A Chat with Kathy Baldock: Ally and Advocate – Part TWO

Dear Reader, this BLOG post is the second part of an interview with Kathy Baldock. For Part One please see this link.

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4.  Many religious people have expressed their concern as they see ‘homosexual behaviour’ as a sin against God and against Scripture. In fact, the Bible has been used as one of the main tools of exclusion. Can you give us some thoughts on this?

It is essential to read any text in context. It becomes even more critical to read an ancient text in ancient context. 

It’s foolhardy to take what we understand about human sexuality today in the 21st century and try to impose that knowledge onto the writings and thinking of people from several millennia ago.

As I mentioned in an answer in Part One, as late as the 1870s, we were just beginning to struggle with the concept of human sexuality questioning the “whys” and “hows” surrounding two people of the same sex and how they could experience a mutual and respectful attraction. It would be another century before mental health professionals understood that there was a natural attraction that some people experienced for the same sex. To imagine the writers of Leviticus or the writings of the Apostle Paul in the first century could have understood these things about same-sex attractions is not within the realm of possibility.

Before the critical period of the 1870s, when sex occurred between two people of the same sex, there was always one person taking the power and dominant role and the other person being subjugated. Every example of same-sex interaction in the Bible is an example of subjugation through rape or violence or excessive or lustful behaviour with full disregard of acceptable social and sexual norms. We would not expect to see any favourable or positive examples of sexual relationships between two males of equal status in cultural literature, and certainly not in ancient texts like the Bible, anytime before the late 1800s.

Again, to be clear, all male-male sexual interaction involved age and/or power differential. The most abrupt change in biblical translations concerning same-sex behaviour was seen in the 1946 Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. Here was the first time in any translation, and in any language that two Greek words in the New Testament, “arsenokoitai” and “malakos,” were combined to one word and translated as “homosexual.”

Again, referring back to an answer I gave above, this was a time in medical professions and in the culture where people still did not understand what same-sex attractions even meant. It was seen as a mental illness. 

When the translators of the 1946 RSV were attempting to update previous translations they based their work mainly on the King James (1611), the American Standard (1901), and the English Standard Versions (1885). The translation team relied mainly upon fairly recent translations of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” and catamite and sodomite, respectively, that had appeared in the Moffat Bible (1925). (James Moffatt was a member of the RSV translation team.) Those two words, although somewhat problematic even in the Moffatt translation, were more reflective of the actual meaning of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos.”

 Simply put, the Greek words more reflect a person participating in exploited sex, typically associated with money, and a man taking the social and sexual position of a woman respectively. And once again, they reflect a differential of both power and age between partners. To understand what happened in the RSV, you have to put yourself into the mindset and culture of the translation team in the 1930s and early 1940s when they were working on their specific task. There was so much mystery around who homosexuals were during that period of time.

In attempting to modernise the terms catamite and sodomite, the team thought the “obvious” translation would be a combination of those two words as “homosexual.” 

This was a dreadful, unfortunate, and ill-informed decision.

I had been wondering about the specific translation of these two words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 for several years. Every time I spoke during presentations, I would say that I believed that the translation made by this team was more ideological and cultural than theological. Finally, a friend named Ed Oxford asked me one day, “Kathy, would you like to prove your theory?” My goodness, I thought, of course, I’d like to prove this!

Ed suggested that we dig into the archived materials from the translation team of the 1946 RSV. The head of that translation team was a man named Dr. Luther Weigle. Weigle had been the dean of the Yale Divinity School. Upon his death, all of his papers were housed in the Yale archives. 

Ed and I went back to the archives for five days in September and spent time pouring through dozens of boxes of archived materials and 22 rolls of microfilm materials, each film containing over 2,000 sheets of paper. We found what we were looking for on the third day of searching. 

Amongst all those documents, there was a single exchange of three letters in each direction between a young seminarian and Dr. Weigle.

The seminarian questioned Dr. Weigle and the team’s translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” as “homosexual.” The seminarian went on to construct a most excellent case as to why he believed this was an inaccurate translation. It was as if this young man had the clarity we have today about this translation. It was remarkable!

 The stunning finding was that this exchange was the only interaction on this monumental change found in all of those documents.
In the hundreds of articles written about the RSV, absolutely no one referred to the newly introduced word “homosexual” into the Bible for the first time. It did not register on anyone’s radar. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone except this one young seminarian. 

