The one about…the elf that helps!

We have an elf, he’s called Elfie! He helps! He arrived on December 1st with seven advent calendars and a note that read:

My Dear Children,

It is with great delight that I send Elfie to your house to help you prepare for the arrival of Father Christmas. Elves are known for being highly mischievous and causing all sorts of pre-Christmas chaos. HOWEVER, Elfie is a special elf and chooses to only do that which is good, helpful and kind.

Elfie wants you all to enjoy Christmas and although it is unlikely that he’ll spend Christmas Day with you he’s very excited to be with you for advent and to enjoy all that this season offers. To be fair you wouldn’t want him there on Christmas Day as he eats all the sprouts (he thinks that’s the most helpful thing to do as it saves you having to eat them) they give him very bad wind and elf wind REALLY SMELLS!

So enjoy having your little friend to play and remember to also do that which is good, helpful and kind – the elf way is the best way!

Have a very happy advent,

Yours,

Pepper Minstix

Acting Head Elf

So far Elfie has moved the toys to make way for the Christmas tree, dusted the bookcase, swept the floor, cleaned the loo, tried to hang the washing, sorted out the felt tip pens that work from those that don’t, tidied the bookshelf and walked the dog. All because Elfie only does that which is good, helpful and kind!

What’s most interesting about this elf is the way his behaviour is influencing the children’s behaviour! Our seven year old put a box of toys away because “that’s what the elf would do”! She also filled in her “Elf book” finishing the sentence “my elf also likes…” with the word “HELPING!” Our four year old sat with the elf and told him “I’m helping you with your writing” and then encouraged the said elf by saying “well done Elf, you did it!” It does seem that one little elf is having a positive impact on the family!

I read somewhere that ‘the big thing is the accumulation of all the small things’. It reminded me of that phone company tag line “you’re every one to one you’ve ever had”!

The problem is that we live in a world that doesn’t value the small things, a culture that doesn’t recognise the importance of the mundane.

Our culture is very much into event. We celebrated Halloween, closely followed by bonfire night; then the more solemn occasion of remembrance day and now all energies are fully focused on advent, Christmas and New Year. All in less than eight weeks! By the time we’ve thrown in a few birthdays, Valentine’s Day, mothering Sunday and fathers day, oh and Easter we’ll have moved pretty seamlessly from one event to another and before we know it summer will be over and the fireworks will start again!

Somewhere in the midst all of that life goes on. The small things have to take place; the email has to be sent, the washing has to be hung, the beds have to be changed, the dog has to be walked, the dinner has to be cooked, the cake has to be baked, the paperwork has to be signed, the mundane things have to take place. It’s easy to look at other people’s lives and forget they live with the mundane too. It’s even easier to read a book like the bible and forget that the great characters lived through the small things as well as making their notable contributions to life: Jonah and the Whale or Jonah, Daniel in the Lions Den, Moses and the burning bush, Joseph and that technicolor dream coat; they all had days, weeks, years where nothing…much…happened.

It’s especially easy at Christmas to forget the gritty reality of the mundane; sleepless nights, changing nappies, endless feeding, entertaining guests when you’re exhausted! Jesus was a real baby! It’s easy to overlook Jesus childhood and teenage years; we don’t often think of him as a twenty something. Jesus lived the small things, the normal; he played, he studied, he did chores, he went to the temple, he may have even mastered his fathers trade. He ate, walked, slept; the big thing he did was the accumulation of all the small things. Even in the three years of his life recorded in the bible the mundane is often ommitted but the everyday, routine chores must of been carried out, most likely in a way that complimented the bigger story he was living.

Why is this relevant? Christmas will come, there will be food, family and friends. There will be presents and parties. The celebrations for most will continue through until New Year but then for most of us they will end, we’ll all be left wondering where Christmas went whilst facing the cold realities of January and February! Maybe that sounds a little bleak, the New Year is an opportunity for fresh starts and positive thinking but within that there is often some adjusting necessary to enable us to embrace “normality”. What if the challenge is to have integrity during those more mundane days, to see the small things we do each day as an opportunity to shape who we are? What if every one to one encounter shapes those involved? What if we accept that it’s not healthy to live for the next event, and instead of filling our time with plans for ‘the next big thing’ we take time to think about how we do the small things?

What if we also choose to stop once in a while and acknowledge the gift of the mundane? What if the normal, sometimes dull, maybe boring, really is a gift? What if that’s where we get to discover who we really are and find that the bigger picture, the one the world sees, is the accumulation of all those smaller moments that have taken place?

