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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New Streets and Old Maps

“Not all those who wander are lost …” – Bilbo Baggins

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In the 1990’s nearly every car in Melbourne still had an often mangled, coffee-stained Melway in the back seat. In the ‘good old days’ we did not have any fancy satellite navigation systems that talk to you in that annoying, patronising voice (you can almost see Mr or Mrs Automated Voice roll their eyes as they incessantly repeat: “Make a U-turn, Dumbass!” when you take the wrong turn). No, we were tough. We had printed maps that led us to our destination – most of the time!

Using a printed map for direction is problematic in several ways. First, you have to keep driving with your eyes on the road, while frantically scanning the map on your lap to ensure you are going the right way. Second, due to destructive car occupants such as dogs and toddlers, you may have found that the page you needed has been ripped out and chewed. Third, if you got lost, there were no mobile phones to let people know that you accidentally arrived in Wangary instead of Wanguri. But most frustrating of all, if you had a Melway that was several years old, you found yourself in deep custard when navigating a new sub-division with brand new streets.

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Old maps and new streets are not great travelling companions. The map will tell you that the street you are looking for does not exist, has never existed, and you are wasting your time looking for it. In fact, if the map suddenly turned into a talking, philosophical, map-person (yep, imagination needed here) they would probably say something like, “Look, I know you desperately think that you can visit someone in Gertrude Street, but I hate to break it to you, Gertrude Street does not exist. Trust me, we have been doing this for a very long time. My father, my father’s father, and my father’s father’s father have all said the same thing. There is no Gertrude Street. You have to let it go. You are looking for a destination we have never been to … and we are the experts.”

No one has told the old maps that landscapes change. These maps, like the old wineskins that Jesus talks about in Luke 5, have only ever known old streets or old wine. It is ludicrous to demand anything else of them. We can hope, we can try, we can get angry, but in the end, old maps direct you around old streets and old wineskins hold only old wine. If you want to drive around new spaces, then you will either have to find a new map or you will have to draw your own.

Friend, I wish I could tell you that the maps you have used in your formative years, or in times of flourishing success, would be sufficient for the rest of your life – but that is not the case. Ideas, paradigms and methods we use to navigate life can disappoint us as we continue to learn new things and drive down streets we have never visited before. Some maps may last a lifetime but the way we read them may need to change, and the person who taught you to read that map is not always the expert. That realisation alone can be life changing.

In this life we have choices. We can allow old maps to rule our lives because the very idea of new streets terrifies us. Or, we can recognise that from the moment of birth, life is an ever changing landscape and without taking risks we will never discover new possibilities. Today we live our lives with certain knowledge, like the earth being round and orbiting around the sun. We forget that this knowledge came at a great price for people who, many years ago, threw away their old maps of thinking. Now it’s our turn. Time to explore some new streets.

I’ll show you a place
High on the desert plain
Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name (U2) 

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Autumn: A Time to See More Clearly

“There is something incredibly nostalgic and significant about the annual cascade of autumn leaves.”
– Joe L. Wheeler –

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I was on retreat at the beautiful and cold Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, this past week. It is autumn in our ‘down under’ part of the world. Each season speaks to us, holding its own treasures and reflections – but I love Autumn the most. I can almost feel the Autumn Equinox arrive each year. There is a shift in the atmosphere as summer gives her last hurrah and is ushered off the stage. Dressed in Jacob’s coat of many colours, Autumn takes centre stage, bringing with her breathless beauty a sense of melancholy and the paradox of life and death.

Autumn is a most inviting, contemplative companion. Unlike any other season, it calls us to nature and to listen to her wisdom. Over the years, I have found that I am drawn to thoroughly clean my house in Spring, but my soul cleaning happens in Autumn. Personally, many things have fallen away for me over the last several years. It has been a time of surrender. As the Autumn leaves have fallen, my perspective has changed. It is amazing how we can begin to really see in times of letting go.

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I would like to encourage all my readers to take time out for some ‘soul cleaning’, regardless of whether you are in Autumn or Spring (hello, to my friends in the Northern Hemisphere). There are many great writers, poets and artists who we can choose as ‘alongsiders’ as we sort through the cupboards of our lives.

Here is a piece from Joyce Rupp’s and Macrina Wiederkehr’s “The Circle of Life“. May it bring you joy, hope and wisdom.

“In this lovely season when the dance of surrender is obvious,
We find large spaces left where something beautiful once lived.
As one by one the leaves let go,
A precious emptiness appears in the trees.
The naked beauty of the branches can be seen,
The bird’s abandoned nests become visible.
These new spaces of emptiness reveal mountain ridges.
At night if you stand beneath a tree and gaze upward,
Stars now peer through the branches.