After spending time “living” with Dr. Weigle through his expansive archived papers, I am convinced that the translation team intended no malice. Their translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” to the word “homosexual”, although a damaging and clearly inaccurate translation, was originally done in ignorance.

The other stunning thing that Ed and I found was that nobody had gone through the archives and the microfilms in total before us. In the many subsequent translations of the Bible in which the various translation teams have chosen to translate “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” as homosexual, it certainly appears that nobody went back to the original source and ask the question that we did: “Why did the 1946 translation team opt, for the first time ever, to use this word ‘homosexual’ in the Bible?”

Sometimes, the simplest questions lead to great discoveries.

When I came home from Yale, I kept thinking about all that we had found. This caused me to wonder about the notes, motives and intents of subsequent translation teams, particularly those of The New American Standard Version, The New International Version, the New King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the New Living Translation. What was going on in the conversations of the theologians and Bible scholars on those teams?

It becomes quite obvious to those of us who are intent on discovering the purity, clarity, and the true meanings of ancient text in ancient context, that the word “homosexual” does not belong in any Bible translation. So now, I plan on digging into the work of the modern translation teams to try to separate out what they believe is theological work from what I believe is once again ideological and cultural. And, I believe there are even some political implications in these translations as well.

5. I am sure, like me, you have heard untold sad stories of rejection, betrayal, and exclusion of LGBTIQ people from their Christian families and churches. Is this changing at all? Do we have hope for a different tomorrow?

Oh my goodness, do we have hope for tomorrow! 

Yes, the damaging power structures are changing. The beginning of the change actually came in the 1960s civil rights movement in America. That directly led to the feminist movement that followed. The feminist movement led to the LGBTQ movement. All of these movements have directly challenged the patriarchal social organisation. 

When you realise the entrenchment of patriarchy over the last twelve thousand years has only been challenged within the last 50 years, this is really a remarkable time to be living in.

All of these dominant structures are beginning to fall. It certainly feels uncomfortable to those who have held the power, and it may even feel uncomfortable and hopeless to those who have been in the minority status. But it is changing, and it is incredibly hopeful. 

When I teach, I try to give people a visible way of understanding how long these power structures have been in place. Patriarchy, gender binaries, and white superiority are intermeshed and have been challenged for the last 50 years in significant ways, and it is collapsing.

6.  What is something you would like to say to people of faith who are really struggling in coming to a place of acceptance of LGBTIQ people – perhaps because they are afraid of the reaction of their church or of ‘displeasing’ God?

I would like people to try to look at this from a different point of view. I think most of us have been told that God doesn’t like LGBTQ people and that LGBTQ people don’t like God. This is what I too believed only 15 years ago. We are told something so often that we are tempted to believe that it’s true and not to question it. 

This is where I found myself many years ago. You may feel like if you question anything that you’ve been told by authority figures that you may be cast out from the tribe, out of the fold. That is a very real risk in many conservative faith environments. As I stated at the onset, it often requires a crisis to prompt us to challenge these so-called truths that have been told to us. People in the pews, LGBTQ Christians, their families, and even pastors are revisiting what we have assumed are “truths.”

7.   Kathy, for your final words I would like you to address the LGBTIQ readers of this BLOG, especially anyone who is feeling particularly fragile and vulnerable right now.

Significant shifts in the culture and the church may indeed seem fraught with chaos. But the chaos can signal something very beautiful in deconstructing systems that man, and not God, has built to maintain power and control.

In the 1960s, it also looked like things were falling apart in the United States. The civil rights movement had kicked in, along with the feminist movement, and the anti-Vietnam war movement. Gay people were beginning to come out of the closet. It was a hopeful time for the non-dominant minorities. 

The momentum of several of these movements was slammed down by the rise of the religious right and their merger with conservative politics in the United States in the 1980s. It continued for the next several decades.

Misogyny, homophobia, and racism are all intertwined. This is the basis of intersectionality. When you begin to dismantle each of them, you inherently dismantle the whole. This certainly does feel uncomfortable to those in the dominant power structures. Heck, the mantra “Make America Great Again” harkens back to the “good old days” when people of colour, women, and gays knew their place. 

What is happening now should be a signal of hopefulness to those on the minority edges. I believe what was started in the 60s and 70s, will come to fruition this time.

The anti-trans pushback from conservative quarters, at its root, is really an attempt to safeguard gender binaries and strict lines between male and female. These binaries are part of a man-made myth. 

