Category Archives: Family, Friends & Foe

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.’

Scattering the Stones We Gathered

‘A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.’ Ecclesiastes 3:5 (NLT)

Seyðisfjörður – Iceland, 2016

Who we are today has a lot to do with our culture and history. We embody the narratives we hold to. The stories we have been told, we continue telling … unless we stop and consider whether the lessons they offer are true to what we hold dear. Family and tribal traditions and beliefs are passed from one generation to the next, often without a second thought. That may not necessarily be a problem unless these ideas or stories have a negative impact on our identity, values or future. And then there are also the tales and hopes we cling to because they are precious to us.

The love and appreciation of Mother Earth is something that has been passed on to me through my family. I have always appreciated the outdoors, creatures great and small, forests, trees, the ocean, and vast green spaces. I delight in the sensation of beach sand under my bare feet and the feel of the varying types of rocks, pebbles, and wood in my hand. My nomadic father would bring me home beautiful and unique treasures of the earth. Together with my own collection, I had a huge amount of shells and stones. They brought me much joy.

In our recent interstate seachange, we again got rid of ‘stuff’ as the move towards a more simple life is very addictive. I understood it was time to say goodbye to some of these gifts and return them to Mother Earth. This was no easy task. I thought about how this is really a metaphor of the first and second half of life that Richard Rohr often speaks about – In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not about doing; it’s about being (from Falling Upwards). I resonate with this. The first half of life is all about collecting; the second half of life is all about letting go.

In the first half of life, I gathered so many things, so many opinions, beliefs, ideas. Like my precious Mother Earth collection, I clung to them tightly and tried to take them all with me with every migration of identity. They were beautiful. However, after a while, these beautiful gifts become a burden, they become heavy, they take up space, and they take up time … and time becomes more precious as we begin to recognise how short life really is.

So as we do our ego work and shadow work, we begin to lay things down. This is not always easy and is often accompanied by grief. We begin the journey of detaching from things that we thought we could not live without, only to discover something remarkable … that love and grace is not a stone we cast aside, but something we carry within us. As we lay down stones we begin to awaken on the inside and realise that we are the pearl, the shell, the stone that has real value and we begin to see others in the same light.

In my previous home in Queensland, I stood in my garden and looked at the beautiful stones and pieces of wood I was leaving behind. I was so grateful that they had come into my life and I had the privilege of admiring their beauty for so long, and now it was time to return them to their home. I did not discard them all but have kept some to take into this next chapter with me. Deciding what stones to gather and what stones to scatter is perhaps one of the more complex moments of discernment in the second half of life.

So, dear reader, as you take some time to consider your ‘collections’ and the season of life that you may be in, I trust you find the courage to scatter and gather according to the hopes you carry for your future. May you not allow what you have gathered to sink you into despair or exhaustion … but nourish your sense of self, beauty, and creativity.

‘So get ready for some new freedom, some dangerous permission, some hopes from nowhere, some unexpected happiness, some stumbling stones, some radical grace, and some new and pressing responsibility for yourself and for our suffering world.’ Richard Rohr (Falling Upwards)

 

On Burning Bridges

The hardest thing in life to learn is which bridge to cross and which to burn. 
– David Russell –

During the Roman Empire, it was common practice for military commanders who were concerned about their armies retreating during intense battle to burn the bridges they crossed in order to block any form of escape. It was fight or die. Alternatively, the army of a country being invaded would find themselves retreating and would burn their own bridges in order to prevent the invading army from following them. Today, this ancient military manoeuvre is used as a life metaphor. We are told not to burn our bridges … to keep everything intact as much as possible so that we can go back if we need to.

To ‘burn a bridge’ is a bold and risky move. A bridge is a structure that allows for passage over terrain that is formidable or impossible to navigate. It takes time and skill to build bridges. We build bridges in relationships, careers, cultures and communities. To ‘burn a bridge’ means to destroy what has been built and to make a return extremely difficult. In other words, to burn a bridge is to destroy connection and access that may have taken years to build. No wonder the idea of burning bridges comes with warnings and hazard signs. And no wonder liminality, this concept of letting go and finding yourself with minimal connection to the past, is so terrifying.

