What if our Whole Life is a Liminal Space?

Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
– The Psalmist –

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Last week I had a fascinating conversation with someone about liminal spaces. It is a topic that I am very interested in as I have found that my life has often led me into these perplexing spaces. “Betwixt and Between” is what Victor Turner called them. Threshold moments of letting go of a season in your life while still not having fully landed in the next phase. Liminality is not a comfortable place as it brings with it a sense of pilgrimage and movement. It’s like living out of a caravan. It is the ‘free fall’ between separation and re-assimilation.

The man I was talking to was a professor of history and the question he posed to me that day has given me some serious reflection moments: “Don’t you think that our whole life is a liminal space?” At first, I resisted this idea. Surely we are not on a perpetual pilgrimage? Or are we? Is the idea of reaching the next chapter and settling in, just that? An idea? Or perhaps even a mirage? Human nature would not allow for this permanent liminality – falling between the cracks of an imagined social structure and remaining there like a sewer dweller. We want safety, borders, predictability, and acceptance. This is not what liminal spaces are all about. And maybe that is why we spend our whole life fighting them!

That hit me like a ton of bricks in the middle of the night. Of course! Our ridiculous notions of happiness are nothing else than an escape plan out of liminality. Existential angst manifests itself in so many ways. We may never acknowledge the anxiety that accompanies what it means to simply live. And maybe that is why we have such a terribly hard time coming to grips with the ever-shifting sand under our feet from the time we are born to the time we go to the grave.

But what if we simply accept the fact that liminality is what life is about? What if we created a different narrative around the ‘shifting sand’? What if we recognised in this consistent state of flux we can also find freedom and growth? Understanding liminality as a part of everyday life prepares us for the one thing that is certain: change! Change comes to all of us, whether we like it or not, admit it or not. Just take a look in the mirror and then look at a photo of ten years ago … it’s called change.

I realise we need stability. I am not suggesting we turn into unreliable liminal travellers driven by every whim or fancy. Rather, I am asking how seeing our whole life as a liminal space can help us in navigating the twists and turns that life brings. We are pilgrims on this earth. We are a moment, a breath. The Psalmist said we are like wildflowers … we bloom and we die (Psalm 103:15). If we begin to really see our lives like this, perhaps we can curb our empty pursuit of happiness and simply enjoy the moment, the shifting sand, the twists, and the turns?

I guess what I am really trying to say is that perhaps liminality is given to us as a gift? Instead of fighting it, we can make peace with it. When we truly grasp that our whole life is a liminal space then we can also learn how to live in the moment and the now. Liminality undergirds mindfulness as we take nothing for granted. Liminality assists us in overcoming a sense of entitlement. Liminality is what gives sight to blind privilege.

So, dear friend, next time life grabs you like an unexpected wave in the ocean and tosses you around, breathe deeply. You are a pilgrim. Your whole life is a liminal space. You are that trapeze artist who can let go and not freak out. You can change. You eat “betwixt and between” for breakfast. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You’ve got this!

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The paradox: there can be no pilgrimage without a destination but the destination is also not the real point of the endeavour. Not the destination, but the willingness to wander in pursuit characterises pilgrimage. Willingness: to hear the tales along the way, to make the casual choices of travel, to acquiesce even to boredom. That’s pilgrimage – a mind full of journey.  
– Patricia Hampl –

The Power of Yes

“Love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

YES is a world
& in this world of yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds”
– E.E. Cummings –

Yesterday was a Yes day. It was also a historic day in Australia. 79.5% of Australians took part in a non-binding plebiscite to vote about marriage equality – “Can same-sex couples tie the knot?” 61.6% said Yes – providing the government with a clear and decisive mandate to pave the way for full inclusion.

I watched the moment the results were read over and over again. I cried with my friends. The joy was palpable. The various gathering places were awash with rainbow colours and ecstatic and relieved faces. It has been a very long journey that has taken its toll on many. I thought of some of my friends who are no longer with us and who would have loved to have seen this day … this day when a nation said Yes.

