The one about…moving forward

However you understand the beginning of the universe there is general concensus among scientists and poets alike that the universe is expanding; that there is some form of ongoing creation, evolution and emergence as the universe is drawn onwards in a forwards motion.

It all began over thirteen billion years ago and a slightly oversimplified explanation goes something like: particles bond with other particles to form atoms; atoms bond with other atoms to form molecules; and then cells are formed (by molecules bonding with molecules) to create organic cellular life, these then progress to more complex life systems (like animals) and then eventually humans appear on the scene, quite a few billion years into the life of the universe. We’re quite a late addition but we’re here and we’re awesome. There is a general understanding that human consciousness did not exist in the earliest specailes of humans (which is why the phrase “he acted like a Neanderthal” makes complete sense!) Our ability to use reason or rational arguments, to express and engage with the vast range of human emotions, is an even newer concept within the universe than humanity itself.

The universe has been moving forwards, becoming more complex and increasingly unified since it began. It could be argued we’re still on that trajectory.

There is a widespread belief that there is a force at work in the universe driving this forwards movement. An energy, or a relationship of energy that holds the motion and draws it on. This energy has been named by some as God, for some that name isn’t helpful so it might be that “love” makes more sense as a name for the force that moves us forwards.

The bible, one of the most famous collections of historical writings, describes God as love. This collection of books also details human history over thousands of years and within its pages there is a very similar call to an onwards motion, a journey towards unity.

I don’t know enough about world history to present a definitive argument for continual forward motion but it does seem that there is progress to be seen, albeit sometimes slower than we’d like. Slavery has been abolished, but still human trafficking is an issue. The Rwandan genocide, the rise of Isis, mass shootings in schools; humanity is still capable of awful actions against fellow human beings. Whilst as a world we’re not rid of all atrocities we as a collective humanity are increasingly speaking up against the evil that we see. As a whole, humanity is moving forwards into a better way of being. British history is a great example, Henry V111 had six wives and he beheaded two of them, the monarchy doesn’t do that anymore. Children used to be forced to work in appalling conditions from a very young age, we don’t do that anymore either and we are increasingly aware of the countries that still do. There are complex issues but more and more western consumers are asking questions about the conditions others are working in and the wages they are being paid. I’m not naïve enough to believe progress is made everywhere or arrogant enough to suggest what progress should look like but I do believe that its happening.

Why is this important?

For me it’s important on two levels, firstly because I think it makes sense of so many of our experiences. When we’re jealous or envious of another person, when we feel angry with someone, when we say things that hurt someone else we know it’s not good, we don’t feel good because we’re going against the direction of the universe, those actions, thoughts and feelings are not bringing unity between us or within us. They don’t move us forwards.

This forward motion also makes sense of why we know we can’t go back to the ‘good old days’, why we know we get that feeling we shouldn’t return to that relationship or move back to that place, because even if we do “go back” we’ve changed, we’ve moved on and while sometimes going back works, it perhaps only does so with the acknowledgment that all involved have moved on, changed and progressed. Maybe we never really do go back.

Then there’s death. Death seems to hit us hard. Death does not feel like progress, death does not feel like movement forwards. Death feels like stumbling, falling, stopping. Death feels like a fog preventing us seeing the way, death doesn’t allow movement, death is static and final. Which is why it doesn’t make sense to us, which is why we don’t embrace it, welcome it or aspire to it. Death doesn’t seem to belong in the way the universe is moving.

The other reason I find this forward motion interesting is because there’s an implied suggestion that it’s all headed somewhere. What if there is a preferred future, an ultimate state, a better way; some space time continuum that we are being called on and into by love? What if in that place there is enough to go round, there is no more war, no more death, no more tears? What if we are actually headed towards togetherness, to a way of being in the world that brings peace, understanding and love. The bible calls it the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe there’s something in that?!

(Inspired so much by Rob Bell who does a whole show about this on YouTube ‘Everything is Spiritual’…worth a watch!)

The one about…comparison.

“Don’t worry about what he’s doing, just enjoy what you’re doing and let him do his thing!”

I listened to the advice I was giving to my squabbling children and laughed to myself at my own inability to follow it!

I’m good at comparison, which sucks because it doesn’t actually do me any good. It destroys any healthy perspective I have of my own life and skews the view the lives of those around me. It seems I’m often unable to see the awesome truths about my own world because I’m so busy looking at everyone else’s. It’s almost as if the more I compare the more I need to compare until I find a comparison that makes me feel better about myself!

I’d love to live from a place of security, knowing that I was good enough, clever enough, pretty enough, successful enough, rich enough; that who I was and all I had was enough. Regardless of how that measured up to Facebook, Instagram, my neighbours or even my husband; whatever scale I’m currently choosing to compare my life to! Imagine if I was able to live life content with who I am and what I have.

I often wonder why I have a problem with comparison. Maybe it’s a simple lack of self esteem or maybe it’s born out of dissatisfaction with where my life is at. I had a friend share a quote she’d heard which basically said “dissatisfaction is key to our evolution” and I guess maybe there’s something about a state of discontent that does drive us forward into new things. I guess it’s OK to be discontent with how things are and allow that to inspire change, that must be different from a comparison to how others are which makes you want to change?