So should we live our lives in such a way that we are preoccupied with keeping our bridges intact? Should we avoid ruffling feathers at all costs in case our bridge is threatened? And is there a time in life when burning bridges is not just a necessary ending but the only way forward? Maybe some bridges have become the highway to hell?

Thirty years in church pastoral ministry taught me that I needed to be ‘nice’ at all costs and that my energy needed to be spent ensuring that bridges remain intact. As a ‘pastor’ it was not just my job but my expected duty to defuse any and all situations that had bridge burning potential. This required an immense amount of energy as I tried to ensure that everyone ‘played nice’. Over time I also paid little heed to whether my bridge burning prevention scheme lined up with the values I held …

The voice of conscience, however, is not silenced easily. Slowly the murmur of this inner compass began to rise above the din of my people-pleasing, bridge-maintenance addiction. The need to stay true to people and things I valued and held precious became greater than my fear of being disliked … and the bridges started burning.

Hindsight is a most wondrous gift. I look back now not with the overwhelming anxiety and grief that gripped my life in those days when so many bridges were being razed to the ground. Years of what I considered bridges of friendships and belonging lay in ashes. Disappointment took the place of grief and anger. Yet over the last year, something else has risen from the ashes … gratitude. Profound and deep gratitude. Burning bridges saved my life. If people had cared or enquired I would never have pushed off the shores and set sail to the winds of liminality … I would never have learnt to deconstruct dominant religious ideas that paid homage to fear and superstition instead of faith … I would never have discovered this rebirth of life. I am grateful now … but it took me a few years to get there!

I don’t recommend random bridge burning exercises. They are not a pleasant experience. Really, it’s a death experience. What once was, no longer is. The gates have shut. There is no going back. And maybe, dear reader, that is where you are right now – in this silent and lonely space of watching bridges burn and experiencing every emotion that this ending brings with it. I do not in any way want to undermine your grief – because it is real and needs to be fully felt and observed. I can perhaps offer you some hope in reflecting on my story a few years on. I have found that life creeps from the ashes. I also have discovered new bridges that line up with what I hold dear. Bridges of connection that hold me for who I am and not for what people would like me to be. I have stumbled upon bridges of grace that I would never have discovered in my tiny, cloistered existence.

There is a season for everything in life. A season to burn bridges and a season to build them. Sometimes we can confuse the idea of burning bridges and a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness, the letting go of a perceived ‘debt’ that we think someone may owe us, does not mean we have to keep a bridge of connection intact. We can forgive and also recognise that some places are simply not safe anymore. They have become detrimental to our well-being. We can forgive and allow a bridge to burn. We need to give ourselves permission to live in peace and safety.

Whatever season you may be in, dear reader – may the bridges you build and cross be undergirded by hope and love. May you also find the courage to burn the bridges you need to, in order to live life to the full.

Stop telling me not to burn bridges. Some bridges are meant to be burned; some roads are never meant to be travelled again. 
Steve Maraboli –

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 –

 

A New Beginning

 

Like the smell of imminent rain in the air, I sense it … a new beginning.
“How exciting!” they say.
I smile
I nod
I grieve
I rejoice
Yes – new beginnings are sacred.
But are they anymore sacred than Endings? Painful endings?
Each season and moment of life is holy.
However, today I would like to celebrate New Beginnings.
And I share this delightful poem of John O’Donohue for your reflection …

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

– John O’Donohue –

 

 

Letting Go

“Everything I have ever let go of has my claw marks on it.” David Foster Wallace
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When I first posted this BLOG back in 2015, I was living in Upper Beaconsfield on the outskirts of Melbourne. The serene surrounding did not match my turbulent world at that time. It was a fairly stressful season as I was facing some very hostile responses from the religious pious who found my affirming position on LGBTIQ peoples difficult, to say the least!  I began to recognise that the tension created by my continual drift away from a fundamentalist ideology, and my relationship with the more conservative faith community that I was part of, would not always be tenable. Another season of letting go was ahead. No one can really prepare us for the pain of what letting go really means. No one can really adequately describe the liminal space it flings us into. And it is hard to put into words the freedom that comes when we walk through the fire into the unknown.

