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2018 and the Gift of a New Pair of Spectacles

“The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious, but still a truthful interpreter – in the eye.” – Charlotte Bronte –

My eyes have resisted ‘normal’ all my life. As a result, I have had a pair of spectacles on my nose as long as my memory stretches. These orderly-defiant eyes also require the annual visit to the experts who have to be convinced that I really cannot see those damn minuscule letters projected on the wall. At a recent visit, I was informed that I again needed new glasses … so here I am a couple of weeks later with an incandescent purple pair and, yes, the world has come back into focus.

Those of us who are part of the spherical spectacle syndicate will appreciate that any new pair of glasses requires a relationship with patience and adjustment. It’s overwhelming to suddenly see that clearly! I think one of the secret joys of all optometrists is to have that moment where they put a contraption on your nose and say, ‘This is your old prescription’, then a few clicks and glass slide shuffles later and, ‘Voila! Your new prescription’. Gets me every time. Yes, ok, you win, I needed new glasses!

It’s not just my physical eyes that need new glasses. I have found that my way of looking at the world needs a good dose of challenge and deconstruction if I want to live congruent with the values and ethics that are important to me. A habit has a way of petrifying our minds. When we mix habit with the notion that our ideas should not be tested because they are somehow sacred or certain, we may find that smugness, not kindness, informs our lives.

As 2018 begins to wind down, I take time to reflect on a rather grueling year. It has been a year of saying more goodbyes, moving house, facing illness, and completing a Masters in Narrative Therapy and Community Work through Dulwich Centre and Melbourne University. It is this masters that has shaken my life up. It has provided me with a new pair of spectacles. My focus has been adjusted and, like any new glasses, has sometimes made me feel quite queasy as it provokes deeply embedded ways of thinking with the question, ‘Why’? I have discovered that assumption has had a part to play in diminishing the voice of curiosity in my life. And I am not okay with that! As 2019 is now only a few weeks away I am beginning a new chant … Viva la Curiosity!

Friend, how are your eyes? Do you still find their focus meaningful? Is there a niggling doubt about the spectacles you have been prescribed as one-size-fits-all? Is it time to get a second opinion? Maybe your own opinion as the expert optometrist of your life and views? Is it time to challenge some old assumptions and prejudices? I hope that 2019 will be filled with some new friends … and if curiosity and wonder are precious to you … remember to put out the welcome mat!

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

 

Welcoming but not Affirming: Getting to the Slippery Truth

“As a survivor of the gay conversion movement, it feels amazing to know that our experiences are being heard nationally and that there is finally research that confirms the prevalence and damage of the gay conversion movement in Australia… The messaging of the movement that told me that I was “broken” has caused long-term damage to me” – Chris Csabs, survivor.

This article is written by Nathan Despott.

As a gay person raised in a Catholic home, but who spent his late teens and 20s in Melbourne’s evangelical community, the image of a large church with arms open to welcome LGBTIQA+ people is familiar but foreboding. Most of my experience in the ex-gay or “conversion” movement was through long-term involvement in loving and warm local Christian communities that, rather than condemn my sexuality, lovingly intimated that I was “broken”. My ten-year quest for healing was all-consuming and overwhelming.

Since leaving the movement in 2010, it has been morbidly fascinating to watch most formal ex-gay/ex-trans/conversion programs shut their doors, often replaced by celibacy movements and a new wave of churches that call themselves “welcoming but not affirming”.

“Welcoming”, a paradoxical halfway between “condemning” and “affirming”, is the point whereby a church shifts from viewing LGBTIQA+ people as utterly intolerable, instead viewing them as “broken” and in need of gracious support. LGBTIQA+ members often experience close fellowship here, but cannot usually hold positions of leadership or, in some cases, work with young people and children. Researcher Mark Jennings found that most of the Pentecostal/charismatic religious leaders he spoke to held a “welcoming” position.

The recent Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice report (Human Rights Law Centre/La Trobe University, Melbourne) indicates that “while the ‘welcoming but not affirming’ posture appears less hostile than overt opposition to LGBT rights, when its ‘not affirming’ aspects are withheld or disguised… it can be deeply harmful.

