The one about…incarnation.

I listened to a podcast this week by Common Thread Church (it’s the church I’d go to if I lived slightly nearer the USA!) They’re on an incredible journey to discover the common thread of the divine which runs throughout all of history. I won’t do it justice but this is a snippet of their thoughts this week…they discussed the idea that we can’t actually think about God, that “God is a cloud of unknowing”…a mind bending concept but let’s go with it for now:

“God on a throne out there in heaven is a story, a story that doesn’t capture God.

God here and now among us, is a story, it’s a story that does not capture God.

All we have are stories to imagine God…we can’t, with any kind of certainty think of God, or speak of God, so all we have are stories but we use stories because stories point us towards spiritual experience, and spiritual experience is profoundly and deeply enriching of the human being, it makes us better people.”*

So how do we grasp concepts of God, how do we encounter spiritual experiences that enrich our souls?

Which is interesting because I was already thinking about incarnation. ‘The embodying in flesh of a deity, spirit or quality’…this idea that God became known as a human so that humanity could know more of God.

Incarnation is the concept we generally apply to Jesus, a man who lived just over 2000 ago, who is believed by many to be God incarnate; the physical, human representation of the higher power or greater consciousness that existed before time. The one of which we can’t really speak…and the one of which John tried to encapsulate in his poetic prose at the start of his writing:

“The true light that shines
on everyone
was coming into the world.

The Word was in the world,
but no one knew him
though God had made the world
with his Word….

…The Word became
a human being
and lived here with us.
We saw his true glory,
the glory of the only Son
of the Father.

From him all the kindness
and all the truth of God
have come down to us.”**

The true light, that greater consciousness physically manifested itself in the world, ‘the word’ (as we talked about last week) already present but yet not seen, not known…so this word, this spirit, this abstract concept love, light, life took on human form and lived with us and because of that we can now see the magnificence, beauty, truth and kindness of that greater consciousness, something which otherwise would have just remained abstract and unreal.

Yet it goes so much further than that because incarnation is something we’re invited to participate in ourselves, this idea that we would take on the form of a specific quality in order to share in the world of another; to be present, to be there alongside, to know and be known, to be able to demonstrate grace to others and know the truth of life beyond our own; that’s what it is to love, to be love in human form.

Which means that whatever your belief about “god” taking on human form and making his dwelling among us, the concept is actually mind-blowingly simple because it’s something that happens everyday.

The Jesus story is, as Richard Rohr would describe, a blueprint for all of humanity…a blueprint; ‘an early plan or design that explains how something might be achieved’. So, there is this plan at work to “save” humanity, not from some devil or vengeful God character but from itself, and the blueprint demonstrates how that greater consciousness has a plan to redeem us from all the hate, hurt, competition, corruption, misconstrued power that we inflict on ourselves and each other.

To follow the blueprint means that we too become love incarnate; to choose to love despite the difficulty, to choose love even though it’s not what we would “naturally do” and to go beyond who we are and choose to bring joy, peace and hope to others. To follow the plan is to choose humility, to value the least, to turn our measures of success and importance upside down, inside out and to choose to love, when we do that, we take that abstract word “love” and we personify, embody, manifest love in the world, which is what John suggests Jesus did.

Which also means that we take that “story” of God and we tell a story that is present here and now in who we are and the way we act. We tell a story, and it will only ever be a story, of how the divine, that higher consciousness, the source of all life, ‘God” is at work in the world and how we experience his presence.

What if that’s incarnation, what if that’s what John was saying, what if that’s what Jesus showed and what if, as we reimagine our understanding of the God character we find there is a reality to these concepts that we otherwise can’t think about.

*. Common Thread Church Weekly Messages: Finding God in the Woods

** John 1, The Bible!

 

 

 

The one about…light and life.

