The one about…original goodness.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…God looked at what he had done. All of it was very good!”

That’s how the poem that opens the bible starts and ends; the God character creates something very good. Whether you see this as a literal account or a poetic description, a historical fact or figurative expression, the poem contains wisdom and truth and whatever word you would use for ‘God’ there’s a force present at the beginning of time, doing something good!

The Hebrew word used for ‘good’ is Tov, it means well crafted, well-formed and it seems that the whole of creation is well crafted, infused with life, given an ability to make more of itself, an ever changing, ever evolving force of nature that’s not static, its good, its well-formed but it’s not perfect.

Many people have been led to believe that the initial wrestle of the bible is between good and evil; a battle between heaven and hell, God and the Devil, vying for control of man, resulting in ‘the fall.’ Yet before any of that plays out there is another duel taking place, a whole different encounter; good vs perfect.

God, the divine, the original source of energy and power, that force, ultimate reality, love, creates and it’s not perfect, who knew! Perfection is a state of completion, something that is faultless or unblemished. Perfection is static, the ultimate achievement or attainment, we achieve, we attain but then what? Good, on the other hand, has room for growth, for change, for movement forwards. This is what the creation poem echoes of as day moves to night, as light becomes dark and then light again, as the seasons change and cold becomes warm, as the life giving seeds fall to the ground and die before giving birth to life; day/night, light/dark, warm/cold, life/death, it’s all good, it’s all part of it because it all belongs. This language of growth permeates the whole bible, the waiting, the trusting, the allowing for change, the all-encompassing embrace of ‘both/and’ not ‘either/or”. Even as the story progresses and the Jesus character talks of a Kingdom like no other, he uses the language of seeds and yeast and trees, all of which invite movement and growth and allow space for death and decay.

Along with the invitation to movement into the next chapter, the next part of the story, this poem that starts the bible also invites man into responsibility, ownership and accountability for this ever-evolving creation. Man is placed in a garden to work it and take care of it, a helper is sought for man, as he names each animal, an act of responsibility and relationship in itself, none of the animals are found to be a suitable helper. Instead woman is made from man’s flesh and the two walk the garden, naked and without shame. That is how their, and all our stories begin, naked and shameless. They begin without embarrassment, without humiliation or guilt, and without any feelings of worthlessness, we’re totally worthy and completely loved.

This is original goodness, it’s where all our stories start.

It’s a truth we lose as we get caught up in a world of original sin and a desire for perfection. Tov, gently reminds us that it all belongs, that we don’t have to be perfect, that life doesn’t have to be perfect, that things fall apart, that sometimes life hurts, that we’re not always as “successful” as we’d like to be and that actually, in reality, nobody else is either, despite what they project. What if ‘good’ keeps us moving forwards despite what we experience not because of it? What if ‘good’ allows us to love and own our stories with all their mess and imperfection and to keep moving forward into life? What would it look like if we stopped chasing ‘perfect’ and embraced ‘good’?

The one about…is it only me who…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one about…a Christmas that belongs!

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

It seems that there are five Christmas stories…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas!

 

The one about…our Christmas story.

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 25th of December (or for some the 24th) has become such a big event. One day where everything has to be ready; food prepared, presents bought, gifts wrapped, cards sent, houses tidied, people invited…all for one day, all for the illusion of the perfect Christmas. Thing is, it is an illusion, it’s rarely perfect, despite the stories we hear and the adverts we see – oh and of course those Christmas movies which create the perfect dream.

The reality is more likely to be about a 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; or about 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 sombre 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.

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 the fabricated “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.

Jesus Christ was born during the time of, ‘Pax Romana’ – which stood for Roman Peace. A period which spanned approximately 200 years  and recorded as a time of peace. Yet Roman Peace was utterly consequential and incredibly brutal, all were required to bow to the Emperor, pledge  allegiance to the Crown, pay taxes and adhere to Roman rule which in turn allowed for the prospering of the elite in the Empire.

Imagine living with this, growing up with this kind of brutality. Into this reality a baby is born. Birth and new life represent 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 true love, unconditional 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. The 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, joy and peace 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 in the same way that Jesus Christ brought hope and peace into the world, our story can too.

The one about…light.

It’s incredible how a house becomes a home. Empty rooms, bare walls, a vacant unfurnished space, devoid of any real character takes on a personality and identity as it begins to fill with possessions and people. Our new house felt like home instantly, we all felt it (apart from the dog, but that’s another blog!)

It is perfect for us, size, space, layout, location, it all just works. It’s warm, it’s cosy and it’s light; the light floods in through the kitchen and through the patio doors to the lounge, an incredible contrast to the house we lived in before, tucked away, nestled in between other houses, a beautiful building but cold and dark in comparison to what we now have.

