Author Archives: Nicole Conner

On the Move Again … !!!

“She took a step and didn’t want to take any more, but she did.” – Mark Zusak (The Book Thief)

I have moved thirty-seven times in my life, or maybe thirty-eight?? I can’t remember – but I moved a lot. Today I was again knee deep in boxes, packing and reducing the evidence of my existence to just over a third of what we brought with us to the Sunny Coast. Minimalising, I have found, is best taken in steps. In the meantime, I have done my bit in stocking local Salvo stores!

So much has happened in the last eighteen months. Both my partner and I have experienced an inner change that is hard to put into words, a migration of identity that has been accompanied by healing that both the liminal space and this beautiful geographical paradise helped provide.

As we head back down south for a variety of reasons, we leave behind my father who I love very much. He has now made his home in a little cottage in Tiaro, Queensland. It is a place that holds many precious memories for him. It is great to see him so content, but after ten years of living in family community together, I already miss him terribly. We will also leave behind new friends that became dear friends very quickly. People who reached out to us when we arrived exhausted and frazzled and speaking for myself, fairly angry and disillusioned. Friends whose shared laughter, tears and care have meant so much. Fortunately, the Sunshine Coast is not at the ends of the earth, so we will continue to share our lives … albeit via modern technology. We also say goodbye to three hundred days of sunshine a year and endless beaches – not an easy thing to do.

So as I channel my nomadic ancestors, I am grateful for the modern comforts of simple things such as cardboard boxes and companies that make a buck from moving our shit from one part of the country to the next. I come with some experience when it comes to moving. At this point my blog post changes gears as I thought it might be helpful to share my top ten tips for those who may be preparing to move or will one day embark on the adventure of relocation:

1. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Use that move to get rid of stuff. We spend so much time accumulating possessions that, if we are honest, hold very little value and connection to who we are. Often the stuff we own simply acts as a witness to the fact that we have bought into the extremely well-oiled marketing machine of modern times that convinced us we needed the latest gadget that fluffs our pillows and shines our lettuce leaves. Here is the horrible, hurtful truth: we don’t. If you haven’t looked at it, tasted it, used it for six months … don’t pack it.

2. Start the planning and packing process early.

The minute it becomes definite that we are on the move I gather boxes and I have 2-3 boxes open in my laundry at all times. I stare at them, size them up and, yeah, talk to them, while planning what to pack in them. The more time you have to plan the packing bit, the smoother the whole procedure. I realise that sometimes we have to move in a hurry – but for me, that does not happen very often. Most of us have weeks, if not months, to plan a move. The minute you know you will move, get those boxes and even better … get rid of stuff.

3. Make lists.

I love lists. They keep anxiety from robbing my joy when I need to be focused and present in the moment. Make a ‘To Do’ list, make a box list, make a travel plan list, and make a ‘my fur baby’s needs while I travel list’. Write it down and then you know you will remember and move on to the next thing. Got to love me a good list!

4. Make your travel plans.

For the move back to Melbourne I have planned our trip and booked all the accommodation – with three cars, one trailer and two fur children, there is no room for no room. I emailed all the hosts and explained the convoy heading their way and asked whether they have room at their ‘inn’. Having all their answers and words of welcome in writing should minimalise accommodation issues.

5. Say ‘yes’ to people who offer to help.

Accept the help of friends and neighbours. ‘Independence’ is a myth and, quite frankly, can be a real pain in times of stress. A move is made so much easier when you have support – and perhaps a cooked meal.

6. Label your boxes clearly.

Label every box with your surname and destination. I also write what room I want each box in. If you don’t feel comfortable writing the contents on the actual box, use a numbering system and store that information on your computer.

7. Use all those little spaces.

You can save money by reducing the number of boxes you take. Filling every box is not just economical but also makes for greater protection of the contents. No matter how well you pack those glasses, if they are rattling around in a box, there’s every chance they won’t make it in one piece. This may not always be a tragedy as you get to throw them away and have less stuff!!

8. Don’t have a dinner by Candlelight.

As romantic as the notion may sound when you get to your destination you will want to turn the heating on, have a hot shower and perhaps even cook a meal. So don’t forget to organise all the necessary utilities for your destination. Websites such as ‘Your Porter’ make this all very simple. Don’t forget to disconnect the utilities at the house you are leaving behind.

9. Take time to Breathe.

I find house moves all-consuming. So I choose to be present, take moments to stroll in the garden, read a magazine, or have a coffee with friends. Fortunately, I have fur children that remind me every day that a walk in the fresh air is NOT an option.

10. Be Grateful.

Amidst all the stress, planning and my whining about moving AGAIN, I am also deeply grateful. I have traveled the earth, crossed continents and seen countries and sights that others dream of. The hand of Providence dealt me a gypsy card … and I get to do it all with people I love. Here is to packing another box, here is to life which is precious, here is to adventure, and here is to pilgrimage and change … to which we are all called!