Since this post, I have again moved house – twice! To Queensland and back again … should be a title of a book. I have begun to realise that our whole life, in a sense, is a liminal space. The West is ill-prepared for this reality. We don’t like to let go. It is a contradiction to the philosophy of our times and the messages that come at us at the speed of sound such as, “Hold on!” and “You will get there!” We also rarely consider that letting go can be one of the most liberating decisions we can make for our life.

But letting go does mean an ending is coming or has come. And endings are difficult. Endings feel a bit like dying. Maybe that is why we are so adverse to the idea of letting go?

Internet Yoda, aka Google, supplies us with endless articles and self-help tips on how to let go. Letting go of material goods, relationships or friendships, a role or position, anger, insecurity, a belief system, places of belonging, etc, etc. This is an indication that humans do not like to let go! And maybe we just need to face that. There is a part of us that is attached to what we need to let go of. Walking away is letting go of a sense of identity and belonging to that object, emotion, or relationship(s). Some of the studies conducted with people with hoarding disorders show an inability to let go of ‘stuff’ because they have assigned so much value to their possessions (interestingly, the same people found it relatively easy to throw out other people’s belongings). There is a lesson for all of us in this. We assign a value to things/people that we have deeply invested in and that is why ‘letting go’ feels so much like dying.

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And yet we all have to face the reality that life does not remain the same: things change, people change, relationships change, friendships change, and then there comes the inevitable time of necessary endings. A time when you realise that you have to let go for many reasons. Maybe you are desperately clasping to an ideology in order to belong but you are beginning to realise that this sort of approval-based sense of community is actually toxic? Maybe you have come to recognise that you have become morose holding on to ‘stuff’ that simply does not satisfy or produce any sense of health or well-being? Maybe you simply feel stuck and stagnant, holding on to what once was? Maybe it is time to take courage and embrace a different tomorrow? Sometimes we have a choice in this letting go business. Often we don’t. When loss finds us without our decision or approval, the process of ‘letting go’ needs to be even more gentle, the grief needs to be realised, the trauma understood and processed.

So, friends, as you journey through life many of you have and will face loss. Some may be facing very difficult decisions at this very moment, while others are in the process of stepping through this invisible door of ‘letting go’. As you do, may you discover that amidst the tears and heartache, memories of joy and regret, there is also the faintest trace of hope, faith and love … and, yes, you will learn to breathe underwater …

BREATHING UNDER WATER

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.

And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,

less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, not death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

(Carol Bieleck, R.S.C.J. from an unpublished work)

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Challenging the Formidable Twins: Laziness and Stereotyping

“Once you label me you negate me.” Soren Kiekegaard

 

Sometimes they just creep up on you, don’t they? The associates of Prejudice never sleep. A few years ago, I was travelling home on the train after a very long day at work. I was forcing myself to stay awake even though I was exhausted, mainly because I became concerned about someone I caught sight of out of the corner of my eye. He sat diagonally opposite me in the row behind. I could make out some of the tattoos on his hands and arms. A hoodie covered his head. In a nanosecond I had him boxed and labelled. Stereotyping does that to us. It always brings out stupid.

As my train pulled into the station, I got up and stood at the doors. Just like every other train traveller I imagined that this action alone would magically speed up the disembarking process. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my labelled hoodie friend. “You dropped your phone,” he said and handed me my device that, like most of us, contained my life. I looked at him and thanked him, got off the train and felt as guilty as hell. In one fell swoop, I had placed him in the ‘troublesome’ category merely by the way he looked and what society had dictated to me about people who have tattoos and wear hoodies.