The second part of the bible begins with four stories of the life of Jesus, written by four men Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who all write to different groups of people on different occasions. John however is the only one to start his story with an exploration of the origins of time. At the start his book we’re introduced to the concept of ‘the word’, he writes:

”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

A word, defined as ‘a single, distinct meaningful element of speech or a command, a spoken pronouncement.’ I’m not sure who takes credit for the phrase ”words create new worlds”, it’s been attributed to philosophers including Heschel and Wittgenstein but in my experience, the more writing I do, it seems to be true and it also echoes of the opening chapter of the bible where the author writes ‘and God said’, right there at the beginning was the word, God used the word to speak. Whatever that looks like!
John, goes on to describe this word, this spoken phenomenon, or spirit, this undefinable origin of all things, as the ‘light and life of all of humanity’.

There’s something about the concept of life and light, a deep connection that we know exists and not just because of those days we spent studying GCSE or A level biology (or the equivalent!). Although, when I talk to my teenagers, they can both explain, in a round-about way, the need for sunlight to provide the energy for photosynthesis to take place, with that somewhat familiar formula 6CO2 + 6H2O + light energy = C6H12O6 + 6O2!. In words, the equation translates to the combining of water, carbon dioxide and light energy to produce glucose and oxygen. (Ironically oxygen is described as a waste product, released back into the air while glucose is the source of energy for the plant.)
Simply put though, light energy gives life.

How did John, a fisherman over 2000 years ago know that? I guess because we all sense the importance of light to our wellbeing, we see the effect of light on the world around us and we know it brings life. Maybe we didn’t need science to put it into a formula but as ever, science does help us make sense of it in a more logical fashion.

Light goes way further though than the visible rays that we see, there’s invisible light, infrared or ultraviolet light; wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that are either too short or too long to be detected by the human eye. Scientists also talk of dark matter, which makes up around 80% of the universe matter that is unseen, made up of particles smaller than atoms, again something that we know exists but something that we can’t see.

Suddenly we’re into physics; wavelengths, spectrums, atoms, particles and all those other words that send a shudder of fear down my spine as I’m suddenly taken back to GCSE science exams not having a clue what to write! Yet there is something fascinating about those concepts, something intriguing about light that we can’t see, or invisible matter, or things that exist but are not visible to our eyes. In those things there’s awe and mystery and magic.

So when John talks about the light shining in the darkness, it seems that’s there is a multitude of levels on which the universe we live in is this beautiful dance between light and dark. In the scientific, the physical, the spiritual, the mental and emotional we all experience light and dark and we need both to really appreciate the other.

From these simple words that open up John’s understanding of the Jesus story we’ve found energy and light and life and matter, seen and unseen, visible and invisible, which is interesting because so far, other than direct bible quotes we haven’t used the word God. Yet what it all suggests is that there is a force at work, even before the beginning of time, that is creating and sustaining life and something that suggests even the darkness belongs and that what might seems dark can also offer light and energy and life.

Which links to the concept of words creating worlds. So often the word God has been held over us by those childhood stories, or the institutions to which we have belonged, both have in some way restricted our view of what and who ‘God’ is, and that word, has become a barrier to so many in exploring spirit, soul and meaning. So, what if, as Richard Rohr explains,

“John is actually describing a bigger life, a bigger light, from which we all draw. This is Consciousness—a pre-existent form that is the Eternal or One Light. This great Light or Consciousness is the source of our little piece of light, as it were.”

What if there’s something in rethinking possibilities in and around the word God and that as we explore what this might all be, we find more meaning and life and energy than we ever thought possible

The one about…is it only me who…?

There are times when we all believe we’re the only ones to feel the way we do; sometimes because we’re so unbelievably happy, like at the birth of a child, or when we meet that person we know we want to spend forever with or when we get that promotion we’ve been hoping for. No-one can possibly feel so besotted, so in love or so ecstatic, and we don’t really want to believe anyone else could ever feel as happy as we do because what we’re experiencing is so amazing we want that to be just ours. Yet we get this inkling that possibly, just possibly other people do know what it’s like and that other people have felt very similar emotions. There’s something about these experiences being moments we talk about, experiences that we share and as we talk and share we discover a whole world of magic and mystery that others have journeyed into as they encountered these events in their story too.