This is an important Autumn lesson – when certain things fall away,
Here are other things that can be seen more clearly.

This same truth is celebrated in our personal lives.
When we are able to let go of a relationship that is not healthy,
The heart is given more room to grow.
We are able to receive new people into our lives whose gifts we never noticed.

Perhaps it is not a person we have lost but our dreams of good health that would last forever.
Our health fails, our dream dies.

Another significant area of surrender comes with possessions.
Our possessions can become like little gods that eventually get in our way.

There are those who struggle to discover the blessing and wisdom of ageing process.
The surrender of youth can be the most difficult of all.

Autumn invites us to let go, to yield … yes, to die.

We are encouraged to let things move in our lives.
Let them flow on into some new life form just as the earth is modelling these changes to us.”

“He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn,
about the wild lands, and the strange visions and mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien –

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Hildegard of Bingen and her Love Affair with Fennel

“Even eaten raw fennel does not harm the body in any way. In whatever form one eats fennel, it makes us happy, gives us a good skin colour and body odour and promotes good digestion.”
– Hildegard – 

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Fennel was a regular star in the meals consumed in my childhood. To this day I can identify it blindfolded, simply by its unique, slightly sweet taste. It is also somewhat of a divisive culinary accompaniment, a bit like coriander. People such as my parents and grandparents were devoted to this humble vegetable, while others refuse to allow it anywhere near their kitchen. But there was one historical figure who swore by fennel – and her love affair was recorded in the annals of history.

In the fertile, temperate Rhine valley, near the River Main, a convent of Benedictine nuns became the focal point of many religious devotees in the Twelfth Century. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) remains somewhat of an historical phenomenon to this day. Her many visions and knowledge about the meaning of Scripture drew the attention of people such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Pope himself, Eugenius (1145-1153), who read her writings to a synod held in the German city of Trier. It did not take long for the news to circulate that a prophetess was living in Disibodenberg. You can read more about her remarkable life here.

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Hildegard may well have been Germany’s first nutritionist and produced writings on medicine, science and the healing power of nature. She saw fennel as one of the most important plants for achieving physical wellbeing. It is excellent, she wrote, for the eyes, brain, hearing and heart. Eating fennel makes one happy. Her applications for fennel were numerous:

– For puffy eyes, place 2 tsp of roasted fennel seeds or ground fennel seeds in hot water, let steep for 5 minutes or more. Once cool enough to touch, dip the corner of a folded paper towel in the solution and apply to the under eye region.

– For weight loss, steep 1/2 tsp roasted fennel seeds in warm water and drink twice a day.

– For a cold, drink warm fennel tea 2-3 times a day.

– For heartburn, bloating and gas, eat a pinch of roasted fennel seeds immediately following a meal.

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Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family, second cousin to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. It contains a unique combination of phyto-nutrients that allow for strong antioxidant activity. Research has found that one of it’s most interesting phyto-nutrient compounds is anethole. Anethole has reduced inflammation and prevented the occurrence of cancer. It has shown to be able to protect the liver from toxic chemical injury. The high Vitamin C content in the fennel bulb is anti-microbial and needed for the proper function of the immune system. It is also a great source of fiber, folate and potassium.

Fennel has also been called the pearl of aphrodisiacs. A recent concoction of fennel seeds, liquorice root and water was named the ‘tonic for happy lovers’ (yes, I know, you will all rush to brew this now!!). It holds benefits for lungs, liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and to help dissolve kidney stones. One of its main historic uses was to cure issues surrounding indigestion. In short – fennel is fantastic! Why aren’t we all in love fennel?!

I find it surprising how many people shake their heads at things they have never tried. Over the years we have had countless people around our dinner table. Herbs and vegetables have been the ones regarded with the greatest suspicion by many. Of course, I understand that once tasted some may decline delicious vegetables or salads because of poorly-evolved, artificially-sabotaged taste buds, but at least give it a go. Shock horror – it may even improve your health!

You may never develop a love affair with fennel like Hildegard did. However, you could discover in fennel a friend that has been sent to make you feel happy! Here is to health, and cheers to a beautiful earth that graciously shares with us her fennel friend.

“There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.”
– William Shakespeare (Hamlet) –

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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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Only Children and Fools Tell the Truth!

