The one about…love!

I’ve been reading a book called ‘Why are they so weird? What’s really going on in a teenagers brain.’* It’s a fascinating read and helpful as I attempt to navigate life with my tribe. The author of the book visits a well known neuroscientist who explains a little about what a developing brain needs.

To develop properly, she says, the brain must have certain experiences: good diet, exercise for good blood flow, challenges and love.
‘You know, I say that part about love in all my lectures and the men all laugh. They are scientists and they know t’s true, but they won’t say it,’ she said, as she carefully tucked the brain back in its tupperware bowl and closed the lid on the flowered hatbox. ‘Then, after the lectures, you know what those men want? They all want a hug,'”*

Love, it seems, is really quite important and the scientists agree. But what is love? What does love even look like? Is it that warm, fuzzy feeling we get when all is well in our “world”? Do I only feel it when the children are happy/ healthy/ behaving? Do they only feel loved when I say “I love you” or hug them or buy them something? I’m told God loves me and Sid says he loves me but what difference does that make when I’ve been yelled at about an unwashed PE kit, the missing script for the play, a forgotten water bottle and the inconvenience of putting shoes on, all in the space of half an hour! The barrage of abuse can leave you feeling drained, especially when your two year old wouldn’t sleep and you spent most of the night in bed with him. Where does love feature in that!? I’m feeling something but I’m not sure it’s love!

So what is this love thing? Does love change anything when your world is shaken or when the story that’s unfolding is not what you hoped for and it hurts? What does love look like and does it make a difference?

A guy called Pete Rollins writes a lot about love (and I mean a lot…he has such mind blowing philosophical theological way of attempting to understand life…read his books…honestly!) He wrote this:

Love is the crazy, mad, and perhaps ridiculous gesture of saying yes to life, of seeing it as worthy of our embrace and even worthy of our total sacrifice.**

What does it mean to say yes to life, to embrace life? Maybe we say “yes” when we get up, carry on, force a smile, stop and take a breath, slow down, make that phone call, change that plan, have that conversation, give that hug, write that message, mop that floor, open those curtains, the list could go on. I don’t know what saying “yes” looks like for you or how you embrace life but it often requires something more of us, we often have to dig deep and find an energy we didn’t know we had…and that energy? Love? What if there’s something powerful about saying yes to life, despite the tears, the fear, the uncertainty, because as we do, this force we call love transcends the moment?

What if love, actively choosing life, saying “yes” and embracing life, keeps these momentary (although sometimes seemingly eternal) problems, fears, frustrations, heartbreaks, in their place? In some senses all that we have is this moment, the past has gone and the future is unknown no matter how much we think we know. But what if we find that each ‘now’, each moment, features in a bigger story at work in the world, a story which is more than the now, a story bigger than any one moment, or person, or power, or government, or leader, or illness, or celebrity, or prisoner, or child, or mother, or father, or sister, or brother or even death? A story that is held by love, a story which has existed from the beginning and continues into forever. What if in that story love has the first and the final say, we just get to play our part, and our part makes the story interesting but it isn’t the whole story!

Love then is not something we own, or something we wait to receive. Love is not something that relies on there being another to love. Love certainly isn’t just a word.

What if love is not something that is given but rather is better understood as an action, or an attitude to life; and in that act of love we say yes to life, in that expression of love we recognise life as worthy of giving our deepest self to, sometimes in the inconvenience and the rethinking of plans because sometimes love requires us to sacrifice one way for a new way. As we love, as we give of ourselves to that moment and find ourselves in the bigger story, that’s when the mystery is manifest, the force, spirit, energy, divine otherness, God becomes more tangible, more real. What if that’s where we find “God’s love” really does make a difference and that “God’s love” changes everything because actually God is love.

*All credit to Barbara Strauch for her research and writing!
* The Idolatry of God: Breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction.

The one about…an immoral 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, I often talk to people who 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 rabbi and 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 (although 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.

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The one about…another dimension.

