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Celebrating the Birth of the Homeless, Oppressed and Marginalised

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

 

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

 

And are you ok with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Who were the Celts?

“Their aspect is terrifying … their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse’s mane. Some of them are cleanshaven, but others … shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food … The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured, and embroidered shirts, with trousers, called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours. They wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns … while others cover themselves with breast-armour made out of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle … where weird, discordant horns were sounded, deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rhythmically against their shields.”

Diodorus, Roman Historian

 

The Romans and Greeks called the Celts ‘barbarians’. The Celts were a collection of tribes with origins in central Europe who were loosely tied together because of similar language, religious beliefs, traditions, and culture. The Gaels, Gauls, Britons, Irish and Gallations were all Celtic people. They were already in Britain by the 5th century B.C., and in Ireland by the 2nd. Although they were not centrally governed and consisted of diverse tribes that were quite happy to kill each other (!), they maintained the same artistic tradition which is characterised by the use of distinctive flowing lines and forms. They also introduced iron working to the British Isles.

The concept of a ‘Celtic’ people is somewhat of a modern romanticised idea. The ‘Celts’ themselves would probably define themselves slightly different to our understanding and definition of them today. And the Roman writings on the Celts was often a means of political propaganda. It was expedient for the Romans to paint the Celts as ‘barbarians’ and themselves as ‘civilised’ … not much has changed looking at our world leaders today… but I digress!!!

The Celts lived in clans, who were loosely bound together into tribes. These tribes all had distinct social structures and customs, their own coinage and deities. They lived in huts that were gathered in hamlets. When they were not fighting, they were farming – and one of their contributions to Britain was the iron plough. Art was very important to the Celts, and they were also master storytellers. Bards and poets played a central role in passing culture and tradition to the next generation.

The curious Druids were important to the Celts. They were a form of ‘super priest,’ who also became political advisors, teachers, and healers. They were revered and could interrupt a king as they held more authority. The druids also played an important part in the rich oral tradition.

And the Celtic women? Well, you wouldn’t want to mess with them. Boudicca, King Prasutagas’ widow, did not take kindly to the Romans’ attempt at taking over Iceni lands when her husband died. She raised the Trinivantes tribe in revolt … and the Romans? … They were terrified. Boudicca provides an insight into the life of Celtic women – they could be war leaders, choose their own husbands, and own land. Very different from the treatment of women by other societies around them.

The Celts loved a good fight. If there wasn’t one, they started one! As Diodorus points out, they took great care in ensuring their appearance would provoke fear in the hearts of their enemies. They took a liking to the heads of their enemies, which they considered had great spiritual powers. So they adorned themselves and their homes with their enemies’ heads as if they were Christmas ornaments.

Christianity was introduced in Ireland around A.D. 431 with Pope Celestine sending out Palladius to some Irish believers (in all probability this community evolved through contact with Christians of Western Britain) as their first bishop. We often hear about the radical changes that Christianity and people like Palladius or Patrick brought to the Celts, but that is actually not the case. Celts and their sacred places and practices simply made room for Christianity. Many druids became Christian, and many of the churches and monasteries had some pre-Christian connection. The Celts were not ‘revolutionised’ by Christianity; instead, it was so readily accepted because there were so many similarities.

Hundreds of years later there is a romanticism around Celts and Celtic Christianity. We need to recognise the danger of putting words in the mouth of history. However, there are many things about the Celts and their connection to faith and spirituality that can inform us today. Here are a few:

1. Their love and respect for nature and God’s creation.
2. Their love for hospitality and welcome.
3. Their recognition of women as equal.
4. Their spiritual disciplines that included solitude and service to the community.
5. Their love for art and poetry – illuminating the Gospel with their creative genius.

I am personally drawn to the Celts spirituality and how they expressed this connection with God. There is a verse in Colossians 1:17 that to me sums up their understanding of the person of Christ – “He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.”

In May 2019, Mark and I are planning to lead a group of people who are also interested in the story of the Celts through Ireland, Scotland, and England. We can’t wait. Maybe you’d like to join us? Please see this link for information.

I will finish this post with a quote from Ray Simpson … whom you will meet if you decide to join us:

“Contemplative prayer is natural, unprogrammed; it is a perpetual openness to God so that in the openness God’s concerns can flow in and out of our minds as God wills.” Ray Simpson, from Exploring Celtic Spirituality.

 

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”.

——————————————————————-

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