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The Table of Life: Despair and Hope

Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness. Look deeply into life, and you’ll always find despair.”
― Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept –

Lately, I find the world increasingly loud and overwhelming. I flinch as I scroll through my various social news feeds: The faces of the destitute that have been stigmatised as ‘evil and unwanted’ by the powerful, the look of terror on the faces of animals subjected to human cruelty, the arrogant political pontification that diminishes people to fear and suspicion, a religious system built on nationalistic dogma disguised as gospel … I find it all exhausting and Despair knocks at my door.

So I turn to this uninvited guest, cloaked in a shroud of grey. I invite Despair to my table of life and ask whether it would like a cup of coffee? But Despair, uncomfortable with gestures of kindness, stays silent. “I will have coffee,” says Hope with its soft, lilting tone, “and toast with peanut butter.” Despair seems to smirk. “What is the use?” it whispers. “We never learn. We never change. History is set to repeat itself over and over again … until this blue planet we call home can no longer sustain our stupidity … and we sink amidst our greed and ignorance.”

The table goes silent. The words of Despair have that sort of effect … except on Hope. Hope seems comically deaf to the words of Despair. “This toast is delicious. I love peanut butter. I think I would like another one. And then I am going to take a walk along the beach and observe the rhythm of the waves …” “What a waste of time,” interrupts Despair, “such a meaningless exercise … staring at polluted waters.” Hope is undaunted. “Yes, I have noticed that there is a lot more rubbish on the shore. Fortunately, people all around the globe have noticed this too. All across our beautiful world people are doing something about this.”

Despair stares at Hope. “How come you are still around? I would have thought by now you would have died amidst the chaos and confusion?” Hope returns Despair’s stare for a very long, uncomfortable time. “What if I told you that I don’t die? I have lived … endlessly … and I have seen it all – the fear, the hatred, the destruction … and I am still here.” For the first time since it took a seat, Despair looks up. “Why?” Hope points to the corner of the table where a guest dressed in glimmer and glitter and rainbow colours is reaching for some jam. “There are other forces at play. Whispers and quiet voices that speak life and love to the universe.” Despair groans. “Speak to the universe? And that will stop the forces bent on carnage?” “Not always,” says Hope, “but sometimes.” Despair and Hope stare at each other.

“And that is why you are needed at this table,” says Hope. Despair, used to being kicked, shunned and medicated, looks at Hope in disbelief. “If you don’t come knocking at the door we eat too much peanut butter with toast and forget that there’s still a lot of rubbish in the ocean.” Despair, unaccustomed to being acknowledged, shifts around on the chair uncomfortably. Eventually, it gets up to leave. “Stay a little longer,” says Hope. “O I will return,” says Despair, “but you have reminded me that beyond the rubbish there is a big, blue ocean to look at … and I think I will do that now … and then I will return and remind you that there’s still a lot of rubbish that needs to be removed.”

The table guests stand as Despair leaves. Hope puts a reserved sign on the empty chair. “This sacred guest will return and we will anticipate its return with a welcome … it will remind us that all of us are needed for the task yet ahead. But for now, I would like another cup of coffee.”

The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.”
Alain de Botton –

Letting Javert Go

One can say that Javert is our conscience. The ever lurking presence of the law and our own condemnation. The tension between who we were and who we are and who we can be. Javert represents that inescapable, shameful past that forever haunts and pursues one’s conscience. Javert is the man of the law, and… There are no surprises with the law. The principle of retribution is simple and monotonous, like Euclidean logic. It’s closed to all alternatives and shut up against divine or human intervention… Indeed, Javert represents the merciless application of the law, the blind Justice that in the end is befuddled by hope and the possibility of redemption without punishment.”
― Cristiane Serruya, Trust: Betrayed –

The stage production of Victor Hugo’s  Les Misérables is my all-time favourite musical. Les Mis lovers will debate for hours about who is their most beloved character, or which actor is the most believable as Jean Valjean, or which production and performance rivals no other. Mine is the 25th Anniversary concert performance at the O2 in London, with the incredible talent and voice of Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean, Lea Salonga as the tragic persona of Fantine, Samantha Barks as Eponine, and Norm Lewis as Javert.

What is it about the character of Inspector Javert that draws us in and simultaneously repels us? I hold a mixture of profound pity, intense anger and utter frustration as I observe his complete obsession in meticulously enforcing what he believes to be the right way, the law, the moral order of society. Javert is a slave to the law. The law that he never questions, the law that he uses as a lens through which to see the world, the law that dictates to him whether a person is good or evil. He clutches to the law that becomes his saviour as he tries to escape his felt shame from a past story – that of being the son of a fortune teller and a galley slave. The law that provided a legitimate covering for the hate and disdain he feels for people like Valjean. Ultimately, it is a hatred he feels for himself.

He is a man who allows himself little pleasure and adheres to the strict moral code he enforces on others. Everyone who meets him is afraid of him. His character is ruthless and confident as the general in his black and white world. There is no room for kindness or mercy – either to others or to himself. In fact, the book makes it very clear how he is quite convinced he is not worthy of any good thing in life … he sees himself as worthless.