What if the appearance of one little elf really can inspire us to celebrate the whole of life and live it in a way that inspires others! As for why we were sent a good elf, some things remain a mystery!

The one about…a not so perfect Christmas!

Everyone’s talking about it, the shops are fully stocked, the music is playing, the trees are decorated, the lights are twinkling; people are busy planning, shopping, baking, dreaming and now the calendars are counting down. The world (or that’s what we’re led to believe) is getting ready for the big day! The Big Day! That’s the phrase I read in a local publication and that’s when I realised I have a problem with Christmas!

The 25th of December (or for some the 24th) has become such a big event, the “Big Day”! One day where everything has to be ready; food prepared, presents bought, gifts wrapped, cards sent, house tidied, people invited…all for one day, all for the illusion of the perfect Christmas!

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

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

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

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

“Life under the Romans was unbearably brutal. Not only did Rome demand oppressively high taxes, they harshly suppressed every whiff of opposition.

In Sepphoris, for instance, just three miles from Nazareth, the Romans quelled a rebellion by burning the city to the ground and then selling its survivors into slavery. This happened in 4BC, around the time if Jesus birth…”

From a book called ‘Sitting at the feet of Rabbi Jesus’ by Spangler and Tverberg.

Imagine living with this, growing up with this kind of brutality. Into this reality a baby is born. Birth, new life, represents hope, future, possibilities and this baby would grow up to create a new story in the world, or maybe more accurately to tell the true story of the world. He would tell a story that spoke love into the very depth of people’s beings, that spoke the hope of a different way into the systems that had been established, a story that spoke peace into a nation that had never experienced true peace, a baby that brought joy and celebration into a land that had very little to celebrate. A baby that would present the very real presence of a new Kingdom, a new way and ultimately a new King.

This king began life on planet earth as a refugee seeking shelter but would later be the one who would welcome the outcasts in. His story shows that there is hope and joy to be found in the unlikeliest of stories.

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

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

The one about…Prodigal Collective!

Prodigal Collective; it’s happening, right now, intrigued?! I am!!

For those of you who have followed my ramblings in recent months you’ll know that over the summer we as family experimented with church. We talked and laughed and listened and drew pictures and built duplo and ran around with no clothes on (that was just the 2 year old) all in an attempt to try to be church, to try to understand a little more about church. Since then the routine of school and the “normal” demands of life have taken over but Sid and I have continued to journey deeper into the idea of church. We have written a vision; an idea; a framework for what we think it could be, because we think church, if that is indeed the right word for it, more than ever is needed in the world. “Church” offers something to humanity that we as human beings crave, it offers a ‘way of being’ in the world, a way of making sense of what is, and a source of hope for what could be. It is a place where conversation can begin but shouldn’t end because we don’t claim to have all the answers.

Out of this Prodigal Collective is emerging!

Prodigal a Collective is a movement; tribe; community which seeks to connect people to themselves, others and the Divine.
We are prodigal by name and prodigal by nature. We believe there is an extravagant, generous, abundant, benevolent universe which is totally for humanity. Therefore, we desire to be an extravagantly reckless people who love who they are and extend that love to others.
We are inspired by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and believe His story speaks of what it is to be human.
In light of all this, we at Prodigal, are attempting to create a space where meaning can be given to that which we know to be true but can’t always voice, a space where ideas of who we really are and who the Divine might be, can find expression. We want that space to be a place where we celebrate life in all its fullness, where we stand with each other and our communities through the good and the bad and where we acknowledge the gift that it is to be alive.

We recognise that’s a way of describing “church” but we also know that it’s very theoretical, more of an ideology than an actual phenomenon. So we began to play around with what it might look like in reality and we came up with a few more words, which strangely (or not) when put together create a kind of energy that begins to gather speed, a momentum that draws others in with ideas and words and pictures and stories because this whole thing is about giving meaning to something so much bigger than anything we’ve ever experienced.

connect
connect with others, meet up, chat, hang out, integrate, laugh, talk, listen, cry, get together, understand, learn, forgive, connect with ourselves, stop, listen, see, wait, cry, pause, laugh, draw, write, paint, think, be.
encounter
god, the divine, the source of life, the universe, the infinite, the ground of being, force, spirit, mystery, wonder, soul, something more, something beyond, something deeper, meaning, story, experience, life.
share
life, food, possessions, stuff, time, energy, be there, walk, run, have coffee, include, cook a meal, give a gift, cut the grass, do the shopping, walk the dog, feed the cat, grab a pint, together.

