Category Archives: Family, Friends & Foe

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Disenchantment (Part 4)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is Part 4 – following the links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

The questions that started to arise brought with them red-hot anger. Hindsight is helpful. I now realise I was disappointed and disenchanted. When there is a head-on collision of values that have been denied, a deconstruction of idealism that had to do with identity and belonging, and a deep disappointment of personal and community expectations, anger is often the prevalent emotion and lead member of the ‘rescue team’. Ironically, with this anger, I faced the dilemma that the emotion of anger is shamed in religious spaces where being ‘nice’ is a virtue. The niceness culture in some parts of religious institutionalism is as caustic as rat poison mixed with icing sugar. It breeds shallow relationships that are held in place by the fear of judgment.

My inner torment was amplified by the fact that critical and robust dialogue was often interpreted as negative, and everyone was terrified about being ‘negative’. I had very few safe places or people with whom to process my questions, doubts, and thought processes. Pentecostals, in general, hold to a triumphant happiness theology. The rhetoric from pulpits is one of ‘victory’, ‘triumphs’, ‘breakthrough’, ‘better’, and ‘greater’. It is a victory over negativity, poverty, sickness, anxiety, and depression. The result is that anyone who is unable to live in that suspended, Eden-like utopia is considered with caution. When I began to raise some of the doubts I was wrestling with, I recall being asked by one church leader whether I had adopted a ‘new kind of spirituality’. It was a question that silenced me for a few more months. Institutions of any kind tend to guard the structure of certainty over people. It can become a dangerous place for anyone who has begun to fall down the rabbit hole of questions, and who has started deconstructing embedded dogma.

At the end of 2010, I resigned from a prominent role as Associate Pastor. I was terrified. It was a massive step made far more complex as my husband would continue to serve as Senior Minister for the next six years. My decision to step away from the high-profile role was complicated. Perhaps I can simply say that I fell out of love with certainty addiction. The black and white absolutism required of leaders in conservative religious institutions was something I could no longer hold on to with any form of integrity.

My self-assured stance on life and the world had been shaken and found desperately wanting. Perhaps, with a bit of fierce intentionality and some open conversations, my continued dislocation from the community would have been salvageable. However, in the words of Frodo Baggins, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back?” There is no going back once you wake up in the matrix – and, more importantly, once you begin to engage with people who have been shunned by some of these very institutions that I have been part of and helped to build.

The last blow to what was left of my extravagantly structured system of certainty came via a very familiar medium: stories. It started with conversations and friendships amidst LGBTIQA+ people of faith several years prior to my resignation. Since then, I have listened to many people who have had to navigate exile from their homes or faith communities based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. I am indebted to them. They opened their hearts to me, and through their vulnerability, they opened my eyes to a dominant, patriarchal system of ideas that cloaks itself as orthodoxy and truth amongst religious institutions. The stories were hard to hear. The cruelty and brutality so many faced in the name of God was unfathomable. I realised that I had supported, enabled, and helped build a ministry within a wider religious structure that was responsible for causing much trauma. My own blind privilege had not even considered those who were suffering. It is so easy to de-humanise another when you are removed from their pain, ignorant of their plight, and assured of your own ‘truth’!

My eyes were also opened to the effect that ex-gay practices had on people. It is a deeply embedded ideology that is built on the assumption that there is something intrinsically ‘broken’ about anyone who identifies as anything else other than heteronormative. This ideology (and the practices/rhetoric that it enables) is as common as oxygen in conservative religious settings. It is driven by the idea that a person can be healed from their ‘brokenness’ and live a ‘normal’ (aka straight) life. However, some conservative religious communities have now conceded that this ‘healing’ is unlikely (No Shit, Sherlock!!) The latest form of ex-gay torture is to require LGBTIQA+ people to remain celibate. The toll of this torment and quackery is hard to put into words – anguish, disillusionment, mental health issues, and suicides. The day will come when the modern, conservative church has to face the reality of what this ill-informed dogma has done to people.

For me, there came a day when I was asked to talk about the trauma I had observed in the last several years amongst LGBTIQA+ people of faith. I could no longer remain a silent, horrified witness. So, I agreed to be interviewed on Melbourne’s JOY FM (April, 2015) – and all hell was unleashed.

