunshine, exercise, my mind began to wander, to think about my blog, about what I’d write about because so far this week I’ve started two blogs and finished neither! Then I realisedi should write about rest.

I’m not good at resting, often because the opportunity alludes me but also because I don’t naturally choose it over “doing”. We recently spent a week in Wales, the nine of us, in a cottage on the coast (actually it was an old police station, the children thought it was awesome and took a dress up police kit and proceeded to spend the week arresting each other!!) There weren’t the usual chores, I didn’t take my “to do” list and I’d even finished writing my blog by Sunday afternoon! So the week was focussed on being family and enjoying the sea and the sand, the hills, castles and waterfalls and each other (as well as a giant slide)! A perfect recipe fot adventure!

We climbed, we paddled, we talked, we walked and we played; we played a lot. The favourite of the week was “Hunted”. If you’ve seen the series on TV you’ll have an idea! We picked numbers for hunter and hunted, we strategically placed the buggy with all our belongings in the sand dunes and then we began…the hunter counting to 30 as the rest of us hid in the dips and contours of the coast! It’s safe to say I cannot run on sand, dodgy heel or not and I spent most of my time laughing hysterically at the pointlessness of trying to move at any pace whilst constantly being outwitted by the children!

The week wasn’t even close to ‘sit on the beach with a book’ kind of rest, to be fair it probably wasn’t warm enough! It didn’t even lend itself to cream teas and coffee shops, or strolling around quirky cobbled streets and looking in shop windows, it seems our stage of life doesn’t allow for that! Yet it was a change of pace, it was time to play and to laugh, there was time to all huddle back into the warmth of our holiday home and enjoy doing nothing in particular! I felt rested, mentally, emotionally if not physically!

Even in the every day, rest doesn’t have to mean lying on the sofa! Although I guess we all rest differently. I know that running has taught me that rest, for me, isn’t stopping altogether, it’s more about finding another rhythm, a different way. I don’t run as often or as far as I did. Instead I bike or I walk, for me, that’s rest.

In the creation poem that begins the bible it talks of God as resting on seventh day. It’s called Sabbath and the word is taken from the Hebrew word Shabbat or Shabbos and it means to ‘cease from activity, to rest’. Sabbath is found throughout the bible, from the creation poem which offers an understanding of Gods first interactions with the world through to the followers of Jesus being criticised for not “resting” appropriately on the Sabbath. Somewhere in the story the understanding of Sabbath had become distorted, maybe we still carry a distorted view of Sabbath or rest!

To understand a little more of the importance of rest there’s a story in the bible that’s actually quite helpful. However you view the bible, there’s possibly some wisdom to be gained from trying to understand how life on planet earth is unfolding?! So let’s go back a few thousand years ago to a group of people called the Israelites who’d become slaves in Egypt. Day after day, for years and years, they were forced to make bricks, trapped in a way of life they could do nothing about. Then Moses arrives on the scene! (You might have heard of him: baby in bulrushes/Egyptian prince/burning bush/parting the sea/Ten Commandments…yep, that Moses!) Moses liberates the people and as they journey from enslavement to freedom they find themselves, as Sid described in his talk at church last week, “needing something to hang their day off, a moral compass and good, strong healthy practices to allow them to thrive.”

The concept of Sabbath, a day of rest, was not an onerous law the Israelites now had to keep, it was a gift. The instruction to observe the Sabbath was for their own wellbeing, not a another rule, not another opportunity to fail. It was an instruction for people who didn’t know how to rest, who had been slaves to more powerful force which never let them rest. Sabbath rest was an invitation into a new way of being human that they had not experienced.

Our slavery might not be as obvious as that of the Israelites. Yet, what if there are subtle forces at work around us? A social media network that beckons us in, the urge to check the phone for messages or emails, despite the fact it’s only been ten minutes since the last time? What about that voice that whispers ‘work the overtime’ or the favour you say yes to even though you’d told yourself not to take anything else on? What if our culture is quite driven to “do”? What if we’re slaves to something? Busyness, achievement, people pleasing, success or just feeling good enough? There are so many things we do without really asking ourselves why we’re doing them. What if those things are OK as long as we know we’re still able to say no; walk away; stop; at least every now and again!

Rest, a day off, a change of routine, family time, leaving the phone at home, voluntarily shutting the computer down at 5pm, choosing not to complete the to do list; whatever it might look like for you, rest seems important. The motorway signs tell us “tiredness can kill”… it can! It can kill enthusiasm, it can kill desire, it can kill joy, it can kill creativity. What if we are a little tired; tired of the routine, tired of the constantness (not sure that’s a word!) and tired of the rat race (the problem with the rat race being that even if you win you’re still a rat!!*) What if we really do need rest?

What if rest is where creativity, desire, enthusiasm and joy are rejuvenated, re-imagined, restored? What if rest is where we get to really listen to ourselves and to the universe? What if when we rest we find that creativity flourishes? What if from a place of rest we can discover that awesome lesson plan, that radical presentation, that new suggestion the boss needs to hear, the direction that project needs to head in or that career path, that hobby, that friend we’ve not seen, that child we’ve not properly chatted to for over a week? What if rest allows us to see from a different perspective and re-approach life with a fresh vision?

It’s out of “rest” that ‘prodigal’ is growing…the dream; idea; vision; the possibility of exploring together who we are and who the divine might be, and from that place looking for ways to really live out community, genuinely caring for those around us. (We’ve written a few pages of ideas and concepts which I’ll post as a blog just in case you’re interested!)