We seem to have a remarkably good grasp of space and time. We use a calendar, wear a watch, keep a diary. We can see pretty much anywhere on google earth and if we input the right information into our SatNav we can find the way to our chosen location. We talk of historical events and place them in a specific space and time and we dream of the future and plan the next night out, holiday or adventure.

Spacetime is how we understand our world because all events occur in a particular place and time. Spacetime is the fusion of the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time and these dimensions are inextricably linked. But what if there’s another way to understand our existence? What if there’s more to life than the three dimensions of space and our one dimension understanding of time? What if there’s something that exists outside of space and time?

There’s a novel called Flatland, written in 1884 by a ‘school master’ called Edwin Abbot. It’s the story of a two-dimensional world called Flatland, occupied by geometric figures. One day this world is visited by a three dimensional object (a sphere) who introduces the idea of a third dimension, in hopes of educating the inhabitants of Flatland of a third dimensional reality. The two dimensional beings are open to the idea of new dimensions, so the square visits one dimensional Lineland where he appears simply as a line. He then visits Spaceland where the circle he has met is seen as a sphere. As the concept of further dimensions are introduced he becomes fearful and incapable of comprehending such realities. Despite the best efforts of the sphere to convince him that there is something more, the square lives out his days within the comfort of his known Flatland.

That’s the synopsis of the last book I read! There’s a great quote, where the sphere talks to the square (because that’s what shapes do?!)

“When you entered the realm of Lineland you were compelled to manifest yourself to the King, not as a square but as a line, because that Linear Realm had not dimensions enough to represent the whole of you…your country of two dimensions is not spacious enough to represent me, a being of three, but can only exhibit a slice of me, which is what you call a circle.”

It’s fascinating because it opens up questions of realities beyond what we know to be true. What if there really are realities or dimensions beyond our own known consciousness and we are simply unable to comprehend reality outside our own known sphere? What if our use of language when we talk of wonder, cosmic energy or spirituality is exactly the same problem that the square experienced; that our understanding of dimension is not ‘spacious enough to represent’ the mystery? Which leads to the question of what if we had the ability to transcend the known reality and what if that allowed us, at least for a brief moment, to see life from a different perspective, to hold for a moment the view that time and space could offer so much more than we’d ever realised?

What if meditation, reflection, prayer, contemplation (whatever word we use) are all tools through which we’re able to transcend our known consciousness into a deeper connection outside of space and time? What if religion offers, or at least should offer, opportunities to experience moments of space and time outside of the normal, known Spacetime Continuum? What if religion allows us to place story and experiences within a larger story or collective experience that allows life to be understood more holistically, more fully? What if experiencing life, even for brief moments in another dimension, allows us to hold our own lives more lightly, to see the bigger picture and know that all life and even death is held and sacred? What if there is something else to all of this?

The one about…the moon!

Belief, it’s an interesting concept, something we often dismiss because we’d rather understand and control; we’d rather have proof and logic than just seemingly ‘whimsical’ belief.

It’s fifty years since man first landed on the moon. There are people who don’t believe it to be true. There are whole websites, probably books, maybe some peoples’ life’s work devoted to the arguments for and against the first moon landing; conspiracy theorists looking to prove it a hoax and Nasa scientists devoted to proving it true.

My mum was twenty six when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. She was working nights, listening to the news broadcast on the radio in the nurses station as she and her colleagues staffed the maternity ward. She tells me that she remembers that night so vividly, looking out of the window into the darkness, seeing the glow of the moon and whispering “they’re walking on you right now”. She describes the wonder, the awe, the incredulity of the momentous occasion taking place. She believes. As that incredible event took place, around 238,855 miles away from where she stood, right there in the rooms around her women were giving birth to tiny human beings that they had grown themselves, hidden for months in the womb and then released into life on planet earth, to eventually take their first steps on our incredible planet. We’re not short of things to believe in.

Sure enough both the moon landing and childbirth can be explained in rational scientific terms, some would say its not rocket science but one of them clearly is and the other possibly requires a nursing degree to fully understand the intricacies of the finer details of conception, growth and birth. We can talk about each event in a rational, logical way but there’s something about our logical, reasoned explorations into space and our ability to reproduce that is overridden at some point, for most people, by sheer awe, wonder, mystery and magnificence. What if it’s in those moments of mystery we find that joy and hope are rekindled?