The creation account written in Genesis about events no less than 6,000 years ago, even in the most conservative of terms, was seen through the eyes of ancient peoples. It is their account of how they viewed their world, creation, procreation, and the roles of men and women. These ancient writers could have never understood what we now know and are learning about human sexuality and gender identity. Unlike ancient writers, we clearly know that intersex people exist and transgender people exist.

Some staunchly conservative pockets of politics and religion may never willingly change. It is too difficult for some people, after being entrenched in 50 or 60 years of a worldview, to choose to revisit core beliefs. It most often takes a crisis to prompt that questioning. This may be prompted by a child, grandchild, favourite niece or nephew, or co-worker coming out. Some of the greatest transformations happen in the simplicity of relationship. This is what happened to me, thankfully. 

There is great hope that those who are younger and being raised in a reality that not everything is heterosexual, male-dominant, cisgender, and white. Change is coming and it is for the better. 

I have been working in focused LGBTQ activism for over a decade. Conversations for equality and inclusion were tough ten years ago. Now I find that educating willing recipients is highly productive. Of course, of major concern are the lives of those at risk as we progress on the road to justice and inclusion.

My final comment – thank you, Nicole, for the opportunity to share this information. As you prepare yourselves as a nation to welcome and celebrate marriage equality, also be aware that there is still work to do in churches toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people of faith. We’ve had marriage equality in the US for a few years, yet, the progress is virtually unseen inside the walls of the most conservative denominations. We are plodding through the task with education and relationship. I hope our efforts will help those of you who fight a similar fight in Australia. Let this good work be something we Americans can be proud of exporting!

Kathy Baldock

Reno, Nevada
November 25, 2017
kathy@canyonwalkerconnections.com

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What if our Whole Life is a Liminal Space?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A very brief Introduction to Christian Fundamentalism

“There are few things more dangerous than inbred religious certainty.” – Bart D. Ehrman

This is a REPOST of a blog I wrote a couple of years ago … most fitting at this time of Australian religious and political discussions!

There is a danger in assuming that every Christian belief and practice that we adhere to today has always been part of the Christian faith throughout the centuries. “Well, Christians have believed this for two thousand years,” is a common phrase we fling around. We can line ourselves up with the ‘saints’ who have gone before, convinced that our Christian enlightenment happens to be the ‘orthodox’ portion, whilst everyone else has, unfortunately, landed with a distorted version. If this is our subconscious paradigm, then the way we engage with the wider world outside our theological framework tends to be from a benevolent, Messiah-like stance, patiently patting a delinquent society on the head. But over time we find this irksome. People who are not as pious and pure as we would like them to be can lead us to ‘righteous’ anger. We find lawmakers and politicians with similar views and hinge our wagon of outrage to their public persona, their dogma, and their power … Welcome to Christian Fundamentalism.

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This blog post will provide a very brief glimpse into the Fundamentalist movement within the North American and British context. Why is this of interest? It is most relevant to the Australian setting as fundamentalism still undergirds the ethos of so many faith communities, often without them being truly aware of the origin. Understanding this history provides a frame of reference of the motivation behind some of their beliefs and behaviour.

Some of the earliest scholars to write on fundamentalism were Stewart G. Cole, History of Fundamentalism (1931), and Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (1954). Both academics were rather negative as they saw the rise of fundamentalism not driven by religious convictions, but rather by the desire for political denomination power. Fundamentalism was primarily a reaction. It was a reaction to liberal theology, secularism, science, and especially the theory of evolution. According to Timothy Gloege, North American Christian fundamentalism was invented in an advertising campaign. The all-UnknownAmerican brand of ‘old-time religion’ was developed by an early adopter of consumer capitalism, who wanted to sell pure Christianity like he sold breakfast cereal. Enter Henry Parsons Crowell, whose Quaker Oats was one of the pioneers of the branding revolution.

So how do you create a brand of conservative orthodoxy that goes beyond the traditional Presbyterian Orthodoxy, Methodist orthodoxy, etc? You work with the fear of those who felt that the ‘true’ Christian message was being watered down through some of the factors mentioned (liberalism, secularism, etc). Crowell’s idea of orthodoxy was a prescription that came with a set of ‘fundamentals’ that anyone who was conservative within any denomination could ascribe to and set themselves apart from the liberals.