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There were also people who were bitterly disappointed. Amidst my social media feed people called it a ‘very sad day’, lamenting that only a few are still standing for ‘traditional’ marriage, and there were ominous warnings of doom. Others were more gracious, acknowledging that Australia has spoken and were determined to work together in the future.

I watched some of the faces of people responding to the news closely. People that have had to stay strong, keep a measured tone, even when it was their families and their children who were dragged through the mud in what often became a hostile and ugly debate. Yes broke the most stoic demeanour. Yes has power. Yes opens doors. Yes puts out a Welcome sign and means it. There is magic in yes.

We can all identify with the power of Yes. We feel it when we walk into a room not knowing anyone and we look for that Yes face, the person who will welcome us and acknowledge us. Yes is a finely crafted key that unlocks doors. Yes is the bulldozer that crushes fear. Yes speaks of new opportunities and possibilities. For LGBTIQ people in Australia, Yes has paved the way to equality, inclusion and acceptance.

Yes is the language of the Divine.

As Sally Douglas of Richmond Uniting Church wrote so beautifully,

“The scandalous heart of Christianity is not about sexuality or about hetero-normative relationships. It is about the conviction that in the person of Jesus we glimpse the Divine. And that in this Jesus, as sacred text tells it again and again, we discover the Divine who is outrageously including, forgiving and self-giving. In Jesus, we are confronted with the humble Holy One who heals and nourishes and who continues to challenge all people in the Divine’s self-same compassion dynamic, that cannot be contained or diminished, even by all our violence and death dealing.”

Dear friend, have you ever considered the power of Yes? Perhaps you grew up in a No setting with deeply embedded No ideals. So when you hear Yes you automatically think it must be wrong, heretical or simply not for you? Perhaps it is time to consider and examine the No that you have taken as normative for your life?

Yesterday was Yes day. A Yes day that has, and will continue to change lives. May Yes change yours.

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Sometimes You Will Back into a Lamp Post in the Middle of Nowhere!

“Life just doesn’t care about our aspirations or sadness. It’s often random, and it’s often stupid and it’s often completely unexpected, and the closures and the epiphanies and revelations we end up receiving from life, begrudgingly, rarely turn out to be the ones we thought.” – Khaled Hosseini –

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Iceland has become one of my favourite places on the planet. My partner and I had the privilege of circumnavigating this magnificent piece of terra firma last year (I kept some travel reflections – Part One starts on this link). We hired a 4 wheel drive that took us to some of the more remote areas where we crossed streams that totally disregarded the ‘road’ and held our breath while ascending and descending the terrifying steep cliffs on either side of fjords.

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Sorcerer’s Cottage, Klúka, Bjarnafjörður

The Westfjord of Iceland does not see that much traffic. The bulk of tourists stick to the Golden Circle down south. It was my turn to drive when we explored this exquisite area. Even though I was driving on the ‘right’ side, which is actually the ‘wrong side for us Aussies, it was a fairly easy, serene tour. We noticed a small guesthouse with a “Sorcerer’s Cottage” sign and out of sheer curiosity drove into the empty, small carpark. And, yes, it was in this desolate carpark that we actually argued about where to park… long story. So out of sheer irritation, I reversed back to a spot suggested by my partner and that’s when I hit the lamp post.

Now you need to understand that this was THE only lamp post, not just in the carpark, but probably for miles and miles around. I managed to hit that one and only lamp post in what felt like all of Iceland! The lamp post, like a soccer diva (player), did not just absorb the small bump and hide my embarrassment! No, it shuddered, and began a slo-mo lean, creaking dangerously, as if to lament the fact that it had stood there for decades and now a stupid tourist has brought about its demise. I was mortified.

