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.

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.

The Kissing Habit

Kissing the ground is a habit I’ve been cultivating for some time. Not literally or publicly, in the-manner-of-the-Pope, though I suspect that his reasons for doing it were similar to mine. I don’t actually get down on my knees in the playground, street or tube station; my kissing habit is more something that goes on in my soul: if a soul can be said to kiss, which I’m pretty sure it can.

For me kissing the ground is about two things. Firstly it’s about recognising that in all of its complexity, brokenness and potential, the created world resonates with quite a lot of the stuff in me. I want to explore the connections between that world, myself and other people, in order to understand better how it all hangs together. Secondly, kissing the ground expresses a longing to live life in all its fullness, as the Jesus of John’s gospel invites us to do. So there’s no time to be lost. I’m almost certainly playing the second half of the game by now, and to echo Henry Thoreau: when I come to die I don’t want to discover that I haven’t lived.

Those closest to me will assure you that I’m not someone who leaps out of bed at 6am with a song in my heart and enough energy to give away to others. In fact I’m a bit rubbish in the mornings. So my determination to embrace life in all its fullness is not, I hope, of the irritating sort. Neither does it fail to take seriously global or individual tragedies, moments of meaninglessness or even just the dragging boredom of some of life’s necessary tasks. This new blog will not sit light to reality.

Instead, my sort of kissing expresses a commitment to ask myself in every situation and experience: what is there here that is significant and lasting, what connects with my life and other people’s, what pushes my roots deeper into creation, what will help me to grow in empathy and what feels real, exciting, meaningful and holy?

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a wise monk called Zosima declaims: ‘Kiss the earth and love it, tirelessly, insatiably … Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears‘. Whether our tears are of joy or fragility, triumph or tragedy, they are intimately connected with the dust of the earth. In kissing the ground we say a loud and clear ‘Yes’: to life in all its fullness; to our own potential; to the exhilarating difference of others; to encountering the divine in the detail; and to the possibility of meeting God on ordinary, everyday, sacred ground.