Category Archives: Books

Is it Time to Marie Kondō Our Ideas?

“The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” – Marie Kondō –

Yes, I am one of them. One of those Marie Kondō fans. I find her mesmerising. From the moment she enters someone’s home she shows restraint, respect, and kindness. Holding no judgment, she gently nudges her clients to take a look at the piles of stuff they have accumulated and asks that Marie-mantra question: “Does it spark joy?” With that question she guides their actions and narrative … and before long, zen conquers chaos. She is the queen of transformation.

In a consumer-driven culture, Marie is sent like an angel of light to remind us of what is important in life. Accumulating stuff is not necessarily one of them. She proposes that joy holds greater weight than the bulging contents of our cupboards, garages, basements and rented storage units. Perhaps one of the reasons we like to hold on to stuff is that it gives us a sense of comfort and safety in a world that we have very little control over? Maybe it is just another way of dealing with our existential angst and the questions we hold about meaning and purpose? With great courtesy and compassion, Marie suggests there is something more effective to fill that gnawing sense of dread or emptiness. It’s called joy. The choice she leaves to each person. What is most noticeable is the change of demeanour on people’s faces as they let go of clutter and move from tiredness, to panic, to grief, to … peace? A quiet recognition that life is better when not bunkered down with so much stuff.

It is not always our physical clutter that needs Marie Kondō attention. There are seasons in life when we need to take a hard look at the clutter of ideas, paradigms, and dogmas we have accumulated. This medley of thoughts and creeds help shape the narratives by which we live our lives – so a regular cerebral spring clean may just make us feel a whole lot lighter.

Deconstructing and critiquing the stories we tell ourselves and the ideas that uphold them is not easy. I would go as far as saying it’s terrifying. Sometimes so much of our identity and sense of belonging is caught up in these ideas we have gathered. We may have built intricate relationships based on tribal adherence to certain ideological persuasions. To question or examine those tenets is to make ourselves vulnerable. What if my belonging is purely based on my faithfulness to certain family, political, religious concepts? Maybe we frantically hold on to ideas that lost their meaning a long time ago because the alternative is too alarming? Or we simply cannot cope with the idea of our whole Jenga Tower toppling when we put a block under scrutiny? And maybe we’re ok with that …

If it isn’t, then Marie Kondō’s approach can be helpful in the deconstruction/decluttering of burdensome ‘holy cows’.
We may want to start by considering what ideas we have taken on board that cause anxiety? Fear? Guilt? Shame?
What is it about those ideas that we found meaningful in the first place?
What is it about those ideas that caused harm?
What are the values and ethics we wish to live by now? And how do the ideas we are examining stack up to those values and ethics? Do they add or take away from them?
What is it that you will lose if you deconstruct or discard these views?
What would you gain?
What would you exchange it for?

So here is my 2019 challenge to you, dear reader. Pile up the stories that run your life on the living room table of your heart. Pick up one of those ideas at a time and take a good, hard look at what it has brought into your life. Does it spark joy? Does it belong to someone else? Are you ok with that?

Happy decluttering!

“People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.”
Marie Kondō –

 

On Being a Feral Priest

Dedicated to all the Ferals out there xx

I found tears running down my face as I read this blog post. It was not because I was particularly sad, for that matter. It was because Colin Coward (author) was able to eloquently articulate something that resonated so deeply with me. Thank you, Colin, for your permission to publish your post. Please find the link to his blog and much more information here.

Colin writes:

‘On 13 January 2019, the Observer published an interview with Casey Gerald, a black, gay, handsome, 31-year-old American of whom I’d never heard. The interview marked the publication of Gerald’s first book, There Will Be No Miracles Here. The full-page portrait and the title of the book encouraged me to read the interview. I underlined a quote: “I do believe I have been put on this planet to do real work but my priority is to be well. If I’m well, everything I do will be well.” I had been having a very similar thought that very week.

Towards the end of the article, a TED talk he delivered in 2016 is mentioned: The Gospel of Doubt. I watched the talk. He begins with a flashback, the end of the world on Millennium Eve when he was in church with his grandmother praying for the Rapture. His account is very, very funny and the talk is powerful. I was hooked. I bought the book. The book, too, is very funny. A quote on the cover by Colm Toibin says it is ‘Urgent, mesmeric, soaring, desperately serious, wounded, and at times, slyly, brilliantly comic … electrifying’. Indeed it is.

I’m still reading the book and I’ve watched the TED talk again. I’ve been talking with friends and asking questions and doing a lot of thinking. If I find myself, as Casey Gerald writes on page 183, “in a dark confusing period of history, when the gods have ceased to be and the Christ has not yet come and man stands alone,” then, he says, “you will have some sense of how things fall apart and a dim view as to how they might be put back together.”