“Welcoming” churches and the conversion movement share a view of sexual orientation and gender as being distinct from their expression (or “practice”). However, this distinction is relatively recent. It is certainly anachronistic to read scripture in this light. The word “homosexual” did not appear in bible translations until the mid-20th century. Modern “homosexuality” was demarcated by early psychoanalysts in late 19th century Europe, viewed as simultaneously intriguing and problematic for roughly a hundred years, then removed from the DSM in 1973.

The Preventing Harm report traces the development of the conversion movement and its ideology of “brokenness” from this point to the present day, where it has become virtually the mainstream lens through which evangelical communities – whether focused on orientation change or celibacy – engage LGBTIQA+ people.

The SOCE Survivor Statement, released by an Australian coalition of affirming organisations in September, outlined the core pseudo-scientific tenets of the ex-gay/ex-trans/conversion movement. While prime minister Scott Morrison responded by declaring that “conversion therapy is not an issue for me”, so central to the faith of a small number of “purity” groups (read: celibacy for queer people) was the “brokenness” ideology that they saw the Statement as an attack on their religious freedom.

Preventing Harm and the SOCE Survivor Statement present the conversion movement not merely as a type of therapy but as a broad movement that invests significant resources and energy in transmitting an ideology of “brokenness” through myriad channels and activities. Both reports recommend legislative interventions, tighter educational controls, regulatory measures for practice, improved media and broadcast standards, and support for survivors.

“Affirming” is distinct from welcoming. Responding to pastors who considered their churches to be “affirming” following a shift from condemnation to support, survivor support and advocacy group Brave Network Melbourne developed a model statement of affirmation. Could pastors and their leadership teams (and their online communications) readily state “We believe LGBTIQA+ people are a loved and essential part of God’s intended human diversity”? Many could not.

Do not misunderstand me. For some of these churches, their forward movement is honourable. Theologically and personally, their journey has been significant – particularly if their welcoming stance has led to rejection from conservative brethren. However, for LGBTIQA+ people of faith, the safety line lies between “welcoming” and “affirming”. While welcoming churches may have opened their arms to LGBTIQA+ people or even actively shunned the conversion movement in favour of celibacy, only affirming churches have completely rejected the “brokenness” ideology and made the theological and pastoral shift to full equality – and therefore safety – for LGBTIQA+ people.

Cherished LGBTIQA+ allies such as leading evangelical ethicist Dr David Gushee, evangelical sociologist Dr Tony Campolo, mega-church leader Nicole Conner , and out-and-proud Christian pin-up Vicky Beeching have all paid a high price for their affirming stance.

Brave Network and similar organisations have openly called on churches to explicitly declare their theological stance regarding LGBTIQA+ people rather than engaging in ambiguities such as “welcoming but not affirming”, which is widely seen as code for “you’re broken but we still love you”. This would prevent people of faith spending years ensconced in communities that slowly erode their mental health. This is because, as LGBT Christian blogger Kevin Garcia states, “welcoming but not affirming is not welcoming at all”.

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To learn more about LGBTIQA+ affirmation and the church, check out Walking the Bridgeless Canyon by celebrated ally Kathy Baldock, Changing our Mind by Dr David Gushee, and Undivided by Vicky Beeching. If you are in need of safe affirming organisations, check out One Body One Faith, Affirm or Two:23 in the UK, Equal Voices or Brave Network in Australia, Q Christian Fellowship or the Reformation Project in the US.

There is a growing number of affirming churches – from progressive to evangelical and every denomination in between – across the world. LGBTIQA+ Christians visiting an “affirming” community for the first time can use a statement like the Brave Network statement of affirmation above as a litmus test.

(Nathan Despott is a co-leader of Brave Network Melbourne and works as a research and development manager in the intellectual disability sector in Australia. He thanks Australian LGBTIQA+ advocates and allies Chris Csabs, Nicole Conner and Michelle Eastwood for their contributions to this piece.)

