The one about…love!

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. The author of the book visits a well known neuroscientist who explains a little about what a developing brain needs.

To develop properly, she says, 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 t’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,'”*

Love, it seems, is really quite important and the scientists agree. But what is love? 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?

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.**

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 has gone and the future is unknown no matter how much we think we know. But what if we find that 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.

What if love is not something that is given but rather is better 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. What if that’s where we find “God’s love” really does make a difference and that “God’s love” changes everything because actually God is love.

*All credit to Barbara Strauch for her research and writing!
* 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? 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 fifteen 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 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…a spiritual force.

There’s a relationship of energy that runs through the universe, a force that courses through all the systems, networks and connections in existence, driving them to continually go beyond themselves, to keep becoming something more.

The bible, in all its poetic, pre-scientific understanding seemed to grasp something of the concept of spirit; a force or energy at work in the world continually moving humanity beyond its current understanding. We often use the word God. The ancient biblical manuscript defines God as spirit and love. Love can therefore be understood as a divine energy or a supernatural force. Love is ultimate reality. Love guides us, love shows us the way, love holds us, love wins, love overcomes, love forgives, love accepts, love welcomes, love gives of itself but never runs out, love finds us, love overwhelms us, love says you are enough, love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy, love does not boast, love does not dishonor others, love is not self-seeking, love is not easily angered, love keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.*

Love has always existed, in the beginning love was and love will always be.

What if we really believed in love? Would that have the capacity to change how we relate to those around us? Would love bring to life all those qualities we associate with it like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness? What if love enables us to live out the qualities and characteristics that bring us together, that enable humanity to get along? What if all these characteristics bring unity?

So it follows that characteristics which aren’t loving; like distrust, hatred, jealousy, envy, theft, pride or immorality; that these are ways of being in the world that cause us to stagnate, to retreat back within ourselves or to be ashamed. These are ways of being that cause division. They are not qualities that move us forwards towards unity but actually are qualities that tear us apart and cause us to isolate ourselves from the rest of humanity.

What if love, in response, has the ability to meet us in those places and spaces that we’re finding difficult? What if love meets us in moments of shame, fear or isolation? What if love call us out of those circumstances that are causing us to disconnect? What if love is present in whatever we’re battling with; self harm, depression, alcohol, unemployment, lack of identity or purpose, the mundane, children, or just the everyday, and what if love has the ability to call us on, through, beyond those experiences or moments and offer us a different way of being in the world?

What if love really does move us forwards? What if God really is love? What if you go back an re-read this blog changing the word “love” to “God”?

What if God then becomes a force for good rather than a force that causes division or a concept that creates arguments? What if God stops being someone or something certain groups have a monopoly over or something we’re obliged to pacify? What if God could actually unite us? What if God could be a force that inspires us or a way of life that we’d choose to follow?

What if God and love become more interchangeable in our understanding of the universe and of ourselves?

N/b What if you spend hours working on a blog and then your husband reads you a quote from Richard Rohrs daily meditations:

Raimon Panikkar’s word cosmotheandric is the fusion of cosmos (world), theos (God), and andros (man) and suggests a continuous intercirculation among these three distinct planes of existence in a single motion of self-communicating love. —Cynthia Bourgeault

What if there really is something in all of this?

*some of this taken from 1 Corinthians 13…one of the most popular wedding bible readings!

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 naïve 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…mourning

mourn

/mɔːn/

verb

feel or show sorrow for the death of (someone), typically by following conventions such as the wearing of black clothes.

feel regret or sadness about (the loss or disappearance of something).

Mourning can take many forms and opportunities to mourn can vary. We mourn the loss of a job or relationship. The realisation that a situation has changed and we’re not going to do life in quite the same way can leave us feeling bereft of familiar routines, experiences or places and a type of mourning takes place. Most commonly though, when we talk of mourning, we talk of it in relation to physical death.

Mourning death varies from culture to culture. In the UK we’re often quite ordered and reserved, a viewing of the body is generally only for immediate family and the work of preparing the body for burial is left to a funeral director. Funerals are often solemn occasions, followed by burial or cremation and then a shared meal with family and friends.

In other parts of the world though the deceased’s body stays with the family, openly on view for visitors to pay their respects. Some cultures are very vocal and express their grief with wailing or song. Some cultures have set mourning periods with rituals that have to be observed.

Across the world, however it’s carried out, mourning is recognised as an outward expression of grief, a more visible, tangible display of those feelings we hold inside.

Mourning isn’t just culturally influenced, our personality, previous experiences and relationship to the deceased also influence when, where and how we mourn. However we practice mourning, however prescriptive our tribes methods of mourning are, mourning is a healthy part of the grieving process.