So as we watch the replays of the moon landing this week and are reminded of that ‘one small step for man’ let’s not lose sight of the gift that it is to believe. Perhaps over the next few days, as we catch a glimpse of the moon for ourselves we too might stop and just for a moment lose ourselves in the mystery and the wonder. What if we were to find joy in choosing to simply believe? What if there are more opportunities for belief than we’ve ever really appreciated? What if the rediscovery of belief, wonder and ultimately hope is the ‘giant leap’ mankind now needs to take.

 

The one about…moving (part 2)

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by details. The primary school doesn’t have places for two of the three children that need to go there and while the secondary school can offer places to our three secondary aged children, it can’t offer two of the GCSEs that our eldest has been studying for the last two years.
It seems that nothing is ever “easy”, maybe life would be dull if it was but sometimes I’d like to be given the opportunity to find out. Sometimes I’d like to at least be given the option of ‘easy’, or maybe I wouldn’t, I’m not actually that good at decsions. It’s safe to say that I don’t really know what I want, so I tried to write a list.

  • I want to live by the sea.
  • I want to live in Peterborough.
  • I want to run.
  • I want to sit and read.
  • I want to stay up late and lie in.
  • I want to get up early and write.
  • I want to live in a tiny cottage.
  • I want to raise my family.
  • I want to only buy clothes from charity shops.
  • I want to recreate my wardrobe completely from H and M.
  • I want the children to stay little.
  • I want the joy of watching the children grow up.
  • I want everything to stay the same.
  • I want to be living an adventure.

Do you see what I mean? I don’t know what I want and I don’t even want the same thing all of the time and sometimes I want two opposing things at the same time. Complicated? Confusing? There are a few directions my thoughts have gone as I wrestle with the confusion.

Firstly, I do want to be a full time mum, it’s all I’ve ever really wanted. I remember telling Sid that fact the second time we went out together and then getting home and wondering if it was the right thing to say to a guy I’d only just met?! I’m so blessed to have not had to work since we had children. We’ve never had two incomes; when Sid was a student I worked full time, then we had children and he’s worked, and because of that we’ve never taken on a lifestyle that we can’t sustain. That does however mean that my identity has become completely absorbed in family and as they grow up I’m left with less confidence and belief in who I am and what I can do. I’m sure I’m not the only full time mum to feel like this; to feel vulnerable, confused and scared of re-imagining life as the children begin to need me less or in different ways. I’ve been parenting preschoolers for over fifteen years, that’s a long career to have to stand down from, especially when I don’t really want to. Then we plan to move to a new area, for Sid to start a new job, as our youngest starts playgroup, and I’m left slightly bereft of a life I’ve loved and slightly unsure of who I am in it all.

The second thought my exploration of “I” led me to was a reminder that although I am still Deb, sixteen years ago I chose to be ‘Sid and Deb’, we got married and my ‘I’ became a ‘we’. That means that any decision I make now needs to be made in light of the promises I made then. Over time “we” has expanded to the nine of “us” and I can’t just do what I want, instead I do what we think is best for all of us. So, while we all maintain a right to our individuality, we are also family and I know that sometimes decisions have to be made that are for the good of ‘us’ not just for one individual. Marriage, family, and individual identities within that are hard to navigate and lately my “I” has been shouting loudly and stomping its feet, asking “what about me?” and that’s hard, that leads to tears and confusion and that is hard to reconcile when the life that we have created is being changed, relocated and redefined when there’s so much about it that you just want to keep the same.