 

A New Beginning

 

Like the smell of imminent rain in the air, I sense it … a new beginning.
“How exciting!” they say.
I smile
I nod
I grieve
I rejoice
Yes – new beginnings are sacred.
But are they anymore sacred than Endings? Painful endings?
Each season and moment of life is holy.
However, today I would like to celebrate New Beginnings.
And I share this delightful poem of John O’Donohue for your reflection …

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

– John O’Donohue –

 

 

Things I Choose to Leave Behind: Cement for the Sandcastles

I have always had an affinity with the ocean. It has a mysterious magnetic pull on my heart. Life, for that moment of time, makes a little more sense when I walk along the shores and listen to the rhythm of the waves. John Dyer remarked, “I love the sea’s sound and the way it reflects the sky. The colours that shimmer across its surface are unbelievable. This, combined with the colour of the water over white sand, surprises me every time.” I think he is right. The sea always holds surprises for those who wander along with mindful attentiveness.

Oh, and I love sandcastles.

They remind me of summer days, ice cream, colourful umbrellas, and the smell of coconut lotion. Memories come crashing in like the waves I am watching. Happy memories of childhood days and a wondrous naivety to the heartache that this world holds. Children building sandcastles with their parents … works of art, complete with moats and flags and tightly wound mothers who have now become overly invested in the sandy building project. And all the while the sea watches and waits …

Then it happens, just like every day, just like every day of every year, just like every year for thousands of years. But the sandcastle constructors had momentarily forgotten this natural phenomenon of a sea that creeps … to devour their sandcastles. Suddenly the water is already lapping at the feet of those still frenetically building a glorious beachside castle before they realise … too late … that the ocean is claiming back the land they stand on, and their castle, for it belongs to the sea … it always has … but for a moment they were foolish enough to believe it was theirs!

When I reflect on my first half of life, filled with triumphant zeal, I consider how I was quite convinced that the sandcastles I built were MINE … like the seagulls from ‘Finding Nemo’. So when I saw the sea … waiting … creeping … I had an idea. I will fortify my castle with cement! The sea will not take my castle!

Cement to hold down any doubts or questions that may jeopardise what I had built.
Cement to petrify in place every grain of hard-earned sand – an enshrined memorial to a method that had died.
Cement to fill any gaps where there was uncertainty, vulnerability, weakness, failure.
Cement to stubbornly hold a belief system in place that I wrongly equated with faith.
Cement, cement, cement,
Cement – the substance of choice that has allowed a modern society to stop worrying about cutting grass, pruning trees, or driving slowly along dusty roads.
Cement to build bigger houses, higher skyscrapers, greater walls …

Cement would be the perfect solution for a fragile castle by the sea.
And all the while the sea watches and waits …
While I try in vain to hold in place and not let go … to not change … to not go on.
Because what would happen if I let go?

But I grew tired of my tightly held cliches … So I let go
And a new day happened.
Another set of people came to the edge of the water and looked with delight at all the beachside offers.
And they built sandcastles … forgetting about the watching, waiting sea
The creeping sea …

Now I smile at my previous cement endeavours.
How firmly I believed that the longevity of a sandcastle was a sign of some divine blessing.
Instead of realising that the divine is also in the sea and claims the castles we build …

So I choose to leave behind the ridiculous notion of cementing my sandcastles.
At least for today!
I may try again tomorrow … 🙂

 

 

Things I choose to leave behind: God in my Image

“I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now. Most of the time, I feel so ashamed about this that I do not own up to it unless someone else mentions it first. Then we find a quiet place where we can talk about what it is like to feel more and more devoted to a relationship that we are less and less able to say anything about.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

 

I have a memory of my dear father tidying my room when I was little. We were living in a small village in northern Germany at that time. I had just started school and I remember coming home to a terrifyingly immaculate room – dad was on a mission as we were preparing to move to South Africa. Instead of expressing gratitude, I noticed something immediately. Flicka was missing! Flicka was an old tattered blue corduroy horse that had gathered dust on one of my shelves.
I turned to dad accusingly, “Where is Flicka?”
“Who is Flicka?”
“My blue horse!”
“O darling, I am so sorry, that thing looked very, very sick and I threw it out.”
“You THREW OUT Flicka?!”
Tears … Trauma … Tantrums
The end of the world had come!
I recovered fairly quickly at the mention of ice cream.
It was time to leave an old toy behind.

