The one about…mourning

mourn

/mɔːn/

verb

feel or show sorrow for the death of (someone), typically by following conventions such as the wearing of black clothes.

feel regret or sadness about (the loss or disappearance of something).

Mourning can take many forms and opportunities to mourn can vary. We mourn the loss of a job or relationship. The realisation that a situation has changed and we’re not going to do life in quite the same way can leave us feeling bereft of familiar routines, experiences or places and a type of mourning takes place. Most commonly though, when we talk of mourning, we talk of it in relation to physical death.

Mourning death varies from culture to culture. In the UK we’re often quite ordered and reserved, a viewing of the body is generally only for immediate family and the work of preparing the body for burial is left to a funeral director. Funerals are often solemn occasions, followed by burial or cremation and then a shared meal with family and friends.

In other parts of the world though the deceased’s body stays with the family, openly on view for visitors to pay their respects. Some cultures are very vocal and express their grief with wailing or song. Some cultures have set mourning periods with rituals that have to be observed.

Across the world, however it’s carried out, mourning is recognised as an outward expression of grief, a more visible, tangible display of those feelings we hold inside.

Mourning isn’t just culturally influenced, our personality, previous experiences and relationship to the deceased also influence when, where and how we mourn. However we practice mourning, however prescriptive our tribes methods of mourning are, mourning is a healthy part of the grieving process.

There ability and need to mourn privately has its place and is unique to the individual but there is something beautiful that occurs when a community comes together to mourn. While each individual holds their own thoughts and feelings the act of sharing together allows a deeper sense of solidarity and understanding to be expressed. In coming together there’s also somehow a recognition that the need to mourn isn’t always in proportion to the loss experienced. This shared experience is often one which strengthens community and unites those who participate. Mourning together goes further though because it allows space for community members to comfort each other, to stand alongside each other, it requires courage to admit feelings and to hold others feelings alongside our own.

It seems that often as we mourn what’s taking place is an admission of those feelings that are deepest within us. For most people death within the community or family stirs our deepest fears about our own mortality. It’s as though death reminds us how vulnerable we are and how uncertain life is. Maybe death isn’t just the loss of someone but also the loss of our own innocence and security and a reminder that we can’t hold anything too tightly.

What if this is why mourning is so essential? What if mourning allows us to feel those fears, to let them surface and to acknowledge them in the presence of others who share those feelings too.

So as those feelings of sadness and fear surface, as moments of despair, hopelessness and grief manifest what if we choose not to avoid feeling? What if we’re not too quick to distract ourselves from feeling? What if we choose not to bury those feelings underneath the mundanity of life or deny their existence but what if instead we allow ourselves to feel, to embrace feeling and to be embraced because what if that’s where we find life?

Mourning is painful, mourning requires vulnerability but what if, in doing so, we create an opportunity to know ourselves a little more, to allow others in and to allow love to comfort and heal? Maybe it’s good for us to mourn…

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…celebration!

There’s something so quintessentially English about a village show and the annual event in our village is no exception. The whole community is represented with vegetables grown, pictures drawn, stories written, paper planes thrown, beer brewed, cakes baked, photos taken, fruit picked, wine fermented, flowers arranged, tea poured and paintings erm…painted(?!?)… it’s a celebration of creativity as members of the community bring their entries and place them on display! I guess there’s some element of competition and comparison as all the entries are judged and rosettes and trophies are awarded but it’s all in good humour as the scope of creativity within the village is realised! It’s quite humbling!

It was a weekend of celebration for our family at the end of August as we also had the delight of attending my brothers wedding. The intimate gathering of family and close friends participated in a moment of genuine beauty as my brother and his bride made their vows and exchanged rings, all with their two year old daughter swinging from their hands. It was as if my nieces innocent playful engagement brought a kind of spontaneous energy to the ceremony and enabled everyone to really relax and simply be present too. That moment was a celebration of love and of family, which continued throughout the day and into the night!

Celebration is woven into the fabric of our humanity. We see it across the world as ‘holidays’ are celebrated, anniversaries remembered, rituals performed, and festivals and feast days are observed; every culture creating its own, often unique, ways to celebrate. The Jewish culture is no different. The biblical texts reference seven Jewish festivals;

Beginning in the spring, the seven Jewish feasts are Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish feasts are closely related to Israel’s spring and fall harvests and agricultural seasons. They were to remind the Israelites each year of God’s ongoing protection and provision.

These celebrations were regular reminders for the Jews of who they were, where they’d come from, and some argue, a pointer to where they were going.

Celebration offers a way of remembering, of acknowledging all that is and has been, a way of giving thanks and of showing gratitude. Celebration invites others in, it places us within a larger story, gives us a history, as well as setting a path for the future. In the biblical text celebration is often commanded, as if the people needed permission or reminding:

“This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.

The king gave this order to all the people: “Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.”

Sometimes celebration is spontaneous but there are also times when we celebrate through ritual or because it’s the right thing to do. There are even times when we have to choose to celebrate despite our feelings, not because of them. All celebrations have their place because there’s something about finding ourselves in a bigger story that seems important to our own story. The root of the word celebration grounds it in community, a ritual or a rite ‘frequented in great numbers’. Celebration is never in isolation.