History reveals that we deal harshly with those who we consider ‘other’. Fear of what we do not know or understand has allowed humans to do unspeakably cruel things to each other. Ignorance is the foundation of this fear. Throughout history, ignorance has fuelled wars, division, shunning, and persecution. Yet today we have knowledge and information at our fingertips and ignorance still lives on. So perhaps we have to acknowledge that part of the problem of this fear and prejudice is simply a refusal to engage in critical thinking? In other words, when we have been told something about someone or a people group, we take that as truth and we are too lazy, or perhaps comfortable, to engage in robust dialogue or to challenge our own perceptions.

Stereotyping does great harm. Ask any religious, cultural, or racial minority in any society. This past week I listened to some Sudanese young people share about the effect of stereotyping on their lives and the lives of their families and community. I also listened to the rhetoric of a person who, because of some strange regulations found himself in government with 19 votes (those 19 votes obviously gave him enough confidence to stereotype religious minorities), advocate for a white-only immigration policy and make use of the term ‘final solution’ in reference to the people group he just marginalised. Another hatted politician defended this man’s speech as ‘absolutely magnificent’ and then added ‘he’s smart, but he hasn’t read all the history books.” No shit, Sherlock! Maybe he should before engaging in such damaging, lazy stereotyping!

Yes, Stereotyping has a twin – Laziness. And we don’t need to look far to see evidence of these toxic twins at work. If we pay attention, we will hear or observe ourselves sometimes engage in their slander. Or we just need to look on social media! The amount of alarming ‘fact posts’ on Facebook or Twitter, like “I can’t believe it, *insert name or minority group* drinks pig’s blood, flies a broom at midnight, and persecutes the religious pious”. Beneath the posts are all the outraged comments. Then someone finally actually researches the claim. “Hang on,” they write, “that’s not true. *Insert name or minority group* actually is vegan, sells brooms for a living, and is a person who believes in religious freedom.” But it’s too late – Laziness and Stereotyping have done their job, deepening the prejudice that already existed.

Social psychologist Claude Steel says, “Stereotypes are one way by which history affects present life. I often say that people experience stereotype threats several times a day. The reason is that we have a lot of identities – our gender, our race, our age. And about each one of those identities … there are negative stereotypes. And when people are in a situation for which a negative stereotype about one of their identities is relevant to the situation, relevant to what they’re doing, they know they could be possibly judged or treated in terms of that stereotype.” So what do we do? Just accept stereotyping as a way of life? Allow our minds the luxury of laziness as we assess other humans? Maybe the first step is to recognise that stereotyping is harmful.  The second is to realise that our brains can be lazy and we can easily accept stereotypical claims and assertions without a second thought. Perhaps by practicing a bit of mindfulness and critical thinking we can take some steps to resist and reclaim our lives from these obnoxious twins?

Maybe it’s time to slow down and consider our ways? To stop and think before we engage mouth or keyboard and consider how what we are about to say or do will affect other people’s view of that person or minority group? I am more convinced than ever that the only way forward for our fragmented world is to challenge Laziness and Stereotyping and engage other people with understanding and kindness. But someone already said that a very long time ago … “The greatest of all is love” … maybe we just don’t always believe that?

 

Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognised as the person that they are and not a stereotype or image. – Loretta  Lynch 

 

A Tyrant called Should

“Stop Shoulding on yourself!” – Albert Ellis

 

I don’t know how this tyrant found me. Somewhere in the more hazy, early years of my life, it arrived amidst whispers of fears of belonging and identity that are part of human existence.  It settled like a squatter in the shaping of who I was becoming. Over time the squatter seemed to grow in size and volume and it became ginormous within the ethereal walls of conservative fundamentalism. Perhaps you too know this tyrant I speak of? It’s called ‘Should’, first name ‘I’. I should.

I Should do this …
I Should be that …
I Should have this …
I Should not do this …
I Should…
SHOULD…!

Now don’t get me wrong. I think a healthy dose of ‘Should’ or ‘Responsibility’ around the table of our life is not tyrannical in any way. Should, in its proper place, keeps boundaries around our lives that keep us and others safe, and contributing to a greater good. Should holds the possibility of great rewards – and perhaps it is those rewards that cause us to obsess about it? However, to give in to its power is to live in the clutches of tyranny. Its endless demands on our lives and the lives of others is a source of anxiety, guilt, shame, depression and self-hatred. When we don’t measure up to Should we become angry and disappointed with ourselves. And when we place Should on the shoulders of others we end up consistently unhappy in our relationships.