Light; it brightens the room, lifts the mood and warms the space. Light is a gift. I’ve noticed something else about light too though, it shows up every little detail, every spec of dust in the air, every crumb on the work surface and every little piece of dirt on the floor. Light exposes everything.

Many of the world religions celebrate light, the triumph of good over evil represented by the dominance of light over darkness, light is seen as that which shows us the way, whether as in the Hindu tradition of Diwali with Rama and Sita returning home, the celebration of light, or the concept of Jesus as the light of the world, showing the way to live. Light is what guides, what illuminates the path, light is good.
What if three’s far more to light than that? What if in the same way that sunlight shows everything, when we use the word light in relation to religion, it’s there to illuminate everything too, good and bad? What if that’s what Jesus really meant when he said he was the light of the world? What if that kind of light illuminates what we’d rather wasn’t seen, those character traits that we’re not so proud of; our lack of patience, the thought about others that we know we shouldn’t have, the corners we cut or those thoughts we have about ourselves; the self-doubt or unbelief? What if the role of religion is to illuminate all those things for what they are, expose the truth, call it out and call us to be more who we’re capable of being?

Darkness and light both have their place, and sometimes it’s easier to live in the darkness, hiding ourselves away from the realities that we know light would expose. Maybe living in a dualistic world where we have good or bad, light or dark, those who are in or those who are out, isn’t actually healthy for us, maybe a subtle shift in understanding from ‘or’ to ‘and’ would help us see that it all belongs, that there are far more shades of grey in all these areas than the stark contrasts we often box others and ourselves into. Maybe instead of attempting to defeat the darkness we need embrace it and decorate it.

What if to spend time in the light is to make peace with the not so perfect parts of who we are, to accept that it does all belong, to accept that there are elements of our character which aren’t perfect and could be better, aspects that we know we’d like to work on but that we recognise might take a lifetime? What if to spend time in the light, however we do that*, connects us with the way of love, with a higher force or power, something more…what if that in turn connects us more deeply with ourselves, with our soul?

As we get closer to Christmas, as even more lights shine, and we’re reminded of that baby who came as a light to the world; what if we chose to stop, to look at the lights and be reminded that who we are is OK? What if we allow the innocence of that baby to contrast with those characteristics and quirks that we’re not so proud of and allow love to do it’s thing? What if as the light shines on the whole of who we are, we say yes to that love and embrace every detail of ourselves, allowing love and light to show us how we could be yet also learning that to accept ourselves as we are is the only starting point for real growth.
*a walk in the wood, a quiet space at home, church, coffee with a friend, music, art, film, a good book…maybe time in the light is different for everyone!

The one about…demons.

The ‘Good Place’, the ultimate afterlife destination, a heaven like utopia for the elite of humanity, an eternal paradise for those that are good enough or so you’d think…but things aren’t always as they seem and the Good Place is actually an experimental neighbourhood designed specifically for four particular human beings as part of an exploration into alternative torture; hosted by a demonic architect called Michael, the four humans are tortured; not with the more traditional fire and brimstones but instead simply by being, well, human.
It’s another one of those Netflix shows that sounds a little far-fetched and it probably is, the ‘frozen yoghurt in heaven’ concept clearly suggesting that the plot is not rooted in any kind of reality! Yet what if there’s more truth to be found in the ideas it does present, what if the theories it conceptualises are not as far from reality as we might think.
We all hold some thoughts about the afterlife; so whether we dismiss it completely, opting for a huge void of nothingness, or whether we calm our existential fears with thoughts of angels, harps and clouds (or a range of options in between) it’s a subject that we have no definitive answer to no matter how strong our religious (or non-religious) convictions are.
Heaven and hell; literal places we descend or ascend to when our time on earth is over or a metaphorical allegory (is that even a thing?) providing meaning to that which we can’t explain? Angels, demons, an omnipotent judge like character? It sounds the stuff of fiction and fable, more at place in a Phillip Pullman novel or as a plot in Good Omens; but what if demons are more common than we think?
Life isn’t always easy and even when it’s going well, we can battle some pretty tough thoughts in our mind. Those “demons” that taunt us about how we don’t deserve to be happy, who whisper horror over that new lump or bump that’s appeared or the way that mole has changed; demons that talk you into one more drink because really, what’s the harm? Demons that make you doubt anyone really likes you, that you were only invited because they were being polite and it probably would be best to send that text to say you’re not going to make it because you don’t want to spend the whole evening feeling like you don’t belong. Demons that torment you with all the bad decisions you’ve made whilst trying to parent that child, that tell you the reason she does that is because of what you did. Demons that tease you about your ideas for that presentation, that suggest its not good enough and that you won’t get the promotion so it’s best to give up now. Demons that laugh at your attempt at a costume for your child, reminding you of your own childhood humiliation at school plays and mufti days. Demons that haunt you with and uneasy paranoia about who you are and what you’re capable of. Demons that go out of their way to show you how you’ve failed, that remind you you’re not the wife, mother, daughter, friend, sister (or husband, father, son, brother) or maybe just not the person that you would like to be.
Demons can take all shapes and sizes and they can creep up on us out of nowhere, just chipping away at our confidence, at our self-worth, at our belief that we are enough and that we are doing OK.
Shawn from the ‘Good Place’ bad place might well just be a cleverly characterised attempt at mimicking Lucifer, the bad place might host some weird and wonderfully designed demons and it might all seem a little too far from the truth but what if there is something in the way humans are used to torture themselves that is quite close to the truth? What if we do actually create our own hell in the thoughts we believe and the way we respond, not only on a personal level but on a national and international level too? What if the concept of hell isn’t something reserved for the afterlife but a very present phenomenon right now? What if all this suggests that if we can create our own hell maybe creating heaven on earth isn’t as impossible as we think.