A woman walked on to the porch of the guesthouse, presumably the owner of the guesthouse and therefore the lamp post guardian. She just stood with her mouth open. When I eventually ceased the long flow of descriptive German words and cracked the car door open, she uttered profundities, “Why would you hit the lamp post when you have all this carpark and the surrounding fields to park in?” It was a vexing question. A question that, gauging by the conversation that followed, never really was rewarded with a satisfactory answer. Simply because in life there are days when you will defy the law of 99.99999% possibility and hit a lamp post in the middle of nowhere.

The rest of the day was ruined for me, even though I was surrounded by the most stunning vistas. I was dreading the Icelandic powers-that-be to banish me from their northern kingdom or to receive a ginormous bill to run a new power line stretching for hundreds of kilometres in order to erect a new lamp post. But it turns out that Icelanders do not just have a wicked sense of humour, they are also very kind. I never heard another thing about that lamp post. I know it would not have survived the ordeal.

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Friend, in life there are days and seasons that feel like Iceland Lamp Post Moments. One moment we are neatly tucked away in our part of the world, minding our own business, the next moment we are surrounded by drama through a most bizarre set of circumstances. We can beat ourselves up, question the lamp post gods, fret over the cosmic injustice that allows us to be part of the 0.00001% of people that back into lamp posts in the middle of nowhere … or simply embrace life with all its strange lamp post moments.

Embracing lamp post moments is not easy. Trust me, you are talking to a lamp post anxiety expert! We have to change the narrative about how we view those moments and seasons – something like, “How gifted am I to have hit the only lamp post in Iceland!” Now some would call that delusion, I call it survival with style! In all seriousness, I will never forget our fantastic Iceland getaway … and I have a lamp post to thank for that!

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Celebrating an Ordinary Life

“And while it takes courage to achieve greatness, it takes more courage to find fulfillment in being ordinary. For the joys that last have little relationship to achievement, to standing one step higher on the victory platform. What is the adventure in being ordinary? It is daring to love just for the pleasure of giving it away. It is
venturing to give new life and to nurture it to maturity. It is
working hard for the pure joy of being tired at the end of the day. It is caring and sharing and giving and loving …”

~ Marilyn Thomsen

My first half of life was lived in a hurry and in the limelight. With a demanding role as a minister in a large faith community and traveling the globe, whilst also raising a family, there was no time for ‘ordinary’. I spent a lot of time on platforms, speaking to people. Add an embedded ideal of ’save our broken world’ and a slight Messiah-complex, easily adopted through the importance modern, charismatic Christianity puts on speakers and leaders, and I was a zealot convinced that ‘ordinary’ is simply missing the mark. You would be forgiven for thinking that ‘ordinary’ is really an unpardonable sin when listening to the many sermons preached from pulpits on Sundays.

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Other than religious ideas, we also live in a world that is enthralled with extraordinary. Don’t believe me? Pay attention to the relentless, consumer marketing machine or just have a look through the titles in the self-help section of a bookstore. Do you notice the obsession with perfection and excellence? It seems, at least in many developed countries, that being extraordinary equates to the right to exist. Now add the hyper-reality of social media, with photos of the ‘perfect’ family, holiday, house, car, designer-dog, and you have a virtual social world frantically trying to convince one another that they are anything but ordinary. The anxiety and stress this farcical comparison has created even has a name: FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – and it has reached epidemic levels.

So in direct protest, I am calling out this infatuation of our modern world with the idea of being extraordinary. In fact, not only am I calling it out, I am convinced that the worship of extraordinary has created a long list of human emotional maladies: comparison, frustration, depression, anxiety, discontentment, despair, exaggeration, lying, etc. No, I am not suggesting that someone suffering from a mental health issue has a problem with FOMO. I am suggesting that our continual obsession with excellence has created a toxic oxygen inhaled by modern society in every dimension of life (work, leisure, relationships, etc) and plays a contributing factor in mental health.

So I choose to celebrate Ordinary!

I am celebrating my tattered garden pants and gumboots.
I am celebrating the wrinkles and grey hair that points to living life.

I am celebrating the ordinary people behind the scenes, working
ordinary jobs.