Sometimes we leave things behind by calculated choice. Often we simply have to leave things behind because they no longer fit our present reality and life. Some find that strange. I have been accused of changing my theology in some random, fruitless social media stoush. It seems that a change of thought, ideas, or, theology, is a forbidden practice. As a woman who can vote, and someone who witnessed the atrocities under an apartheid regime, I am so grateful for the changes of thought, ideas and theology. May there be many more that benefit our earth and progress us toward kindness and compassion.

One of the many things I have left behind in this second half of life is the need to control God. I ‘found’ God in my teen years and it didn’t take me long before I had God all figured out. I had studied theology. I understood how God is orthodox in dogma and conservative in ideas and politics. Of course, God followed my interpretation of the Bible. Was there another interpretation? Alas, heretics! We won’t even begin to talk about other religions or non-religions. I was a zealous crusader with a mindset to ‘save the world’. And then, one by one, my neatly stacked Jenga blocks began to topple. I recall a vivid moment in the late 90s … it was an Aha moment: my idea of the Divine with all the trimmings, was a mirror of my life, my culture, my history, my religious ideas fashioned in a crucible of social norms and morality – in many ways I had successfully created God in my own image. That providential moment became a splinter in my soul – it began to push me out of my tightly held comfort zone.

Years have come and gone since then. Mercy, like the character V in ‘V for Vendetta‘, took my fearful heart (that I had mistakingly called faith) and led me to the edge of an endless, roaring sea, immeasurable in width and depth. I began to realise how futile my attempts to place God in the box of religious conformity really were. And the sheer arrogance that accompanied such endeavours. So just like Flicka, it was time to leave the God of my making behind.

Now, I know there are people who will read this and react with anger. You know how I know that? Because I was that reader once. I still hear my own voice of outrage – “there are rules, there are boundaries, it’s not a wishy-washy gospel”. I agree. To live in love is fierce living – the path of love demands our all.

I look back now at my first half of life and I am beginning to smile at my attempts to build a totem pole of all the things I thought needed to be in place in order to follow Divine Love. Like an overstuffed shish kebab, I had ‘should’ and ‘should nots’ for everything and everyone. And now I sail the seas of liminality and paradox and feel the wind of mystery on my face. It was time to leave the God of my fearful ideas and interpretations (and that of my modern culture) behind.

I don’t assume to know where you are on your journey, dear reader. You alone are the narrator of your life and the meaning and stories your draw from it. Perhaps you have a faith, perhaps you don’t, perhaps this blog post has brought you comfort, perhaps it has infuriated you? I will not attempt to calm those raging seas. Experience tells me that this is unproductive. Grace is sufficient for all our different lives.

Wherever you are … you are held in love … and that is all that matters.

“For individuals who are less traditional in their search for a meaningful relationship with the sacred, the possibility that God is a complex, inexplicable, unpredictable mystery explains their lifelong discomfort in the presence of religious dogmas that don’t correspond with their own personal encounters with God. Many quiet, unassuming everyday mystics choose to remain silent because religious traditions and leaders discount their personal experiences of God for failing to substantiate a doctrine.”

Meredith Jordan, Embracing the Mystery

 

Letting Go

“Everything I have ever let go of has my claw marks on it.” David Foster Wallace
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When I first posted this BLOG back in 2015, I was living in Upper Beaconsfield on the outskirts of Melbourne. The serene surrounding did not match my turbulent world at that time. It was a fairly stressful season as I was facing some very hostile responses from the religious pious who found my affirming position on LGBTIQ peoples difficult, to say the least!  I began to recognise that the tension created by my continual drift away from a fundamentalist ideology, and my relationship with the more conservative faith community that I was part of, would not always be tenable. Another season of letting go was ahead. No one can really prepare us for the pain of what letting go really means. No one can really adequately describe the liminal space it flings us into. And it is hard to put into words the freedom that comes when we walk through the fire into the unknown.