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

 

My Addiction to Certitude

There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.
– Sherman Alexie –

In a recent conversation with a friend on the topic of liminality and religion, I entered a path of greater self-discovery. The question he posed that allowed me to enlarge the narrative I tell myself about myself was this: “You speak of being in a form of conservative, religious fundamentalism for thirty years – what you need to ask yourself was what drew you there in the first place?”

It’s a good question. What draws us into spaces of community and belonging? Why do we hang around even when we realise that the values we hold have become juxtaposed to the policies of an organisation? And, specifically, what is it especially about religious communities that make it extremely difficult to discern that the time has come to say goodbye?

The question took me back to my childhood and the recognition from a young age that although I grew up in a loving and encouraging home this was not the reality for many other people. My parents did not shield me from the realisation that this world holds much suffering – something I would witness first hand when we moved to Africa. My pre-liminal space was one that recognised chaos … and as a young person, I yearned for order and structure. I was a prime candidate for the zealous, orderly world of fundamentalism.

In an upcoming book by Tim Carson, I will share more deeply about this experience (thank you, Tim, for the opportunity to contribute). Looking back, I recognise the longing that led me to structure and the addiction that kept me there – an addiction to certitude.

The black and white world of literalism, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”, became my ‘God drug’. I was convinced that I, and the tradition I was part of, held the truth and needed to save the souls of those who did not share this euphoric space of transcendence. I became a zealot – a zealot with the privilege of a platform. I used it to speak of absolutes around the world … and I was cheered on, fuelling my dependence on certainty.

In those days I had no room in my life for paradox – questions and doubts were tucked away and hidden. They were not to be spoken of as I did not want to upset this wonderful world I was in … a world where everything was ‘awesome’. A world that had created order out of my chaos, provided foolproof answers to my yearning and showed me a clear and triumphant way. Certitude, like the matrix, is an intoxicating hyper-reality.

This week I was reminded of my addiction. A cruel tweet from a religious leader against the rainbow community triggered me and I responded with outrage. Amidst the comments on my facebook page, a friend (Daniels Sims) wrote, “I feel for him (religious leader). I really do. It is hard to be saved from behind a wall of certitude.” His words struck such a deep chord with me.

How hard it is to be saved from behind a wall of certitude! That was me … for nearly three decades. I partook and was complicit in supplying the drugs needed to keep our certainty addiction alive and with it dulled some of the discomforts that derive from ‘not knowing’ and embracing mystery. Certitude provides us with all the answers we need to live a cloistered life of dogmatism, perhaps because the alternative is just too scary and difficult.

I look at my life now – what a far cry from the young, impassioned, self-assured, and absolutely convinced person I once was. Most of the time I am not certain and mystery has now become a dear friend. Like any recovering addict, I am still drawn to certainty but I now realise that just like the idea of normality, certainty is a myth. What St Paul wrote is true, we look at the world through a dark, smokey glass. To proclaim anything else is presumption … to recognise it is to walk with humility and compassion.

So, friend, if you, like me, have identified your addiction and need for certitude, perhaps we can sit around a virtual room of belonging together and proclaim: “I am *insert name* and I am a certitude addict.” And then smile and realise that here too, grace abounds and is sufficient.

A paradox is a seeming contradiction, always demanding a change on the side of the observer. If we look at almost all things honestly we see everything has a character of paradox to it. Everything, including ourselves. – Richard Rohr – 

On Flying Kites: Decisions in Liminal Spaces

A post from a couple of years ago and still on the theme of liminality. These reflections are as relevant as ever for my life – especially in this season as we are about to embark on a brand new adventure and to fly some unique kites …

Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.
– Anais Nin
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Most of us have faced times of transition and uncertainty. Liminal Spaces of not knowing. In these sacred times of ambiguity, it is often difficult to reach some form of clarity for any pending decisions. This can become quite a cumbersome burden. In transition, it often feels like we have several signposts pointing us to totally different places, and each one holds a convincing argument about this being the ‘right’ direction.
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A friend of mine helped me navigate and relax regarding decision making in times of transition. He suggested that I ‘fly some kites’ and allow myself the luxury of not working it all out at once. This was a novel idea. Over the last couple of decades, my life revolved around setting goals and reaching them. There was no such thing as an unplanned day! “Flying a kite” was something to be accomplished under the ‘mother’ goals. So I had to overcome a sense of guilt that came with the luxury of simply not knowing and therefore not planning.

Those who have ever attempted to fly a kite will know the potentials frustrations this exercise can bring: no wind, tangled line, obstacles, etc. However, when you do manage to get a kite to soar and feel the wind tugging at it as you watch it dance across the sky, there is a sense of joy. I have childhood memories of flying kites in green meadows near my home. In fact, I had several kites because somewhere better suited for specific kinds of wind and weather.