I am celebrating the ones who society sees as a ‘burden’, their beauty and kindness so often overlooked in a world of botox and plastic surgery.

I am celebrating all the students who have the privilege of education no matter what their ‘score’, in a world gone mad on comparing the
intellect of the young.

I am celebrating the young ones who will never receive an education, stuck in some factory to serve the greed and vanity of others.

I am celebrating those millions and millions of ordinary people living in parts of the world where their life is hard and their death goes
unnoticed.

I am celebrating the places and people who live in parts of the world where the ‘prosperity’ gospel is exposed as a sham, but the good news of Immanuel flourishes.

I am celebrating the people in the pews, who hang their head in shame when they don’t feel they measure up to the challenges of ‘change’. You are beautiful.

I am celebrating our planet and its creatures, used and abused by
practices that are fed by the search for greater thrills, wealth and
importance.

I am celebrating the poor, those who are mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful.

Today, I celebrate my very ordinary life – so far removed from the adrenaline rush that was the first half of my life. I celebrate the shattered triumphal ideologies that lie at my feet, grateful for the many failures that destroyed them. Day by day I live my ordinary life, I take a breath and reflect on the fact that I am a living being. Life does not need inflated ideas of self-importance to matter. Life is a miracle all by itself.

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So dear friend, pay attention to the voices that speak to you on never-ending sound waves. Are they suggesting that you are simply not enough? That you are ‘wasting’ your life with your ordinary routine? That you should be this or that – anything but you? Then perhaps it is time to ruthlessly declutter the voices that make you miserable. Life is Ordinary. Life is Beautiful. Grace is sufficient. You are enough.

“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.” 
– William Martin

 

God on My Side?

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I spent the first seven years of my life in a small village in Northern Germany. It was the sort of place where everyone knew each other and the children roamed the streets like herds of sheep. You had to be tough in those herds! Children aren’t always as nice as we like to imagine. My last resort when things got hairy was to remind everyone that my dad lives just a few houses away and he will sort out anyone threatening his daughter’s well-being. That normally did the trick. Dad was respected and no one liked the idea of having an angry German-Russian breathing down their neck. Of course, to my utter disappointment, the times dad did show up and I tried to dob on someone I perceived a threat to the welfare of the community, dad would be as kind and pleasant to the wee human as he could. I remember being furious. Dad was supposed to be on my side!

Several decades later, it occurs to me how hard it is to grow out of this. We simply change the ‘dad’ figure to reason, physical strength, positions of power, or ‘God’. If you conduct a brief search throughout the corridors of human history of wars fought with strong religious ideals, you will discover a common thread: each blood-lusting party had the novel idea that God was on their side. There seems to be a ferocious zeal that overcomes those who believe that the Divine is blessing their violence. As Blaise Pascal dryly commented, Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

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Those of us who would consider ourselves people of faith may recoil at the idea of thrusting a spear through an opponent’s heart in the name of God, or of terrorising villages and families in order to execute a ‘just’ war on terror, but perhaps we have other ways to vilify those we deem as an ‘enemy’, a ‘threat’, or simply people who have differing views from us. If we can insinuate that we have ‘God on our side’ then there is a high chance that the masses will ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, and that they will follow our cause without engaging in critical thinking. If we really want to drive a point home, we can ensure that people understand that our idea has God’s backing.

Positions of political and religious influence can be precarious places. These platforms provide all the necessary ingredients for deception, greed and power, which can corrupt hearts. When we adopt a ‘Joan of Arc’ persona and use sentences like “God told me”, we are using our influence, in whatever capacity, with the danger of engaging in control and manipulation – possibly with the best intentions, but still potentially dangerous. No amount of ‘scriptural backing’ gives us the right to put people in such a position that if they question us, they question God.