Yet there are other occasions where we experience deep, intense emotion that breaks us, like the death of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship or the loss of a job. We know other people must have experienced something similar but because the feelings that come with these experiences aren’t always easy to put into words we don’t share what it’s really like and we are left wondering if anyone else really understands.

Yet, what about those other less extreme experiences, the day to day realities that niggle us, get us down and cause us to retreat just that little bit more into ourselves. These experiences aren’t as acute as death and loss or as awesome as birth and success, they’re the everyday thoughts and encounters that play on our mind, like how we feel about our weight, our inability to hold down a job, our obsessive behaviours, our fear of death, that anxiety we can’t describe, the difficulties of parenting that child or being married, and a myriad more issues and concerns that often convince us that we really are on our own and leave us believing that we are the only ones to feel the way we do. We generally don’t even dare to acknowledge that anyone else has ever felt like we do because they might look at us like we’re insane, or laugh at us or even worse pity us. So often we believe we’re the only one struggling, the only one having to put a brave face on or hide behind that mask or the only one not coping, terrified of the responsibility of being alive!

What if it’s not only me that wrestles with these thoughts and feelings? What if we’re not the only ones to feel those things? What if we realised that our experiences are often filled with emotions, fears, truths and concerns that are universal the world over.

I guess the question is how do we know? How do we dare to believe that other people share similar emotions or fears to us? It’s not always easy to talk about our thoughts and feelings, not everyone has that best friend they share everything with?

For some people the act of meditation, prayer, mindfulness or other contemplative practise centre them just enough to find a peace within themselves and allow them at least for a while, to accept who they are and where they’re at. These practices are being rediscovered in our 24/7/365 culture but they are an art form, something that needs practise, not always activities we find ourselves naturally disposed to and for so many it’s hard to know where to start. What if there’s a way in to meditation or contemplation that begins by simply becoming more aware in the day to day of what the universe is actually saying. What if the truths about who we are, how we’re wired and what’s normal actually echo out from all around us, and if we simply stopped to listen for long enough, we’d find that we’re not going crazy after all.

What if there’s something in the way certain song lyrics resonate, like Memories by Maroon 5 or Photograph by Ed Sheeran, what if there’s some deep truth in the words these and others write which is why certain songs sell. What if comedians like Michael Mcintytre make us laugh because he calls out the truth that all of us know, like what we all do when we have the opportunity to explore google earth!* What if the character in a movie speaks lines we could never have thought of yet sums up what we feel? What if all of these artists are prophets in their own way, calling out the truths of our humanity. What if we choose to listen to the truths around us, to stop, just for a moment and hear that reminder and let it work on us, even when that reminder is said through Ed Sheeran or Michael Mcintyre? What if the words they, and many many others use connect with our story in some way and simply by taking time to really listen we find that we’re not as crazy as we thought, that others have similar fears, similar doubts, have been hurt, or let down, or go through similar encounters and experiences.

What if to actually apply that to life means we start to listen to the repeated themes in the conversations we have or the situations we’re exposed to? What if as that track plays on the radio and that one line connects, we find five minutes to listen to it again in the quiet and stillness and just allowed it to work on us, to figure out what it’s saying? What if we wrote down some of those one liners, or quotes that we read as we scroll through Facebook or hear in a film and just re-read them a few times when we got a moment, would we find that this was a way in to reconnecting with ourselves and rediscovering that we’re not alone, the beginnings of prayer or meditation, of awareness. Maybe then we’d feel more equipped to take the next step but more on that next week…

*Michael Mckintyre: https://youtu.be/q38RT3JvKw8

Photograph by Ed Sheeran: https://youtu.be/nSDgHBxUbVQ

The one about…a Christmas that belongs!

It’s nearly here, Christmas, the “day” we’ve all been preparing for, the reason the decorations are up, the presents are purchased and the food is prepared. Life and time seem to gather pace as Christmas approaches and opportunities to stop and reflect are somewhat rare. I guess that’s one of the privileges of finding time to write, or of taking carol services and hosting crazy Christmas gatherings; they all offer opportunities to think about what and why we celebrate. As Sid and I have talked and prepared and shared thoughts this year we’ve reflected a lot on Christmas and so this blog is a summing up of the blogs, talks and thoughts that we’ve pondered together.