Javert is such an interesting character because he reminds us of something … of someone … Javert reminds me of a part of my conscience that is like a bloodhound – never letting up. The inner critic doubting myself and questioning my motives. Those who are also Ones on the Enneagram will probably recognise and appreciate this metaphor of Javert and the journey to learn to let him go.

I also recognise Javert in the ideas about faith and religion that I clung to in the first half of life. I have found this so illuminating. A child looking for security in a world in flux would be drawn to a fundamentalist, conservative belief system – a religious expression that favours those who believe ‘right’, act ‘right’, speak ‘right’ – a religious world that prides itself in absolutes and having all the answers. Like the law became the saviour for Javert, this moralistic belief system becomes the saviour of so many, who like myself, were drawn to the idea of perfectionism and certainty. We even had a book that could be weaponised according to our cultural interpretation and understanding to determine who was doing life ‘right’ and who wasn’t. And those who weren’t needed to be’ saved’, and those who were ‘saved’ and still not doing it ‘right’ were ‘backslidden’, ‘heretics’, or ‘rebellious’. Of course, we did it all in the name of ‘love’. ‘We love the sinner but hate the sin’ or ‘We welcome you, but don’t affirm you’ is some of the bollocks we told ourselves … and, unfortunately, others …

When Javert is our taskmaster, disguised as the voice of conscience or religious idealism, we become tired. Because Javert is insatiable. Ultimately, Javert is driven by a sense of feeling unworthy. This can lead to self-destructive habits or religious pietism that deflect the sense of shame on to others who are not doing it ‘right’. We can live our whole lives like that – hounded by Javert. Or we can let him go.

So how do we let go this dominant voice from around our dinner table of life? Perhaps we start by inviting another character to our table – one who also understood shame and suffering, but instead of the law, he encountered grace and grace became his guide to life. He stumbled on this grace through the loving actions of a priest –  Bishop Myriel – whose whole philosophy of life was summed up by Hugo as: ‘There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ Bishop Myriel was healing ointment on Valjean’s scars  at the hands of the law.

Valjean modelled the grace he experienced. His life tortured Javert. Why? Because Valjean gave Javert irrefutable evidence that a person is not necessarily evil simply because the ‘law’ says so. Javert could not reconcile this – this scandal, this grace. Grace silenced Javert.

‘I am reaching, but I fall, and the stars are black and cold, as I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold. I’ll escape now from that world; from the world of Jean Valjean. There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’ (Javert)

Letting go of the black and white world of Javert is not as easy as it sounds. Javert is often deeply embedded in our sense of self. We need a guide. We need Jean Valjean to show us this pathway of grace and love. For love is greater than the law, it always has been … sometimes we can forget this.

‘Take my hand and lead me to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken – to love another person is to see the face of God.’ (Valjean)

 

Neither Here nor There – The Many Voices of Liminality

‘Jesus, on whom be peace, said
This world is a bridge.
Pass over it but do not build your dwelling there.’

(Inscribed in Persian on Buland Darwaza, the main gateway to the palace at Fatehpur Sikri, south of Delhi, India
by the Moghul emperor Akbar I in 1601)

 

Last year, I had the opportunity and privilege to contribute to an anthology on a subject that I am most interested and passionate about – liminality. I have blogged on this topic numerous times. Here are some introductory posts:

This latest compilation is the brainchild of pastor, writer, editor and friend, Tim Carson, who has written a variety of other books. I love Tim’s definition of liminality in his chapter contribution:

The experience of liminality is feeling a loss of steady and familiar landmarks, the kind of security that accompanied past structure, even as the future has not yet materialized. With everything in flux, angst becomes the predominant mood. Very often action seems fruitless because some transitions cannot be hurried. One has entered an incubation period in which time shifts. The liminal person does not necessarily know that transformation is occurring at the time it is happening. Does a caterpillar have any idea that metamorphosis is about to take place as it enters the cocoon?

I wept reading that. It resonated so deeply with my own life experience.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes the foreword for this book. Yes, I was slightly dizzy when I heard this and I went into serious fangirl mode. I love love love her writings. In her foreword, she acknowledges how most of the contributors did not consent to go on a liminal journey, but life took them there anyway. Some were catapulted into the liminal space through ‘war, illness, abuse, or natural disaster. Others found themselves there due to poverty, gender, apartheid, or immigration.’

Personally, I found solace and comfort in the stories of this communal motley crew of liminal travellers, sharing their bewilderment at finding themselves ‘betwixt and between’ where ‘the only way through is through. There are no guarantees … To engage liminal space is to live in faith, not certainty.’

This post would be too long if I discussed every chapter. Instead, I offer one of my favourite quotes from each chapter. If you are wandering the shadowy, mystical path of liminality, may it be a light to you in dark times.