Interestingly, people have been flying kites for over 2,000 years. It is believed that they originated in Shandong, a province in China. The first kites had bamboo frames and were covered in silk and paper. As kite flying spread from China across Asia to India, each area developed their own style of kite and purpose for flying them. Marco Polo was among the first Europeans to document the building of a kite and how to fly them. Kites were used as early as 1749 to determine air temperature at 3,000 feet. In 1752, the Franklin father and son team used a kite to prove that lightening was indeed electricity and the Wright brothers used kites to research and develop their first aircraft. By 1950, NASA used kites to assist with spaceship recovery operations. Kites have proven to be most helpful and remain a source of delight for young and old alike.

I took my friend’s advice and starting ‘flying some kites’. These sort of transitional life moments don’t come along very much. What was peculiar was that although I would consider myself a dreamer and idealist, it became clear that to lay aside the ‘should’ and truly consider different possibilities would take some getting used to. Over time I began to get accustomed to this strange place. I decided that no idea or ‘kite’ was to be simply cast aside as foolish. Each one would be given time to be inspected and evaluated. A natural ‘narrowing down’ process began to happen. Clarity began to come in what I did not want to do and learning to say ‘no’ became easier.

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The kites that were considered ideal in an earlier stage of life had lost their lustre. The weather had changed, I had changed, something I would not have realised if I had not taken my friend’s advice and taken time to dream and consider. Childhood memories and longings came rushing back, things that had been lost under the burden of trying to fulfill the expectations of others. Flying kites recovers dreaming – something so easily lost in our hurried lives. I discovered that there’s no perfect kite and that it’s ok to have several kites in the air and to shrug my shoulder when someone asks what I’m doing.

Flying kites takes us on an adventure of discovery. This apparent whimsical activity reminds us that life is so much bigger than what our society dictates. It re-awakens dreams and imagination long lost under the burden of being a serious adult. Flying kites reminds us that life is not about that perfect decision or finding that perfect kite. Rather, it’s about moments that come our way. We should allow time to be in them and to fully consider them. This is all part of the journey. The burden of making that perfect decision slowly dissipates and we are left with wonder and 100 colourful kites in the air … and that is life … a chaotic wonder. So please, dear friend, go fly a kite!

Imagination is the highest kite one can fly. 
– Lauren Bacall
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Love is … Fierce!

“The passion of love bursting into flame is more powerful than death, stronger than the grave.” Song of Songs 8:6.

 

Last Saturday we gathered on the pristine Barwon Heads foreshore in Victoria, Australia. The day was perfection. Sunny and 23 degrees – a gentle breeze blew the white silky banners that marked the aisle down which two friends walked and made public their love and commitment to one another. They had waited a long time to tie this sacred knot. They, like so many before them and so many in the crowd, had fought for their right to say “I Do”. We honoured them … we cried with them … so, it seemed, did half of Barwon Heads, that stopped to watch the ceremony.

The fierce words of love were read:

Love is terribly offensive
To those who would wish it silenced.
Love does not tolerate discrimination.
It does not abide bigotry.
It does not play nice with fear.
Love does not wait in the corner
For hatred to consent to it speaking.
Love always wins
And Today is the fruit of its victory.

(words attributed to John Pavlovitz)

Love, we are told, and I truly believe, is the greatest of all. Saturday reminded me of that. Love is kind and compassionate. Love listens and is understanding …
AND love is FIERCE …

Love stands up in face of injustice. Love refuses to be silenced.
Love is defiant to an empire of power and greed.
Love turns power on its head – Easter is a fine reminder of that.

And love wins … love always wins in the end …
Remember that, dear friend …

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love 
which sets us free.
– Maya Angelou –

Unsubscribing from Normal

As I opened my emails one morning and started deleting about twenty of them without even engaging with the content, I knew it was time for another ‘unsubscribe’ purge. Over several years I had subscribed, or was subscribed by the invisible email subscription ghost, to dozens of newsletters, specials, advertisements, health tips, etc, etc… and they all wanted me to hear from them first thing in the morning … but I had lost all interest! Isn’t it peculiar how we remain subscribed to something that is no longer relevant to our lives?!

Just like those pesky emails, I wonder what social norms we have subscribed to over our lives, most often without even considering the price of subscription or their relevance? Things we do and say and judge simply because somewhere in our history and culture we determined that we needed to be subscribers to ‘normal’ in order to ‘fit in’? As an immigrant into various different cultures and contexts, I felt I was forever playing catch up to ‘normal’ … and I never felt certain that I had achieved this social, cultural or later, religious ideal that was held in high regard amongst my ‘tribe’.

I have a vivid memory of my ten-year-old school friend looking at the dark rye sandwich my mother had lovingly prepared for me, complete with cheese and pickles, pulling up her nose and commenting, “I don’t know who eats stuff like that. It’s just not normal.” There it was again! That dreaded word that I had been conscripted to and had no idea how to fulfil all of its demands.

Perhaps most of us don’t spend enough time reflecting on what normal means in our lives? How has it enhanced our way of life? How has it limited our life? In what forum are we picking up ideas about normality and are we actually applying critical thinking to those forums and the rhetoric before putting them to work in our lives? Normality can be the cruellest of taskmasters.