Since leaving parish ministry in 1995 and more recently, retiring from Changing Attitude three years ago, I have felt more acutely a sense of Christian things falling apart for me combined with a struggle to work out how they might be put back together. One thing some of my friends find curious is why I am still so strongly motivated by a desire that things should be brought back together. We have lived through five decades of Church of England reports on homosexuality, with the current three-year process yet to be completed, and two decades of Anglican global conflict since the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Statement.

Christians are good at conflict and living with disagreement, good or bad, and less good at conflict resolution. The various tribal groupings to be found in the Anglican Communion have been at war among themselves for two decades over people like me, plus my lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex brothers and sisters. Christian tribes have been at war over women for longer than that and in past centuries Christians physically went to war, tribal Christian groups against each other, against other faiths and against those they labelled ‘savages’.

I’d label my tribe the Honest to God, South Bank Religion tribe, in which, to quote a past incumbent of my childhood parish church, “I have never felt that intellectual assent to any doctrine or creed is essential to being a Christian. God is all (but don’t ask what that means).” My faith is rooted in my experience of God and the practice of Christianity as exemplified by Jesus focused on unconditional love, wisdom, justice, truth, goodness, self-giving, compassion, and the glory of living. I had felt for a long time that this tribe has become increasingly marginalised in the church. My conversations in London this week have shown me that the tribe survives, and maybe more than survives. It continues to flourish in particular places, but under the radar, no longer valued by a church institution that needs to survive and is desperate to grow and plant.

This week I discovered that parish ministry for many, lay and ordained, continues to focus on people, their lives and uncertainties, sitting lose to creeds and dogma, but deeply valuing the elusive, the mystery, the not-knowing, the caring, open, energised, playful, deep-down truthiness of lives fuelled by prayer.

BEING A FERAL PRIEST

My last conversation was with my spiritual director. He stunned me by revealing that he had returned his Permission to Officiate to his bishop in the autumn, describing himself in the accompanying letter as a feral priest.

The idea came from the title of George Monbiot’s book about the re-wilding of moorland areas – ‘Feral’, Monbiot’s definition of ‘feral’ being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.” A feral priest is one called by God to escape the captivity of the institutional Church.

My spiritual director has written that as a feral priest he had to learn a different set of skills. He had to learn to place his trust in God where previously the unstated assumption was that he should trust the institution and its leaders. He also had to learn to trust himself, his own intuitive sense of what priesthood meant. He talks about ‘internalised’ priesthood, the state in which he has learnt to trust that because God called him there must be something essentially ‘priestly’ about him.

Jesus, of course, was ‘feral’. He exercised his ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which he had grown up, and by implication challenged it. Increasing numbers of men and women today do the same, and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose.

Richard Holloway has spoken about feeling himself to be part of a church ‘in exile’. To be ‘in exile’ in a Biblical sense carries overtones of being cast out against one’s will, excluded from what feels like home, and sent to a place to which one does not want to go and where one feels a stranger. It’s a place of pain. To go ‘feral’ may include experiencing all of the above, but for my spiritual director and for myself, it also means a sense of call rather than exclusion and points to a capacity for freedom and delight in what has been newly discovered.

I am discovering that to go feral is to be following a vocation in which energies are released and visions flow abundantly. I’m discovering Christians with a feral ministry, living under the radar, away from the gaze of bishops who have sold their souls to yet more process and discussion about my sexuality with no commitment to significant change in church teaching and practice. I sense subversion in the air, people, lay and ordained, go ahead despite the bishops’ rules, blessing unconditionally and distributing sacraments lavishly, as is the way of Jesus before he was tamed by the Church.’

Celebrating the Birth of the Homeless, Oppressed and Marginalised

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

 

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

 

Voices from the Grave: Frederick Douglass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

We should all BEE concerned!

“If bees didn’t exist, neither would humans” – Dr Reese Halter


I have memories of warm summer days in Northern Germany with my mother handing me a juice with a warning – “Make sure you don’t swallow a bee!” Bees seemed to be buzzing everywhere around the tumbling wildflower and fruit tree garden that surrounded the ancient thatched roof house that we called home.

After our move to South Africa, we were introduced to the more aggressive and industrious African bee who would follow me when I was walking home from school after having purchased a granadilla ice cream. The more docile Cape bee is also native to South Africa but hardly ever came calling in our area.

Bees may have been around for over 130 million years. The oldest bee evidence is one that became mortified in amber about 80 million years ago – a type of stingless bee, similar to those living in South America. Bees evolved from wasps which remain predators to this day. All bees feed almost exclusively on nectar and pollen. They have become adept at feeding on flowers by developing a hairy body which helps them brush pollen from the flowers and to hold it while still in flight. We have identified around 1.4 million species of bees, 250 of these are bumblebees.

