Going With Life’s Ebb and Flow

I’ve never been an acute political analyst or social commentator. But there was a time when I was reasonably aware of what was going on in the world and had a half-formed opinion about some of it. I’ve been concerned, then, in recent years to notice that my preaching and writing has featured fewer global references and addressed less social issues than it once did. I have wondered whether my theologising is gradually coming adrift from its essential bedrock of life-in-God’s-world: perhaps I’m slowly disappearing into my own head? For someone who has always held that belief is inseparable from action this is worrying. 

So what have I been on about for the past few years? Well, for a while I pondered birth, doubt, perfectionism and risk. Then I reflected on change, equilibrium, loss, fragility and mending. Followed by busyness, depression, calling, mid-life and happiness. And there’s been an interweaving thread that binds these themes together: the belief that we can discover the divine in the weft and warp of every aspect of the world and our lived experience: there is nowhere that God is not, and in the end it’s all connected.

There are themes that insistently draw me back and I was reminded of one of them by a wonderful sermon (someone else’s!) preached for a baptism on All Saints’ Sunday, just a couple of days ago. We were told that our vocation is always, from the beginning to the end of our lives, to be as fully as possible our unique selves. No-one else, as I have often said and written, has the same gifts, relationships, circumstances, foibles, passions and opportunities as we do. No-one else can reflect the light and character of God in the world in quite the same way as we can. Insofar as we are driven by envy or misadventure or a mistaken sense of not-being-good-enough to try to live someone else’s life, the world misses out, irretrievably, on our singular contribution.

So if my writing and speaking have taken a different direction in recent years that’s because my words come from the soil of my own life, which has changed. There’s no other way that I can communicate with passion and authenticity. Our context – or what I’ve come to think of as our hinterland – shapes our message and what it is that God needs us to bring to the party. Where we live, who we love, how we spend our time: these things will evolve, shift, ebb and flow with the unfolding of our days. Our life today is not less real, less significant or less sacred than it was last month or last year. It might feel unfamiliar, but it holds just as much holiness and potential if we can embrace it, nurture it, pick over its possibilities and begin to live it differently to the full.

Separate Lives

A couple of weeks ago the broadcaster, writer and academic researcher Vicky Beeching tweeted the question: ‘What do u think of people having multiple Twitter accounts; a personal/private one & public one? Fair enough, or creating multiple ‘selves’?’

I recognise the dilemma. I started my one Facebook account some years ago with the sole intention of promoting my books online. But once the page was in existence and many of my real life friends had become Facebook friends too, the content and conversations became at least as personal as professional. With the original purpose in mind I’ve accepted ‘friends’ requests from people who know me only through what I write, so the page is a bit of a melting-pot of my different selves. Sometimes the obsessively tidy part of my brain would like to unpick it all and start again: perhaps being more social-media-savvy this time and setting up two separate sites.

Most of us would recognise that different aspects of our personality come to the fore as we inhabit multiple roles, engage with people for a range of reasons and purposes, explore relationships with varying levels of intimacy and belong to groups in a different way and for different reasons. We would also recognise, though, that there’s something that ties all of that together, called ‘me’.

Some who responded to Vicky Beeching’s question believe that it’s useful and appropriate to maintain boundaries between business and personal use of social media, even to have separate accounts relating to different areas of interest. One person questioned why ‘multiple selves’ is necessarily a bad thing and another claimed to have more than 35 Twitter accounts, whilst someone else worried that if he had two accounts he would always confuse them.

We are highly complex creatures. Not only do our personalities have many perfectly compatible aspects that are magnified or submerged depending on where we are, who we are with and what we are doing: we are also full of seeming contradictions, and probably some very real ones.

How much of this we reveal to whom and in what context is a constant negotiation within ourselves; it always was, long before social media came into being to point up the issues. Decisions around Facebook privacy options, Twitter presence and with whom we want to be Linked In simply underline the age-old question: How much of myself is it healthy and helpful for me to reveal to whom?

Thank goodness we can be naked before God without either causing offence or risking someone trampling on our vulnerability. A God who, being three in one and one in three, is unlikely to suggest that we unpick ourselves in an attempt to start again and create something more tidy.

Beneath Our Feet

I love those electric moments when somebody else’s writing echoes so deeply in my soul that I want to shout ‘YES’. I’ve just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: Finding the sacred beneath our feet (2009 HarperCollins and Canterbury Press) and if I hadn’t been sitting on trains, buses and the steps of public buildings at the time I would often have exclaimed out loud. It made me laugh, it brought me to tears, it inspired new ripples of thought, it expanded my understanding of life.

And it’s all about ‘kissing the ground’. In twelve chapters we are offered twelve different ways of connecting more fully and deeply with the life of the world around us, including: getting lost, carrying water, feeling pain and pronouncing blessings. Each chapter contains countless suggestions and stories that give us many more ways of connecting spirit and flesh; ways, as Brown Taylor would put it, of practising our own priesthood at the altar of our own life and ‘finding the sacred beneath our feet’.

In the very last line of the book I discovered with delight that the title of this blog is an unconscious echo of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. In the absence of copyright permission I’m not able to quote the passage in full, but essentially Rumi makes a connection between beauty, love and motivation. He suggests that we should be guided in our actions by what we find beautiful; what we love most; whatever it is that awakens our passion. Which for each of us will be something distinctive and particular because there are many different ways, as Rumi observes, ‘to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Just back from a couple of days in the lovely seaside town of Whitstable on the Kent coast, I haven’t been to church this weekend. But I’ve found altars, practised my priesthood and kissed the ground countless times. Intricately-spiralling shells; individually painted beach-huts; pebbles with holes drilled through them by tiny sea creatures; deep-fried pillowy white cod; dogs with wind-blown ears; purple and yellow wild flowers at the beach edge; children balancing on the breakwater, leaning into the wind: the sacred in everyday life, beauty in the ordinary, there to be noticed, kissed, relished, embraced. As Brown Taylor wisely reminds us, we search far and wide for the ‘more’ than we long for in life. Sometimes the last place we remember to look is right here, beneath our feet.