The one about…a not so perfect Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one about…Prodigal Collective!

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

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

Out of this Prodigal Collective is emerging!

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

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

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

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

The one about…the real Jesus?

People often describe him as a good man, regardless of belief in his divinity or the resurrection. There is something compelling about him, people were drawn to him 2000 years ago and talk of what he said and did has continued for centuries. His existence as a good moral teacher is widely recognised, in fact in the last week or so, I’ve had two people say he had a good moral code or words to that effect. But did he? Were his stories, actions and behaviour morally acceptable?! Or is there a case for an immoral Jesus!?

It’s probably important at this point to define the word “moral”, so a quick Google exploration reveals the definition as:

standards of behaviour; principles of right and wrong

So Jesus had good standards of behaviour? He held to high principles of proper conduct? Did he? I’m not convinced!

Jesus spoke to women, talked to them as if they were interesting, as if they had value. The thing was that in first century Palestine women were not valued outside of the home, they had their place, at home! Zhava Glaser, an expert in Jewish history writes:

By publicly including women in his ministry, Jesus shattered the prejudicial customs of his day. Why was it unusual for Jesus to speak with women? Nothing in the Mosaic Law prevented men and women from conversing with one another! Yet the society of Jesus’ day, with custom dictated by rabbinic Judaism, differed strikingly from the Old Testament social order…women were not allowed to testify in court. In effect, this categorized them with Gentiles, minors, deaf-mutes and “undesirables” such as gamblers, the insane, usurers, and pigeon-racers, who were also denied that privilege.

It wasn’t just women that Jesus’ engagement with was questionable; one of his disciples, one of the people closest to him, was a tax collector. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman Empire, the oppressive regime occupying the Jewish land. Tax collectors collaborated with this evil force, they took money from fellow Jews and gave it to the Romans, actions seen as somewhat traitorous. Tax collectors kept money for themselves so were also known to be liars and cheats, untrustworthy individuals, not people to befriend. So to hang out with tax collectors was also questionable behaviour.

I’m reading a fascinating book* about Jewish culture in the time of Jesus, the author describes Jesus’ interactions with tax collectors:

“Imagine, for instance, how it would of felt to follow Jesus through the door of Matthews house, eating with tax collectors, sinners who were considered the stooges of Rome…for the disciples to eat with such despicable men would of been scandalous.”

That’s who Jesus ate with, laughed with…maybe his morals should be in question! It wasn’t just who he ate with, it was also the stories he told about who shared meals; like the father who prepared a feast for the son who’d wished him dead, or the story about the great feast which some guests refused an invitation to which ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame on the street’ were instead invited, people you wouldn’t eat with, people who wouldn’t eat together! Eating together was significant.

“Jeramias notes that in the east, even today, to invite someone to a meal was to extend an honour, an offering of peace, trust, forgiveness. Jesus meals with sinners weren’t merely social revenues or just signs of his empathy for the lowly, though he was compassionate. “*

Did Jesus take compassion too far? He allowed a prostitute to pour oil over his feet, and wipe them with her hair…imagine it, a prostitute? Really?

His compassion also extended to Samaritans both in person and in parable. He talked with a Samaritan woman at the well and he told the now very famous story of the ‘Good Samaritan’, as Rob Bell identifies, the phrase good Samaritan was an “impossibility”!**

The Samaritans were hated by the Jews, considered unclean as half Jew/ half Gentile(non Jewish) people with their own understanding of Jewish law and their own expression of worship, the division went back hundreds of years. So this story of the good Samaritan was ‘brilliant, clever, subversive’!**

Jesus taunted, almost mocked the Pharisees, the keepers of the law. He provoked them with his radical teaching and he worked on the Sabbath. He was accused of blasphemy, his seemingly immoral behaviour and constant challenge to the religious system and those who ran it, along with his refusal to conform to the empire which occupied the land all led to his death! Just a good bloke? I’m not so sure!

These are not the actions of just another good moral teacher, they are more the actions of a subversive rebel. Jesus would probably be more at home on ‘Have I got news for you?’ than ‘Songs of praise’! What if so many of us miss the revolutionary, radical, controversial teaching of this first century Rabbi! What if far too easily Jesus gets written off as a long haired, Swedish looking hippie with some good ideas rather than the religious and political threat he actually was? What if that’s why they killed him?

So where does that leave us? Do we keep Jesus locked in a box with the Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny (that would make a fab film!?) Do we write him off as a historical figure of some note but now not so relevant? Do we place him on a golden cross at a safe distance and respectfully bow the knee? Or do we find a way to re-read what he taught, seeing it for the life giving, energizing, hope filled news that it was and actually still is? Do we allow what he said, how he lived, who he was to shape who we are and how we live today? Could his questionable moral actions 2000 years ago have significantly shaped morality of society today? Do we acknowledge that within all the Jesus talk, there is mystery and wonder and awe? Do we acknowledge that within us, all those things exist too because that’s part of what it means to be human? What if there there really is something to the whole Jesus thing?

*Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg.