It seems that there are five Christmas stories…

Firstly, the perfect Christmas; the one created by the movies and the music, the one where families get together and everyone gets along, where lovers meet under the mistletoe (whilst listening to Michael Bublé) and spend forever together, the one where there’s food in abundance and the mulled wine doesn’t stop flowing. The one we all want to exist, the one we strive for every year, in the hope that this year will actually be all we’ve ever dreamt of.

Then secondly, there’s the real Christmas, the one where the children fall ill or fall out, where words are said that shouldn’t have been, where the wrong present is bought or where presents can’t quite be afforded and the usual trimmings are somewhat lacking. The Christmas where those you want to spend it with can’t be there and the one person who promised you everything delivers nothing. The Christmas that is not quite the one imagined, tinged with a little sadness and hidden by a smile that prevents anyone from really knowing the truth, that this isn’t really what was hoped for. The Christmas that’s mediocre, mundane or maybe just ordinary.

Then there’s baby Jesus, the “Christmas Story”, the one that’s rolled out in nativity plays across the land, often with a unique angle, like dinosaurs in the stable, a disorganised angel or the story told from the insects point of view (yes, I’ve been to them all and I’ve even watched Jack Whitehall’s nativity musical “Emu”!) The nativity story is one that we love to hear, the infant Jesus, the perfect baby, a baby that didn’t even cry, or so the carols would have us believe. The reality somewhat different though, a little more like the contrast between the perfect and the real Christmas we experience today.

The fourth Christmas story, the real Jesus story is about a baby born to a young Jewish couple, out of wed-lock, rejected and out-lawed by their friends and family, disgraced and unwelcome; why do we think there was no room at the inn? A birth story coupled with the harsh reality of an unsettled world, a land of enforced peace, citizens required to bow to the Emperor, pledge allegiance, pay taxes and adhere to Roman rule or face torture, slavery or death. A time of fear, of uncertainty and decreasing hope. Yet a baby is born, a baby that brings love, hope and peace. That’s the Jesus story.

Collectively, these Christmas stories tell us something. They tell us about another version of Christmas, the true story, the story that tells us that all our realities, with their aches and pains, the awkward moments or feelings that we don’t quite like, all do belong. Of course we would rather they didn’t and we’d rather that no one suffered or struggled or wrestled with inner demons but they do, we all do.

Jesus was born into a broken world, he shared light, he decorated the darkness with his message of hope. Eventually, he was put to death by the people he came to love, his revolutionary manifesto for the Kingdom of God didn’t lead to worldwide institutional change but it did lead to a new understanding of life and love, and it still does offer a new way of being in the world. A way that’s different to the way those in power and authority often exemplify, a way we can all choose no matter who we are, how influential we are or how much we have.

So, in light of all these stories, may you know that the reality of your Christmas, however happy or however sad, is actually a truly beautiful one, because it is the only truly authentic one. As you laugh or cry this Christmas, may you be full of hope despite the shadows of fear. May you allow it all to belong and may you know an unconditional, extravagant love, and dare to believe that there was something special about that baby who came to bring love, hope and peace to life. May you know the magic within the mundane, as you peel potatoes, wrap presents or tidy the house; may you have a chance to glimpse at the awe in the ordinary, discover the mystery in the mediocre and may you find a moment to be still and consider the gift that it is to be alive.

Happy Christmas!

 

The one about…the nothing?

If you’ve ever watched The NeverEnding Story then you’ll be familiar with ‘the nothing’, the darkness engulfing Fantasia and destroying everything in its path.

If you’ve lived a few years on planet earth you may well also be familiar with ‘the nothing’, the darkness that’s all too consuming; extinguishing hope and leaving humanity disillusioned, lethargic or lost.