Jane Hutton writes, “The concept of ‘normality’ is relatively new and yet insidiously powerful. It provides the criteria we are comparing ourselves to. Normality can sometimes work for us and often works against us. Perceptions of what is ‘normal’ can marginalise individuals and groups of people and give great power to those who live their lives within its boundaries. They can be used to diminish people on the basis of cultural or spiritual practices, sexuality, physical and mental health, and ability.” (The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2008 No.1)

We have Adolphe Quetelet and his study of social behaviour in a hope to develop a science for managing society, to thank for our obsession with ‘normal’. His cosmic template for the “Average Man” has created all kinds of hell and headaches. This includes parents who are obsessed that their child should not just reach ‘ average‘ milestones but surpass them. Quetelet created a powerful Normal monster. But it would have NO power without OUR consent. You see, ‘normal’ is a myth.

Think about all the ideas we have about normal and then ask yourself seriously:
* What is a normal skin colour?
* What are normal clothes?
* Normal sleep?
* Normal poop?
* What is a normal family?
* What is a normal relationship?
* What the hell really is a normal person?

Normal has created absolute havoc for so many people. It has caused society to create margins for those who we deem not ‘normal’ and sadly that sort of exclusion is so often backed by religion. It’s time we consider … think … STOP!

Friend, I am suggesting that if Normal is making you miserable then it’s time to Kiss or Kick Normal Goodbye.

It is time to unsubscribe to Normal. If you can’t think of a way to do it then here is a little note – you have my permission to use and adapt it as you please … and live your precious life.

Dear Normal,

Somehow I managed to be on your list of everyday emails and I would like you to unsubscribe me.

The moment I wake up you are there dictating to me how I should dress and what I should wear. Then you berate me about my abnormal job choice, you worry me with questions about my non-compliant sleeping patterns, and you yell at me for being a peculiar sort of parent. All through the day you judge me about how I laugh, speak, walk, relate … Normal, I have had it. I am tired of you. You are no longer going to have such a damn loud voice in my life.

Don’t take me wrong – I appreciate some of your concerns about my safety and self-care – and I will allow you to whisper to me in those times. But I am turning off your bloody booming voice.

So, Normal, today I unsubscribe from your daily ranting emails. I wish you well. And I am off to live my bizarrely absurdly preposterously marvellous life.

Ciao

Sincerely,

(Insert your name)

P.s. Normal, please don’t call me – I will call you!

 

Those Terrifying Liminal Spaces: Reflections on Not Knowing

Last week Tim Carson provided an excellent guest blog on Psalm 139: Treasures of Darkness – I thought this blog from 2015 would add to the conversation.

“This is the ultimate knowledge of God, to know that we do not know” – Thomas Aquinas
 
I was slowly dying on the inside. The many faith cliches I had used in the first half of my life were turning into ash in my mouth. As a spiritual leader, I found myself answering questions in a manner that I know would bring a sense of comfort to the ones who posed them, whilst leaving me personally deeply unsure about these ‘watertight’ interpretations. An insistent inner voice was growing louder, demanding that I give attention to some of the doubts and hesitancy that I continued to deny in my need for absolute certainty. An ‘absolute certainty’ addiction that had been fed by strong fundamentalist paradigms that allowed little room for ambiguity or paradox. Like a prickle in my shoe or sand in my bed, I could not ignore it. It nagged at me and terrified me: “If I start to question, where would I stop? Where would it take me?” I was unsure that my concept of God was big enough to take this leap. But leap I did …
DSCF0111“Liminal Space” by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
 
So I found myself in this strange place. A place that my early faith tradition did not prepare me for, perhaps because it simply lacked the language to describe it? Like someone debilitated by frenzied religious ideals, I lay waiting to see who would stop. It wasn’t who I expected. Unlike the story of the Good Samaritan, in my case, the ‘priests’ stopped and saved my life: Brennan Manning, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr – pouring healing words on my wounds and helping me to understand this liminal space. This uncomfortable place where I could no longer pretend I had all the answers.

The place of not knowing. ‘Liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen’ meaning ‘threshold’. A place of waiting. A place of transition. A place where you finally let go that treasured trapeze bar and you find yourself free-falling and hope that the grace that has carried you this far will still be there as you sail through the air, with no safety net, and no alternate trapeze bar swinging to meet you.
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It was the writings of Victor Turner in the second half of the 20th century that made the term ‘liminal’ popular. He borrowed and expanded the ideas of Van Gennep. Some of his writings included, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”,Liminality and Communitas”, and “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas.”

His thoughts on liminality can be summarised as: “For Turner, liminality is one of the three cultural manifestations of communitas — it is one of the most visible expressions of anti-structure in society. Yet even as it is the antithesis of structure, dissolving structure and being perceived as dangerous by those in charge of maintaining structure, it is also the source of structure. Just as chaos is the source of order, liminality represents the unlimited possibilities from which social structure emerges. While in the liminal state, human beings are stripped of anything that might differentiate them from their fellow human beings — they are in between the social structure, temporarily fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and it is in these cracks, in the interstices of social structure, that they are most aware of themselves. Yet liminality is a midpoint between a starting point and an ending point, and as such, it is a temporary state that ends when the initiate is re-incorporated into the social structure.”
 