Should is also the master of disguise. It is hard to recognise this exaggerated sense of obligation when we are convinced it’s ‘love’. We SHOULD love others, right? If you, like me, identify as a person of faith, it is often our notions about ‘loving others as ourselves’ that feeds this mutated idea of human kindness and compassion. And the more we feed it, the more we discover something … the beast is never satisfied.

Should also disguises itself as ‘virtue’ and hides the fact that in many ways it is our fear of being ‘disliked’ by others that keeps this tyrant in power. What if I don’t ‘Should’ one day and people don’t like me? What about my reputation? What if I upset them and it gets messy? The truth monster: Should is a mirror to I … and unless we confront an anxious ego, the tyrant keeps the crown.

For me, conservative fundamentalism was the compost the tyrant needed to grow even bigger in my life. The culture and history that informed my identity, taught me that the world is a serious place and we all need to do our part to keep it spinning. I was the perpetual ‘good girl’ wanting to please those around me. Then I discovered a form of religious expression that consistently enshrined and rewarded Should. In fundamentalism, Should came with accolades. It was a match made in hell. It became difficult to differentiate between Should and God. Should was cloaked in piety and had Bible chapters and verses to prove its legitimacy in my life. So walking away from fundamentalism, breaking the rules and ‘disappointing’ people, was really like sticking the middle finger up to Should. It was a most painful and liberating process.

Nowadays, Should still sits at my table. There are even days when it inflates, yells, and tries to snatch back the scepter. But it is no longer a tyrant – it’s more like a toddler, throwing an occasional massive tantrum. I recognise those days. I raise my eyebrows and speak to Should, “Should, you are loved and needed at this table. I am grateful for your voice in my life. But you are not in charge and if you don’t lower your voice I will spontaneously throw myself into the sea, eat a whole chocolate cake and drink copious amounts of beer … just to remind you that I also have other voices around this table. They are called Playful, Imaginative, Spontaneous, Fun, and Risky. When you shout at me like that, I will dial up their volume. Get it? You are NOT in charge.”

So, friend, maybe it’s time to examine ‘Should’ in your life? If you can’t find it, then perhaps you need to dial down the ‘reckless’ voice? If you, like me, find Should has a tendency to become overtly bossy and pushy then maybe it’s time to listen to what this is actually telling you about your life? Your relationships? And there is this little word that has magical powers when it comes to dialing down Should – it’s ‘No’. It has a beautiful ring, doesn’t it? “No, Should, I do not want to do that or be that. Now go away!” – I dare you to try it!

 

In a World of Blind Privilege and Exclusion – Be a Mama Tammye

“I am on this planet, not for myself, but for the betterment of humanity” – Mamma Tammye
(Queer Eye SO2, EO1)

 

It started a few weeks ago. The texts, that is …

“Have you started Queer Eye Season 2? OMG!!!”
“Ok – STOP what you are doing and watch Queer Eye Season 2, Episode 1 … now…. text me…”
“Can’t stop crying – you must have seen Mama Tammye on Queer Eye?”
“Now you know what I think about church, but you might just drag me along if Mama Tammye was preaching.”

So, needless to say, I positioned my derriere on the couch, a glass of red in hand, 2 fur children snoring loudly next to me and started watching Queer Eye – Season 2, Episode 1 as instructed. I nearly convulsed, I was sobbing so hard through the show. I love the Fab 5 and the way they seek to bring meaning and transformation to the lives of others. And who would not fall in love with Mama Tammye?? She reminded me of everything that was okay about religion – she was a personification of the Good News that Jesus talks about.