I’ve heard some people describe liminality in the language of Celtic spirituality: a thin place, a narrow place, a place where the living and the dead commune, where heaven and earth all regard each other. Hell too, I hope. Otherwise, what’s the point?’ Pádraig Ó Tuama

I discovered my first hummingbirds as a small child in the gardens of the Theological Community in Mexico City where I was encouraged to nourish my love for nature while caring for others by cooperating, respecting, and sharing in the many social and spiritual activities with people from all over Latin America. Tucked gently away in my soul and mind is the gift of seeing the world from the borderlands, the in-between spaces, the nepantlera of ‘either/or’ and’ neither/nor,’ with thousands of beautiful colour hues and nuances of language and culture.’ Elena Huegel

Ultimately, the purpose of pilgrimage is to bring the pilgrim, transformed in the journey, back home again.Kristine Culp

The liminal dimension undergirds all human experience. In some sense, there is nothing that is not liminal. We live our lives (and perhaps find sanity) by fashioning fixed structures of meaning and identity; selves and narratives that are generally static and contained. But that is not life, as much as it is the mask we put onto life. Meanwhile, the liminal waits for us.Joshua Boettiger

Liminality is essentially and always a middle. It is the moment of in-between-ness where what has been is gone, but what will be has not yet arrived. In Christian spirituality, it is the moment of Holy Saturday, when Christ has died but is not yet risen. There is nothing to be done on Holy Saturday except to learn how to die with Christ, in the hope that one day – but not today – life will be restored by resurrection.’ Michelle Trebilcock

War is a universal experience of social liminality. If the scale of hostilities is sufficiently large, war can expand to even global liminality. Societies and nations are cast into a time between the times, a state of being filled with uncertainty and dread. For warriors within these societies, war represents a rite of passage, a transition that changes the identity of those who enter war and the community of those who share it.’ Kate Hendricks Thomas

‘In the aftermath of the tornado, liminal time moved at its own pace, mostly slower than we might have preferred.’ Jill Cameron Michel

Adoptees exist between families for their entire lives. They are products of legal and biological families, but not fully either. This liminal space is their reality, and from it comes complex identity work. The extent to which adoptees engage with the liminality of their adoption status emerges as a product of individual, contextual, and familial characteristics.’ Colleen Warner Colaner

‘The literature of the ancient desert monks and medieval Celtic saints is extensive and filled with many tales like this. In this liminal time, when climate change presents us with an opaque and uncertain future, can the literature that emerged from the liminal experience of Christian contemplatives in late antiquity offer us any wisdom for navigating our challenges in better ways?’ Timothy Robinson

‘The liminal is the space between; it is a state in which the classifications of the everyday are bracketed to reveal an alternative order, a more basic relatedness, which undergirds the everyday power and position exemplified by given cultural norms.’ Adam Pryor

‘Cancer is the quintessential liminal experience as it includes all the stages – pre-liminal, liminal, reintegration – and all the classic elements of the liminal journey: end of one way of life, loss of identity and status, bewilderment, confusion, ambiguity, reversal of hierarchy, uncertainty. Patients are between life as they once knew it and an uncertain future.’ Debra Jarvis

‘When I crossed the threshold into the strange world of incarceration, I was ushered into a state of permanent liminality, a time and space between the past and some seemingly unobtainable future. My life was stuck in a time between the times, a place between the spaces. Unlike van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, however, there was no design for movement, for transformation in the liminal passage.’ Jacob Davis

‘The stories that we tell to make sense of our world and our lives simultaneously open up certain possibilities for action and close others off. They define and limit the options we think exist. The danger is that we become so enamored with our own narrative that we shut ourselves from the narratives of the “other.” What if each of us needs both the presence and the narratives of the other to navigate the ambiguities of liminality?’ John Eliastam

‘Our collective challenge for the future is to produce a society that accepts diversity, welcomes difference, and champions human rights for all its citizens. If accomplished, this might enable Turner’s view of positive social change through community building actually to become reality. One can always remain hopeful.’ Diane Dentice and Michelle Dietert

‘To examine the liminal, where it may reside, are we well advised to avoid the paved road where, by following the markers, we do arrive, but it just may be a camouflaged dead end?’ Kenneth Krushel

Let me end this post with a quote from my chapter. Writing this piece was part of a healing journey. I am grateful.

‘The gift of liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation has assisted me in recognizing many of my ego’s trappings and yearnings. In this place, I have been confronted and stripped of much of the baggage that I carried over the years … of trying to live up to all sorts of expectations. Liminality, like the character V in the film V for Vendetta, showed me the bars of my ideological and structural prison, all dressed up in religious moralizing – and once you see, you cannot un-see.’

If you would like to order this book, you can do so via Lutterworth Press

 

Tattered Teddies and Tattered Hearts

Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.
-Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit –

It was a very difficult decision to let Baer go. However, Baer had gone to God. His little teddy body could no longer be mended. There were now gaping holes where once his beautiful brown glass eyes had looked at the world with somber wisdom. His soft teddy body had been stitched and re-stitched countless times. The last bit of survival hope came to an abrupt end when my little dog used his soft teddy paws to sharpen her puppy teeth. Baer had lived a fully loved life and it was time to say goodbye to a tattered teddy.