Richard Rohr describes this place most vividly: “Liminal spaces, therefore, are a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the ‘tried and true’ but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is then you are finally out of the way …  If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait – you will run – or more likely you will ‘explain’.” 

I frantically tried to ‘explain’ this place to myself, to my friends and family, to the wider faith community. You feel like an idiot at this threshold. An idiot who leaves behind a wonderful place of safety and comfort only to find yourself in a place totally beyond your control and comfort. You are left with an unanswered “Now What?” question, and a dangerous assumption that this question will be swiftly answered like Harry’s beautifully wax-sealed, owl-delivered, Hogwarts Acceptance Letter. Rarely is this the case. Rarely is it this simple.  
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The frantic search for that one perfect answer in this disturbing, sacred place will not be helpful. The transition is slow and the transformation that happens here is painful. It is here we find ourselves suddenly faced with our own liminality. We are confronted by the lies of our age – success, influence, importance – everything that has upheld the ego and our own ideas or spiritual superiority, comes crashing down. We beg, plead, tantrum, bargain in this disordered habitat of loss, longing and disequilibrium. But as so many who have gone before us have experienced, there’s no bargaining in the desert, there’s no hidden sun in the middle of the night.
 
Finally, the struggle turns quiet. It would be nice to suggest that this happens due to mindfulness and spiritual practices. These certainly help, but I have found that you come to a place of rest because you are exhausted from the struggle and the only option is to Let Go. The more you do, the more you recognise your own insecurities, false ego and the lies you have believed, and, like Alice, you keep falling down the rabbit hole. When you finally stop freaking out, you discover to your surprise, that the grace that carried you in the hurried first half of life has not left you…
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Grace suddenly becomes far more real. In this suspended, mid-air, confusing liminal space, you are still God’s beloved. Gradually, like a sunrise in slow motion, it begins to dawn on you: All is grace! This one magnificent life that we are given is not made meaningful because we adhere to the messaging or image of a consumer-driven culture. Neither do we derive meaning from our ability to ‘succeed’ spiritually or relationally or financially. Liminal spaces expose the unnerving reality that we are really not in control in the way we think we are. Liminal spaces confront us with our innate craving for certainty. Liminal spaces show us that ambiguity and paradox are part of what it means to be human and of the journey with the divine. It is in the not knowing that grace shines. Like Jacob, we wake up in this foreign place and exclaim: “You have been here all along and I was not aware of it.” All is grace. 
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Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
 
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
 
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
 
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.
 
– Hafiz –
 
If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.
– Jesus –

Psalm 139: Treasures of Darkness – Guest Post by Tim Carson

Friends make the world a much better place and when you find a new friend you feel the universe smiling on you 🙂 This is a guest post by a new friend, Tim Carson.

Tim is a writer, musician, holds a D.Min, pastor, traveller, horseman, scuba diver, healer, and when the weather is fair found atop his Indian motorcycle heading into the next liminal space. For a more extensive bio and his blog please follow this link.

Tim blogs:

Have you ever felt surrounded? I know I have.

A long time ago I was in Bangladesh and taking a riverboat to travel from the capital city of Dhaka to another part of the country. As a passenger, you move through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds to the landing where the triple-decker ships are lined up. And after you make it to the gangplank you have to find a place on one of the decks, the lower two being open air decks. There are mats everywhere with people camped out as far as the eye can see. The scene is like a gymnasium shelter after a disaster with all the people camped out on cots. It would be like our Room at the Inn except instead of 50 there are 200 campers.

I had never felt so absolutely surrounded and haven’t since. Everywhere I turned there were people. No matter whether I looked before or behind, decks below or above, I was surrounded. There was no escape. And certainly, no privacy.

If you have had a similar experience or even a time when you felt you were under the microscope with no chance of evading the eyes of those watching, you might share some of the feelings of the Psalmist.

The difference is that the Psalmist was not speaking of being surrounded by people. He was speaking of being surrounded by God. This is the hymn to the inescapable God, the all-knowing and all-present God. There is not a place, a time, a word, or a thought that is not known. Regardless of where and when God is in the centre of it, or as the Psalmist says, “You lay your hand upon me.”

There is no suffering, there is no ecstasy, there is no despair, there is no hope without God in the centre of it. So we are never alone. But we also can’t escape, because escaping would mean somehow leaving our own being, our own souls.

This awareness of the inescapability of God may come to many of us: wonder and awe before the mystery of the cosmos.

Or in his words, “It is too high for me, I cannot comprehend it.” It is beyond the capacity of finite minds to grasp the infinite.

This is the story of anyone who dares leave the certainty of the known and entertain the uncertainty of God’s vastness and mystery. What the Psalmist teaches us and what we intuitively know is that there is more unknown than is known. We are surrounded by an all-knowing God even as we know hardly anything. Welcome to the mystery.