History should serve as a teacher. Take a moment to consider just a few of the many examples like the Apartheid ideology undergirded by the Dutch Reformed Church, the long history of Anti-Semitism in the Catholic church, the Spanish Inquisition, the Religious Wars of Ireland, the exuberant preachers of the pro-slavery era, the modern day ‘Kill the Gay’ bill enthusiastically propagated and supported by Religious Leaders from the USA, or the horrendous consequence of banning contraceptives in Africa and other parts of the world. We need to consider the wake of destruction that often accompanied ideologies and people of power who claimed God on their side – be it Presidents, dictators, Popes, priests or ministers.

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The moment our idea of God paints us as the ‘Messiah’ to liberate the misguided, evil ‘Other’, we come dangerously close to creating a ‘God’ in our own image, who looks and thinks like us. I would urge us to exercise caution before we marginalise and label those who differ. Many of the dogmas that were held with such certainty in a previous era, are now considered fallacies. Perhaps most confronting is the notion that what often irritates us in others is mirrored in our own shadow side. Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves, said C.G. Jung. The French writer, Vauvenargues, responds: We discover in ourselves what others hide from us and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.”

It is a terrifying thought that God stares back at us from the eyes of our ‘opponent’
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The Sinking Island

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

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.

The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.

Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.

Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …

I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!

I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.

The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!

So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”

 

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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, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

Have Your Cake And Eat It Too: Protecting Our Religious Rights!

“When we hide discrimination under the guise of ‘religious freedom,’ we make a mockery of human rights.” – DaShanne Stokes –

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There’s been a lot of talk around our fair isle about preserving ‘religious rights’ and ‘religious freedom’ in the last few months. The fear is palpable and has been used to keep campaigns alive and well-resourced, while conspiracy theories thrive with enough slander fertiliser to sprout new angst and anguish amongst many. There is a fear that religious organisations could be silenced or forced to stop their activity in spreading hope and good news (wouldn’t it be great to be able to write this hope in the sky??? But I transgress!). There are villains out there, you know. Villains who are clearly persecuting those who want to bake cakes and only sell them to those whose ideology lines up with theirs. Very unreasonable. You cannot actually bake your cake and eat it too. It’s doomsday, people! Doomsday!

So. I have a plan. I think it’s time we ensure that religious rights are protected. We need a blue print. For Christianity, you cannot get better than the words of Jesus, right? A Religious Rights & Freedom Manifesto according to the words of Jesus, will no doubt, settle the matter once and for all. So here are some ideas to get us started:

1. Every church and religious organisation should have absolute freedom to feed the hungry! No messing with this religious right. This is clearly a religious freedom that is protected by Jesus in his address to a group called “The Sheep and the Goats”. Christians should be vocal and active in addressing world famine. We should be holding our politicians accountable in the treatment of our global neighbour. We all know we have participated in inequality and hunger – so lets be part of the solution. Feed the hungry. Tick. Don’t mess with this right!

2. “I was thirsty,” said Jesus – so let us who follow him ensure that all over the world people have access to safe drinking water. Did you know that water scarcity affects more than 40% of the global population and is projected to rise? It is estimated that 783 million people do not have access to clean water and over 1.7 billion people are currently living in river basins where water use exceeds recharge (source). It would be disastrous to curb the religious rights and freedom of churches to assist people who are ‘thirsty”. Let’s protect the right to get actively involved in solving this global crisis.

3. Talk about global crisis. Let’s also make sure we protect the right to “welcome the stranger”. We are now witnessing the highest level of displaced people on record. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their home. Australia has signed the refugee convention, but we like to ignore that, preferring to build concentration camps to house strangers coming to our shores looking for help. I suggest that we safeguard the religious rights and freedom of churches and institutions to care for the ‘stranger’. Welcome would be what the Gospel is all about … let’s write that in the sky …

4. We need to ensure that the religious right and freedom of those visiting people in prison is preserved. Obviously not just in prisons in Australia (although the need for more involvement here is dire). Also, let’s be working towards those caught in a ‘global prison’ of modern day slavery. Slavery continues today in every country in the world. Women are forced into prostitution. People are forced to work in agriculture, domestic work and factories. Children working in sweatshops producing goods sold globally. Entire families in ‘prison’ forced to work for nothing in order to pay off generational debts. This ‘prison’ work will require our focus and finance. Let’s make sure we have the right to be active in bringing liberation under the “Religious Rights & Freedom Manifesto” according to Jesus.