I often think about the solemn farewell ceremony I conducted as a five-year-old. Tattered teddies have so much to teach us. In a world obsessed about staying young and looking picture perfect, a tattered teddy would question whether these image ideals are integral to our sense of self or whether our values have been hijacked by a modern consumeristic culture? Why do we believe that our existence should be tatter-free? Perhaps, if we embrace unreservedly this wild ride called life, we, like Baer, will also become worn and tattered. Maybe that thought creates great angst for us?

The years I spent in fundamentalist religion had me believe that life was one giant escalator ride to triumph and that the gospel message was my ticket to living healthy and wealthy lives, where everything is awesome! However, I discovered rather quickly that this brand of religion claimed grace at theirs yet held a lot of judgement for anyone who was seen to be believing or behaving in a manner less than the tribal constructed ideal. There was little room for tattered teddies with tattered hearts.

Nowadays, I no longer cling to those ideas that tend to produce a never-ending spiral of anxiety, fear, and discontentment. I rejected the bogus thought that God judges vulnerable, tattered hearts and sends them to Dante’s hell like some heinous universal tyrant. I actively resist the dominant religious or cultural discourse that would like us to believe in a tatter-free existence. I call bullshit on it. It has created an endless count of broken-hearts, rejection, and disappointment. The false hypothesis that we can live tatter-free has us continually choosing the risk-free, ‘shiny’ options instead of learning to tell our stories amidst and with the messiness of life. We never own our own shit, fears, or failures, when tatter-free is the idolised communal choice. We can never apologise. And grace remains on the margins, amidst the tattered people with tattered hearts.

So, dear reader, next time someone tries to peddle you a tatter-free spiel about life, turn your back and walk away. You don’t need that sort of toxicity in your life. Confront the tatter-free judgement in your own mind, disguised under all sorts of fraudulent gobbledygook. Live that wild tattered life that you yearn for. And when, like Baer, it is time for you to go to God, may your tattered being give one last sigh – ‘It is well with this Tattered Heart!’

Is it Time to Marie Kondō Our Ideas?

“The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” – Marie Kondō –

Yes, I am one of them. One of those Marie Kondō fans. I find her mesmerising. From the moment she enters someone’s home she shows restraint, respect, and kindness. Holding no judgment, she gently nudges her clients to take a look at the piles of stuff they have accumulated and asks that Marie-mantra question: “Does it spark joy?” With that question she guides their actions and narrative … and before long, zen conquers chaos. She is the queen of transformation.

In a consumer-driven culture, Marie is sent like an angel of light to remind us of what is important in life. Accumulating stuff is not necessarily one of them. She proposes that joy holds greater weight than the bulging contents of our cupboards, garages, basements and rented storage units. Perhaps one of the reasons we like to hold on to stuff is that it gives us a sense of comfort and safety in a world that we have very little control over? Maybe it is just another way of dealing with our existential angst and the questions we hold about meaning and purpose? With great courtesy and compassion, Marie suggests there is something more effective to fill that gnawing sense of dread or emptiness. It’s called joy. The choice she leaves to each person. What is most noticeable is the change of demeanour on people’s faces as they let go of clutter and move from tiredness, to panic, to grief, to … peace? A quiet recognition that life is better when not bunkered down with so much stuff.

It is not always our physical clutter that needs Marie Kondō attention. There are seasons in life when we need to take a hard look at the clutter of ideas, paradigms, and dogmas we have accumulated. This medley of thoughts and creeds help shape the narratives by which we live our lives – so a regular cerebral spring clean may just make us feel a whole lot lighter.

Deconstructing and critiquing the stories we tell ourselves and the ideas that uphold them is not easy. I would go as far as saying it’s terrifying. Sometimes so much of our identity and sense of belonging is caught up in these ideas we have gathered. We may have built intricate relationships based on tribal adherence to certain ideological persuasions. To question or examine those tenets is to make ourselves vulnerable. What if my belonging is purely based on my faithfulness to certain family, political, religious concepts? Maybe we frantically hold on to ideas that lost their meaning a long time ago because the alternative is too alarming? Or we simply cannot cope with the idea of our whole Jenga Tower toppling when we put a block under scrutiny? And maybe we’re ok with that …

If it isn’t, then Marie Kondō’s approach can be helpful in the deconstruction/decluttering of burdensome ‘holy cows’.
We may want to start by considering what ideas we have taken on board that cause anxiety? Fear? Guilt? Shame?
What is it about those ideas that we found meaningful in the first place?
What is it about those ideas that caused harm?
What are the values and ethics we wish to live by now? And how do the ideas we are examining stack up to those values and ethics? Do they add or take away from them?
What is it that you will lose if you deconstruct or discard these views?
What would you gain?
What would you exchange it for?

So here is my 2019 challenge to you, dear reader. Pile up the stories that run your life on the living room table of your heart. Pick up one of those ideas at a time and take a good, hard look at what it has brought into your life. Does it spark joy? Does it belong to someone else? Are you ok with that?

Happy decluttering!