The hysteria that unfurled was spectacular. The interview even managed to raise an extreme right activist out of retirement in order to write one more newsletter to his faithful followers – an e-mail that mysteriously made its way to many of our church parishioners. He demanded that my husband should keep his wife ‘under control’ – a violent rhetoric that seemed to find support from many others based on the e-mails and letters we both received. After several unpleasant confrontations and conversations, I became hesitant to darken the doors of the church. Until that day I had a lot of sympathy for people who found their lives dominated by anxiety, but this was the season when my sympathy became empathy. I had never known the crippling effect of anxiety until I became the focal point of the angry religious faithful. My earnest prayer became, ‘Lord, save me from Your followers.’

Once you break any sacred tribal rules of conduct and belonging, you often find yourself at the blunt end of a tribe’s most devastating weapon – shame. Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

Shame is the most powerful and degrading tool that a tribe has
at its disposal. Shame is the nuclear option. Shame is how they
keep you in line. Shame is how they let you know that you have
abandoned the collective. Violence may be fast and brutal, but
shame is slow … but still brutal.

The interview created the final rift. Friends I had known for years stopped speaking to me. The pain was overwhelming. I let go of the trapeze bar and found myself free-falling into a liminal space … (to be continued)

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Emperor has No Clothes (Part 3)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 3 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here and Part 2 (The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty) here.

I understand why people do not want to engage with questions, self-reflection, and critique. It is a humbling, terrifying, and ego-destroying exercise. Most of us will never go here willingly – to this place of no return. However, once we engage with that niggling divine doubt that will not leave us alone (like an itchy mosquito bite), we crack open Pandora’s box – and all hell breaks loose.

It came to me in the quiet, dark, early morning hours. We had just hosted another successful conference that was overflowing with people and goosebumps. Our lives and our schedules at this stage were stretched to maximum capacity. We were adrenaline junkies doing “God’s will” – and God was clearly “blessing” us. Lying in bed exhausted, I wondered whether this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I will build the church”? Somehow, I thought, our lives now seemed a million lightyears removed from that of a lowly carpenter, his motley crew, and a humble group of villagers that would make up his growing ecclesiastical constituents. It was the question that never left me, and, like someone who had been underwater for a very long time, I came to the surface gasping for air.

Questions like these were the red carpet on which Paradox made her entrance into my life. Once you see her, you cannot look away. I became the paranoid version of Truman Burbank of The Truman Show, suspiciously examining the somewhat hyper-real environment I was part of and helped create. The safe ivory tower of religious absolutism that has carved such a mega place for itself in modern Christianity started to crumble for me.

I began to notice the consumerism that was hiding under the idea of “blessing.” If we are convinced that God’s blessing is inadvertently tied to more stuff, larger buildings, faster growth, greater mission conquests, extra campuses, and bigger numbers, then the pursuit of more becomes a holy crusade. The pursuit of manifestations and/or healing is also viewed in the same light. If you are “healed” you are blessed, if not, there must be something wrong with you. If there is one word that describes the motivational factors behind some of the empire-building of modern-day Christianity, it is “more.” “More” is the trophy held up in individual and community life as the proof of God’s blessing. The ideology of “more” is deeply embedded. Is it any wonder that the key questions asked at so many leadership conferences that I attended was, “How many people are in your church now” or “How many campuses do you have now?” People spend their life analysing and writing books on this – How to reach more people, raise more money, become more influential, etc. How beautiful the golden calf shimmers in the light of a “more = blessing” philosophy.

Consumerism was but one of the growing number of concerns that now hounded me in the “mega” space of religion. I began to notice the blindness I carried in relation to my own privilege. I had become accustomed to living in an empire that influenced politics, policed morality, and dominated social structures, yet was very quick to cry foul, or rather “persecution”, if it felt threatened. An empire that had to keep “producing” and “growing”. In the middle of it I had grown blind and deaf – it has hard to pay attention to the voices on the margin or the inner voice of caution when you are busy saving the world.  This kind of self-reflection brought with it a fair share of regret. I was complicit in enabling the empire. I was one of its fiercely loyal soldiers.

Brian Walsh writes, “A cold commodity culture in which everything is reduced to its market value will blasphemously obscure our vision that all this earth is hallowed ground” (Colossians Remixed). He is right. The dualistic ideals held in these sectarian enclaves of “us” and “them”, “holy” and “secular”, consistently reduces those who differ to “other” or “sinful.” It creates distance between human connectedness and a refusal to recognise the divine in the “other” who may not think, look, walk, or talk like “us.” Dualism creates binary thinking, while Paradox challenges it with endless examples of exceptions. Paradox must be ignored for the parade to go on …

 … but I could no longer wave.