It seems that so often I live life from a place of lack or scarcity rather than abundance and generosity. The religion I grew up with started from a point of lack, loss, failure and separation; as though humanity was birthed into scarcity. Stories of generosity and extravagance had been retold focussing on what was lost or what was missing. The role of religion was generally to remind you that you weren’t enough, that you lacked something; that ultimately you had fallen short of perfection and weren’t good enough for God! What I’m learning is that actually true religion starts from a place of extravagance, prodigality, abundance and generosity. I’m slowly realising that there’s a force, an energy, a Divine Spirit at work in the universe which cries out “I am always with you and all I have is yours”, that phrase echoes through creation, it’s evident in every season, which means that I don’t need to worry about having enough or being enough because there is always enough. It’s not just material wealth like money and possessions that I become fearful or possessive about but also love and joy and fun and laughter. What if I’m reluctant to celebrate the success and happiness of others because deep within I believe that there’s a limit to the amount of joy there is to go around? What if I’m jealous of the success of others because in some strange way I think that their success restricts the success that might come my way! Sounds a little crazy?! Maybe, but why else would I feel a little envious that they got to buy that house together, or that he got that job, or that she gets to go to that party? What is it that stops me being simply happy for others in their moments of excitement and happiness? If I genuinely begin to believe in a benevolent universe, a Divine being that is totally for humanity, then my need to compare or measure myself against others will diminish because I’ll know that I have access to all I need and that I am enough!

That’s my bag! But as a wise person said earlier this week:

The particular is always universal, it’s like you’re hearing this person talk about the situation they’re in and you realise ‘oh lots of people know what this is about’, it’s like if you go far enough into yourself you find everybody!*

So while this is where I’m at, maybe it’s not just me!

*Rob Bell on The Robcast Episode 231: An Anatomy of Restlesness!

The one about…the story we’re telling ourselves!

“You’re already telling yourself a story so tell yourself a better one!” The words jumped out at me and everything else seemed muffled or irrelevant. What if he’s right? What if it’s that simple? The thought stayed with me.

Psychologists talk about the “tapes” we play.* Sometimes it’s called self- talk, it can be positive or negative but at its very essence it’s the story we tell ourselves about our lives and it’s influenced by every encounter and experience we’ve had, good or bad.

We all have accounts we can relay of moments that have stayed with us, words spoken over us, experiences that have impacted us or memorable occasions that have changed us. There are millions of other encounters and conversations that we don’t remember but are stored somewhere deep within us. We all have parents, teachers, siblings, colleagues, peers, who have influenced us subtly and sometimes not so subtly. They’ve created a frame for how we see ourselves and what or how we believe our lives should be. We’re also influenced immensely by the dominant culture that surrounds us, music, news, film, literature; all shape what we believe to be true about ourselves.

Some people have had mostly positive messages spoken over them, others are better at filtering the negatives like Jack in the film Titanic who, when he’s asked if he enjoys his “rootless existence” replies:

Well yes ma’am I do…I mean I got everything I need right here with me. I’ve got the air in my lungs and a few blank sheets of paper. I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s going to happen or who I’m going to meet…Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now, here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people.”

Oh to interpret a story with such positivity!

Yet for others, the message they’ve received has damaged them and their ability to really know who they are and the tapes they play aren’t positive or necessarily even true.

What if it’s possible to start telling yourself a different story?

Whatever your opinion or understanding of the bible what the book does is continually take the story being told to a nation, tribe or individual and tell a better one. So slaves are told they are a people, the childless are told they will grow a nation, prisoners are told they will be free, women are told they have value, prostitutes are told they are loved, the outcasts are told they are welcome, the illiterate and uneducated are told they’ll change the world! Stories are re-told. Even the ones we read as primitive and barbaric are often actually a step forward for those people, in that time, in the way they interact with the world!** The work of the divine has always been to tell a better story.

Which takes us back to the question what if our stories can be retold? Maybe you don’t need it retelling, maybe you’re able to hold a positive, authentic, humble opinion of yourself with integrity constantly. What if though, there are times that challenge us, that daunt us, that leave us feeling less than capable? What if at times we feel anxious, insecure, bitter or frustrated and the story we tell ourselves just feeds deeper into those emotions? What if we’re able to take a step back, to review the story, to ask why we believe that about ourselves? What if we to dare to believe there’s a better story, another view, an alternative path, which that particular story can follow?

What if we choose to focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t, who we are instead of who we aren’t? What if we change the negative talk about that person and start seeing them as the more fragile human we know ourselves to be? What if we choose to believe we can do good in this world and as a result, in every interaction, we seek to record a positive message onto someone else’s tape? What if there’s a true story at work in the world that we can be part of? What if we’re all telling ourselves a story and it really is possible to tell ourselves a better one!

* tapes, a throwback to how life was but also a recognised psychological term!!! Maybe now we’d just have it all stored in our “cloud”??

** you’ll see what I mean!!! In “What is the Bible?” Rob Bell writes:

Does it surprise you when someone in the bible wins a battle and then gives their gods the credit? That’s what people did at that time.

Does it surprise you when after, winning, they wiped out the women and children and then said their gods told them to do it? That’s what people did at that time.

Does it surprise you when they won and then let no one escape but put everyone to the sword, and then said they did it with their gods power? That’s what people did at that time….

You find these stories violent and repulsive and barbaric because they are.

If you didn’t find them shocking and awful and confusing, something is wrong with you.

The violence isn’t that surprising; what’s surprising is that among all that violence there are new ideas about serving and blessing and nonviolence….What you find in the bible are stories accurately reflecting the dominant consciousness of the day, and yet right in among and sometimes even within those very same violent stories, you find radically new ideas about freedom, equality, justice, compassion and love.

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.