The nothing takes many forms, slowly eradicating our lust for life. I know because I’ve battled with ‘the nothing’. There are days where I feel like I’m winning, regaining control and rediscovering hope but then there are other days where it seems as though ‘the nothing’ is gaining ground, rapidly. Hours flicking through social media or evenings watching mind-numbing reality TV, often at the same time, any opportunity to engage in someone else’s life so that I can avoid the reality of my own.

‘The nothing’ might not be social media or TV for you; movies, alcohol, holidays, anything that serves to numb the pain or allow us escape from our own uneasy reality, just for a while, because facing up to that reality is sometimes too painful or frightening or simply exhausting.

None of our escape routes are wrong or bad in and of themselves, life is far less black and white than we think. The escape routes we choose often start off harmless, with the best intentions, some even healthy, because we do need to stop every now and then, we do need to disengage and recharge. Yet when the temporary fixes we’ve turned to for respite take over and begin to consume us sometimes we find that the very things we’d used to distract us from life have become life itself.

What if there is an antidote to ‘the nothing’, a way of being that stops ‘the nothing’ in its tracks and allows us to have moments of rest, distraction and relaxation without being drawn into nothingness?

In Fantasia, hope is found in the faith of a human child, a boy that can bring salvation and restore Fantasia fully to life again. What if that’s where we find salvation too? What if we find life again in faith, belief and wonder? In having faith in something beyond ourselves yet equally found within us, by believing in a force or energy or higher power; a love, that can shine light and hope on seemingly dark and hopeless circumstances? By rediscovering the mystery in the mundanity of our lives, the awe in the ordinary and the wonder of this very moment? What if choosing to stop in this moment, right now and breathe, to inhale and exhale and simply be grateful for breath is the start to a life of gratitude, of not taking anything for granted but recognising that its all a gift and that it all belongs? That it all belongs no matter how painful, frightening or exhausting?

What if that means that we then don’t have to escape or distract or run from those difficult things, we can just allow them, simply allow reality to be; learn from it, learn to embrace all of our emotions and move through those experiences to a better place? What if all of that was possible, all from this moment, right now? Maybe there is a light in the darkness and something more than nothing.

The one about…autumnal truth!

There are reminders all around us of a truth we’ve forgotten, the truth that the very essence of who we are is good. Autumn brings these reminders to us in such generous proportions as the air freshens, the birds begin to migrate and the leaves change colour; we’re reminded that each new season has its own beauty and wonder. There’s an awe and reverence to be found in observing the rhythm of the universe. The conkers are falling, breaking their rough, outer shell to reveal the shiny, smooth treasure inside. It’s a reminder of the beauty that creation holds, a reminder that there’s goodness within all that’s created, no matter how spiky the outer appearance.

So often we don’t see the goodness in ourselves or others and sadly the idea that we’re not good enough is often reinforced by the world as the whispers of “not enough” echo around; not successful/thin/wealthy/fit/popular/clever/________ enough! Often the teaching of the church tells us this too, tells us that we failed before we even began. It’s the doctrine of original sin, begun by the early church and adopted by our society, the idea of original sin haunts us and inhibits our ability to be fully alive. Even if we don’t subscribe to a religion, or that strand of one, it’s a belief that has found its way into our heads and hearts.

This belief, whatever angle it is approached from, is damaging.
It has damaged our relationship with the divine. God is seen by many as a wrathful figure who needs appeasing and the death of Jesus becomes about changing the mind of God about humanity rather than the ultimate act of love that changed the mind of humanity about God!*

It’s not only our understanding of the divine that has been skewed; the idea that we are sinful from birth, or that we are not good enough, has implications for our relationship with others from a personal to an international level. If we submit to the doctrine of original sin or the lies of ‘not enough’ then we don’t trust the fundamental goodness of the other instead we fear, judge and often hate simply because we can’t see deep enough to see the truth.

The teaching of original sin and the lies of not enough have also damaged our relationship with ourselves, we begin to really believe we’re not good and to compensate we fill our lives with things that makes us feel better about ourselves, anything that holds meaning, even if the meaning isn’t rooted in truth. We try to prove to ourselves, others, even a higher being, that who we are, what we have and what we’ve achieved is acceptable.