The one about…redefining Brexit!

Brexit…well, I’m not sure what’s happening with the British exit of the European Union so I thought I’d fill you in on the Bridges exit instead!

We’re on the move! It has been nearly three years since we started looking at jobs in the Church of England, knowing that Sid’s curacy would end and we’d potentially need to take up a post elsewhere. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotion; applications, interviews, emails and conversations, all an attempt to discern what we should be doing and where we should be doing it. Soul searching I think it’s sometimes called, although to be honest I always imagined soul searching to be a little more like walking along a beach pondering some deep, meaningful thoughts; but these years have been brutal, exhausting, real and raw, hopeful, exhilarating, energising, draining and a whole host of other somewhat conflicting emotions! Some moments have nearly broken us, as individuals, as a couple and as family; some very dark, seemingly hopeless experiences followed by glimmers of hope, anticipation and intrigue only to find out it’s not to be. We’ve taken jobs and turned jobs down, we’ve applied and then pulled out of interview, we’ve applied and not been called for interview, we’ve been interviewed and not appointed; but each experience, however random or seemingly nonsensical, has taught us something, something more of who we are and why we’re here. We can both honestly say that while that has been ridiculously hard at times, we’ve learnt things about ourselves that we could only learn by living this way.

Yet all of it eventually had to culminate in something, a decison had to be made, and the decision was not just about one person or even two, any decision had huge implications for our children too, it would impact their friendships, their education and their lifestyle; it would impact who they are and who they would become, for better or for worse. We moved here with only five of them and now there are seven, and while playgroup and primary were our only consideration five years ago we’re now well into secondary school, GCSE’s and considering the crazy world of post-16 too. Decisions can’t be made lightly!

The decision has been made and now we find ourselves surrounded by boxes, lists and cluttered piles of “stuff” headed for rubbish, recycling or the next charity shop collection. It is somewhat monumental, the reality of moving nine of us, somewhat surreal, as we look around the house and walk the streets of our neighbourhood where we’ve lived life together, through all its ups and downs. It seems strange to think that this chapter of our life is over yet we know that the beauty is found in turning the page and beginning the next.

So we move, not far away, neighbours will change but much of what we know will stay the same and the work we’re called to do, well that’s what’s giving us the energy and inspirtaion to pack up and move on. We knew we had to find work, vocation and a lifestyle that made our hearts and souls sing. We’re so excited by what we’re doing that all of the past confusion and hurt and disappointments pale into insignificance as we look to what we get to do each day.*

There’s so much that we have learnt and are continuing to learn from this journey but there’s something about the name Prodigal that is so important, more important than we realised when we created ‘Prodigal Collective’ nearly a year ago. ‘Prodigal’ was inspired by the story known as ‘the Prodigal Son’, found in the bible. For so many, ‘Prodigal’ conjures up images of a wayward child, squandering inheritance, reckless and extravagant and maybe that’s how some people see us!? For us though, ‘Prodigal’ defines the father, the God character, the divine source, energy or being that holds the whole story. ‘Prodigal’ is recklessly extravagant in all the right ways, a universe that lacks nothing, an ultimate reality that is wired in favour of humanity…prodigal is generous, unstinting, bountiful and abundant and that is what we have experienced as we’ve journeyed. That does not mean that every day we’re skipping along without a care in the world, the belief that the universe is wired in our favour hasn’t fully stopped the tears and the pain, it hasn’t completely removed the fear or prevented the sleepless nights but it has enabled us to move through all of those emotions knowing that they belong, that we’re held and that this is all headed somewhere good. Our understanding of Prodigal is what makes life worth it, it’s what inspires us and keeps us hopeful of good times even through the difficult ones. Our understanding of Prodigal is what enables us to do each day, it’s what’s teaching us to celebrate all that we do have and it’s showing us how to live life to the full.

 

If you’d like to know more about what we’re up to then check out our website: www.prodigal.org.uk