It is easy to take this beautiful creature for granted. However, bees are vital for human survival. Bees pollinate over a third of everything we eat. Around 400 different types of plants need bees and other insects to pollinate them. They also make an important and irreplaceable contribution to the eco-system around the world because so many living creatures feast on plants that bees pollinate. They are the guardians of the food chain!

The bad news is that bees are dying in dramatic and frightening proportions. In the USA, the number of honeybee populations has declined by a third in recent years. In some places, such as regions in China, bees have been completely eradicated. In Central Europe, the bee population has declined by 25 percent over the last 30 years. “A third of everything we eat would not be there if there were no bees,” according to award-winning film More Than Honey by Swiss director Markus Imhoof. The film explores the reasons for the dying off of bees around the world.

Scientists have compelling evidence that insecticides called neonicotinoids have a disastrous effect on bees. Insecticides along with invasive parasites and a decline in the quality of bees’ diets should give us cause to be alarmed. Perhaps the gravest danger lies in climate change. “According to new research published in the journal Science, dozens of bumblebee species began losing habitat as early as the 1970s, well before neonicotinoids were as widespread as they are today. Since then, largely as a result of global warming, bees have lost nearly 200 miles off the southern end of their historic wild range in both the USA and in Europe, a trend that is continuing at a rate of about five miles every year.”

There are untold articles about the impact this radical decline of our bee population is continuing to have around the world. We should be concerned. The good news is that there are some things we can do to help our honey friends, and in doing so help ourselves.

This article is specifically written to help native Australian bees in our backyard. I love the idea of building bee hotels – what a fabulous project to do with kids as they learn to hopefully be more compassionate and responsible earthlings. Save the Bees is an admirable initiative that rescues and rehomes bee colonies that are in danger – perhaps it something you would like to support? All around the world, concerned humans are taking up the challenge to do their bit in looking after bees – like the bee sanctuary in New York that educates people in creating environments where bees can thrive.

There are many simple things we can do – starting by educating ourselves on this important issue and then turning our newly gained knowledge into action. Let’s bee purposeful in making this beautiful planet a better place for generations to come.

“I have a huge belief in the importance of bees, not just for their honey, which is healing and delicious food, but the necessity of bee colonies that are vital to the health of the planet.” – Trudie Styler

 

The Relationship Glue: Kindness

“When I was young I admired clever people, now that I am old I admire kind people.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel-

 

Psychologists John and Julie Gottman spent four decades studying relationships. They set up a research centre at the Washington University and together with a colleague, Robert Levenson, analysed hundreds of relationships (now referred to as “The Gottman Method”) – some successful and some disasters. One of the critical discoveries in their research had to do with how a person responded to their partner when the partner was making a request or ‘bid’ for conversation and interaction:

“People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t – those who turned away – would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

They concluded that contempt is the driving factor behind relationships breaking down! But what holds it all together? What is the key ingredient to healthy relationships? It’s kindness:

“Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated – feel loved. ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea,’ says Shakespeare’s Juliet. ‘My love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.’ That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.”

I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by many kind people. Their selfless acts of kindness have often left me choked up as I consider what a cold world I would live in without them. My parents modelled kindness to me. Money or status was not something that ranked high on their value system, but kindness was. Through their actions and discussions, I learnt that accomplishments turn to ash if you cannot live a life of kindness. My ever-chirpy life partner is one of ‘booming’ kindness. His consistent acts of love and care often make me stop and think how I happen to do life with an exceptional human. Kindness really is the ancient new black 😃

But what is kindness? To me, kindness is love in action. It is creating benefits for another at the expense or risk of yourself. There are many forms of kindness. We can be kind with our emotions by showing empathy and compassion. We can be kind with a “there you are” attitude. “There you are” people exude kindness when noticing the stranger, the one that is alone, or afraid. They are the people who walk into a room and are kind (and secure) enough to put the focus on the other. In recent weeks I have had so many acts of kindness come my way – a friend who dropped everything to wash my windows when we left our home in Queensland, someone else who offered a meal and bought a banquet that lasted for days, another person who hopped on their motorbike to help unload our furniture (a daunting task considering the nightmare we experienced with our removalist), a friend who drove for a couple of hours to help sort my vast array of books onto shelves … This last month I was reminded over and over again that the attribute of kindness is the most noble of human traits.

There have been studies on the biology and evolution of kindness:

“Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that works like a hormone in our bodies, reducing fear, anxiety, and stress while increasing feelings of trust, calm, safety, and connectedness. On a biological level, it improves our digestion, reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, and improves healing. It’s the same chemical that is released when we feel love and have sex. No wonder kindness feels good!”