“People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”
Marie Kondō –

 

On Being a Feral Priest

Dedicated to all the Ferals out there xx

I found tears running down my face as I read this blog post. It was not because I was particularly sad, for that matter. It was because Colin Coward (author) was able to eloquently articulate something that resonated so deeply with me. Thank you, Colin, for your permission to publish your post. Please find the link to his blog and much more information here.

Colin writes:

‘On 13 January 2019, the Observer published an interview with Casey Gerald, a black, gay, handsome, 31-year-old American of whom I’d never heard. The interview marked the publication of Gerald’s first book, There Will Be No Miracles Here. The full-page portrait and the title of the book encouraged me to read the interview. I underlined a quote: “I do believe I have been put on this planet to do real work but my priority is to be well. If I’m well, everything I do will be well.” I had been having a very similar thought that very week.

Towards the end of the article, a TED talk he delivered in 2016 is mentioned: The Gospel of Doubt. I watched the talk. He begins with a flashback, the end of the world on Millennium Eve when he was in church with his grandmother praying for the Rapture. His account is very, very funny and the talk is powerful. I was hooked. I bought the book. The book, too, is very funny. A quote on the cover by Colm Toibin says it is ‘Urgent, mesmeric, soaring, desperately serious, wounded, and at times, slyly, brilliantly comic … electrifying’. Indeed it is.

I’m still reading the book and I’ve watched the TED talk again. I’ve been talking with friends and asking questions and doing a lot of thinking. If I find myself, as Casey Gerald writes on page 183, “in a dark confusing period of history, when the gods have ceased to be and the Christ has not yet come and man stands alone,” then, he says, “you will have some sense of how things fall apart and a dim view as to how they might be put back together.”

Since leaving parish ministry in 1995 and more recently, retiring from Changing Attitude three years ago, I have felt more acutely a sense of Christian things falling apart for me combined with a struggle to work out how they might be put back together. One thing some of my friends find curious is why I am still so strongly motivated by a desire that things should be brought back together. We have lived through five decades of Church of England reports on homosexuality, with the current three-year process yet to be completed, and two decades of Anglican global conflict since the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Statement.

Christians are good at conflict and living with disagreement, good or bad, and less good at conflict resolution. The various tribal groupings to be found in the Anglican Communion have been at war among themselves for two decades over people like me, plus my lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex brothers and sisters. Christian tribes have been at war over women for longer than that and in past centuries Christians physically went to war, tribal Christian groups against each other, against other faiths and against those they labelled ‘savages’.

I’d label my tribe the Honest to God, South Bank Religion tribe, in which, to quote a past incumbent of my childhood parish church, “I have never felt that intellectual assent to any doctrine or creed is essential to being a Christian. God is all (but don’t ask what that means).” My faith is rooted in my experience of God and the practice of Christianity as exemplified by Jesus focused on unconditional love, wisdom, justice, truth, goodness, self-giving, compassion, and the glory of living. I had felt for a long time that this tribe has become increasingly marginalised in the church. My conversations in London this week have shown me that the tribe survives, and maybe more than survives. It continues to flourish in particular places, but under the radar, no longer valued by a church institution that needs to survive and is desperate to grow and plant.

This week I discovered that parish ministry for many, lay and ordained, continues to focus on people, their lives and uncertainties, sitting lose to creeds and dogma, but deeply valuing the elusive, the mystery, the not-knowing, the caring, open, energised, playful, deep-down truthiness of lives fuelled by prayer.

BEING A FERAL PRIEST

My last conversation was with my spiritual director. He stunned me by revealing that he had returned his Permission to Officiate to his bishop in the autumn, describing himself in the accompanying letter as a feral priest.

The idea came from the title of George Monbiot’s book about the re-wilding of moorland areas – ‘Feral’, Monbiot’s definition of ‘feral’ being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.” A feral priest is one called by God to escape the captivity of the institutional Church.

My spiritual director has written that as a feral priest he had to learn a different set of skills. He had to learn to place his trust in God where previously the unstated assumption was that he should trust the institution and its leaders. He also had to learn to trust himself, his own intuitive sense of what priesthood meant. He talks about ‘internalised’ priesthood, the state in which he has learnt to trust that because God called him there must be something essentially ‘priestly’ about him.

Jesus, of course, was ‘feral’. He exercised his ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which he had grown up, and by implication challenged it. Increasing numbers of men and women today do the same, and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose.

Richard Holloway has spoken about feeling himself to be part of a church ‘in exile’. To be ‘in exile’ in a Biblical sense carries overtones of being cast out against one’s will, excluded from what feels like home, and sent to a place to which one does not want to go and where one feels a stranger. It’s a place of pain. To go ‘feral’ may include experiencing all of the above, but for my spiritual director and for myself, it also means a sense of call rather than exclusion and points to a capacity for freedom and delight in what has been newly discovered.

I am discovering that to go feral is to be following a vocation in which energies are released and visions flow abundantly. I’m discovering Christians with a feral ministry, living under the radar, away from the gaze of bishops who have sold their souls to yet more process and discussion about my sexuality with no commitment to significant change in church teaching and practice. I sense subversion in the air, people, lay and ordained, go ahead despite the bishops’ rules, blessing unconditionally and distributing sacraments lavishly, as is the way of Jesus before he was tamed by the Church.’

