Category Archives: Books

Letting Javert Go

One can say that Javert is our conscience. The ever lurking presence of the law and our own condemnation. The tension between who we were and who we are and who we can be. Javert represents that inescapable, shameful past that forever haunts and pursues one’s conscience. Javert is the man of the law, and… There are no surprises with the law. The principle of retribution is simple and monotonous, like Euclidean logic. It’s closed to all alternatives and shut up against divine or human intervention… Indeed, Javert represents the merciless application of the law, the blind Justice that in the end is befuddled by hope and the possibility of redemption without punishment.”
― Cristiane Serruya, Trust: Betrayed –

The stage production of Victor Hugo’s  Les Misérables is my all-time favourite musical. Les Mis lovers will debate for hours about who is their most beloved character, or which actor is the most believable as Jean Valjean, or which production and performance rivals no other. Mine is the 25th Anniversary concert performance at the O2 in London, with the incredible talent and voice of Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean, Lea Salonga as the tragic persona of Fantine, Samantha Barks as Eponine, and Norm Lewis as Javert.

What is it about the character of Inspector Javert that draws us in and simultaneously repels us? I hold a mixture of profound pity, intense anger and utter frustration as I observe his complete obsession in meticulously enforcing what he believes to be the right way, the law, the moral order of society. Javert is a slave to the law. The law that he never questions, the law that he uses as a lens through which to see the world, the law that dictates to him whether a person is good or evil. He clutches to the law that becomes his saviour as he tries to escape his felt shame from a past story – that of being the son of a fortune teller and a galley slave. The law that provided a legitimate covering for the hate and disdain he feels for people like Valjean. Ultimately, it is a hatred he feels for himself.

He is a man who allows himself little pleasure and adheres to the strict moral code he enforces on others. Everyone who meets him is afraid of him. His character is ruthless and confident as the general in his black and white world. There is no room for kindness or mercy – either to others or to himself. In fact, the book makes it very clear how he is quite convinced he is not worthy of any good thing in life … he sees himself as worthless.

Javert is such an interesting character because he reminds us of something … of someone … Javert reminds me of a part of my conscience that is like a bloodhound – never letting up. The inner critic doubting myself and questioning my motives. Those who are also Ones on the Enneagram will probably recognise and appreciate this metaphor of Javert and the journey to learn to let him go.

I also recognise Javert in the ideas about faith and religion that I clung to in the first half of life. I have found this so illuminating. A child looking for security in a world in flux would be drawn to a fundamentalist, conservative belief system – a religious expression that favours those who believe ‘right’, act ‘right’, speak ‘right’ – a religious world that prides itself in absolutes and having all the answers. Like the law became the saviour for Javert, this moralistic belief system becomes the saviour of so many, who like myself, were drawn to the idea of perfectionism and certainty. We even had a book that could be weaponised according to our cultural interpretation and understanding to determine who was doing life ‘right’ and who wasn’t. And those who weren’t needed to be’ saved’, and those who were ‘saved’ and still not doing it ‘right’ were ‘backslidden’, ‘heretics’, or ‘rebellious’. Of course, we did it all in the name of ‘love’. ‘We love the sinner but hate the sin’ or ‘We welcome you, but don’t affirm you’ is some of the bollocks we told ourselves … and, unfortunately, others …

When Javert is our taskmaster, disguised as the voice of conscience or religious idealism, we become tired. Because Javert is insatiable. Ultimately, Javert is driven by a sense of feeling unworthy. This can lead to self-destructive habits or religious pietism that deflect the sense of shame on to others who are not doing it ‘right’. We can live our whole lives like that – hounded by Javert. Or we can let him go.

So how do we let go this dominant voice from around our dinner table of life? Perhaps we start by inviting another character to our table – one who also understood shame and suffering, but instead of the law, he encountered grace and grace became his guide to life. He stumbled on this grace through the loving actions of a priest –  Bishop Myriel – whose whole philosophy of life was summed up by Hugo as: ‘There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ Bishop Myriel was healing ointment on Valjean’s scars  at the hands of the law.

Valjean modelled the grace he experienced. His life tortured Javert. Why? Because Valjean gave Javert irrefutable evidence that a person is not necessarily evil simply because the ‘law’ says so. Javert could not reconcile this – this scandal, this grace. Grace silenced Javert.

‘I am reaching, but I fall, and the stars are black and cold, as I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold. I’ll escape now from that world; from the world of Jean Valjean. There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’ (Javert)

Letting go of the black and white world of Javert is not as easy as it sounds. Javert is often deeply embedded in our sense of self. We need a guide. We need Jean Valjean to show us this pathway of grace and love. For love is greater than the law, it always has been … sometimes we can forget this.

‘Take my hand and lead me to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken – to love another person is to see the face of God.’ (Valjean)

 

Neither Here nor There – The Many Voices of Liminality

‘Jesus, on whom be peace, said
This world is a bridge.
Pass over it but do not build your dwelling there.’

(Inscribed in Persian on Buland Darwaza, the main gateway to the palace at Fatehpur Sikri, south of Delhi, India
by the Moghul emperor Akbar I in 1601)

 

Last year, I had the opportunity and privilege to contribute to an anthology on a subject that I am most interested and passionate about – liminality. I have blogged on this topic numerous times. Here are some introductory posts:

This latest compilation is the brainchild of pastor, writer, editor and friend, Tim Carson, who has written a variety of other books. I love Tim’s definition of liminality in his chapter contribution:

The experience of liminality is feeling a loss of steady and familiar landmarks, the kind of security that accompanied past structure, even as the future has not yet materialized. With everything in flux, angst becomes the predominant mood. Very often action seems fruitless because some transitions cannot be hurried. One has entered an incubation period in which time shifts. The liminal person does not necessarily know that transformation is occurring at the time it is happening. Does a caterpillar have any idea that metamorphosis is about to take place as it enters the cocoon?