5. Please protect our Religious Right and Freedom to deeply reflect on how we wish to be treated and ensure we treat others in like manner. Otherwise people might call us hypocrites and judgemental – that would not help in getting this Manifesto up and running.

This is just to get us started. We need to be allowed to meet weekly and in small groups so we can take a good, critical look at our progress and utter prayers of hope and thankfulness. We need this time to examine our hearts and repent if we become plagued with the infamous “Messiah Complex”.  We need to ensure that our ‘theology’ lines up with this Jesus’ mandate and that we are not being jerks to other humans.

It’s a mammoth task, people, this kingdom work of hope. We may need to consider how we use our finances. In order to have the right to ‘clothe the naked’ we perhaps need to shed some of our magnificent and delicately embroidered cassocks. After all, it would be a bad look and may even impinge on our rights to be seen with so much pomp and splendour while Lazarus lies dying at the gate of our religiosity.

So, let’s get busy. Jesus has come. Let’s be active in bringing hope to the world we live in – after all, this is our Religious Right and Freedom.

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“If there is some corner of the world which has remained peaceful, but with a peace based on injustices the peace of a swamp with rotten matter fermenting in its depths – we may be sure that that peace is false. Violence attracts violence. Let us repeat fearlessly and ceaselessly: injustices bring revolt, either from the oppressed or from the young, determined to fight for a more just and more human world.” – Dom Helder Camara –

Maybe You Are Asking The Wrong Questions?

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
– Primo Levi (Holocaust Survivor) –

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Primo Levi did not consider himself a hero for surviving Auschwitz. Like other survivors, he had seen and experienced too much. He was one of only 700 survivors of more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Upon his release in 1945, he began writing about his experiences. In a heartbreaking interview he reflects on the cost of not asking questions and of doing as you are told without really understanding. In Nazi Germany, the cost was millions of lives. Shutting his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, the typical German citizen built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence of not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

Questions are dangerous things. To question means that we are prepared to engage in the risky task of letting go of what we thought we knew and to admit not knowing. Perhaps that’s why ego is one of the great barriers to questions. In a society that often prides itself in the pretense of knowledge, questioning has fallen out of favour. We no longer see the value of questions or we have been told to avoid them (such as in some cult or extremist religions). Yet questions are the key to innovation and growth. Questions can change our world. Never stop asking questions.

Not only do we need to learn to question again, we also need to consider changing our questions. If our life decisions and choices are consistently detrimental to our well-being, then perhaps the problem is the lack of questions prior to making these decisions? Or maybe we are asking the wrong questions? This was the advice from one of my favourite high school teachers. He seldom provided answers when I was stuck in the complexity of learning. Rather, he would challenge me to ask different questions. Most of the time it was the uncomfortable process of stepping out of a pre-set paradigm in order to ask those questions that then provided brilliant answers. Claude Levi-Strauss says, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.

Social change, transformation, innovation and the growth of companies and industry has often been the result of a single question. For example, “Why can’t I have the photo immediately,” was the question of a 3-year-old to her father, Edwin Land. The result of that question was the invention of the polaroid camera. “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” writes Warren Berger in his excellent book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” But like Primo Levi points out, often we are conditioned not to question – and that has to do with power.

Berger writes, “To encourage or even allow questions is to cede power.” If you take a look around you at social, religious or political settings that are dying and filled with fear you will find a common denominator – they have shut down questions a long time ago! If you are employed in a workspace or living in some form of community that treats questions with fear and paranoia, you will be unable to live authentically and you will stop growing. Questions are the fertiliser for the seeds that lie dormant in your heart.