Scattering the Stones We Gathered

‘A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.’ Ecclesiastes 3:5 (NLT)

Seyðisfjörður – Iceland, 2016

Who we are today has a lot to do with our culture and history. We embody the narratives we hold to. The stories we have been told, we continue telling … unless we stop and consider whether the lessons they offer are true to what we hold dear. Family and tribal traditions and beliefs are passed from one generation to the next, often without a second thought. That may not necessarily be a problem unless these ideas or stories have a negative impact on our identity, values or future. And then there are also the tales and hopes we cling to because they are precious to us.

The love and appreciation of Mother Earth is something that has been passed on to me through my family. I have always appreciated the outdoors, creatures great and small, forests, trees, the ocean, and vast green spaces. I delight in the sensation of beach sand under my bare feet and the feel of the varying types of rocks, pebbles, and wood in my hand. My nomadic father would bring me home beautiful and unique treasures of the earth. Together with my own collection, I had a huge amount of shells and stones. They brought me much joy.

In our recent interstate seachange, we again got rid of ‘stuff’ as the move towards a more simple life is very addictive. I understood it was time to say goodbye to some of these gifts and return them to Mother Earth. This was no easy task. I thought about how this is really a metaphor of the first and second half of life that Richard Rohr often speaks about – In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not about doing; it’s about being (from Falling Upwards). I resonate with this. The first half of life is all about collecting; the second half of life is all about letting go.

In the first half of life, I gathered so many things, so many opinions, beliefs, ideas. Like my precious Mother Earth collection, I clung to them tightly and tried to take them all with me with every migration of identity. They were beautiful. However, after a while, these beautiful gifts become a burden, they become heavy, they take up space, and they take up time … and time becomes more precious as we begin to recognise how short life really is.

So as we do our ego work and shadow work, we begin to lay things down. This is not always easy and is often accompanied by grief. We begin the journey of detaching from things that we thought we could not live without, only to discover something remarkable … that love and grace is not a stone we cast aside, but something we carry within us. As we lay down stones we begin to awaken on the inside and realise that we are the pearl, the shell, the stone that has real value and we begin to see others in the same light.

In my previous home in Queensland, I stood in my garden and looked at the beautiful stones and pieces of wood I was leaving behind. I was so grateful that they had come into my life and I had the privilege of admiring their beauty for so long, and now it was time to return them to their home. I did not discard them all but have kept some to take into this next chapter with me. Deciding what stones to gather and what stones to scatter is perhaps one of the more complex moments of discernment in the second half of life.

So, dear reader, as you take some time to consider your ‘collections’ and the season of life that you may be in, I trust you find the courage to scatter and gather according to the hopes you carry for your future. May you not allow what you have gathered to sink you into despair or exhaustion … but nourish your sense of self, beauty, and creativity.

‘So get ready for some new freedom, some dangerous permission, some hopes from nowhere, some unexpected happiness, some stumbling stones, some radical grace, and some new and pressing responsibility for yourself and for our suffering world.’ Richard Rohr (Falling Upwards)

 

On Burning Bridges

The hardest thing in life to learn is which bridge to cross and which to burn. 
– David Russell –

During the Roman Empire, it was common practice for military commanders who were concerned about their armies retreating during intense battle to burn the bridges they crossed in order to block any form of escape. It was fight or die. Alternatively, the army of a country being invaded would find themselves retreating and would burn their own bridges in order to prevent the invading army from following them. Today, this ancient military manoeuvre is used as a life metaphor. We are told not to burn our bridges … to keep everything intact as much as possible so that we can go back if we need to.

To ‘burn a bridge’ is a bold and risky move. A bridge is a structure that allows for passage over terrain that is formidable or impossible to navigate. It takes time and skill to build bridges. We build bridges in relationships, careers, cultures and communities. To ‘burn a bridge’ means to destroy what has been built and to make a return extremely difficult. In other words, to burn a bridge is to destroy connection and access that may have taken years to build. No wonder the idea of burning bridges comes with warnings and hazard signs. And no wonder liminality, this concept of letting go and finding yourself with minimal connection to the past, is so terrifying.

So should we live our lives in such a way that we are preoccupied with keeping our bridges intact? Should we avoid ruffling feathers at all costs in case our bridge is threatened? And is there a time in life when burning bridges is not just a necessary ending but the only way forward? Maybe some bridges have become the highway to hell?

Thirty years in church pastoral ministry taught me that I needed to be ‘nice’ at all costs and that my energy needed to be spent ensuring that bridges remain intact. As a ‘pastor’ it was not just my job but my expected duty to defuse any and all situations that had bridge burning potential. This required an immense amount of energy as I tried to ensure that everyone ‘played nice’. Over time I also paid little heed to whether my bridge burning prevention scheme lined up with the values I held …

The voice of conscience, however, is not silenced easily. Slowly the murmur of this inner compass began to rise above the din of my people-pleasing, bridge-maintenance addiction. The need to stay true to people and things I valued and held precious became greater than my fear of being disliked … and the bridges started burning.