This idea of a bigger narrative, something which helps to make sense of our world might be why so many people return to church, or temple or perform some element of ritual to mark the important occasions in life. I chatted to a friend who said he felt hypocritical having a wedding in church because he didn’t regularly attend. While I kind of understand what he was saying, there is something about love and marriage that, for so many people, commands reverence and respect, and inspires a desire to honour that love within a bigger story. If church offers a sense of history, of connection to something bigger; something other or to a something or someone that holds their love, then that’s not hypocrisy, that’s a genuine search for meaning. It’s the same with celebrating the gift of a child, there’s something humbling about placing new life within the bigger story of family and human history, maybe eternal history, it’s also something to do with gratitude and wonder, an expression of thankfulness to ‘something other’ that requires celebration.

So, for many a new season begins, as children return to school, as students leave for university or as new apprenticeships or jobs are started, as summer is left behind, this new season invites celebration. For some it’s tinged with sadness or fear, for others excitement and anticipation… but there is cause for celebration as we remember what’s been, are grateful for what is and look to all that’s ahead. As we journey onwards, let’s not be afraid to celebrate, whether it’s the more solemn celebration of a life gone but lived or an energy injected celebration of another year on planet earth or simply the joyful recognition of a brand new day (a little like the cockerel in the Peter Rabbit film), let’s look to create our own moments of celebration and in doing so find ourselves part of a story so much bigger than just our own.

The one about…church (part 5 – it’s definitely headed somewhere!)

We continued our exploration into church this week, as a family…all nine of us sat around the dining table (I think it was possibly the sight of chocolate mini eggs that did it but hey, whatever works!!)

We’ve been on quite a journey, beginning with the concept of church as community but realising that community exists in many guises and we can tap into it in spheres other than church. So it was suggested that church was perhaps a community where we encountered God; but when we probed more deeply into that we discovered that actually we encountered God in all sorts of places, activities and experiences. So we wondered if church was more the place where the stories were shared and the encounters encouraged! The question then became “for what purpose?” Why do we need to share stories and be encouraged?

As family we talked about the beginnings of church and “the Way” of Jesus, about living a lifestyle that in some way honoured the teachings of Jesus but an awkward kind of silence fell as we tried to understand what that looked like…”well, being kind I think” said one and “love, that must have something to do with it” mused another?! Well it’s a start!!!

I guess for our story, as we try to work out how to be church and are in the privileged, scary yet exciting position of finding a church to lead, the thoughts we’re exploring are huge. We recognise that there are elements of existing church that just don’t connect anymore. Some churches have lost sight of the revolutionary, upside down, counter cultural teachings of Jesus…so the idea of being a church that really explores what it means to be human while experiencing the divine is actually interesting! A church that encourages lives to be radically different to the way of the world because it knows that what the world offers is not enough and it doesn’t last; a church that looks for something that holds those bigger questions about who we are and why we’re here and offers a forum for talking that through! That’s where I think this conversation about church is headed!

There is, alongside all of this, an awareness that church through the centuries has included elements of prayer, song, sacrament and teaching in a variety of expressions! Maybe there’s something about humanity trying to express a connection to that ‘thing that is outside of themselves’ that requires more than the limited language we have. There’s something about connection to the divine that goes beyond our regular human expression of ourselves. When we express our souls we often find words are inadequate and that music, art, even ritual are a more faithful articulation.

There also seems to be something about how humanity functions within groups or systems, something about how we as humans create structure and ritual no matter what culture or tribe we’re part of. Maybe as a way of associating meaning and purpose to who we are and what we’re doing!

I’d been thinking about this blog all week and we drove home after visiting friends in Dartford, we sat in traffic waiting to enter the Blackwall Tunnel and spotted this sign:

“Traditions are important in neighbourhoods so let’s invent some”

Traditions like the village show, the school fete or the scarecrow festival…(I imagine you’ve lived places with their own community tradition). Tradition exists in neighbourhood and in family too. Most families invent rhythm, tradition and even ritual; structures that allow mornings, meal times and bed time to flow; traditions that enable the celebrations of Christmas or birthdays or other ‘holidays’, as well as rituals that mark significant life events.

Sporting groups also create fascinating ritual that we just take for granted! I observed Dover Athletic fans arriving to watch a game, dressed in scarves and tops associated to their team. They enter the ground, take their seat(most likely in the same seat as the previous game!) snd observe the players carrying out their own pre-match routine. The same routine each game of lining up, shaking hands, tossing a coin. The match kicks off, there are songs sung, chants that echo around the ground; at half time the obligatory pie is purchased and the second half is enjoyed (or not – depending on the teams performance!!). Together they encourage each other as they worship their sporting heroes! The whole experience is full of rhythm, ritual and tradition.

It seems that most groups and communities create systems that provide structure, comfort and security. Church seems to be no different.

However, there has to be a purpose to those routines and rituals. Something more than just comfort and security! There’s something about making a difference for good in the world; about making connections beyond ourselves and our immediate friends and family. Those rituals need to extend into care for others; those we don’t know or understand, as well as those who our lifestyles inadvertently impact through the every day choices we make. As we realise who we are actually in relationship with we discover a greater care and responsibility for our neighbourhood, our towns and ultimately the planet. As we explore this we learn what love really looks like as well as who and what that love impacts!

Within all of these thoughts is a challenge to grow, shape or simply be church…to invite others to join in and together find the expressions and conversations that allow those involved to be fully alive. You could give your whole life for that!