So, friend, what are you facing right now that needs a new set of questions? What are you afraid of right now that needs you to let go of the safe harbour of certainty so you can go into the uncharted waters of questions? Where are you gagged right now from asking questions? Why are you allowing that setting to silence you? Not to question preserves the status quo. It is time for beautiful questions and to allow your inquiry to unsettle assumptions, a sense of ‘stuckness’, and of fear … it is time to grow! Ask!

“Are we too enthralled with answers? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long?”
– Stuart Firestein –

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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Acid Rain? Clean Up Your Life

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
– Wendell Berry –

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Just a few weeks ago my partner and I paused on our hike and admired the beautiful Black Forest near Triberg in Germany. We had reached a high point in the trek and could see the dark, majestic trees covering miles of rolling hills. With a clear blue sky above and the warmth of a late summer, it was as mystical and magical as all the story books lead us to believe. However, this was not always the case. All of Germany’s forests, especially the Black Forest, were in serious decline in the 1980’s … and they are not out of the woods yet (never miss an opportunity for a well-placed pun!) … the reason? Acid Rain.

Acid rain is the wet and dry deposits that come from the atmosphere and contain more than the normal amount of nitric and sulphuric acids. They cause the rain to become acidic in nature, mainly because of environmental pollutants from cars and industrial processes. Decaying vegetation, wildfires and biological processes also generate acid rain forming gases, but human activity leading to chemical gas emissions such as sulphur and nitrogen, are the primary contributors.

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The result of acid rain? Acid rain accumulates in water and changes the pH level that certain plants and fish need to survive and breed. A reduction in biodiversity is one of the many effects. It destroys forests as they become vulnerable to disease, extreme weather, and insects. Soil composition is altered and destroyed, sensitive micro-organisms are killed. This has a direct impact on other vegetation which becomes stunted and dies. Also, architecture, especially buildings made of limestone, corrode and are destroyed. In short: Acid Rain is a disaster. You can read more about this environmental disaster on the Conserve Energy Future web site.

Recovery has been slow. Government solutions have been varied and there is a focus on seeking alternative energy sources. Eco-systems are slowly being restored. The severity of this disaster still eludes so many – especially if we do not recognise that Mother Nature, although patient, kind and long-suffering, is definitely not indestructible. Everyone has to play a part. Acid rain ultimately affects all of us.

So we carry an environmental responsibility in our wider world, but what about our personal lives? Noticed any effects of acid rain lately? Deposits of toxic pollutants that are killing you? Perhaps it is a relationship that has become dysfunctional, but you have put up with it for so long you no longer notice how it has stripped your soul? Maybe it is a barrage of poisonous words that have been levelled at you with sniper precision when you were least expecting or prepared? Or maybe it is the refusal to look at your own shadow, acknowledging the pain or wound that is hurting not just you, but the environment you exist in? Perhaps it is your relentless schedule, your inability to say “No”, or your addiction to pleasing others? Maybe it’s time to seek an alternative way of life?

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Friends, the sad phenomenon of acid rain is a reality that, whether we know it or not, like it or not, affects our world. We are all consumers. We are all responsible to live in a way that leaves no heavy footprints. In an “I-Need-This-Stuff” world this is no small feat. We are also responsible for the energy we use in our own lives and relationships. This becomes very confronting when there is toxicity in our close relationships. Acknowledgement is the first step. A healthier space is not created overnight because often it has to do with an embedded way of relating or thinking. It takes courage, recognition and a refusal to be resigned to an environment that is killing us.

Acid Rain in your life? Time for action. Take the first step. Be Brave!

“Toxic relationships are dangerous to your health; they will literally kill you. Stress shortens your lifespan. Even a broken heart can kill you. There is an undeniable mind-body connection … Don’t carve a roadmap of pain into the sweet wrinkles on your face. Don’t lay in the quiet with your heart pounding like a trapped, frightened creature. For your own precious and beautiful life, and for those around you — seek help or get out before it is too late. This is your wake-up call!”
– Bryan McGill –