The one about…expectation!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one about…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?”

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…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 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.