I had too many questions ….

The values I had silenced began to rise.

[To be continued]

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 2 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here.

I was “saved” in the Newcastle Full Gospel Church, when my father randomly decided he would go to church, prompted by an invitation from his supervisor at work. A visit by aliens would have been less surprising. I walked down the aisle that Sunday morning and “gave my heart” to the Viking-look-alike-god I encountered all those years earlier. I waited for the magic to happen as I was told I was now “saved” and transformed and a whole new being. In a sense, I did experience magic – suddenly, I belonged to a group of people who smiled constantly and fed me delicious South African desserts. The wandering little girl, now in her teens, had found a home.

Like a woman possessed, I frantically built the structures of certainty and absolutism around my life, following my coming to faith. I embodied the zealous figure of Saint Paul before his conversion, slaughtering any and all ideas that contained seeds of doubt and paradox. Fundamentalism, with its overtures in literalism and dogmatism, became the strong tower that produced my concept of God. I was a loyal soldier to the cause. Finally, I had found something that soothed my angst over what appeared to be a harsh, confusing, and meaningless world.

In the meantime, on the geographical front, we returned to Germany for a year and then migrated to Australia. It was in Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1984 that I would meet the man who would become my life partner. He was travelling up the coast with a friend and dropped in to visit my church, an offshoot of the large Pentecostal faith community called Waverley Christian Fellowship based in Melbourne. His father was one of the ministers there. So, one bright, sunny day in February 1985, I packed up my old Valiant station wagon affectionally called “Boris,” and embarked on the long drive to Melbourne, sleeping at the side of the road along the way. So begins my story of a three-decade-long journey as an integral part of a conservative religious institution and my addiction to certainty.

Kierkegaard was an admirer of Socrates and the Socratic dialectical method. He observed how Socrates would consistently examine a student’s certainty in an area of knowledge because certainty eventually leads to paradox. Paradox provided a pathway to higher truth. Kierkegaard believed that engaging in this dialectical process would offer more valid glimpses of the Divine in one’s journey. This belief, for him, was the only developmental certainty – the trek through the “stages of life’s way.” I found this to be a helpful reflection as I look back on thirty years lived within a conservative Pentecostalism that had little room for questions or paradox. Pentecostalism has a strong emphasis on spiritual manifestations. It tends to resist critique and is at times known for its anti-intellectual stance.

I often wonder why it took me nearly thirty years to wake up in the matrix. I think my internal fear of chaos and confusion collaborated so well with the structural ideologies in a place that refused to question. I do not want to give the impression that these were in any way “bad” years – they were not. I experienced a sense of happiness and fulfillment in the various roles I filled in the megachurch of which my husband would become Senior Minister in 1995. They were heady days of success, expansion, and growth. I developed as a speaker and was travelling the world, delivering profundities from various platforms about everything certain and absolute.

People cheered. I had found truth.

In our structure-building phase of life, we often find safety and solace in organisations that exude confidence and assurance. This includes religious institutions that embrace biblical literalism as a form of orthodoxy. They provide an irresistible framework of certitude for anyone seeking guarantees or formulas that will work in this wild ride called life. Unless we foster a strong culture of critique and self-reflection in these settings, we will mistakenly confuse our flourishing ego as faith and our elitism as a community. With such a narrative, held in place by praise and success, it becomes increasingly difficult to change and grow.

Richard Rohr writes, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future”(Falling Upwards). My ego had hired my love for certainty and structure as security guards to prevent any ideological challenge or change. Working together with the idea of ‘success’ and applause from the multitude, they dulled my senses – a sort of concoction that has us cling to fantasies and keep us blind.

Maybe that is why I didn’t question hierarchical structures or patriarchal dominance for such a long time?

My love affair with certainty ensured that I obediently nodded to ideas and doctrines that were presented as absolute truth, yet jarred deeply with my values. At least I submitted in the early years when influential leaders would propagate the myth of male headship. However, both my husband and I began to fall down the rabbit hole as we opened ourselves to voices outside our tight-knit community, and the wheels of change began to slowly move and creak. Questions started to arise, often uttered in hushed tones, questions that prodded at some of the communal ideology adopted through the adherence to dogma stemming from the Holiness and Latter Rain Movement.

This was not easy.

Holy Cows are very precious.

However, paradox was calling … and her voice was growing louder … (to be continued)

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Meandering Paths (Part 1)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book. They are reflections of a very painful season in my life. However, hindsight also provides me with deep gratitude. May these posts offer some hope and courage to all fellow liminal pilgrims.