Watching Mama Tammye interact with the Fab 5 and her complete love and acceptance of her magnificent gay son, Myles, brought up much grief and disappointment for me. If only modern expressions of church and Christianity, held so tightly and loudly by powers and authorities that are often very conservative, privileged and exclusive, had more of Mama Tammy and less of fear and control. What would that look like? Is an ‘old wineskin’ of ecclesiastical methodology and tradition, shaped by the triumphant rise of Christianity as a super-religion under Constantine, even able to hold such a dream? Does it need a whole new wineskin? Could we imagine religious settings that are able to love as fierce and fearless as Mama Tammye? I know there are many that do. Unfortunately, they are not always the ones who are seen or heard. Fundamentalism, that undergirds so much of modern Christianity, has set itself up as the truth bearer – shaming those who do not heed its ideas or peddle its control. So silencing critics and dreamers becomes very important. Yet nothing good has ever come from shaming people into silence.

But back to Mama Tammye and her genuine love, welcome, and affirmation of the diverse expressions of what it means to be human. She is truly welcoming. A welcome that says – “You are loved, just the way you are.” Let’s be like Mama Tammye and open our hearts and arms to love and include for the ‘betterment of humanity.’ Let’s open our eyes to the harmful ideas that claim to be welcoming but not affirming. But what does that even mean?! It means LGBTIQ people can be lulled into a false sense of safety, that a space or group is welcoming, while the toxic ideas of ‘ex-gay’ are still the oxygen that people breathe. “You are welcome here … but you can’t serve or lead until you become straight or at least stay celibate.” The demand for LGBTIQ people to be celibate is the new ex-gay movement, and in the same vein as its insidious ‘pray-the-gay-away therapy’ predecessor (a belief that people who are gay can become straight and that it is God’s will for them to be straight) it continues to wreak havoc with vulnerable lives – to understand some of the heartbreak, please take time to listen to this excellent interview with Vicky Beeching. So let me spell it out – any religious space or group that claims to be welcoming, but not affirming, that sees LGBTIQ people as ‘broken’ and ‘not ideal’, but is motivated by a ‘burden’ to ‘love’ them with a messiah-like, saccharine approach is NOT a safe place. We can all exercise our freedom to go to these places but please do so with your eyes wide open.

I loved the way Mama Tammye repented of the idea that her son was anything but beautiful because he was gay. She rejected a dogma of exclusion that says you are accepted and affirmed by God if you are hetero or celibate. Dogmas of exclusion have been around for centuries. Politics and religion keep them alive. Study Germany when Hitler rose to power. We see similarities in the vilification and exclusion of people in the modern day phenomenon that is unravelling in Trump’s USA. I have witnessed it in apartheid South Africa and as a woman of faith, I very quickly realised that in some denominational circles it is only if you possess certain genitalia that you are fit to preach from a pulpit or be in any form of governmental church roles.

If you, like me, have been part of a more fundamentalist religious setting you have probably been complicit in some form of dogma that marginalised others. Nowadays, the flavour of the month for exclusion in religious settings is LGBTIQ people and it seems immigrants and asylum seekers are the favourites on the political front. We all love ‘others’ as long as they all look and think like us 🙂 We all love God – especially when God is male, white, conservative, and approving only of heterosexual orientation 🙂 The idea that the gospel is bigger than our constructed, socialised interpretation of sacred text is a terrifying thought. Mama Tammye repented from that fear and arrogance. What a breath of fresh air she was blowing into her church and giving that marvellous speech:

“How can I say I love God, but I cannot love the ones who are right next to me?”

Imagine a world filled with Mama Tammyes?
Imagine a world were people like Antoni Porowski and Bobby Berk are brought to tears as they are reminded that the love and face of Jesus are often very different to the words and actions of those who proclaim to be his followers?
Imagine a religious space that has let go of the fundamentalist idea that we need to control who people are and what they believe?
Imagine a group of people that simply spread the good news: that God is not the enemy, rather God is revealed in Immanuel – with us.

In the current climate of increasing political and religious exclusion – let’s be counter-cultural. Let’s be people of a different way. The way of Jesus. Let’s open up our arms wide, tell fear to get back into the box, and trust that love will win the day.

Be like Mama Tammye.

“But I need to ask you for your forgiveness because Mama has not loved you unconditionally.” Mama Tammye – speaking of her son, Myles.