Crowell used a publication called The Fundamentals to further his ideas. This is a twelve volume set of theological treatises written by various scholars writing on the fundamentals of faith, or as the subheading says, a testimony to the truth. Those who actually bother reading the volumes quickly discover that they carry no precise creed and that articles contradict each other, but they did create an impression of orthodoxy.  The volumes brought together conservatives from all different denominations who felt embattled by liberalism. They united under some very specific ideas, particularly biblical literalism and creationism. (A timeline of the rise of fundamentalism and the Scopes Trscopessignial).

This was not the only stream of fundamentalism. There were several in the 19th century of British and American theology. One of these was Dispensationalism. A new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830’s in England. In this theory, time was divided into seven stages called ‘dispensations’. Each dispensation was a stage of revelation from God. Today, many who hold to this idea believe that the world is on the verge of the last stage, where a final battle will take place at Armageddon. Then Christ will return and a 1000 year reign will begin. An important sign was the rebirth of national Israel, which is central to this ideology.

Princeton Theology of the mid 19th century provided another stream of fundamentalism. It upheld the doctrine of inerrancy, in response to higher criticism of the Bible. Charles Hodge was influential in insisting that the Bible was inerrant because it had been dictated by God, and that faithfulness to the Bible provided the best defence against liberalism. This is important as in his understanding, liberalism and modernism, just like non-Christian religions, would lead people to hell.

Fundamentalism found oxygen in many “Bible Colleges,” especially those modelled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dwight Moody was influential in preaching the imminence of the Kingdom of God thaUnknown-1t was so important to dispensationalism. As Moody’s crusading career came to an end we discover a new strand of fundamentalism through William B. Riley.  In revival meetings around the Midwest and Northwest from 1897 to the 1910s, Riley told crowds to follow the Bible. “God is the one and only author,” he declared, adding that human writers “played the part of becoming mediums of divine communication.”  Riley’s distinctive brand of fundamentalism combined social activism, puritanical moralism, and a literalist premillennialist theology.  In his 1906 book urging Christians to serve the urban poor, Riley defined the mission of the Church as he saw it: “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.”

Fundamentalism is still with us today and it is still a powerful force. In his book, Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American FundamentalismJonathan J. Edwards argues that fundamentalism is not going away and will remain strongest at the level of local politics: “Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical — meaning that it’s constructed in and through language.”

Today we see a second-stage fundamentalism emerging in the United States and around the world. While established churches are embracing contemplation, silent prayer and non-directed worship, fundamentalist churches are actively pursuing consumption, mobility, image and influence. We see this pursuit played out in Australian politics.  Unlike the USA with its firm separation of church and state, Australian governments had supported and been supported by religious groups since the foundation of the European settlement. However, it was not until the election of the conservative national government in 1996, that government preference for the religious provision of services was enshrined as a policy priority.  The extraordinary rise of fundamentalist churches and right-wing lobby groups through the 1980s and 1990s has had direct effects on government and policies … but that is the topic for another day.

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The Avoidance Crisis

“Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life …”
– Mark Manson –

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Last week I blogged about death and how we live in a society that avoids this subject to the point of delusional insanity. The response was overwhelming. What became clear amongst the many messages I received was that our collective existential angst has created a social and cultural avoidance crisis. It is difficult for us to acknowledge that life can be very painful and challenging and that we have very little control over it.

Avoidance has helped us cope and survive in life. We naturally choose the path of least resistance to escape danger or suffering. Our early childhood lessons were often about learning what, or who, to avoid in order to make it to adulthood. We have an inbred protective reflex when exposed to adverse stimuli and that is beneficial – unless it becomes driven by anxiety.

Anxiety can cause us to protect ourselves from things we perceive as threats, but often these very threats are important life experiences. We may think avoidance is a cure, not realising it can actually heighten our distress. We begin to be consumed with the very thing that we are trying to avoid. There are many examples of this. People suffering from eating disorders trying to avoid certain foods, so food and calories become their obsession. People suffering from social disorders trying to avoid encounters with others and feeling continually panicked. My previous blog on death discussed our society’s avoidance of talking about death, underscoring a primal fear that drives us to all sorts of unrealistic beliefs or behaviours, both in religious and social settings.

Mark Manson’s quote above is so accurate: “The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.” The more dogmatic and hostile we become in areas of our lives, the more we are struggling to avoid something unpleasant, perhaps a shadow side to ourselves. It’s an internal struggle and a form of suffering. That is why vulnerability is such an important transformational tool. When we learn to be vulnerable we begin to recognise that avoidance is not the answer. In fact, avoidance comes at a very high price as we barricade ourselves from life’s inevitabilities and our own flaws.