In Biblical imagery, this mystery of God is often represented by the shadows, the darkness, the dark cloud. And mystics through the ages have described it in similar ways, a dark unknowing that is more powerful than anything we do know.

Imagine the iceberg with the tip showing itself above the water line. What we see above the water is a very small percentage of the whole – maybe 10% of what is beneath the water line, beneath what we see or comprehend. The 90% below is present whether we see it or not.

Like the shadows of the unconscious, it is there whether we are aware of it or not.

One of my favourite sayings, one that Carl Jung chose to put on his tombstone, is “Called or not called, God is present.” (vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit)

And so the Psalmist is slain by the all-present and all-knowing sacred spirit that animates the cosmos, what physicists might describe as the “field” of energy and forces that sustain all things. Nothing escapes their influence whether we see them or don’t. This is the dark matter and energy that makes up almost everything.

Like Richard Rohr’s now-famous analogy, we are “falling upward” to the mystery of God. Once you let go of your illusions of control and knowledge, you abandon yourself, surrender yourself to the God who knows and loves you before you can possibly know and love God back. That leap of faith – required over and over again – transports us to the realm of God we cannot know in fullness.

Now we only “see through a darkened glass, but then face to face.”(I Cor 13)

And how does the Psalmist describe this? He describes this as the luminous darkness: “Even the dark is not dark to You.”

We’re not just talking about a nightlight in the darkness. No, the darkness is not dark to God because God is in the dark, a part of the dark. God is in the realm of the unknown mystery, the hidden treasures of God. What seems dark to us is not dark to God. Since the energy of God is everywhere God is not limited by our perception of light/darkness.

I want to suggest that the unknown realm of God, the darkness of knowledge in which the treasures of God may be found, is found in that interval between truth and illusion, somewhere in the margins of life. There are the words on the page, the obvious rational meanings, but then there are the spaces between the words, between the letters. If we were speaking of music we would say there is the silence between the notes.

So often the hidden meanings of God are found there, in the margins. Much of the rest belongs to illusion. And here is the secret to walking by faith in these margins: You don’t need to own or control the mystery of God as much as point to it, give testimony to it. “Even the dark is not dark to You,” prayed the Psalmist. In a world of truth and illusion, God’s truth always shines through. But how do we know the difference? Where do we look? In what intervals? In what margins?

One of the most beloved children’s stories of all time was written by the Danish Hans Christian Andersen and is entitled The Emperor’s New Clothing.

Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money and time on being well dressed. In fact, he cared about little else.

One day two swindlers came to town and masqueraded as fine weavers and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colours and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.

“Those would be just the clothes for me,” thought the Emperor. “I could tell the wise men from the fools.” He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once.

They set up two looms and pretended to weave, though there was nothing on the looms.

As the Emperor sent his emissaries to the weavers to check on their progress they would always remark on how beautiful they were, even though they couldn’t see a thing. They didn’t want to be revealed as fools.

Finally, the Emperor came in to view the new clothing for himself. But looking he couldn’t see a thing. He wondered to himself, “Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor?”

And so he said in the presence of them all, “Oh! It’s very pretty. It has my highest approval.” Nothing could make him say that he couldn’t see anything.

Finally, the day came for the Emperor to show his new clothing and the town was all a flutter. The Emperor went to the weavers to be dressed and they said to him, holding up the invisible clothing, “All of them are as light as a spider web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that’s what makes them so fine.” The Emperor nodded with appreciation.

At that, the swindlers asked the Emperor to take off his clothes and they dressed him in his new specially made clothing.

So off went the Emperor in procession and everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!”

Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him a fool, but near the end of the procession a little child said: “He hasn’t got anything on!”

“He hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.

Andersen’s comical story reveals just how we live in an interval somewhere between truth and illusion, and how illusions are maintained in our minds and the minds of entire tribes. Only when we become like a child and look out with innocence and simplicity may we see the truth. Out of the crowd, out of the margins, the shadows, the dark, a lone voice arises and names the truth that has been missed, ignored or even distorted. We live in a world of illusions and the truth often emerges from the sidelines, the odd margins, strange places that seem dark to us.

In just a couple of weeks, we will be re-telling the stories of some other processions of truth and illusion. A humble prophet will ride into the city that kills people like him and then take up his part in some street theatre. His ride will provide ironic commentary in which he rides a beast of burden rather than a chariot of imperial power. The crowds will hail him as king and cast branches on the road in tribute. But what sort of king is he?

Then, just a week later, the procession will turn deadly, winding through the same crowds but crowds who now do not praise but rather mock him. Who is he now? Who are we? What is real and what is not? Where is God, the God we think we have? Where now?

We are surrounded by God and there is no escape. We are known and there is no evasion. The mystery is so high that we cannot comprehend it. We have entered the darkness between truth and illusion. It is the place where we may discover and then pray, “Even the dark is not dark to You.”