So I know from my own story that rest changes things. If you’ve read my previous blog ‘the one about the journey’ you’ll know that we’re in a time of transition. These few months have offered a change of pace, a different routine. I’m not sure it’s what we’d of chosen but it has allowed space; providing an opportunity to stop, think, listen, talk, plan, see differently. It feels like an opportunity to rest from the ‘normal’. It’s not been easy but then birthing something new rarely is, but it is always worth it!

*One of my favourite quotes! Source unknown!!

The one about…the journey!

We moved to Peterborough four and a half years ago, seven of us, on a crazy adventure to a city we didn’t know and people who didn’t know us. To be honest, the very little we knew about the area wasn’t great. The ‘Peterborough ditch murders’ had taken place a year or so before we moved, carried out by someone who lived less than a mile from our house…when you don’t know an area you can be very quick to make assumptions, that along with the fact that both the church houses had been broken into in the months leading up to our move!

Alongside all those events though, the universe was speaking to us! We were invited to meet our prospective training vicar in September 2013. In the run up to the meeting we found an old bible that had been written in by our eldest daughter a year or so before. We’d never noticed but in her scribbled, seven year old handwriting was a prayer: “when we move house can I have my own room and can there be silver birch trees in the garden”. We were given a tour of the parish and shown our possible new home, where there were four bedrooms and silver birch trees in the garden! A couple of weeks after visiting Peterborough for the first time I had a miscarriage. It was a surreal time; the excitement of a whole new adventure, in a city we were slightly fearful of, without a baby we thought we’d be having. Yet the answer to the scribbled prayer connected with us so deeply that as a way to remember the baby and the significance of all that was happening, I had a silver birch tree leaf tattooed on my hand. I’m reminded each time I look at it that there’s a bigger plan and that we were meant to be here!

We’re still here and the adventure has been awesome! We arrived as a family of seven and now we’re a family of nine, with hundreds more friends! Our time here has opened our eyes to the variety that the role of priest or vicar offers. We get the jokes about how Sid only works Sundays…we can see how people think that! There is more to the job though. We have the privilege of sharing with people in key moments; through baptisms, weddings and funerals. We join with those who are celebrating and stand with those who are mourning, it’s humbling to be part of people’s lives. The role here has been so much more than that though too. We’ve been involved in the parish primary school as chaplains, mentors and on the governing body. Sid has taken on role of chaplain to the youth team at Peterborough United and then there are the relationships and conversations that grow out of simply living in a place, of doing the school run, or of taking your kids to clubs. It’s a whole way life.

Out of all those things we’ve also been able to experiment with what church might be, trialing a different way of being church. During the summer before we moved here, we created a list of ‘values’ that we thought were important for church, the key elements of what church could be, based on a combination of experience, reading and Sids training at college. When we came to Peterborough there was an understanding that we’d get to try and put some of our “theory” into practice! We called it “Refresh” and we held a monthly gathering where we talked about things of God, and pondered some of what makes us human; we shared food and formed friendships. Out of this other things began to grow, a weekly tots group, podcasts on the themes of the month and a blog!! In some ways we just began to touch the surface of what we’d like to do, mainly because the role of priest required time and energy too but also because our future here has always been uncertain.

We moved here for a three year training post, knowing that we’d then move on to our own parish. However, nothing’s that straightforward! Fifteen months into the training post, the vicar who led the two churches left. Sid took on the responsibilities of the role of vicar until the lines between curate and vicar blurred. At the end of his three year training post we were given the opporunity to stay for another year and continue the role of helping the two churches work together and become, in Church of England speak, a “united benefice”! A challenge which all involved threw themselves into. It speaks into what church should be: a place where people come together, listen to each other, seek to connect with the Divine. All of this required everyone to give of themselves, to love, forgive and celebrate…it’s a journey we’ve been on together as church. In the midst of that journey though we have had conflicting, confusing messages about our role here, some of that from our own understanding of what we may or may not be ‘called’ to do and some from the institution we work for, who ultimately decide whether we stay or go.

I guess when the vicar left and we continued the work here it seemed to make sense that we’d stay. I know at one point we wrestled with that because we’d always believed we’d have to move on. Staying became a new concept, something we found hard to comprehend at first. There’s a big difference between staying in a place long term and frequently moving. The community here have made it clear that they would love us to stay, which also speaks of what it is to be church, but it’s not that simple. It’s been painful and confusing as well as life giving and exciting. It’s been a time of soul searching, of prayer and conversation as we try to work out what it is we’re passionate about and what we’d give our lives to doing. Something I don’t think we would have explored so deeply if we’d found another parish two years ago!

So here we are, still uncertain about where we’ll do life in 2019 but with some clarity about what we’ll be doing. Our heart, our passion is to create church, Prodigal Church to be precise. Our vision? To be a church in the community, for the community, a spiritual centre of the community but with a very practical, action centred vision to make a difference for good, to go beyond ourselves and our limited experience; to love and look out for each other and those around us and as we discover more of what life in all its fullness looks like for all people!

We’re not sure where this will happen, we’re still trying to figure that out. It’s a little scary with two pay cheques left, especially when the house comes with the job! Yet it’s exciting and briming with possibilities. Life is an adventure; birthing something new is painful…but it’s always worth it!