Facing our fears takes courage. In a society that is caught in an avoidance crisis as it pursues experience after experience to feel ‘better’ or ‘happy’, it takes guts to stop, reflect and become counter-cultural. We need to learn to build our tolerance to things that are challenging, painful and uncomfortable. It is in the full embrace of life, with all its ups and downs, laughter and tears, that we experience what it means to be truly human and to build relationships that are genuine, healthy and have longevity.

Dear reader, take a moment to think about your life. Are there areas that you are avoiding that desperately need your attention? Are you sidestepping conversations because even though they are important and should not wait any longer, you know they will be difficult and awkward? Are there shadows you need to face that you have denied?

Avoiding avoidance is risky. Will it all go well when you stop running and turn around? I don’t know. “It all going well” is not what life is about. Life is raw, risky and at times filled with peril. We become vulnerable and our Jenga blocks, sometimes built on lofty ideals and a protective guise, can all topple over … and then we have to rebuild … one honest, humble, vulnerable block at a time …

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
– R.D. Laing –

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Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Scars Sealed In Gold

“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be effort, and the law of human judgment, mercy.”
– John Rushkin –

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It seems that “banishing imperfection” is the obsessive past time of our modern society. Current ideas about beauty, success, wealth or piety become enshrined upon the golden altar of desire and happiness that the faithful flock to. Perfection is the ultimate goal. It is celebrated and rewarded. Individuals or groups who achieve this rare state are paraded around platforms, their voices filling our sound waves, their images filling our screens, and their formulas filling our bookshelves. It is a lucrative business to be perfect. No wonder we are living in such an epidemic of human anxiety and fear as the banishing of imperfection is not working out that well for 99.99999% of us!

There are many reasons why we may crave perfection. Perhaps the fear of vulnerability is one of the greatest? When we are vulnerable we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection. Vulnerability is risky. Vulnerability destroys the enshrined ideas of perfection. When we choose vulnerability we choose courage instead of fear, authenticity instead of image, and the messiness of what it means to be human, instead of perfection. Vulnerability takes a sledge hammer to the golden calf of perfectionism that reigns supreme in our political, religious and celebrity spaces, and in our own lives.

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I am someone who, especially in my first half of life, struggled with the constant need to get it ‘right’. The fear of failure or not being the ‘good girl’ left me open to all sorts of dreadful possibilities. Ones on the Enneagram are known for our often unhealthy relationship with perfectionism. Over the years it has been crisis and wounding that have served as my faithful and undesirable coaches, calling me out of this unhealthy obsession. Like Rushkin (and my parents) would say, life is not easy. We live with effort and we all need mercy and compassion, not just for others, but most often we need a healthy dose for ourselves.

There is a Japanese philosophy of ‘wabi sabi’ which compels us to consider the beauty in the flawed. It is hinged to the Japanese feeling of ‘mottainai’, the regret of seeing anything wasted. In other words, in Japanese thought the idea of suppressing something that has happened because it is considered painful, a failure or imperfect, is a total waste. There is something beautiful in life’s imperfections. It is this philosophy that undergirds the art of ‘Kintsugi’, of mending broken pottery not in a way that makes the breaks invisible, but rather highlights them with gold.

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These exceptional pieces of art are not only beautiful because they are crafted by a master potter, but because their imperfections are displayed for the world to see. In a sense, Kintsugi art is a celebration of scars. What a totally different philosophy than the angst-inducing ones that permeate our modern culture.

The idea that we can eradicate imperfection is a futile one and the pursuit of perfection is ultimately meaningless. Consider this in light of ‘body image’, wealth, work, religion, and the expectations of modern life. Humans are not meant to be displayed as a piece of perfect pottery on some grandstand built on cultural, religious or relational accolades. We were meant to live life to the full – to love, to embrace, to listen, to consider, to risk, to fall, to fail, to triumph, to trudge through valleys and to scale mountains. In order to do that we need a huge supply of special golden lacquer so that we can take time to highlight our story when the cracks appear.

So, dear friend, stop listening to the voices from without and within that demand your perfection. Take the risk of becoming vulnerable. You may lose some ‘friends’ and no longer sing in the choir of the impeccably dressed, or stand on the platform of the piously accomplished, but rather you will join the crack pots on the margins, with their bucket loads of gold lacquer … and there you will find grace beyond measure.