Chasing Liminality on his Indian at one of the most Liminal places on earth, the Grand Canyon in Arizona

 

“Called or not called, God is present” – Desiderius Erasmus

Disturbing the Ant Nest: Let’s Talk About Expectations!

“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.”
Brandon Sanderson – The Way of Kings

When I was a child, my parents and I would take walks in the forests that grew rich and lush around the little village we called home in Northern Germany. Ants were amongst the many forest dwellers that set up house along the paths we trod. Their elaborate architectural mounds were taller than I and a never-ending source of fascination. As a small child, I confess to ignoring ant etiquette and poking a stick into the anthill here and there. Thousands of alarmed and indignant ants would come swarming out to inspect the damage. The mound literally came alive.

Our life is one big story that has been shaped by history and culture. Like the ant nests in my childhood forest, we have built our own extravagant narrative by which we live our lives. Expectations play a major role in our constructed memoir. When those expectations are poked and prodded … well, the ants they come swarming!

Expectations assume things from the life we live. They inform us that something will happen or be the case and therefore they determine our reality. We are all Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of an invisible bell. It’s called the Rule of Expectation. The expectations we carry of ourselves and others affect our behaviour. The mere suggestion of an expectation influences people. This has been used and abused by everyone from politicians, religious leaders, parents, supervisors and all of us! There is a myriad of books and presentations on how to work (manipulate) people’s expectations through the power of suggestion. I am not saying they are all bad. What I am highlighting is that we need to be aware of how expectations influence our lives.

The expectations we have of life and each other affects our being in this world – our joy and sense of peace. If I hold expectations that life should be fair and just, that everyone should like me, that friends will always be true, that I will not fail and that I will not face pain and suffering, then I will be one giant ball of disappointment. There is a desperate need to critique our expectations and perhaps it is time for a giant spring clean?

I am on a continual mission to live with less. Over the last couple of years, I have given boxes of ‘stuff’ away. I cannot begin to describe the therapeutic effect this has on the soul. I have been challenged to also minimalise my expectations. Learning to do that is learning to let go. In order to accommodate an ‘expectation declutter’ I had to first recognise and deconstruct a whole lot of assumptions I had of myself and others. I invited disappointment to the table.

Disappointment is not an easy guest to listen to. It is the stick we use to prod the ant hill. However, if we refuse to allow it to speak, pretending it’s not present, we will never discover what a gift of liberation it holds. Disappointment pointed out the many boxes of expectations that had grown mould in my life. Expectations of doing things right, of people being ’nice’ and liking me, and of being in control of my life. There were many boxes. It made me realise I did not want to live like this. Disappointment can lead us to wisdom.

Wisdom tells us that hoarding boxes of expectations will only bring misery. Wisdom orders the rubbish skip and gently prises our fingers off the expectations we are clutching to. But it doesn’t leave us empty-handed. Instead of hundreds of boxes of exhausting expectations, it gives us a perfume bottle that says “Gratitude”.

Learning to spray Gratitude instead of placing yet another box of unrealised expectations on some shelf, takes time and reflection. We learn to live our way to a whole new manner of being in this world. Of course, there are expectations that we should not let go of – an expectation to be safe in our environment, an expectation not to linger in toxic places and spaces, an expectation of self to be kind and tread gently in the world we live in. These kinds of expectations are helpers and guardians in our lives. But you may discover that so many of the expectations you have in your story are unnecessary and only wear you down.

A wise man once said that we should go to the ants and consider their ways. I invite you to do that. I also invite you to consider the role Expectation plays in your life. Are you happy with the power it holds? Does it add to your life or take away? Consider the voices of disappointment, wisdom and gratitude. I wish you the blessing of living a ‘light’ life, dear friend. Decluttering is good for the soul.

Live your life, sing your song. Not full of expectations. Not for the ovations. But for the joy of it.”
Rasheed Ogunlaru

The Great Unknown – Guest Post by Mark Conner

A guest post by my life partner, Mark – The Great Unknown:

 

Great Unknown

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of me finishing up 32 years of employment in the one place and stepping out into the great unknown. [See my post from February 2017 called “Time to Say Goodbye” and a poem I wrote in December 2016 called “The Great Unknown“). One year on, I am so glad I did. Words can’t quite express the increasing amounts of joy, excitement and meaning I am starting to experience. I am extremely grateful.