Since this post, I have again moved house – twice! To Queensland and back again … should be a title of a book. I have begun to realise that our whole life, in a sense, is a liminal space. The West is ill-prepared for this reality. We don’t like to let go. It is a contradiction to the philosophy of our times and the messages that come at us at the speed of sound such as, “Hold on!” and “You will get there!” We also rarely consider that letting go can be one of the most liberating decisions we can make for our life.

But letting go does mean an ending is coming or has come. And endings are difficult. Endings feel a bit like dying. Maybe that is why we are so adverse to the idea of letting go?

Internet Yoda, aka Google, supplies us with endless articles and self-help tips on how to let go. Letting go of material goods, relationships or friendships, a role or position, anger, insecurity, a belief system, places of belonging, etc, etc. This is an indication that humans do not like to let go! And maybe we just need to face that. There is a part of us that is attached to what we need to let go of. Walking away is letting go of a sense of identity and belonging to that object, emotion, or relationship(s). Some of the studies conducted with people with hoarding disorders show an inability to let go of ‘stuff’ because they have assigned so much value to their possessions (interestingly, the same people found it relatively easy to throw out other people’s belongings). There is a lesson for all of us in this. We assign a value to things/people that we have deeply invested in and that is why ‘letting go’ feels so much like dying.

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And yet we all have to face the reality that life does not remain the same: things change, people change, relationships change, friendships change, and then there comes the inevitable time of necessary endings. A time when you realise that you have to let go for many reasons. Maybe you are desperately clasping to an ideology in order to belong but you are beginning to realise that this sort of approval-based sense of community is actually toxic? Maybe you have come to recognise that you have become morose holding on to ‘stuff’ that simply does not satisfy or produce any sense of health or well-being? Maybe you simply feel stuck and stagnant, holding on to what once was? Maybe it is time to take courage and embrace a different tomorrow? Sometimes we have a choice in this letting go business. Often we don’t. When loss finds us without our decision or approval, the process of ‘letting go’ needs to be even more gentle, the grief needs to be realised, the trauma understood and processed.

So, friends, as you journey through life many of you have and will face loss. Some may be facing very difficult decisions at this very moment, while others are in the process of stepping through this invisible door of ‘letting go’. As you do, may you discover that amidst the tears and heartache, memories of joy and regret, there is also the faintest trace of hope, faith and love … and, yes, you will learn to breathe underwater …

BREATHING UNDER WATER

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.

And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,

less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, not death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

(Carol Bieleck, R.S.C.J. from an unpublished work)

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Challenging the Formidable Twins: Laziness and Stereotyping

“Once you label me you negate me.” Soren Kiekegaard

 

Sometimes they just creep up on you, don’t they? The associates of Prejudice never sleep. A few years ago, I was travelling home on the train after a very long day at work. I was forcing myself to stay awake even though I was exhausted, mainly because I became concerned about someone I caught sight of out of the corner of my eye. He sat diagonally opposite me in the row behind. I could make out some of the tattoos on his hands and arms. A hoodie covered his head. In a nanosecond I had him boxed and labelled. Stereotyping does that to us. It always brings out stupid.

As my train pulled into the station, I got up and stood at the doors. Just like every other train traveller I imagined that this action alone would magically speed up the disembarking process. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my labelled hoodie friend. “You dropped your phone,” he said and handed me my device that, like most of us, contained my life. I looked at him and thanked him, got off the train and felt as guilty as hell. In one fell swoop, I had placed him in the ‘troublesome’ category merely by the way he looked and what society had dictated to me about people who have tattoos and wear hoodies.

History reveals that we deal harshly with those who we consider ‘other’. Fear of what we do not know or understand has allowed humans to do unspeakably cruel things to each other. Ignorance is the foundation of this fear. Throughout history, ignorance has fuelled wars, division, shunning, and persecution. Yet today we have knowledge and information at our fingertips and ignorance still lives on. So perhaps we have to acknowledge that part of the problem of this fear and prejudice is simply a refusal to engage in critical thinking? In other words, when we have been told something about someone or a people group, we take that as truth and we are too lazy, or perhaps comfortable, to engage in robust dialogue or to challenge our own perceptions.