Never knowing which way was up

Until I drank the bitter cup

And then the sky it disappeared

And I was falling without fear

Falling, falling without a sound

Down down down down down down down

This is who I am, this is what I need

Falling down the rabbit hole

This is how I live, this is how I bleed

Falling down the rabbit hole

This is what I know, this is how I think …

Joel Sattler

 

Storytelling is the aorta that runs through my family and ancestors. It has nourished us for generations. The traditional German Kaffeeklatsch may start with just two or three people drinking coffee and eating Sahnekuchen, but within minutes the room is filled with invisible guests, joshing for their stories to be heard from another time and place. I was a fortunate child to grow up surrounded by such rich narrative.

The stories of war and displacement were never far from the lips of my Oma. She lost her husband, my grandfather, in the battle of Stalingrad. As a young mother, with my aunt who was a toddler and my father who was a three-month-old baby at the time, she had to flee her hometown of Lyck (Elk, Poland) as the Soviet Army approached in 1945. Her survival stories were harrowing: stories of despair, hunger, abuse, but also of hope. The man she married six years later would provide a safe haven for a young widow and her children.

My mother suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder all her life, most of those years without a diagnosis and unable to understand her own sense of consistent, heightened anxiety and insomnia. She was older than my father and remembers the war – running for bomb shelters, shaking violently as the fighter jets approached, the sound of Gestapo boots on the street, and her Jewish neighbour jumping off her balcony to her death so she would not be arrested. Her childhood was turbulent and traumatic.

The stories my parents and grandparents told shaped so much of my world. I grew up in a loving and nurturing home, but I was not shielded from these stories, and for that, I am so grateful. It prepared me for what I was about to experience as a seven-year-old when my parents packed up house and moved from Germany to South Africa.

Most immigrants can relate to the sense of disorientation and disconnection experienced when one settles into a country that is very different from their accustomed culture and social norms. I felt as if I was caught in a giant tidal wave of learning and new experiences. I did not find my feet for several years. I had to learn English and Afrikaans – an apartheid-torn South Africa had a dual-language approach. I also learnt Zulu. But all that took time. In the meantime, I became the focal point of playground fun and belittling. Children show little mercy when they can distract potential bullies to prey that is more vulnerable than they are. The school library became my safe place during recess and the Giant Illustrated Catholic Children’s Bible became a source of wonder.

I had no embedded idea about the blue-eyed, blonde-haired man I was looking at in that Bible. He reminded me of someone from Norse mythology or a Viking character that featured in one of the many stories my Oma told. It would be quite a few years later before I would encounter this man again. At that time, I learnt his name: Jesus.

It was the system called apartheid – an ultimate form of marginalization, bullying, and oppression of people based on the hue of their skin — that reminded me that the world is not really a safe place. My lack of friends at school was quickly compensated for by the children of the cleaners and helpers at my mother’s hair salon. It was with their help that I mastered Zulu long before Afrikaans. It was their presence that exposed me to the cruelty I now witnessed in person, not in stories. My Zulu friends could not go into the shops I visited, they had separate drinking fountains, it took them a long time to find a public toilet they were permitted to use, and they often had random grown-ups shout at and abuse them. They were not permitted to be in the streets of the area where I lived. I have a distinct memory of the neighbour across the road beating an African man unconscious because he took a shortcut across a nearby field. That neighbour then dusted off his suit and got into his car to go to church. I later found out he was an elder at the local Dutch Reformed church. To me, he remains immortalized in my historical narrative as the archetypal arsehole.

These were some of my pre-liminal stories and life experiences. I would dream of a better world. In my imagination, I was the super-hero who would put every bully in his place and liberate the oppressed. I was a child waiting to become a zealot, looking for a cause. More than that, I was a child desperately looking for belonging, safety, and predictability. I found it in institutional fundamentalist religion … (to be continued)

 

 

My Pug and Her Curious Relationship with Her Shadow

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.” – Carl Jung – 

 

My pug mauls her shadow. Not every day, of course. Just on those days when the sun is shining brightly and we happen to walk past our neighbour’s garden wall at a particular time in the morning. Suddenly she stops and growls, her hackles are up, and she morphs into Danger Pug. The enemy is obvious – the enemy is standing a few inches next to her – the enemy is her.