Yet, what if there’s a way to undo some of these lies? What if the role of religion, at it’s very essence, is to remind us of the truth that we are good? What if religion or church or any contemplative practices are fundamentally about creating ways for us to step aside from the lies we’ve come to believe and actually connect with who we really are?

What if then, our understanding of Jesus, of church or of our religion, has the ability to reconnect us with the truth about ourselves? What if the Jesus story offers us the truth about all we have ever been, all we are and all we can be. Truth that says “we are enough”. A truth that has been forgotten but a truth that at it’s very heart, is a call back to our true self? What if the Jesus story speaks of a different way because the way we so often choose isn’t good for us, isn’t the way of the soul but instead to live the way of the soul is to live knowing who we are, that our story has worth and that from that place of peace we can bring life and love to this world.

*my favourite Richard Rohr quote!!

The one about…soul.

Have you ever sat beneath the night sky and wondered what it’s all about or stared out at the ocean and simply known that it’s all going to be ok, whatever ‘it’ is? Have you ever watched a movie and felt it connect to something deep within you? Or listened to music so hauntingly beautiful that it spoke to you of something more? When was the last time you read a book, unable to put it down because it seemed to be telling your story? Have you ever found yourself lost in a piece of art; a photo, a painting, a sculpture or a drawing?

How do you describe those moments where you lose yourself, yet find yourself in something beautiful? What language do you use to give that the meaning and honour it deserves? Sometimes we say it made ‘our heart sing’, other times we might talk about how it ‘just made sense’ or we ‘just knew’. It seems like sometimes it’s head, sometimes it’s heart, sometimes it’s both. Yet there are times when it’s something far deeper, far richer and far more a part of us than either head or heart! What is that? What language do we use to give that meaning?

Have you heard the phrase she put her ‘heart and soul into it?’ Or he was the ‘life and soul of the party?’ There’s soul music, we talk of finding a soul mate, the disappointments we experience can be ‘soul destroying’ and that friend we have who’s struggling to know what to do next we describe as a ‘lost soul’…some people ‘bare their soul’ and we describe others as having ‘sold their soul’! All these phrases, these synonyms, they’re all attempts at describing an event or action that’s something more than we’d usually experience. When we use the word soul, even in these quirky phrases, we’re attempting to describe something that’s bigger, deeper, more meaningful than what we think we know to be true.

The soul itself however is not often talked about, yet it’s there, hidden, not just in our language but in the very depth of who we are. So when we talk of those things that connect deeply within us; or the things that stir those feelings that have become buried under all that is life; or those interactions that spark into flame fresh ideas of how it could be, what if we’re not talking about head or heart but soul?

What if we could reconnect with our soul? There are ancient teachings, ancient ways of being, like the teaching and the way of Jesus, which connected with people in a way that the rest of life didn’t. The teachings of Jesus were teachings that offered something new, more or different and inspired people to live a new or different way. Those teachings spoke to the soul! Teachings about not worrying, teachings about forgiveness. Teachings about true peace not the forced peace they lived with. Jesus taught about being blessed in times of grief, loss and misunderstanding. Jesus teachings took what people thought to be true and turned it upside down. There’s something about a way that challenges the status quo, a way that calls into question how it is and offers an alternative way; a way that is richer, better, fuller than anything previously experienced, that awakens our souls and invites us to dare to dream and to really live!

What if we dared to delve deeper into the wisdom we find in some of these ancient writings? What if within these ancient ways there is an invitation to rediscover our soul? What if we took time to listen to and appreciate the wonder of the world around us and started to see creation itself as an invitation to reconnect with ourselves, others and the divine? What if we took time to nourish our soul, to allow it thrive, to really hear what it’s saying to us or calling us on to? Maybe we’re being invited to continually discover more of who we are, to find our true self? What if in doing that we were to find a deeper understanding, respect and love for others, the world and that force which is outside of ourselves? What if an awakened soul is where real life is found?