Stereotyping does great harm. Ask any religious, cultural, or racial minority in any society. This past week I listened to some Sudanese young people share about the effect of stereotyping on their lives and the lives of their families and community. I also listened to the rhetoric of a person who, because of some strange regulations found himself in government with 19 votes (those 19 votes obviously gave him enough confidence to stereotype religious minorities), advocate for a white-only immigration policy and make use of the term ‘final solution’ in reference to the people group he just marginalised. Another hatted politician defended this man’s speech as ‘absolutely magnificent’ and then added ‘he’s smart, but he hasn’t read all the history books.” No shit, Sherlock! Maybe he should before engaging in such damaging, lazy stereotyping!

Yes, Stereotyping has a twin – Laziness. And we don’t need to look far to see evidence of these toxic twins at work. If we pay attention, we will hear or observe ourselves sometimes engage in their slander. Or we just need to look on social media! The amount of alarming ‘fact posts’ on Facebook or Twitter, like “I can’t believe it, *insert name or minority group* drinks pig’s blood, flies a broom at midnight, and persecutes the religious pious”. Beneath the posts are all the outraged comments. Then someone finally actually researches the claim. “Hang on,” they write, “that’s not true. *Insert name or minority group* actually is vegan, sells brooms for a living, and is a person who believes in religious freedom.” But it’s too late – Laziness and Stereotyping have done their job, deepening the prejudice that already existed.

Social psychologist Claude Steel says, “Stereotypes are one way by which history affects present life. I often say that people experience stereotype threats several times a day. The reason is that we have a lot of identities – our gender, our race, our age. And about each one of those identities … there are negative stereotypes. And when people are in a situation for which a negative stereotype about one of their identities is relevant to the situation, relevant to what they’re doing, they know they could be possibly judged or treated in terms of that stereotype.” So what do we do? Just accept stereotyping as a way of life? Allow our minds the luxury of laziness as we assess other humans? Maybe the first step is to recognise that stereotyping is harmful.  The second is to realise that our brains can be lazy and we can easily accept stereotypical claims and assertions without a second thought. Perhaps by practicing a bit of mindfulness and critical thinking we can take some steps to resist and reclaim our lives from these obnoxious twins?

Maybe it’s time to slow down and consider our ways? To stop and think before we engage mouth or keyboard and consider how what we are about to say or do will affect other people’s view of that person or minority group? I am more convinced than ever that the only way forward for our fragmented world is to challenge Laziness and Stereotyping and engage other people with understanding and kindness. But someone already said that a very long time ago … “The greatest of all is love” … maybe we just don’t always believe that?

 

Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognised as the person that they are and not a stereotype or image. – Loretta  Lynch 

 

A Tyrant called Should

“Stop Shoulding on yourself!” – Albert Ellis

 

I don’t know how this tyrant found me. Somewhere in the more hazy, early years of my life, it arrived amidst whispers of fears of belonging and identity that are part of human existence.  It settled like a squatter in the shaping of who I was becoming. Over time the squatter seemed to grow in size and volume and it became ginormous within the ethereal walls of conservative fundamentalism. Perhaps you too know this tyrant I speak of? It’s called ‘Should’, first name ‘I’. I should.

I Should do this …
I Should be that …
I Should have this …
I Should not do this …
I Should…
SHOULD…!

Now don’t get me wrong. I think a healthy dose of ‘Should’ or ‘Responsibility’ around the table of our life is not tyrannical in any way. Should, in its proper place, keeps boundaries around our lives that keep us and others safe, and contributing to a greater good. Should holds the possibility of great rewards – and perhaps it is those rewards that cause us to obsess about it? However, to give in to its power is to live in the clutches of tyranny. Its endless demands on our lives and the lives of others is a source of anxiety, guilt, shame, depression and self-hatred. When we don’t measure up to Should we become angry and disappointed with ourselves. And when we place Should on the shoulders of others we end up consistently unhappy in our relationships.

Should is also the master of disguise. It is hard to recognise this exaggerated sense of obligation when we are convinced it’s ‘love’. We SHOULD love others, right? If you, like me, identify as a person of faith, it is often our notions about ‘loving others as ourselves’ that feeds this mutated idea of human kindness and compassion. And the more we feed it, the more we discover something … the beast is never satisfied.