“Remember, there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, the lie can go on forever … If you want to be a leader, you, too, must refuse to tell the old lies. You must learn to say that those emperors have no clothes. You must see what you are looking at and say what you see.”
— Joan Chittister –
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It is in the mouth of babes that we often find the most profound truth-telling. A child has a way of looking at the world without firmly set prejudice, ideas or concepts. The German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism, writes,
 
“Children often possess gifts which they lose as they grow up. With the years we seem to enter into a prison of conventions and opinions, concealments and unquestioned acceptance, and there we lose the candour of childhood. The child still reacts spontaneously to the spontaneity of life; the child feels and sees and inquires into things which soon disappear from his vision. He forgets what for a moment was revealed to him and is surprised when grownups later tell him what he said and what questions he asked.” (Way to Wisdom)

The perception of a child is beautifully illustrated in the work of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes“. Anderson tells the story of a vain emperor who lived in exceeding luxury and spent all his money on new clothes. Two swindlers convinced the emperor that they had spun him magnificent garments. The audacious lie was affirmed by his old minister, town officials, noblemen and finally the whole town, all of them afraid to look foolish or be shunned if they admit that the emperor is starkers!

The crowd unanimously bought into the delusion, except a child. A child who was unaffected by social protocol. A child who was unaware that his or her belonging could be under threat if they spoke up. A child who had not yet learnt to tow the party line or follow the herd mentality. A child stated the obvious: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

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Foudroyant! How can this little monster utter such truth? Scandalous! Then the ripple started from someone in the back row who just found his voice and a little bit of courage – “He actually is wearing no clothes!” It took a child to tell them what they already knew. The emperor, on the other hand, although aware of the gimmick, continued to parade naked because … well, the show must go on.

Nowhere is this story more applicable than in politics and religion. Currently, we are seeing another historical high of ridiculous political lies, or, *ahem*, “alternative truths”. It is like we have landed in the sewerage pit of global, political stupidity and perhaps it is time to listen to the little, dumbfounded inner child, standing trembling on the sidelines. It is time to wake up. The emperor is starkers and the religious elite is only a few steps behind.

When religion upholds a corrupt, fear-monger, prejudice-inducing political ideal that marginalises and scapegoats those deemed ‘other’,  it is like the old minister pissing into the emperor’s invisible coat pocket. From the time of Constantine, sectors of the Christian religion have played with fire as they have sought to muscle in for power, fame and wealth. This hypocritical, gospel-disfiguring stance must be maintained even when in a moment of gut-level honesty, they recognise what horrific pain they have caused through scapegoating those on the margins.

Richard Rohr would contend that without honest self-knowledge religion ends up being more part of the problem than the solution, resulting in a Christian populous that affirms racism, sexism, and greed with no questions asked. Religious leaders often play host to fear of losing ‘face’ or being ridiculed by those on the inner sanctum of religious power or influence. Rejection by the approval-posse is a heavy burden and it is easier to continue marvelling at the emperor’s magnificent, colourful, non-existent clothes.

I am writing this blog for those who are waking up in the matrix. I urge you to channel the inner child or inner fool, take a deep breath, and yell it loud and clear: “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!” Refuse to be part of a system that excludes others and lives in denial.

“No Emperor has the power to dictate the heart”
— Friedrich Schiller –
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Questions in the Desert – Part Three

Faith is a dynamic and ever-changing process, not some fixed body of truth that exists outside our world and our understanding. God’s truth may be fixed and unchanging, but our comprehension of that truth will always be partial and flawed at best. – Bishop Gene Robinson –

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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is the third and final instalment of Questions in the Desert, a continuation of Part One and Part Two …

3. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Was it mere coincidence that the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53?

Isaiah is a book written by a Jewish prophet and part of the Tanakh, the Jewish Scriptures. This, in and of itself, is mildly fascinating, in that the Eunuch continued to search the Scriptures, looking for meaning, despite having been rejected at the Temple.

There is something more interesting, however. The passage he is reflecting on is the last of the four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” and it tells the story of a “Man of Sorrows”. People throughout the history of the church have understood this passage as prophesying the coming of Jesus: the One who was to be the “Suffering Servant”.

Importantly, this passage, immediately before the part read by the Eunuch, describes this coming Servant – who we now understand as Jesus – as physically marred and then rejected by the Jewish people.

Much like the Eunuch.

So as the Eunuch speaks to Philip, you can imagine the urgency in his voice: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” … Who is this man who, like me, is physically marred and rejected? Is it the writer? Is it someone else? Is this about me?

Here the yearning heart of an outcast is being reflected in the prophet Isaiah – who shows him that the Saviour of the world, was an outcast like him. Rejected by his own people, rejected by the fine religious institution of his day, he too was wounded and mutilated.