“There is a Japanese word, kintsukuroi, that means “golden repair.” It is the art of restoring broken pottery with gold so the fractures are literally illuminated – a kind of physical expression of its spirit. As a philosophy, kintsukuroi celebrates imperfection as an integral part of the story, not something to be disguised … In kintsukuroi, the true life of an object (or a person) begins the moment it breaks and reveals that it is vulnerable.”
– Georgia Pellegrini –

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Are You Getting Your Beauty Sleep?

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone” Anthony Burgess

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I love my bed. There is something totally therapeutic and delicious about sinking into flannel sheets after a long day. As an introvert I have memories of being at those hideous children’s parties and counting down the minutes until I can go home, crawl into bed and read a book. What words are there to describe that feeling of lying in bed and listening to the pouring rain? Or waking up in the morning, pulling the curtains back, making a cup of coffee and hopping back into bed? Pure luxury comes to mind.

I also love to sleep. I realise that I am one of the more fortunate ones that seldom struggles with insomnia for any great length of time. Sometimes I wonder whether all the different messages we receive about sleep and how important it is to get certain amount of hours of sleep, doesn’t make us all anxious about not sleeping, so we don’t sleep?! Perhaps taking a quick look at the history of sleep will help? As an avid student of history, I always find this a most comforting exercise.

Adam Bulger provides an interesting brief history of how we slept from 8,000 BCE to today. Our nomadic ancestors stuffed grass or straw into hollows near the walls of a cave and slept in an almost foetal position. The Romans simply endured sleep – the wealthy stuffed mattresses with feathers, the poor with straw. Their boudoirs were small rooms with low ceilings and no fuss. Not so with the Egyptians! They treated sleep with great respect and analysed their dreams for greater meaning.

The Middle Ages was a most unpleasant time to sleep. In short, it consisted of small rooms, filled with many bodies and chamber pots. If you have a good nose you can still smell the Middle Ages! Thank God for the Renaissance which provided the great awakening for many areas of European life, including sleep. Meantime China was far more advanced, building exquisite beds with large and ornate bed frames. Their beds were so magnificent that it was a total waste to just use them for sleep – they began to receive and host guests in their beds …!

Prior to the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of artificial light, people were bi-phasic, sleeping in two four-hour intervals, with a waking time in between that they used for prayer, meditation or really great sex! Our current mono-phasic form of attempting to sleep eight hours straight is a modern social convention and has been called the “golden age of rest”.

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This tiny glimpse into history shows us that our idea of having to get those all important eight hours of sleep is a fairly recent development. So if you struggle with a ‘solid’ night’s sleep, maybe your body is simply protesting the imposing sleep virtues of the Industrial Revolution? Maybe you are a sleep revolutionary at heart?! In all seriousness, lack of sleep can be debilitating – so what are some of the things we can do to improve our sleep?

– I try and turn off my computer and social media by 10 pm (unless it’s Eurovision – then my urge to commentate on people who yodel or swing their ponytails around becomes more important than sleep!) Technology keeps my brain alert.

– Don’t have caffeine in the afternoon. I love coffee but having it in the evening has diabolical effects on my sleep, so I stick to herbal tea.

– Develop a relaxing routine at night that helps you sleep. I find reading helpful, others have told me that relaxation exercises work a treat.

– Keep your bedroom dark.

– Try and stick to a consistent schedule of when you go to bed and when you wake up – this sets your ‘internal clock’.

– If you have trouble sleeping, don’t toss and turn and become anxious about not sleeping. Remember, our ancestors survived. Get up, say “Damn you” to the Industrial Revolution, and have a cup of chamomile tea.

One last thing. Shortly after our wedding, now over thirty years ago, we discovered the miracle of separate doonas. Why, o, why did we ever think we had to ‘share’ our doonas? What a stupid idea. It created great marital hostility and lack of sleep as one of us would cocoon themselves, while the other froze and became increasingly frustrated. So we bought separate doonas. It created a sleep revolution – and we lived happily ever after!

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.
– D.H. Lawrence –

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The Scarcity of Wonder in our Black-and-White, Know-it-All World

“If I had influence with the good angel who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

– Rachel Carson (The Sense of Wonder) –

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I spent my early years in a small village in northern Germany. A village surrounded by endless pine forests that my parents and I would regularly walk through. To me, it was an enchanted forest. From the large ant-hills with their complex and intricate architecture on which my Oma would lay her handkerchief on the way into the forest only to retrieve it afterwards smelling sour (meant to be good for the sinuses?!) to the many creatures that called that forest home, it filled me with a sense of wonder.

Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher, defines wonder as something that arises within our emotions when “something quite new and singular is presented … and memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.” It is a feeling of surprise and admiration when we experience something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Wonder is intrinsic to human nature, engaging our curiosity and nurturing our creativity. Descartes called wonder our most fundamental emotion.

Wonder unites science, religion and art. It draws on us emotionally, creatively and instils reverence. Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, says that wonder is “one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order.” Environmentalist Rachel Carson argues that we have an inborn sense of wonder, manifested and prevalent in children. She writes, “If a child is to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in …” In a world that is becoming increasingly dogmatic, operating from a stagnant black and white perspective, I lament that we are experiencing a scarcity of wonder in our speed-driven, technology-addicted, and artificially-stimulated world!

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Our developed world suffers from excess-syndrome. We have the level and benefits of health and wealth that our ancestors could not even imagine. Today’s ill health is often caused by excess itself as we gorge ourselves on the bounty that capitalism has provided on the backs of our poorer global neighbours. Yet with all the excess we have not only become increasingly dissatisfied, but fearful, cynical, anxious, paranoid and selfish. The wonder that a walk in a forest may bring, has now become a distant memory. At times it is felt through a sense of nostalgia evoked by the rare poem we read when time permits.

The religious sphere in many parts of the world has been hijacked by a blistering, blustering and self-righteous form of fundamentalism that prides itself on being ‘right’. This form of imagined and desired moral absolutism has reduced the mystery of God to a spreadsheet of culturally preferred yes-and-no answers that have created a tribal shame culture where wonder has been ridiculed and alienated. Sadly, it is this religious space that is shaping so much of the next generation’s worldview, impacting on their perspective and wonder.

C.K. Chesterton said that we are perishing from lack of wonder, not for the lack of wonders. Mike Yaconelli wrote, “Children live in a world of dreams and imagination, a world of aliveness … There is a voice of wonder and amazement inside of all of us, but we grow to realise we can no longer hear it …” It is time to have a wonder renaissance!

Maybe it is time you reclaim your human birthright of wonder? Maybe you lost it because your sense of wonder was ridiculed? Or analysed? Or prohibited? When was the last time you stared into the fathomless night sky and wondered? When did you last listen to a piece of music that moved you to tears and made you wonder about what it really means to be fully human? In these uncertain times where so many of the messages we receive on a daily basis are filled with gloom and dread, may you again find the courage to wonder. May this wonder bring you joy.

The root of the word “educate” meant “to care” – a caring that flows naturally from a deep feeling for the world. This kind of care seems to embody a type of wisdom that has nothing to do with information or knowledge in its restricted sense. Our connection to the world is not through information about it, but through a sense of wonder. How long since the cry of insects and the sight of the setting sun brought us deeply into ourselves?
– John Wilson (Reflections on Everyday Life)

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Want to Learn about Community? … Listen to the Trees!

“Trees also understand that slowness is the key to a good life. For humans, at the moment, it feels like life is going faster and faster. This way of living uses up so much energy that the quality of our lives doesn’t get better. We should slow down.” 
– Peter Wohlleben – 
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My father has always maintained that Mother Nature is the best teacher. He laments our modern day disconnect from the wild and the sense of ‘lostness’ that so many feel amidst our techno-driven, hyper-real existence. So it was with interest that I read the interview with Peter Wohlleben in the recent Slow Magazine and his study on The Hidden Life of Trees.

Peter’s premise is that trees, like us, experience pain, and form social and family bonds. His years of research have him conclude that different trees have different personalities. Some act as parents and good neighbours, while others are brutal bullies. Trees are anthropomorphic. It is almost as if they have feelings and character. They communicate via a ‘woodwide web’ of chemical and electrical signals. Their young ones takes risks and then learn life lessons from their mistakes. It is like trees form villages, recognising their friends from strangers.

As I fell down the rabbit hole of reading article after article about Wohlleben’s study of the ancient beech forest he manages in the Eifel mountains of Western Germany, I was reminded of my father’s sentiment – Mother Nature is a much better teacher than humans. While we wax lyrical about community and philosophise about life, trees just simply live their ‘philosophy’. No wonder one of the wisest men in ancient text studied the cedars of Lebanon and nature (1 Kings 4:33). Jesus himself suggested that we look at nature to obtain wisdom and meaning (Matthew 6:26).