Should also disguises itself as ‘virtue’ and hides the fact that in many ways it is our fear of being ‘disliked’ by others that keeps this tyrant in power. What if I don’t ‘Should’ one day and people don’t like me? What about my reputation? What if I upset them and it gets messy? The truth monster: Should is a mirror to I … and unless we confront an anxious ego, the tyrant keeps the crown.

For me, conservative fundamentalism was the compost the tyrant needed to grow even bigger in my life. The culture and history that informed my identity, taught me that the world is a serious place and we all need to do our part to keep it spinning. I was the perpetual ‘good girl’ wanting to please those around me. Then I discovered a form of religious expression that consistently enshrined and rewarded Should. In fundamentalism, Should came with accolades. It was a match made in hell. It became difficult to differentiate between Should and God. Should was cloaked in piety and had Bible chapters and verses to prove its legitimacy in my life. So walking away from fundamentalism, breaking the rules and ‘disappointing’ people, was really like sticking the middle finger up to Should. It was a most painful and liberating process.

Nowadays, Should still sits at my table. There are even days when it inflates, yells, and tries to snatch back the scepter. But it is no longer a tyrant – it’s more like a toddler, throwing an occasional massive tantrum. I recognise those days. I raise my eyebrows and speak to Should, “Should, you are loved and needed at this table. I am grateful for your voice in my life. But you are not in charge and if you don’t lower your voice I will spontaneously throw myself into the sea, eat a whole chocolate cake and drink copious amounts of beer … just to remind you that I also have other voices around this table. They are called Playful, Imaginative, Spontaneous, Fun, and Risky. When you shout at me like that, I will dial up their volume. Get it? You are NOT in charge.”

So, friend, maybe it’s time to examine ‘Should’ in your life? If you can’t find it, then perhaps you need to dial down the ‘reckless’ voice? If you, like me, find Should has a tendency to become overtly bossy and pushy then maybe it’s time to listen to what this is actually telling you about your life? Your relationships? And there is this little word that has magical powers when it comes to dialing down Should – it’s ‘No’. It has a beautiful ring, doesn’t it? “No, Should, I do not want to do that or be that. Now go away!” – I dare you to try it!

 

Heaven in a Puddle

“Every Path has a Puddle!” – George Herbert

A few days ago my fur children and I were on our routine jaunt to the beach. It is always at a brisk pace as there is nothing more fun on Planet Earth than for the lab and the pug to plunge into the waves. So they attempted to get to the water as fast as possible, dragging their human behind them like an odd pair of sled dogs. It had rained heavily the night before, and the bumpy road and sidewalks displayed a vast array of all shapes and sizes of puddles. Now, puddles are also very close to the heart of my dogs, especially the labrador who tries to submerge himself into their shallow murkiness in the hope of who knows what!

As we came around the last corner before the beach, where the street slants ever so slightly and creates a dip on the side of the road, there it was before us … the mother of all puddles. It stretched for several meters, like a mini lake, and the lab whined with sheer joy at such a glorious sight. At that moment the clouds parted and just for a few seconds heaven was in that puddle. The sun, the clouds, and the bright blue sky admired themselves in the water-mirror on the road. And then, as quickly as they came, the heavenly display was gone, and we stood at the edge of a muddy puddle in the greyness of the day.

As I waited for the labrador to stop pretending that he was a living submarine I looked up. There was no clue of the sunshine or the blueness of the sky that had appeared in the puddle. Just dark, menacing rain clouds. But I was not fooled – I had seen heaven in a puddle – a deep azure sky and a glittering sun that shines beyond the temporary weather patterns.

Sometimes life is like that mud puddle. The truth is that for some folk, labouring in a world that often groans with insidious injustice, their whole life is a puddle – here today, gone tomorrow and forgotten. All cliches and memorable quotes put together cannot change the heartbreaking existence for many people. For others, life holds puddle-seasons. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish every child born would live a life beholding and grasping the beauty of vast oceans, crashing waves and endless beaches. But that is not yet a reality.