I wonder what Philip said to him. Maybe it was something like this: “What you are reading is about a man named Jesus, who, like you, pursued God. In his pursuit, he, too, went to the Temple, and he, too, was rejected. But this was no ordinary man. This was God made flesh. This God of the universe knows your story, the story of being outcast, of being refused from the place of worship, and God came into the world to show that the God of the universe is not defeated by rejection, even rejection unto death.”

Philip helped the Eunuch understand that the Scripture he was reading demonstrated how God was already at work in his life. Like a “Join the Dots” game, Philip simply brought God, who had always been with the Eunuch, just like God is with each and every person, to the forefront of the Eunuch’s conscious recognition.

Many of us remember that moment in life when we “awaken”,  our “dots are joined”, and we realise that God has always been at work in us. We have simply been unaware!

4. “Here is water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

I wish we were privy to the whole conversation between Philip and the Eunuch. Suffice to say, that the conversation and interchange of questions and answers brought them both to an “aha!” moment. That moment when the lights went on.

Imagine this moment for the Eunuch, a man who has only known rejection. He wore a stigma and knew ridicule from every social sphere: in his culture, in the religion he was trying to pursue, in his role, in his political positioning – everything about him reminded him every day that he did not belong.

And then Philip shares the Gospel. The Gospel that declared him as accepted, loved and included. This man would have no comprehension of what that would be like: to be equal amongst people of faith. This was not the rhetoric of some narcissistic platform personality begging for money, or an angry street “preacher” with a megaphone. This was what the Gospel should always be – wonderful and exceedingly exhilarating Good News. No wonder he saw a puddle in the desert and said, “Water! Why can’t I be baptised?”

And then there’s Philip! Perhaps at some point, he took a big gulp, laid aside his exclusive religious ideals and took a leap of faith! Faith that the Gospel is greater than his paradigms, ignorance and cultural stigmas. We forget that for Philip this is a whole new journey that has taken him totally out of his comfort zone. He realises as he goes to the water with the Eunuch that this will not be a popular move amongst his Jewish friends, and even amongst the Messianic Jews who are still getting their head around the fact that God is bigger than the boundaries of their religion.

The Samaritans were a huge step for Philip. This will take him to a place of no return – he either believes the Gospel is as glorious and scandalous as he has preached, or he returns to the confines of a law-based tradition and acceptance.

And again Philip astounds us with his courage – he takes the step and goes to the place of no return. He baptises the Eunuch. In Philip, God has found a faithful messenger.

And here end the questions in the desert – and for once in the Bible, it has a similar end to fairy tales.

When they came up out of the water, Philip disappears, and that was the last the Eunuch saw of him. But he didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as “happy as he could be” (Message Bible).

I love that – as happy as he could be. A man who never really understood love was now amongst the beloved. A man who had only known exclusion was now included. A man forever on the outer was now in the inner circle. He was equal, he was accepted – no matter what his future held, he was in Christ, and for him, that was all that mattered.

I wonder how people leave our conversations? Do we leave others as “happy as they could be”?  When we walk away are they a little closer to recognising God at work in their lives? A God who loves them immeasurably.

“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” – Brennan Manning –

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Questions in the Desert – Part Two

“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” 
– Jean Vanier-
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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is a continuation from Part One.

… The story of Philip and the Eunuch encourages us to pay attention to God’s Spirit in our lives. It also serves as an important reminder that every human being is loved by God and made in God’s image.

Philip demonstrates great courage as he begins to run next to a presumably heavily armed chariot (remember, the Eunuch was a treasurer) to listen to his questions and engage in his life’s story.

Question 1 (Philip): “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Philip, who has now become an ‘alongsider’ to the Eunuch, is listening to him read from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Prophetic narrative is a most difficult genre for even a seasoned scholar. The Eunuch is reading aloud, a normal practice for people of antiquity. Philip shows concern that perhaps the eunuch does not fully comprehend exactly what Isaiah is saying. He is right.

Question 2 (Eunuch): “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?”

The Eunuch invites Philip to sit with him in his chariot. He invites him to be a spiritual mentor. Like the Eunuch, our faith, cannot be completely understood unless we live it out within community.

It is interesting to take a moment at this point and consider a couple of things:

One, that the whole encounter in the desert was not ‘orchestrated’ or ‘planned’ by human effort. It was one of those Divine providential moments of life.

Two, Philip responded to the moment with courage and humility. Unlike so much of what we see outworking itself in the rhetoric of modern day Christianity, yelling at people from the many social media platforms with a politicised, arrogant, Messiah-complex tone, Philip comes alongside with love and attentiveness.