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Wohlleben points out the communal nature of trees. In a tree community, every member is important, including the ‘weak’ ones:

Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit. Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the moist, cool climate. Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, then all it takes is what would once have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of giants.”

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“Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.”

Wohlleben has observed the friendships between trees, some deeper than others. They grow but don’t compete with each other and “if you fell one of those two trees, the other will die too, like an old couple.”

Trees teach us about life and community. In our very important, crazy-busy lives, we seldom notice their quiet and majestic presence. Unlike trees, our ‘developed’ world tends to shove our frail and ‘weaker’ members into places where they are not seen, somewhere on the margins where their presence does not taint our perfect image or require our time and understanding. We build on ideas about community that are quickly dismantled in times of crisis. We betray each other by the disregard we display to these very ideals. The ancient forests teach us that every tree plays a role. Even the oldest, frailest stump is cared for and significant. 

In this Year of Discernment, I have found the learnings about trees astounding and healing. I no longer stare past them as I look out my window. I notice these giant teachers of life. I find hope in their presence. Perhaps one day us humans can become as kind and learn to love our neighbour as these ancient Douglas firs and beeches? 

“A community that is growing rich and seeks only to defend its goods and its reputation is dying. It has ceased to grow in love. A community is alive when it is poor and its members feel they have to work together and remain united, if only to ensure that they can all eat tomorrow!”
– Jean Vanier, Community and Growth – 
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Reflection on Rites of Passage

“Few of us go through life without taking part in some kind of rite of passage.”
– Hank Nuwer –

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It was the French ethnographer and folklorist, Arnold van Gennep, who first coined the phrase “rites of passage”. It is the ceremonial event that exists in all known historical societies that marks a person’s passage from one social or religious status to another – e.g. birth, puberty, marriage, etc.

Van Gennep distinguished the different kinds of rites of passage:

  1. Rites of Separation

One of the most prominent examples of this pre-liminal rite would be funerals. But it is also important to recognise the more subtle versions of this rite in our own everyday lives. A time of necessary endings when the world, as we have known it, is coming to an end. The reasons for this are numerous.

Over the last several years I have experienced an ideological shift that was more congruent to my personal values. However, this shift separated me  from some of the ideas held as ’truth’ by a community I belonged to. It was a most difficult space, as fear often keeps us confined in places that we have actually shifted away from.

The separation stage calls us to leave behind an old way of life and perhaps an old way of thinking. It calls us to leave things or events or ideas and at times, people, behind. It asks us to let go and trust an unknown future.

  1. Liminal Rites
Liminal or transition rights are important in pregnancy or engagements. It is the place between two worlds: the one you left and the one you have not quite arrived at. It has also been referred to as a “threshold”.

I have found the metaphor of a trapeze artist most helpful to describe this stage. It is letting go of one trapeze bar yet having not taken hold of the one coming your way. You find yourself simply flying (or falling!) through the air … and hoping like mad that there will be something out there to meet you!

Symbolically, the liminal space is where you ‘shed your old skin’. It is a form of ‘seclusion’ – a place that often leaves us disorientated, vulnerable and feeling rather ‘naked’.

I have found this place to be one, where in the midst of turmoil, I have discovered my voice or language through the language of others. For example, it was Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards, and the skills and knowledge he shared about spirituality and transition from the first to the second half of life, that assisted me in finding words to describe this liminal space and hope for a different tomorrow.

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  1. Rites of Incorporation
Incorporation rites are often highly developed, like in a marriage ceremony. This stage is a form of ‘home coming’ that completes the ritual passage. It is a time of celebration and communal acknowledgement that recognises a successful transition.

I have found this to be a place of celebrating the union of ideas and dreams with personal values, that in the first half of my life were not always compatible.

Rites of Passage have multi-layered meanings: social, psychological spiritual and/or religious. They help us recognise change. They also help us personally, and the family/community that we are part of, to assimilate this change.

Rites of Passage help to establish a sense of identity, and they mark personal growth and development. Perhaps it would beneficial to take some time to reflect on the Rites of Passage in our own lives (or maybe the lack of these rites)? How are these rites recognised in our families and or communities?

I have found the first to second half of life, as described by Rohr, a transformational journey. Other have shared their stories with me and we have found much common ground.  Perhaps it is time to recognise this as a rather important Rite of Passage in our spiritual lives.

“When I was a child I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I became a man my thoughts grew far beyond those of my childhood, and now I have put away the childish things.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – 13:11 TLB
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