In practice we’ll set up school/sports/community chaplaincy, we’ll offer care to the members of our community at times of loneliness, isolation or loss. We’ll look for ways to bring families together, to celebrate life, there’ll be tots groups, parenting courses and other activities. We’ll gather together over food, music, and film, we’ll learn together, express gratitude, be encouraged and experience that ‘something more’ we can’t always define! Prodigal will share, as much as we can, as often as we can! We still don’t know where this expression will find it’s place in the world but it is definitely growing. We have a Facebook page called ‘Prodigal Collective’ and our very own YouTube channel called, erm, ‘Prodigal Collective’… we’re in the process of creating a website (we’re not sure what that’ll be called…just kidding!) We’re inviting you to join the adventure alongside us, to help us write the story that is ‘Prodigal’. At this point that means checking out our pages, offering feedback and suggestions, getting word out and looking for ways to ‘be Prodigal’ in this awesome world in which we live. So good!

The one about…Religion!

I met someone who’s building an extension on his house himself, he’s been working on it for months and we’ve chatted a few times as I’ve wandered past with various children and/or the dog! We’ve talked about the new layout, steel beams, scaffolding placement, underfloor heating, he’s even tried to explain the millimetre tolerances some of the work was out by and the effect that would have. I find it all fascinating but it seems even my vast Kevin McCloud Grand Design knowledge still left me in the dark, smiling but not completely getting it!! Somewhere in the conversation we talked about church, about how hard it is to find the right place to move to and why we can’t stay here, he talked of going to church as a child but how he wasn’t religious. I found myself saying “I’m not religious either, I’m totally into the whole spirituality, soul, deeper meaning thing. I use the word God because for me that’s the word that best fits with what I understand a higher power to be but I love the other words like universe, force or mystery!” I think maybe he decided I was slightly crazy, but he smiled with a definite look of ‘I’m not quite sure how to respond to that’ and suggested there’s something about good moral teaching! Thinking I’d probably said enough I changed the subject to the doors he was making for his house and we were back to me being the one slightly bemused!

The conversation made me think about religion, and as I relayed it to Sid he rememberd a conversation we’d had a while ago about the meaning of the word religion.

‘Religion’ literally means to reconnect, the prefix “re” means “again” or “back”, and then the root word from the Latin “ligare” means connect or unite. Therefore true religion is about connecting again or connecting back into something. Religion is about uniting ourselves again with the divine, others, our world and ourselves, connecting back to something humanity once knew.

Yet so often religion has been used to divide, to separate, to say who’s in and who’s out. So much war and terrorism has been, and is being, carried out in the name of religion, I can see why people don’t see themselves as religious!

There’s a guy in the bible called James and he defines religion as:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

So for James religion was first and foremost about connecting with others, about caring for those in need, the marginalised in society, those that had no-one else looking out for them.

Secondly it was about knowing who you truly were, about keeping yourself from being polluted by the world. The Greek word for polluted is ‘unspotted’ or ‘unblemished’, which is a nod to the sacrificial system James would of known where only perfect, unblemished sacrifices could be presented to God.

So what does it mean to be unblemished? Is James suggesting we should be like those sacrifices? Or should we all take holy orders as an attempt to ensure we’re not polluted! It all begins to sound awkwardly religious if not a little pious!

The truth within the Jesus story is that Jesus lived in the world, fully engaged with the people around him. He ate and drank with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and women; the marginalised, undesirable outcasts of society. He also talked with religious leaders and political rulers, he worked, he cried, he got angry, he joked, he had friends and family who he loved, he was fully human, fully able to be who he was without allowing “the world” to tell him who he should be!

What if being unblemished, unpolluted is not about being perfect, or about being “sinless” but instead about knowing who you are? What if religion is about creating opportunities to rediscover your true identity and reconnect with the truth that you are enough?

The conversation Sid reminded me of was about a quote we’d read that said:

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.

If religion only tells us we’re not perfect, that our lives are polluted or blemished then maybe we need to rethink our religion!

What if instead of telling us what we’re not, religion simply offers us the opportunity to rediscover the truth about who we are, truths about ourselves that we’ve forgotten. What if practising religion is about taking time out from the crazy pace of life to reflect on where we’re at, where we’re going and who we want to be? What if in doing that we realise we’re all connected, that how and who we are impacts others in our family, in our community and in the wider world? What if in taking that time out we find that we’re held by something or someone outside of who we are, a bigger force that is for us, maybe even loves us, maybe is love itself?

If that’s religion then I’m all in religious!

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!

The one about…death (part 3) That’s it… for now!