So, what have I learned? There are many things, but here are 10 reflections:

  1. Your calling isn’t limited to your current role. In fact, don’t allow your calling to ever become merely a duty or an obligation. Keep following your curiosity.
  2. Sometimes we need to let our roots go down deep and stick it out through the various seasons of life, being faithful where we have been planted. At others time we need to let go, step out of the boat, and go on an adventure to new places.
  3. Your current world is a lot smaller than you think. There is a much bigger world waiting outside the confines of your pond.
  4. Life goes on. No one is indispensable. True, you can’t replace people but roles can be filled and the wheels of every organisation or industry keep moving on, one way or another.
  5. Your identity, your significance and your security are not in what you do or the position or title you have but in who you are as a person.
  6. Growth means change and change can be hard, especially letting go, but it is healthy and can be good for you. It helps you avoid becoming ‘risk averse’ and losing the sense of adventure in life.
  7. Once you are through the threshold of change, you will see things from a totally different perspective.
  8. Relationships change through every season of life. Not everyone goes with you on your journey. Some old friendships fade but new ones will emerge. Having those closest to you (especially your family) love and respect you the most is what is most important.
  9. Life becomes very liminal as your new world continues to unfold. You have to go of certainty and embrace paradox and a lot of loose ends. Go slowly as you walk this liminal path, moving forward with openness rather than seeking a pre-mature sense of permanence.
  10. There will be grief and loss but there is much joy just around the corner.

May you follow your curiosity, even if it leads you out of your comfort zone and on an adventure into the great unknown!

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!'” Hunter S. Thompson

LINK to Mark’s Blog

Dismantling Our Ivory Towers One Human Story At A Time

“Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings – they must avoid shutting themselves up in their own peculiar character as a philosopher in their ivory tower.” Frederick Rothwell (H.L. Bergson’s Laughter, 1911)

Ivory Tower by Hideyoshi on DeviantArt

For anyone who has ever attempted to learn a new language, you may have found that exercise both frustrating and intriguing – so many ‘rules’ that have ‘exceptions’! As a young German migrant child, I was fascinated by the English language and the many new phrases, metaphors, and expression I learned when we moved to South Africa. To this day, as someone who also loves and studies history, I often find myself asking Dr. Google the genesis of a word or phrase, especially when I am encouraged or accused of something using a metaphor – like “living inside an ivory tower.”

Someone told me that I was living in one of those ‘ivory towers’ many years ago. A disgruntled parishioner who did not appreciate the hours of work I put into trying to resolve their issue. Well, at that time I was still operating from a blind, privileged, fundamentalist, hierarchy power structure – a structure that found it unfathomable to consider that a person – not a priest, pastor, therapist or politician – is the expert of their own story. An ideological domination structure whose embedded splinters I still pick out of my psyche from time to time. Anyway, back to this mysterious ivory tower …

Historians tell us there was never such a thing as an Ivory Tower. It was always a figure of speech. Towers throughout time were considered defensible, fortified structures, “rising above the normal surface of things …practical ways of distancing inhabitants from mundane human affairs.” They were concrete displays of religious aspiration. Ivory was considered something exotic, so costly it could only be turned into a work of art or aids to worship.

One of the first mentions of ivory towers is in the Bible: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon” (Song of Songs 7:4). The Odyssey (Bk 19, 560-569), quotes Penelope, “Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfillment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass.” The figure Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Litany of Loreto) references her as, “Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, house of gold…”

Over time the Ivory Tower became a symbolic space of retreat and solitude. It was a feud between poets that drew the ‘living in an ivory tower’ expression into a negative notion and by the 1930’s it had become a politically charged. It became a pathological place. Today, anyone living in an ivory tower is held with certain contempt and distrust. Ivory Tower Dwellers are thought to have an attitude of superiority, divorced from reality and the rawness that is known as life.

Ivory towers do become strongholds. They become a place of privilege and entitlement. They delude Tower Dwellers into thinking this is the real world, the true world – I guess in a sense Ivory Towers are the set of the Truman show. They keep those who dwell in them from reality – a huge moat of wealth, power, fear, superstition and dogmatism bolstering the separation. So what would cause anyone who has fallen under the spell of the enchanted Ivory Tower to wake up to the delusion? Normally freedom comes with one human story at a time.

You see, that disgruntled parishioner all those years ago woke me up from the slumber of certainty. It wasn’t her hostile words, but her life story that caught my attention. Suddenly some of the ideas that I had fashioned and formed so carefully in that tower, surrounded by people who thought exactly like me, was found wanting in the light of her story. A little splinter entered my heart that day, a splinter of grace and providence. It would take many more of such encounters to free me from the illusion held in Ivory Towers.

The Ivory Tower begins to crumble like a Jenga tower when we recognise our human connectedness. Herman Melville wrote, “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The way we connect is by recognising the fear that keeps us removed from others, by learning to listen: “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention …” (Rachel Naomi Remen). Listening to each other breaks down barriers.

So, friend, perhaps we need to face the hard truth that in some ways we all live in ivory towers of our own making? Perhaps some have taken shelter in Ivory Tower organisations that provided a sense of safety and security – but it is time to step out again? Ivory Tower Dwellers stagnate, and fear and paranoia creeps in, feeding our sense of elitism or ‘specialness’. We adopt cult-like thinking and mannerisms. Stepping out of our towers can be terrifying. And then we look up … to a world that is so much bigger and beautiful than we ever thought possible. The Ivory Tower is recognised for the childish notion it is. Our life and our story becomes connected to the many colourful stories of people around us. And after a while, we look back and realise that we have been forever changed one human story at time.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”
– Madeleine L’Engle –