I wept reading that. It resonated so deeply with my own life experience.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes the foreword for this book. Yes, I was slightly dizzy when I heard this and I went into serious fangirl mode. I love love love her writings. In her foreword, she acknowledges how most of the contributors did not consent to go on a liminal journey, but life took them there anyway. Some were catapulted into the liminal space through ‘war, illness, abuse, or natural disaster. Others found themselves there due to poverty, gender, apartheid, or immigration.’

Personally, I found solace and comfort in the stories of this communal motley crew of liminal travellers, sharing their bewilderment at finding themselves ‘betwixt and between’ where ‘the only way through is through. There are no guarantees … To engage liminal space is to live in faith, not certainty.’

This post would be too long if I discussed every chapter. Instead, I offer one of my favourite quotes from each chapter. If you are wandering the shadowy, mystical path of liminality, may it be a light to you in dark times.

I’ve heard some people describe liminality in the language of Celtic spirituality: a thin place, a narrow place, a place where the living and the dead commune, where heaven and earth all regard each other. Hell too, I hope. Otherwise, what’s the point?’ Pádraig Ó Tuama

I discovered my first hummingbirds as a small child in the gardens of the Theological Community in Mexico City where I was encouraged to nourish my love for nature while caring for others by cooperating, respecting, and sharing in the many social and spiritual activities with people from all over Latin America. Tucked gently away in my soul and mind is the gift of seeing the world from the borderlands, the in-between spaces, the nepantlera of ‘either/or’ and’ neither/nor,’ with thousands of beautiful colour hues and nuances of language and culture.’ Elena Huegel

Ultimately, the purpose of pilgrimage is to bring the pilgrim, transformed in the journey, back home again.Kristine Culp

The liminal dimension undergirds all human experience. In some sense, there is nothing that is not liminal. We live our lives (and perhaps find sanity) by fashioning fixed structures of meaning and identity; selves and narratives that are generally static and contained. But that is not life, as much as it is the mask we put onto life. Meanwhile, the liminal waits for us.Joshua Boettiger

Liminality is essentially and always a middle. It is the moment of in-between-ness where what has been is gone, but what will be has not yet arrived. In Christian spirituality, it is the moment of Holy Saturday, when Christ has died but is not yet risen. There is nothing to be done on Holy Saturday except to learn how to die with Christ, in the hope that one day – but not today – life will be restored by resurrection.’ Michelle Trebilcock

War is a universal experience of social liminality. If the scale of hostilities is sufficiently large, war can expand to even global liminality. Societies and nations are cast into a time between the times, a state of being filled with uncertainty and dread. For warriors within these societies, war represents a rite of passage, a transition that changes the identity of those who enter war and the community of those who share it.’ Kate Hendricks Thomas

‘In the aftermath of the tornado, liminal time moved at its own pace, mostly slower than we might have preferred.’ Jill Cameron Michel

Adoptees exist between families for their entire lives. They are products of legal and biological families, but not fully either. This liminal space is their reality, and from it comes complex identity work. The extent to which adoptees engage with the liminality of their adoption status emerges as a product of individual, contextual, and familial characteristics.’ Colleen Warner Colaner

‘The literature of the ancient desert monks and medieval Celtic saints is extensive and filled with many tales like this. In this liminal time, when climate change presents us with an opaque and uncertain future, can the literature that emerged from the liminal experience of Christian contemplatives in late antiquity offer us any wisdom for navigating our challenges in better ways?’ Timothy Robinson

‘The liminal is the space between; it is a state in which the classifications of the everyday are bracketed to reveal an alternative order, a more basic relatedness, which undergirds the everyday power and position exemplified by given cultural norms.’ Adam Pryor

‘Cancer is the quintessential liminal experience as it includes all the stages – pre-liminal, liminal, reintegration – and all the classic elements of the liminal journey: end of one way of life, loss of identity and status, bewilderment, confusion, ambiguity, reversal of hierarchy, uncertainty. Patients are between life as they once knew it and an uncertain future.’ Debra Jarvis

‘When I crossed the threshold into the strange world of incarceration, I was ushered into a state of permanent liminality, a time and space between the past and some seemingly unobtainable future. My life was stuck in a time between the times, a place between the spaces. Unlike van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, however, there was no design for movement, for transformation in the liminal passage.’ Jacob Davis

‘The stories that we tell to make sense of our world and our lives simultaneously open up certain possibilities for action and close others off. They define and limit the options we think exist. The danger is that we become so enamored with our own narrative that we shut ourselves from the narratives of the “other.” What if each of us needs both the presence and the narratives of the other to navigate the ambiguities of liminality?’ John Eliastam

‘Our collective challenge for the future is to produce a society that accepts diversity, welcomes difference, and champions human rights for all its citizens. If accomplished, this might enable Turner’s view of positive social change through community building actually to become reality. One can always remain hopeful.’ Diane Dentice and Michelle Dietert

‘To examine the liminal, where it may reside, are we well advised to avoid the paved road where, by following the markers, we do arrive, but it just may be a camouflaged dead end?’ Kenneth Krushel

Let me end this post with a quote from my chapter. Writing this piece was part of a healing journey. I am grateful.

‘The gift of liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation has assisted me in recognizing many of my ego’s trappings and yearnings. In this place, I have been confronted and stripped of much of the baggage that I carried over the years … of trying to live up to all sorts of expectations. Liminality, like the character V in the film V for Vendetta, showed me the bars of my ideological and structural prison, all dressed up in religious moralizing – and once you see, you cannot un-see.’

If you would like to order this book, you can do so via Lutterworth Press

 

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!