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…why I write!

The human body is extraordinary!

  • An adult human body is made up of about 7 octillion atoms. To give you an idea of the size of an atom apparently there are more atoms in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in all of the oceans put together! They’re quite small!*
  • There are ten times more bacteria cells in your body than human cells! Nice!
  • In an adult human, blood circulates about 12,000 miles a day, that’s like travelling from the UK to Hong Kong and back every day!
  • You get a new top layer of skin every 30 days so if you don’t see someone for a month technically you’ve not seen them before!
  • The human body contains over 35 trillion cells. Earth has about 7 billion people, which means that there are 5,000 times more cells in one body than there are people on the planet.**

It’s not just the human body that’s remarkable. The wonder echoes throughout nature, apparently trees send distress signals about drought and disease, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages. Scientists call these mycorrhizal networks.*** The scientific facts, phrases, discoveries and explanations about human beings, their world and the universe are mind blowing. Sub-atomic theorising leaves even the most intelligent scientists baffled at times! We have oceanography, palaeontology, astronomy, geology, meteorology, quantum physics, to mention a few, and all present their own formulas, theories and equations as a way of giving meaning and understanding to their field.

Science can tell us so much but what about that which can’t be explained by logic and reason? For example, how do you explain the feeling that stirs when you hear that particular song, the emotions that surface when you watch that movie or the connection you feel to that piece of art? How do we really give language to falling in love, or the grief we feel when someone we love dies? How do we explain how it feels to stand at the edge of the ocean or on the top of a mountain or walk through the trees and realise we’re quite small (imagine how the atom feels?!)! Some experiences need poetry, prose, music, mime, dance or drawing; some encounters do not come down to rational, scientific explanation. There is mystery, soul, and spirit alive in our world which are dancing with, working with and complementing scientific study.

There are many ways science helps us care for our minds and bodies, but what if there is also a need to care for, nurture and nourish our souls? What if to take a moment, in the midst of this awesome experience we call life, and connect back into that force or energy which sustains us deep within, is as necessary as a healthy diet, regular exercise and medical checkups? What if there is, within our culture, a growing awareness or experience of otherness, of another way of being, of a bigger story or consciousness that holds the whole narrative together?

What I find interesting is how a deeper understanding of self through science and soul allows for a deeper understanding of our connection to others and nature. Exploring these themes is one of the main reasons I write. What if this deeper understanding, connection and appreciation of soul changes how we live around, work with and relate to others in our world? What if a deeper respect for mystery allows us to hold other perspectives more openly? What if a greater reverence for love inspires action, a more practical care for those we would sometimes more readily dismiss? What if a stronger ability to appreciate beauty in the world around us energises us to work with the natural world rather than against it? Maybe an ability to embrace both science and soul could change the way we all share life on planet earth and open our eyes to what it really means to be human.

* Robcast Episode 5

**https://www.factretriever.com/karin-lehnardt

***www.smithsonian.com

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…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!😉

The one about…death (part two- or is there?!)

I’ve been thinking about death all week and wondering why we don’t find it easy to talk about. I don’t think it’s because we’re not interested, it’s the one thing that affects everyone, no matter who they are, how much they have or what they do. I also can’t imagine that it’s because we don’t have anything to say. Most people I know have encountered death in some form and even if that’s not the case I’d be surprised if they’ve never thought about it. So why don’t we talk about it more?

I guess partly because it’s painful, the grief can be overwhelming and when you know you’re not going to hold it together it’s easier not to talk. I’ve been there, I get that. Yet even when that raw, seemingly relentless, suffocating kind of grief begins to ease a little we’re still reluctant to talk. It’s awkward, maybe we’re worried we’ll scare someone with our story or our thoughts, maybe we’re fearful of offending someone, of saying the wrong thing, of making it worse. Maybe were sacred that what we feel or think isn’t ‘normal’ and we’ll sound a little crazy! But what if what we’re actually most afraid of is death itself?

Part of the problem with death (other than the glaringly obvious finality of it) is that we don’t really know much about it. We don’t know what it feels like. We don’t know when it will happen, we don’t know how it will happen and we don’t know where it will happen and we don’t really know what happens other than the physical symptoms?! One thing we do know is that it will happen! It will happen, despite the wrinkle cream, the hair colourants or any of our other attempts to stay looking young. It will happen despite the over indulgence in wine or work or retail therapy or social media, despite any of our attempts to keep busy, any of our attempts to distract ourselves from reality, to not to have to think too deeply about life…despite all that, death will still happen! We can choose to keep ignoring it or we can start to embrace thoughts and conversations about it…because there’s something about facing our fears, something about sharing our thoughts with others that helps. It helps us realise we’re not alone, helps it’s realise what is ‘normal’ and helps us form more of an understanding about what we believe might happen when we die.

Now, I am not dead (as far as I know) and having never died I simply don’t have the answer to the ‘what happens’ question. I know there are a plethera of opinions and postulations about what happens next. Some people, go for a belief in oblivion, nihilism, the understanding that there is nothing more. Somehow for me that falls short, I guess I’ve sensed something more in my encounters with death.

The night my dad died, after seeing the sheet covering his head, I didn’t go back into the room. The funeral directors took him away. I went to visit him, his body, in the funeral home a couple of days later with a family friend. She stood at a distance as I walked to the table he lay on. I stared at him, he looked as though he was sleeping. I touched his cheek really gently, more out of intrigue than anything else. I remember just watching him, hoping he’d wake up. He didn’t. I’ve no idea how long I stood there for, no tears, just a kind of awe and confusion and wonder and lostness….an eleven year old encountering something there just weren’t the words for.

The reality is that words are limiting. We can’t really describe what happens when we witness death, all of our words fall short, they don’t fully capture what we experience or how we feel.

I remember looking at his body, touching him, bemused by the familiarity and yet the unrecognizable, the memories that his face had shared and the emptiness staring out. What made him “him” had gone. Gone where? I don’t know, but there was a strong sense that something bigger than physical death had occurred. There was something about spirit, essence, aura, soul, something more, something deeper that I didn’t have words for, something I couldn’t fully comprehend, something had changed.

I don’t know if all of that’s just a desperate attempt to convince myself that there’s something more than this life, stirred by my cultural and religious beliefs and fuelled by not wanting to accept that some of those I’ve loved are no longer here. Or if there really is something more. I’ve never met anyone who’s encountered death so closely and written it off as a matter of fact with a ”that’s that done then”.

I know not everyone’s encounter with death is as straightforward as I’ve described but often when we do find ourselves able to talk about those final moments, when the initial shock and pain have subsided, we use words like beauty, stillness, mystery, as though the moment of passing is something deeply spiritual. We talk of it being a privilege to have shared in that moment, to be part of something so much bigger than the now.

One thing I have realised as I’ve thought more about death is that those with a strong shared cultural or religious certainty seem more able to talk about death. Those who have a framework for what happens next seem more able to hold it, deal with it, interact with it.

So I guess the next question to wrestle with is ‘what do I believe happens next’? If I don’t believe in oblivion, if I do believe there’s something more then what might that look like? Is there something beyond this life? An afterlife? Eternal life? Are we reincarnated into something our someone else? Is any of the next life dependant on this life? Is this life part of a bigger story told by the universe and does love have anything to do with it? I think there needs to be a part three!

The one about…love (again?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Rollins suggests:

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

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

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

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