“Nikki,” I say, “Petal,” I say, “It’s your shadow. It’s you.” She stares at me with angry eyes. “You know nothing, human,” is the clear translation of the disdain she feels for me at that moment. To the pug, her shadow is and always will be, outside of herself … something that is irritatingly and dangerously highlighted on her neighbour’s wall.

I no longer try to dissuade her from attacking her shadow. She has told herself a story all her life: her shadow is her enemy. She is not open to feedback or willing to engage in critical thinking and a process of deconstruction to consider where this idea of ‘my shadow is my enemy’ comes from. Maybe her pug history and litter culture shamed her shadow? Or maybe it was talked about in hushed, embarrassed tones? Or maybe she was taught that her shadow is something to fear and despise … never to acknowledge it, under any circumstance. I will never really know. There is no invitation on her end to engage in any conversation about her shadow.

 

The pug is us! There is a Darth Vader Shadow in all of us. Parts of our actions, intentions, or sense of self that we do not wish to acknowledge. Something we try to hide or disown – and yet, in times of crisis, anger, or confrontation, we are suddenly horrified as envy, greed, selfishness, restlessness, power lust, etc, etc, etc, come out to play.

For many of us, our shadow has been disapproved and shamed since we can remember. So, as the poet Robert Bly points out, we spend our lives putting all the things that our parents, teachers, friends, family, etc, point out as ‘undesirable’ into an ‘invisible bag’. An invisible bag that becomes a mile long. A bag, that our society teaches us to never display or talk about. However, no good ever comes out of anything reduced and ignored through shame and scorn. It festers. It turns against us … and it begins to operate without our awareness or permission … Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde come to mind.

Every day we entertain a whole lot of ‘guests’ at our table of life. When we refuse to host the guests that come into our life that bring us a sense of pain or embarrassment, they become loud and dominant. And what happens then? We look for something or someone to maul … our neighbour (or, in the pug’s case, the neighbour’s wall). Robert Johnson said, “Unless we do conscious work on it, our shadow is almost always projected: That is, it is neatly laid on someone or something else so we do not have to take responsibility for it.”

The profound words of Jesus come to mind, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Tied closely to our rage and hatred of our neighbour is deep self-loathing. We see on our neighbour’s wall everything we are trying to hide in our invisible bag. By attacking our neighbour, we are really attacking ourselves. Perhaps, far harder than attempting to love our neighbour, is to love our sense of self?

It is our ego, our idea of self-image, that acts like a security guard over our invisible bag. We are often given an invitation to relinquish our ego. As Richard Rohr puts it, “…to relinquish the identification with the values of others, the values received and reinforced by the world around us … we are asked to accept the absurdities of existence, that death and extinction mock all expectations of aggrandisement, that vanity and self-delusion are most seductive of comfort … How counterproductive our popular culture with its fantasies of prolonged youthful appearance, continuous acquisition of objects with their planned obsolescence, and the incessant restless search for magic: fads, rapid cures, quick fixes, new diversions from the task of the soul.”

Our ego has one vocation: to stop us from acknowledging our shadow and with that acknowledgement to recognise our connectedness to one another. To dismiss our ego is terrifying. Suddenly Darth Vader is sitting at our dinner table of life … and we have no security guard to call.

Mystics and religious writers all have different language for this moment. It is a ‘dying to self’, sometimes a ‘dark night of the soul’, or a form of ’surrender’ or ‘detachment’. It is only when we dismiss the ego and invite all of us to the table of life that we begin to awaken.

Whether we choose this path or not is determined by one big question – What dreams and hopes do we have about the life we want to live? How you answer that question determines your steps and informs your initiatives. The choice is ours. We are the narrators of the stories we tell ourselves. And as I write, the pug yet again mauls her neighbour’s wall, not once considering that she is attacking herself …

 

“We can’t eliminate the shadow. It stays with us as our dark brother or sister. Trouble arises when we fail to see it. For then, to be sure, it is standing right behind us.”  – Scott Jeffrey – 

 

 

The Table of Life: Despair and Hope

Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness. Look deeply into life, and you’ll always find despair.”
― Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept –

Lately, I find the world increasingly loud and overwhelming. I flinch as I scroll through my various social news feeds: The faces of the destitute that have been stigmatised as ‘evil and unwanted’ by the powerful, the look of terror on the faces of animals subjected to human cruelty, the arrogant political pontification that diminishes people to fear and suspicion, a religious system built on nationalistic dogma disguised as gospel … I find it all exhausting and Despair knocks at my door.