Hindsight is a most wondrous gift. I look back now not with the overwhelming anxiety and grief that gripped my life in those days when so many bridges were being razed to the ground. Years of what I considered bridges of friendships and belonging lay in ashes. Disappointment took the place of grief and anger. Yet over the last year, something else has risen from the ashes … gratitude. Profound and deep gratitude. Burning bridges saved my life. If people had cared or enquired I would never have pushed off the shores and set sail to the winds of liminality … I would never have learnt to deconstruct dominant religious ideas that paid homage to fear and superstition instead of faith … I would never have discovered this rebirth of life. I am grateful now … but it took me a few years to get there!

I don’t recommend random bridge burning exercises. They are not a pleasant experience. Really, it’s a death experience. What once was, no longer is. The gates have shut. There is no going back. And maybe, dear reader, that is where you are right now – in this silent and lonely space of watching bridges burn and experiencing every emotion that this ending brings with it. I do not in any way want to undermine your grief – because it is real and needs to be fully felt and observed. I can perhaps offer you some hope in reflecting on my story a few years on. I have found that life creeps from the ashes. I also have discovered new bridges that line up with what I hold dear. Bridges of connection that hold me for who I am and not for what people would like me to be. I have stumbled upon bridges of grace that I would never have discovered in my tiny, cloistered existence.

There is a season for everything in life. A season to burn bridges and a season to build them. Sometimes we can confuse the idea of burning bridges and a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness, the letting go of a perceived ‘debt’ that we think someone may owe us, does not mean we have to keep a bridge of connection intact. We can forgive and also recognise that some places are simply not safe anymore. They have become detrimental to our well-being. We can forgive and allow a bridge to burn. We need to give ourselves permission to live in peace and safety.

Whatever season you may be in, dear reader – may the bridges you build and cross be undergirded by hope and love. May you also find the courage to burn the bridges you need to, in order to live life to the full.

Stop telling me not to burn bridges. Some bridges are meant to be burned; some roads are never meant to be travelled again. 
Steve Maraboli –

Celebrating the Birth of the Homeless, Oppressed and Marginalised

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
-G.K. Chesterton –

If we had to paint a picture of the Christ that many of us celebrate at Christmas, what would our portrait look like? If the sound bytes that accost us on social media tell us anything, we may get the idea that Christ is a bit like a Texan Ranger, ready to destroy the ‘enemy’ because obviously, God is on his side. The luxury hummer he drives would proudly display the number plate ‘blessed-to-be-a-blessing,’ and all his tweets would have #blessed at the end of it. He would healthy, wealthy and covered in gold dust, as according to the gospel of some, this is the way we are meant to live. Welcome to the idea of Christ, painted by a dominant, privileged consumer culture.

The history and backdrop that informs modern Christianity are complex. Over the centuries every generation has wrestled with what it means to follow in the steps of this Jewish rabbi, and every generation had authoritative voices claim they have found the way to absolute ‘truth’. Maybe we lost so much of Christ in the Constantine era? Or in the many ‘holy’ wars fought with great gusto amongst the factional faithful? Or by preferencing the voice of Augustine? Or the Reformers? Or the fiery depictions of Dante’s interpretation of hell? Today, the misplacing of the Messiah is often evidenced by everything that popular Christianity is against, and fear seems to be the flag flown high from the castles of so many of Christ’s representatives. So perhaps our true depiction of Christ should be this diminutive little person, hiding behind a giant wall in case ‘others’ invade and pollute the tightly held ideas of morality and godliness? Maybe this shrunken little figure sounds more like the shrieking seagulls of ‘Finding Nemo’ – ‘Mine, Mine, Mine, MINE!’

Perhaps if we stop all the noise, engage in some critical deconstruction of current Christian discourse, and spend time reflecting, we come to a sobering recognition – we have ‘sanitised’ Christ into our liking and our image. This safe, disfigured Icon seems to join us in hating all the people we despise, justifying all our violence, agreeing with all our exclusions, shaming all those we shame … we have made Christ and Christmas into us – like a Christmas bauble that has our face on it. No wonder we lose our shit when people don’t want to say “Merry Christmas,” ultimately their resistance to our precious ideas confronts in us a form of deity-narcissism, carefully disguised in persecution and conspiracy theories.

The figure of Christ that walks through the pages of the Gospels seems very unperturbed about whether people are putting the right messages on cards and coffee cups! That doesn’t seem to rile this Incarnate One. Instead, he seems to get a lot more exasperated at, well, at the sectarian shenanigans that really have not evolved over the centuries. Things like religious institutions that have become money-peddling spaces of greed (John 2:13-17), pious power puffs who have become so inflated with a zealotry messiah-complex that they shut the doors of the kingdom to anyone who is not like them (Matthew 23:13), and the continual microscopic dogma examination whilst neglecting the weightier things of God – like love, mercy and justice (Matthew 23:23). I don’t think this Christ person was about making any of our enshrined political-religious traditions great again. He seems far more focused on describing a different way to his followers … where the last shall be first, where devotion is not bound up in what we think about hell or heaven, or whether we ‘sense’ God and have goosebumps – but whether we are feeding the hungry, providing for the destitute, welcoming the stranger, identifying with those on the margins, making the world a safer place for minority groups … When I read the gospels it seems this Christ of Christmas has a message for us all and it’s relatively simple: Don’t be an asshole! This cardinal contemplative notion seems to underscore the words we have of Christ that are in print today.