My final thought was about how the ” I/we/us” concept also, for me, includes a spiritual element and that somewhere in all my musings the God character features. I was reminded of a quote by Paula D’arcy, she said, “God comes to you disguised as your life.” Could that possibly be true and what would that really look like? How would God, love, that force, that cosmic energy, the otherness I look for to help me reframe and reconnect with myself and ultimate reality, appear as my life? What if ‘God’ appears as those instances, people or events that seem to disrupt my otherwise comfortable, ordered existence? What if this somewhat painful exploration of where I’m at in life is in fact the divine breaking in to remind me that there’s always more. What if in the midst of all the fears and worries, the attempts to make sense of who I am, ‘God’ is simply saying through people, music and moments that “this all belongs”. What if I don’t have to worry about the future, or know exactly what it will look like because today I know what I have to do, today I have all I need and every time “today” appears again I find the same to be true. So while there are days where I’m overwhelmed by the details, days where I’m fearful and unsure and days where I want to hide out in a cottage by the sea, there are also days where I remember how blessed I am. There are days where I’m able to hold it all in perspective and days where the light seems to shine a little brighter than the day before and somehow I know that this will all make sense.

The one about…words that create.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “words create worlds” and God said “let their be light”.

It seems that words change things. But does the Divine actually speak?

The interview with Jesus last week got me thinking. What does conversation with the Divine sound like? There’s a song I’ve been listening to and some of the lyrics go like this:

🎵You say I am loved when I don’t feel a thing. You say I am strong when I think I am weak. You say I am held when I am falling short. When I don’t belong, You say I am Yours.🎵(Lauren Diagle-You Say)

Which is very similar the lyrics of another song which asks:

🎵Could you take care of a broken soul? Will you hold me now? Will you take me home?🎵(Jess Glynne-Take Me Home)

Both songs speak into what it is to feel lost and helpless, to need rescuing, to be held by something or someone who can be trusted, who can offer safety, hope and a future. There are many songs written that echo this, the thoughts aren’t new. These thoughts are also the basic plot of every fairytale ever told, almost as though through the stories the heroes and heroines are asking the questions of our deep human desire to find love, belonging and security.

It seems that throughout the centuries humanity has called out to something or someone that will listen. Through music, art and literature, or simply from within the depths of their own being, people have asked questions and looked to a higher force, a greater power, something or someone seemingly stronger than themselves for answers. It also seems that there are moments for all of us where life doesn’t make sense, where fear takes over no matter how much we try to reason with it, where the unanswered questions seem endless and we just need to know someone or something has got this because we’re not sure we have.

I’d call that ‘something’ God, but spirit, energy, ultimate reality and love work just as well as words to capture that something more. Whatever word we use though it doesn’t really answer the question of whether God (or that force of love) answers humanity in those moments. It doesn’t actually make sense of how we’re told we’re loved, held, strong or that we belong? I guess that’s where it needs to stop being some whimsical wish and become more tangible.

What if ‘God’ does speak? What if belonging is spoken of throughout all of nature, suggesting that nothing’s really wasted but everyting plays its part. What if love and strength are spoken of through the couple dancing in the falling blossom, the baby cradled in its mothers arms, the safe silence between the couple married for fifty years as they sit on the park bench or the lady walking her two rescue dogs? What if love and strength are seen in the sibling lifting her younger brother up to the post box to post the letter, the three year old picking daisies and putting them in an envelope to his grandma or the son holding his mum who’s just signed all responsibility for her life over to him? Love and strength whisper throughout our world in so many ways and somehow remind us that we are loved and held regardless of how we feel. Love, belonging and strength, they are all there to be seen in nature, community and the everyday; almost as if it is about what you choose to focus on, about choosing to take time to stop and listen because its all there to be seen, to be noticed and all there to become a part of.

Hearing the Divine is also about choosing not to find distractions to ‘numb the pain’ or ‘help us escape’ (Lewis Capaldi-Someone You Loved) but instead about choosing opportunities that help us feel alive, choosing the experiences and encounters that wake us up to reality, however hard that is, because it’s only in waking up, being present and living now that we truly experience and receive love, belonging and strength. To live numb or distant is to not know how loved and held you really are. To not really know how much you belong and to not discover the strength of identity.