It’s possibly one of the biggest existential questions. That question we ask ourselves in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep, the one we try to ignore, the one that some days we convince ourselves isn’t relevant. That one question that never goes away! “What happens when I die”? Is there something beyond this life? An afterlife? Eternal life? Will I be OK?

It’s a question that we’re often not good at finding a place or time to discuss, although that said I read in the news this week of a ‘Coffin club’ in Hastings where people meet to assemble and decorate their own flat pack coffins, it seems it’s not only a money saving enterprise but also an opportunity to ‘break down taboos’ about death and allow conversation! I like that!

Some countries and cultures do seem to more naturally embrace death. They allow death in rather than keep it at a distance. Relatives embalm the body themselves or family and close friends dig the grave or the body is kept in the house for a few days, somehow it’s less removed from life, more a part of life, an embracing of the rhythm of the universe. Alongside the embracing, the remembering and celebrating are invited in too; rather just left to funerals or anniversaries, lives are commemorated with annual celebrations. Communities and individuals celebrating and remembering those who are gone.

I’ve been watching a series on Netflix about Jack Whitehall travelling with his father across Europe. They visited the Merry Cemetery in Romania where all the gravestones were hand carved with cartoon portraits of how the deceased met their fate! There are pictures of trains, cars, decapitation, drowning…death is not seen as a sad or solemn occasion but as a gateway to something better, death is celebrated as a joyous moment in the transition to the afterlife.

In the previous series Jack and his dad toured Southeast Asia, visiting a temple in Vietnam to take part in a Buddhist ceremony. They purchased items made from paper, anything from paper money to mobile phones or laptops to motorbikes, tea sets, bath tubs…anything their loved one would of enjoyed whilst on earth or anything thought to be interesting or useful to the deceased now! The items were then burnt as a way of sending them to the deceased. There was something about the conversation that occurred whilst choosing the appropriate items, something about remembering what people enjoyed and imagining what they’d think to life now that created an energy, a kind of joy.

If you’ve ever watched the film ‘Coco’ you’ll know that in Mexico they celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. National Geographic describes the annual festival:

Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones. The rituals are rife with symbolic meaning.

The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative

There’s so much to the festival it’s worth reading up on. I have friends in the UK who are considering adopting some of the customs instead of celebrating Halloween, are start of a new tradtion maybe, that’s really quite beautiful!

It seems that in all these festivals, in all the tradtions and rituals that are created, that there’s something about providing a way to remember and celebrate life while at the same time there’s a recognition that there’s an afterlife, that those being remembered are, well, somewhere!

So what do people believe about life after death?

Wikipedia offers a simplistic overview!

Afterlife (also referred to as life after death) is the concept that an essential part of an individual’s identity or the stream of consciousness continues to manifest after the death of the physical body. According to various ideas about the afterlife, the essential aspect of the individual that lives on after death may be some partial element, or the entire soul or spirit, of an individual, which carries with it and may confer personal identity or, on the contrary, may not, as in Indian nirvana.

In some views, this continued existence often takes place in a spiritual realm, and in other popular views, the individual may be reborninto this world and begin the life cycle over again, likely with no memory of what they have done in the past. In this latter view, such rebirths and deaths may take place over and over again continuously until the individual gains entry to a spiritual realm or Otherworld.

I know that there’s so much to unpack in that, so much that could be said. But here’s the thing, Richard Rohr, one of the people who inspires me most, said

When we speak of God and things transcendent, all we can do is use metaphors, approximations, and pointers. No language is adequate to describe the Holy.

Any language we try to give to the afterlife, words like ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘soul’, and all the stories, explanations or imagery that goes with those words can only be a pointer, or a metaphor, because no-one has the definitive answer. We’re all trying to understand, trying to give meaning to something we may have witnessed but have not fully experienced.

When I think about death, about leaving those I love and about those I’ve loved leaving me, for me it only makes sense if this life is part of bigger story told by the universe; the on-going story of creation where we have our part to play in the care and creation of the world. Where the story is a meta-narrative with love as the main theme. Christianity talks of the ‘Kingdom of God’, a realm beyond, yet within, the one we experience where love does reign and life can be fully lived. What if there’s something in that? What if somehow we transition from this life into eternity in a similar way to the way we transition from the womb to what we’ve come to know as life. What if being born again isn’t some random Christian terminology but actually a helpful way of understanding death? What if we find in death the fullness of love and life? What if in death those we’ve loved are held by this love? What if we can trust that when our time comes, we will be too?

I don’t know, they’re only words…and sometimes words aren’t enough!😉