There ability and need to mourn privately has its place and is unique to the individual but there is something beautiful that occurs when a community comes together to mourn. While each individual holds their own thoughts and feelings the act of sharing together allows a deeper sense of solidarity and understanding to be expressed. In coming together there’s also somehow a recognition that the need to mourn isn’t always in proportion to the loss experienced. This shared experience is often one which strengthens community and unites those who participate. Mourning together goes further though because it allows space for community members to comfort each other, to stand alongside each other, it requires courage to admit feelings and to hold others feelings alongside our own.

It seems that often as we mourn what’s taking place is an admission of those feelings that are deepest within us. For most people death within the community or family stirs our deepest fears about our own mortality. It’s as though death reminds us how vulnerable we are and how uncertain life is. Maybe death isn’t just the loss of someone but also the loss of our own innocence and security and a reminder that we can’t hold anything too tightly.

What if this is why mourning is so essential? What if mourning allows us to feel those fears, to let them surface and to acknowledge them in the presence of others who share those feelings too.

So as those feelings of sadness and fear surface, as moments of despair, hopelessness and grief manifest what if we choose not to avoid feeling? What if we’re not too quick to distract ourselves from feeling? What if we choose not to bury those feelings underneath the mundanity of life or deny their existence but what if instead we allow ourselves to feel, to embrace feeling and to be embraced because what if that’s where we find life?

Mourning is painful, mourning requires vulnerability but what if, in doing so, we create an opportunity to know ourselves a little more, to allow others in and to allow love to comfort and heal? Maybe it’s good for us to mourn…

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…Christmas light!

There are lights everywhere, hanging from houses, entwined into trees, projected onto walls, glowing as the outlines of reindeers and sleighs; all so good because it’s dark out there! It’s dark when I walk the dog. It’s only just light when the children leave for school. Every morning our two year old wakes up and with his head tilted and an inquisitive look on his face says, “It morning? Dark gone?”

We don’t like to linger in the darkness; we’re often quite desperate to find the light. Human beings are actually quite good at light! Bonfire night is all fire and fireworks, at Halloween we light pumpkin carved lanterns, during advent we light candles, and now our streets are glowing with Christmas lights! It’s almost as though in the darkness of winter we jump from one light-filled celebration to the next as we attempt to live in light.

Darkness can take many forms, it’s there in the natural cycle of day and night, it can also be there like a cloud that hangs over us; an experience that leaves us feeling hopeless; an event that rocks the very core of our being or simply days/weeks/months of life just being tough. We talk about dark places, those spaces that are eerie, that make us feel uneasy. We talk about living in dark times; local, national and international events occur that make us realise our world isn’t all brightness and light!

Darkness can take us by surprise, darkness can seem endless, darkness can lead to despair. Darkness is real. It’s no wonder we like light, it’s no wonder we create occasions to pin our hopes on and get us through dark times; the next weekend, the next holiday, or the next event become the lights that we stumble towards as we try to avoid the darkness in our world, or in our lives.

Yet there’s wisdom to be found in the darkness. Wisdom shows us the glimmer of light, a star that shines as a spark of hope. Yet our problem often isn’t the darkness, it’s more that we don’t stop in the darkness to find our way. We don’t stop to take in the lights that are shining, to look at what they show us or where they point, we too often just stumble from one to another without any real sense of direction.

Our four year old was a sheep in his school nativity play, lost in the dark because of a star that couldn’t shine! The plot is described as:

The big star has to show the way to the stable where a special baby has been born – but he just can’t shine. How will the shepherds and kings find their way if they cannot follow the star?

Fortunately, all the other stars lead the big star to the stable where he sees Mary, Joseph and the beautiful baby. He realises that Jesus loves all the stars, angels and people of the world and this love gives the big star the strength to shine again.

For some Jesus is the light. The bible describes him as ‘the Light of the world’. For others that light is perhaps more simply described as love. What if, whatever language we use to describe that light, we need that brighter light so that we don’t live life just stumbling from one thing to the next without any real sense of direction?

What if this Christmas as the stars shine, the lights twinkle and the candles flicker, we take time to stop and think about the direction our lives are going? What if we stop to think about the bigger light that guides our way? Because what if there actually is a brighter light, a true light that illuminates the bigger picture of our lives? A light that influences the way we think and act?

A true light will show the way, disperse the fear, expose the lies and reveal the truth. Maybe there’s something important about the light we choose to follow! What if we’re inspired by that light to shine in the darkness too, to bring hope and help show the way. What if, with enough of us shining, the whole world becomes a brighter place and we can all wake up saying “It morning? Dark gone?”