What sort of transformation must have occurred in Philip’s life! From a young age he would have been raised as an observant Jew and people like the Eunuch were outside his paradigm. They were the outcasts. This encounter was not just a ‘conversion experience’ for the Eunuch, but for Philip as well. Conversion is not something that happens just once in our lives!

And so Philip begins to explain the Scripture from which the Eunuch is reading:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” Isaiah 53

I doubt very much that his reading of Isaiah 53 was mere ‘coincidence’ …

Part Three and the final questions will all be in the next blog post.

“The gospel is not just the illustration (even the best illustration) of an idea. It is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed.” Lesslie Newbigin,The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
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Questions in the Desert – Part One

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Nature’s seasons are a constant reminder that nothing we do or experience in life is permanent. I was part of a mega-church community in Melbourne, Australia, for over thirty years. I never thought that season would come to an end. But it did.

One of the last sermons I gave at this church was on Philip’s encounter with a eunuch in a dusty Palestinian desert, as narrated in Acts 8. Hindsight is a most wonderful thing – looking back now I see the significance of that message in my own life. It is helping me as I learn to dream again, as I reflect on the religion of Christianity and what it has become in modern times, and specifically on the possibilities of a movement that focuses on the love and words of Christ.

Below are some of the notes from this sermon – I will post them over a couple of blogposts so as not to overwhelm the reader 🙂

… The book of Acts, in the New Testament of the Bible, contains vital information linking the life of Jesus and the various epistles (or letters) written after his death. Taking centre stage in this book are two men: Peter and Paul. If it wasn’t for Acts we would know very little about them, especially Paul and his motivation that took him to distant lands. Without Acts we would also not know about Philip, a Eunuch, and questions in the desert …

In Acts 8, we find a disciple of Christ called Philip. The suggested author of Acts, Luke, has taken time to develop Philip’s persona: he was someone who had spread the Gospel in Samaria, and was working throughout the territory of Judea and up the coast to Caesarea. Philip is portrayed as prophetic: he proclaims the Gospel with signs and wonders, he speaks with angels, he is whisked up by the Spirit, and he runs alongside the chariots of mighty men. Luke is painting the prophetic missional character of Philip as a forerunner of the prophetic mission and mandate of the Gospel.

Philip encounters a man from the ‘ends of the earth’. This eunuch is from Ethiopia, which is known in the Bible as the land of Cush. It does not correspond to modern Ethiopia but rather the Nubian kingdom whose capital was Meroe, south of Egypt, which is part of modern-day Sudan.

The eunuch was a wealthy man –  he had a carriage, he could read, he had a driver, and he was in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (a dynasty, not a personal name). He represented people that to the Jewish Christians were at the ‘ends of the earth’. He also represents a people group who have been ostracized and kept away from Yahweh because of his very identity as a eunuch – a mutilated one.

In antiquity, eunuchs belonged to the most abhorred and ridiculed group of men, often being slaves who had been castrated to inflict punishment or enact servitude. If they did rise to a position of prominence they could not escape the stigma of their sexless condition. Eunuchs did at times rise above their social status and find employment at the imperial court, but they would always be victims of negative stereotyping and ridicule during the Persian period. They were always on the outside – Exclusion was a part of life for them.

Absence of sexual organs meant that eunuchs were stigmatized due to their inability to reproduce and represent that culture’s idea of the traditional family. Their ‘otherness’ was amplified not only by their sexual difference and childless state, but also their exclusion from worshipping in the temple with the rest of God’s family. In Deuteronomy 23:1, it says that “no one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”  This man carried the stigma of imperfection and immorality.

This eunuch, although he would be excluded from the religious festival in Jerusalem, went to worship anyway. And now God came looking for him, the outcast, the stigmatized – and in a marvelous scandalous way he becomes wholly accepted.

“This eunuch, symbolizing the community of ostracised sexual minorities, is among the first of the outcasts from ancient Israel to be welcomed into Jesus’ discipleship of equals.”
–  Jerome Neyrey, paper on the social world of Luke-Acts.

This is indeed a strange and scandalous story. I don’t think those early Jerusalem Christians ever imagined this is what the ‘Gospel to the ends of the earth’ message looked like. Perhaps, like us today, they had a much neater, less risqué, ideal of what it would mean for the good news of an incarnate Christ to travel outside their boundaries and tightly held dogma.

So when we talk about the ‘Gospel’, does it ever occur to us that this God of messy humanity will deliberately mess with our heads and take us as far out of our comfort zone as our obedience allows?

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… Part Two and the first question in next blog …

 

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