What if that’s how the divine speaks, what if it’s in those moments where we choose to listen that we find truth, love and hope whispered over us and we know something bigger than us is holding all of this? What if it’s in those moments where we stop and connect with the world around, read a book, engage in conversation or listen to music, what if we’re attentive, noticing the small incidents that often go unnoticed? What if the divine speaks in our own thoughts and musings if only we would just pay attention to ourselves and really hear? What if the word has been speaking since the beginning and continues to speak today, all of the time? What if we just need to learn to listen? What if in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God?

The one about…asking Jesus that question?

Me: Jesus, hi, thanks for agreeing to do this. I’ve just got a couple of questions. I’m not used to doing the interview, it’s usually Sid so if it’s ok with you we’ll just get on with it! Tell me, who are you and why are you here?

Jesus: Hi, yes, love that you wanted me to do this, it’s a good question, something many people have tried to answer. Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

Me (slightly flustered): erm, some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Your mate Peter said ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ But I was actually hoping for your answer.

Jesus (smiling serenely): I know, but what about you? Who do you say I am?”

Me (even more flustered): Er, God? Well, God in human form. The manifestation of love? The embodiment of mystery? Tangible spirit? Corporeal reality? Life? But your answer would be helpful. You know you should have been a politician, your ability to avoid the actual answer to a question is like some divine gift. Anyway, we’ve lost focus slightly…so, who are you?

Jesus (laughing): Ok, I’m the Light, the bread, the door, the way, the truth, the life; I’m the resurrection, the vine, the good shepherd. I’m life.

Me: right, yep, great; that’s quite a list. Tell me, why are you here?

Jesus: I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they have ever dreamed of.

Me: that’s interesting. You claim to be ‘bread’ as well as be here to provide; to be ‘the door’ or ‘the light’ or ‘the way’ and be here to show the way; to be ‘truth’ and to tell the truth; to be ‘the resurrection and the life’ and be here to bring life? It seems that your identity and purpose are inextricably linked. Which raises the question of whether the two questions can actually be asked separately. What if who we are is also why we’re here? What if we’re here to be who we are? What do you think?

Jesus: I think I fancy fish for tea, you up for a picnic on the beach? Talking of fish, did you watch the documentary on BBC2 about the four families who tried out being fisherman, I’m not sure but I think it was the BBC’s attempt at Love Island?

As it happens I did catch the end of a couple of episodes of that documentary. I didn’t watch the whole series (seems I never do!), but I was reminded that life at the turn of the century was hard. They worked just to survive, there was no making a little extra so that they could enjoy a night away or take the kids to a theme park. Life back then was simply about survival. Answering the question who are you and why are you here would have been almost nonsensical, they were fishermen and they were here to be fishermen.

The same reality stands true today in many cultures across our world. There are people who don’t have the luxury of wondering why they’re here, their lives too immersed in producing food for themselves and their families, providng shelter and sustaining life. They find identity in their purpose and their purpose is their identity. Their purpose is to live.

Maybe its not a luxury to wonder why we’re here. What if we were healthier mentally and spiritually when our purpose was simply to be alive. What if our “developed world” with celebrity culture, rich lists and our desire for more success, wealth and notoriety means we find ourselves losing sight of who we are, becoming caught up in unhealthy notions of who we could be, which stop us being fully present now? What if the leisure time we think we deserve, the ‘little extras’ we believe we earn actually detract from our abilty to know who we are and stifle our ability to genuinely share life with others?

What if knowing who we are could negate the need for comparison or competition? What if knowing our identity and our purpose enabled us to live from a place where we could celebrate the success of others more readily and smile at their joy? Maybe if all of us were able to know who we are and focus on living right now we’d find that community could flourish. We’d find a reliance, a generosity and a genuine need for each other that was far from superficial.

What if the reason we’re here is to simply be who we are? What if we fully understood that we are unique, that no one else can bring what we bring to our families, friends, communities or the world? What if we are here to be fully alive, to truly live, to share ourselves as a good gift to the world? What if it is as simple as that?

Me: Jesus, just one more thing, the being life and bringing life, that’s quite a mind blowing concept!

Jesus: you know Christ isn’t actually my surname?

Me: 🤔