So, dear readers, as Christmas approaches may it be filled with joy and a good dose of uncomfortable reality. As I write this, I feel uncomfortable for I recognise that I am part and parcel of this dominant consumer culture, rejecting it and then falling right back into its traps! I question my pictures of Christ. What have we done to this child in a manger that could find no human shelter, but was welcomed into a shack by God’s fur children? This child that would grow and challenge the powers of his day that oppressed the poor, the homeless, the refugee? The child that would turn his back on kings and kneel in the dirt with the woman who had become the target of patriarchal, misogynistic scape-goating? The child who would be murdered, not because some wrathful ‘god’ needed a sacrifice, but to demonstrate precisely how radical love really is. We seem to have lost so much of this Christ child in the mayhem of our political-religious pontification. I pray this Christmas we consider resurrecting him … because the message he holds makes this season truly ‘jolly’.

Merry Christmas.

 

What God requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humility – Micah –

 

And are you ok with that?

‘Do not avert your eyes.
It is important
that you see this.
It is important that you feel
this.’
– Kamand Kojouri –

This year has been filled with many conversations. My life is richer because a collection of friends and strangers were willing to take a study journey with me and share some of the bountiful stories that, like colourful threads, make up the tapestry of their lives. Stories that have moved me deeply. Stories that have made me stop and look at my own life and consider how I would live differently because of what they shared. I have marvelled at people’s resilience. Some of these stories included pathways of pain. Sometimes the effects of that pain or trauma had downplayed or rendered their preferred stories invisible. There was a key question that lit up the effects of this detraction like a neon sign. A question that proved quite useful – ‘… And are you okay with that?’

It is amazing what happens when we stop for a moment and reflect on our lives. A metaphor I use and find helpful is to think about our lives like a shared meal. As we sit at the table there are many guests – some invited and some uninvited. Some of these uninvited guests, like grief or anxiety, cannot simply be ushered out the door. There is a reason they are around that table. However, when our dinner guests become unruly and ruin the meal for everyone, and maybe invite their friends, like shame and despair, we may not find this meal-sharing meaningful. And sometimes it takes a question to allow us to stop and consider … are we okay with this? And, may I add, it’s perfectly okay to say, “Yes, I am!” This is your story and your life.

‘Are you okay with that’, has a pause button effect. Just for a moment in time there is someone asking you about what storyline you want to richly describe. What skills and knowledges do you want to bring into the open and sit at your dinner table? What dreams and hopes do you hold for the future? And is what you are reflecting on in line with those hopes and dreams? How you answer, ‘Are you okay with that’, reveals what is valuable to you. When we say, ‘no’, we begin to recognise that our very resistance says something about what we hope for in life.

I have learnt to ask myself this question over the last couple of years. I discovered that there were guests around my dinner table that were very loud, and rather obnoxious. Shame was one of them. Shame had grown used to a rather controlling role, empowered by the many years I spent kicking around fundamentalist religion. We all belong to tribes. However, some particular tribes have become very familiar with the use of shame as a form of motivation. I was no longer okay with that. Shame had introduced me to all sorts of strange ideals, peddled as ‘orthodoxy’ in some religious markets. But something happens when you answer the question, ‘And are you okay with that?’ It does not ‘fix’ anything. In fact, nowadays I don’t believe life needs ‘fixing’ as much as it needs me to ‘re-engage’ with it through a different storyline, a different lens. And that’s what answering that question does – it highlights to you a preferred way to live.

So as 2018 begins to draw to a close and you look at this year as a small cameo into the epic story of your life, what does it say to you? Is there something that stands out to you that makes you want to stop and think about it? Is there something that this year has brought up that has been a magnifying moment for you? And here comes the question … ‘and are you okay with that?’

How you answer that question can profoundly affect how you look at your place in this world, and the plans you make for the future. If it is important to you to live a congruent life – where your values and ethics model your beliefs and actions – then that question can act as a signpost. Dear reader, we often hurry through life and seldom do we stop and consider our dinner table of guests and how they inform our life and purpose. As a result, we may be entertaining a bunch of very noisy guests and, unless we are okay with that, this can become exhausting and stressful. Look at the dinner table of your life and ask yourself who has dominant positions and influences … and are you okay with that?

 

‘The knowledges that we develop about our lives have much to do with what we give value to. Whatever it is that we accord value to in life provides for us a purpose in living, a meaning for our lives, and a sense of how to proceed in life.’ David Denborough, Trauma: Narrative Responses to Traumatic Experience