**What is the Bible? Rob Bell.

The one about…Religion!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The root, ‘re ligio’ (latin) rebinding re-ligamenting is not doing its job if it only reminds you of your distance, your unworthiness, your sinfulness, and your inadequacy before God’s greatness.

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

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

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

The one about…the journey!

We moved to Peterborough four and a half years ago, seven of us, on a crazy adventure to a city we didn’t know and people who didn’t know us. To be honest, the very little we knew about the area wasn’t great. The ‘Peterborough ditch murders’ had taken place a year or so before we moved, carried out by someone who lived less than a mile from our house…when you don’t know an area you can be very quick to make assumptions, that along with the fact that both the church houses had been broken into in the months leading up to our move!

Alongside all those events though, the universe was speaking to us! We were invited to meet our prospective training vicar in September 2013. In the run up to the meeting we found an old bible that had been written in by our eldest daughter a year or so before. We’d never noticed but in her scribbled, seven year old handwriting was a prayer: “when we move house can I have my own room and can there be silver birch trees in the garden”. We were given a tour of the parish and shown our possible new home, where there were four bedrooms and silver birch trees in the garden! A couple of weeks after visiting Peterborough for the first time I had a miscarriage. It was a surreal time; the excitement of a whole new adventure, in a city we were slightly fearful of, without a baby we thought we’d be having. Yet the answer to the scribbled prayer connected with us so deeply that as a way to remember the baby and the significance of all that was happening, I had a silver birch tree leaf tattooed on my hand. I’m reminded each time I look at it that there’s a bigger plan and that we were meant to be here!

We’re still here and the adventure has been awesome! We arrived as a family of seven and now we’re a family of nine, with hundreds more friends! Our time here has opened our eyes to the variety that the role of priest or vicar offers. We get the jokes about how Sid only works Sundays…we can see how people think that! There is more to the job though. We have the privilege of sharing with people in key moments; through baptisms, weddings and funerals. We join with those who are celebrating and stand with those who are mourning, it’s humbling to be part of people’s lives. The role here has been so much more than that though too. We’ve been involved in the parish primary school as chaplains, mentors and on the governing body. Sid has taken on role of chaplain to the youth team at Peterborough United and then there are the relationships and conversations that grow out of simply living in a place, of doing the school run, or of taking your kids to clubs. It’s a whole way life.

Out of all those things we’ve also been able to experiment with what church might be, trialing a different way of being church. During the summer before we moved here, we created a list of ‘values’ that we thought were important for church, the key elements of what church could be, based on a combination of experience, reading and Sids training at college. When we came to Peterborough there was an understanding that we’d get to try and put some of our “theory” into practice! We called it “Refresh” and we held a monthly gathering where we talked about things of God, and pondered some of what makes us human; we shared food and formed friendships. Out of this other things began to grow, a weekly tots group, podcasts on the themes of the month and a blog!! In some ways we just began to touch the surface of what we’d like to do, mainly because the role of priest required time and energy too but also because our future here has always been uncertain.

We moved here for a three year training post, knowing that we’d then move on to our own parish. However, nothing’s that straightforward! Fifteen months into the training post, the vicar who led the two churches left. Sid took on the responsibilities of the role of vicar until the lines between curate and vicar blurred. At the end of his three year training post we were given the opporunity to stay for another year and continue the role of helping the two churches work together and become, in Church of England speak, a “united benefice”! A challenge which all involved threw themselves into. It speaks into what church should be: a place where people come together, listen to each other, seek to connect with the Divine. All of this required everyone to give of themselves, to love, forgive and celebrate…it’s a journey we’ve been on together as church. In the midst of that journey though we have had conflicting, confusing messages about our role here, some of that from our own understanding of what we may or may not be ‘called’ to do and some from the institution we work for, who ultimately decide whether we stay or go.

I guess when the vicar left and we continued the work here it seemed to make sense that we’d stay. I know at one point we wrestled with that because we’d always believed we’d have to move on. Staying became a new concept, something we found hard to comprehend at first. There’s a big difference between staying in a place long term and frequently moving. The community here have made it clear that they would love us to stay, which also speaks of what it is to be church, but it’s not that simple. It’s been painful and confusing as well as life giving and exciting. It’s been a time of soul searching, of prayer and conversation as we try to work out what it is we’re passionate about and what we’d give our lives to doing. Something I don’t think we would have explored so deeply if we’d found another parish two years ago!

So here we are, still uncertain about where we’ll do life in 2019 but with some clarity about what we’ll be doing. Our heart, our passion is to create church, Prodigal Church to be precise. Our vision? To be a church in the community, for the community, a spiritual centre of the community but with a very practical, action centred vision to make a difference for good, to go beyond ourselves and our limited experience; to love and look out for each other and those around us and as we discover more of what life in all its fullness looks like for all people!

We’re not sure where this will happen, we’re still trying to figure that out. It’s a little scary with two pay cheques left, especially when the house comes with the job! Yet it’s exciting and briming with possibilities. Life is an adventure; birthing something new is painful…but it’s always worth it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do people believe about life after death?

Wikipedia offers a simplistic overview!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!