Kindness inspires me. I want to ‘hang’ in the kind space, with these giants of kindness.

People who have learnt that ultimately no one gives a flying rip about how clever we are, how many material toys we have, or how important we perceive ourselves to be. Rather, the energy and power shifts and changes when kindness walks into a room.

I want to live my life as a kind and generous human.

Kind to others.

Kind to the planet and all its inhabitants.

Kind to myself.

Will you join me on this quest?

Let’s make the world a better place one kind step at a time.

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu –

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”  – Henry James –

“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain –

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 – 

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!

 

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 –

 

Patience or Procrastination? Know the Difference … Know Thyself

“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”  – Paulo Coehlo –

I often wonder how much of what I call “Patience” is simply me avoiding a decision that I do not want to make? Calling my avoidance-crisis patience has such a pleasant, self-deluding ring to it, doesn’t it? On the other hand, how many of you, like me, have found yourselves in less than favourable circumstances because the idea of waiting patiently was not a comforting option – so you jumped too soon? How do we know the difference between these two “P’s”?

Patience has often been called a virtue. It is the ability to wait for things, accepting our lack of control over our world. In an age of immediate gratification and super-fast technology, patience often has no value or meaning in our lives. We would rather have fulfillment, stuff, money, and all kinds of others things NOW than wait and receive a little more later. It’s called “present bias.” Present bias is the tendency to over-value immediate rewards at the expense of our long-term intentions. We prefer to eat the seed, instead of waiting for it to grow. We live in a culture that suffers from present bias and unless we recognise how this has affected us, we will never understand the virtue of Patience or the sacrament of Waiting.

Procrastination, even though it can be so beautifully dressed up in a patience camouflage, is not a virtue. It simply is avoiding what needs to be done. All of us struggle with delaying and avoiding on important issues. Strangely enough, IMpatience and procrastination both have to do with present bias or what behavioral psychology calls “time inconsistency”. In the case of procrastination, we put things off because we value the immediate gratification of having ‘no pain’ more highly than doing what we need to do, which often involves feeling pain for a moment but it can change our future. For example, we would like to lose weight but we procrastinate because five donuts and a can of coke keep ambushing us at 10 am and 3 pm every day. It’s too painful to say no to them. So, we procrastinate.

Underneath all of our impatience or procrastination issues lies a very common human trait – fear! Anxiety feeds both of these gremlins. We may never have articulated our angst of what it means to live as vulnerable humans in a world that we have very little control over but it can still take its toll by manifesting itself through anxiety, depression, anger, etc. We all try to drown out that reality in many different ways. Some use harmful substances, some drown themselves in work, some turn to religion or philosophy or accumulating stuff or … do nothing – immobilised by the whole caboodle. We all have to face the many ways we cope with this fear of lack of control, and how these coping mechanisms have made us all addicts. Acknowledging this is the first step to living a more peaceful, integrated life. Know thyself.

Practicing mindfulness can be so helpful. Instead of rushing through your day, practice being present, practice breathing, practice listening – just be. Instead of being impatient when you have to wait, consider changing how you perceive ‘waiting’. Waiting can be a holy moment, a sacrament. While you wait, be present, even if that is painful. Waiting is part of the rhythm of life. You see it in the winter seasons when everything seems dead … waiting for new life. Your 24 hour day should at least have about 8 hours of sleep … sleep is you waiting for your body to rest and recover.

Perhaps you feel overwhelmed with life and this sense has almost immobilised you. You keep calling it waiting or patience but deep inside you know that you are simply putting off a difficult task(s). Procrastination can become a habit. To change a habit, we need to rewire our brain! We need to break out of the rut. The Ivy Lee Method may be of some assistance. It has been successfully applied in various contexts since 1918. Just a little word of warning: sometimes we go through ‘wobbly’ seasons, seasons of grief, disappointment, etc. As we surface from the valley and begin to take life by the horns again, writing down six tasks, as Ivy Lee recommends, may be too much. Instead, start with two, then add another one every week. Step by step you are, what Richard Rohr would say, “living yourself into a new way of thinking.”

So, dear friend, on this journey of life – know thyself. The answer in discovering the difference between patience and procrastination is in our motivation. If we are putting things off that we know we need to do because of fear, then we may be procrastinating (please note, our fear can be directly related to our safety and well-being – I encourage you to seek help and counsel if this is the case). Procrastination always ends with regret. However, I may also be putting things off because I know I have done what needs to be done, there is no more I can do, now I wait patiently. This sort of waiting, although it may be painful, is calm and rational. Know the difference. Take courage.

“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.” Anne Frank