So we often live our lives in light of puddles – muddy, murky, messy, shallow and bedraggled. How easy it is to tell our stories and shape our reality by mud and grime, but that is not the whole story. It is just part of the story. The very puddle that holds contaminated slop is also able to hold the sun, moon, stars, billowing clouds and eternal blue heavens that hide light-years and galaxies. Now and then, like thin places and portals, our puddles become mirrors to another dimension, another way of seeing. And once you see you cannot ‘un-see’ … your story begins to change…

As the dogs and I kept walking to the beach, I stared at another puddle, and I saw my face in it. Scientists now tell us that humans and their galaxy share about ninety-seven percent of the same kind of atoms. The idea that we are stardust is not ludicrous at all. “It’s a great human-interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky way,” says Professor Jennifer Johnson from Ohio State University. It is indeed a great human-interest story. It changes our way of seeing … it changes the way I perceive the face that is staring back at me from the puddle … it changes our story. Our little puddles begin to hold galactic possibilities of the now … and the not yet.

According to Sacred text, thousands of years ago a man called Jacob had a puddle moment. He suddenly saw what was already given, unbeknownst to him, and exclaimed his surprise. My prayer for you, dear friend, is that you would have Jacob’s eyes as you contemplate the divine and the star clusters in the puddles of your life.

 

“Some people could look at a mud puddle and see an ocean with ships.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Voices from the Grave: Frederick Douglass

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” Frederick Douglas

We know little of the woman Harriet Bailey. We just know she was the mother of the man that would struggle, resist, and rise to become one of America’s great thinkers and staunch abolitionists. There is every chance that she lived her whole life in harsh oppression. The baby she birthed and held in her arms somewhere in the year 1818 was probably fathered by one of the plantation owners in Talbot County, Maryland, where she was a slave. No matter the argument, there was nothing consensual about their sexual relationship. She died when he was seven years old: She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew anything about it.” (Narratives of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

Harriet was one of the millions who died at the hands of a brutal regime, an insidious ideology that upheld the notion that people could be ‘property’ based on the colour of their skin. An injustice held in place by the powers of government and religion. The theological hermeneutics of the day, informed by culture, history and social norms (the same aspects that shape our hermeneutics today) had built a sound argument from the Bible, not just defending, but praising the virtues of enslavement, marginalisation and exclusion of African Americans.

“Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other — devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.” (Narratives) 

It was Sophia, the wife of one of Frederick’s slaveholders who gave him a gift of a lifetime. She taught him the alphabet and he continued to learn to read from the white children in his area after her husband forbade it. This gift of a small and limited education was all that Frederick needed to fuel his passion to learn and to sharpen his arguments against slavery. He also taught other enslaved children to read. His endeavours to educate others drew the ire of his slave master and he was transferred to Edward Covey, a farmer who was known for his brutal treatment of slaves. Covey nearly broke him – but Frederick managed to escape …

“No Man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

He escaped to New York and found refuge in the home of David Ruggles, an abolitionist. In September 1838, he married Anna Murray and they had five children together. It was during this time he changed his surname to Douglass, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake”.

Frederick Douglass found a mentor in William Lloyd Garrison who encouraged him in his speaking and writing as he rose to leadership in the abolitionist movement. He toured the country with the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving convincing and informed speeches against the practice of slavery. Tragically he was often rewarded with violence. Once he had his hand broken when attacked. He sustained wounds that never really healed.

Douglass worked tirelessly and also became an advocate for the women’s rights movement:

“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” (Seneca Falls Convention, New York, 1848).

But it was the flavour of Christianity of his day that drew Frederick’s greatest outrage. He drew a sharp distinction between the person of Christ and the national religion that paraded around under the name of the lowly carpenter. I will finish this blog with Frederick’s scorching rebuke … I think so much of what he said and wrote bears meaning and wisdom for us today. We should take the time to contemplate how religion influences politics in our particular settings – and is that influence Good News? Or does it enable the oppression and marginalisation of others? Selah.

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I, therefore, hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women- whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cow skin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution.

The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, — sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, — leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls!”