So I turn to this uninvited guest, cloaked in a shroud of grey. I invite Despair to my table of life and ask whether it would like a cup of coffee? But Despair, uncomfortable with gestures of kindness, stays silent. “I will have coffee,” says Hope with its soft, lilting tone, “and toast with peanut butter.” Despair seems to smirk. “What is the use?” it whispers. “We never learn. We never change. History is set to repeat itself over and over again … until this blue planet we call home can no longer sustain our stupidity … and we sink amidst our greed and ignorance.”

The table goes silent. The words of Despair have that sort of effect … except on Hope. Hope seems comically deaf to the words of Despair. “This toast is delicious. I love peanut butter. I think I would like another one. And then I am going to take a walk along the beach and observe the rhythm of the waves …” “What a waste of time,” interrupts Despair, “such a meaningless exercise … staring at polluted waters.” Hope is undaunted. “Yes, I have noticed that there is a lot more rubbish on the shore. Fortunately, people all around the globe have noticed this too. All across our beautiful world people are doing something about this.”

Despair stares at Hope. “How come you are still around? I would have thought by now you would have died amidst the chaos and confusion?” Hope returns Despair’s stare for a very long, uncomfortable time. “What if I told you that I don’t die? I have lived … endlessly … and I have seen it all – the fear, the hatred, the destruction … and I am still here.” For the first time since it took a seat, Despair looks up. “Why?” Hope points to the corner of the table where a guest dressed in glimmer and glitter and rainbow colours is reaching for some jam. “There are other forces at play. Whispers and quiet voices that speak life and love to the universe.” Despair groans. “Speak to the universe? And that will stop the forces bent on carnage?” “Not always,” says Hope, “but sometimes.” Despair and Hope stare at each other.

“And that is why you are needed at this table,” says Hope. Despair, used to being kicked, shunned and medicated, looks at Hope in disbelief. “If you don’t come knocking at the door we eat too much peanut butter with toast and forget that there’s still a lot of rubbish in the ocean.” Despair, unaccustomed to being acknowledged, shifts around on the chair uncomfortably. Eventually, it gets up to leave. “Stay a little longer,” says Hope. “O I will return,” says Despair, “but you have reminded me that beyond the rubbish there is a big, blue ocean to look at … and I think I will do that now … and then I will return and remind you that there’s still a lot of rubbish that needs to be removed.”

The table guests stand as Despair leaves. Hope puts a reserved sign on the empty chair. “This sacred guest will return and we will anticipate its return with a welcome … it will remind us that all of us are needed for the task yet ahead. But for now, I would like another cup of coffee.”

The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.”
Alain de Botton –

Tattered Teddies and Tattered Hearts

Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.
-Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit –

It was a very difficult decision to let Baer go. However, Baer had gone to God. His little teddy body could no longer be mended. There were now gaping holes where once his beautiful brown glass eyes had looked at the world with somber wisdom. His soft teddy body had been stitched and re-stitched countless times. The last bit of survival hope came to an abrupt end when my little dog used his soft teddy paws to sharpen her puppy teeth. Baer had lived a fully loved life and it was time to say goodbye to a tattered teddy.

I often think about the solemn farewell ceremony I conducted as a five-year-old. Tattered teddies have so much to teach us. In a world obsessed about staying young and looking picture perfect, a tattered teddy would question whether these image ideals are integral to our sense of self or whether our values have been hijacked by a modern consumeristic culture? Why do we believe that our existence should be tatter-free? Perhaps, if we embrace unreservedly this wild ride called life, we, like Baer, will also become worn and tattered. Maybe that thought creates great angst for us?

The years I spent in fundamentalist religion had me believe that life was one giant escalator ride to triumph and that the gospel message was my ticket to living healthy and wealthy lives, where everything is awesome! However, I discovered rather quickly that this brand of religion claimed grace at theirs yet held a lot of judgement for anyone who was seen to be believing or behaving in a manner less than the tribal constructed ideal. There was little room for tattered teddies with tattered hearts.

Nowadays, I no longer cling to those ideas that tend to produce a never-ending spiral of anxiety, fear, and discontentment. I rejected the bogus thought that God judges vulnerable, tattered hearts and sends them to Dante’s hell like some heinous universal tyrant. I actively resist the dominant religious or cultural discourse that would like us to believe in a tatter-free existence. I call bullshit on it. It has created an endless count of broken-hearts, rejection, and disappointment. The false hypothesis that we can live tatter-free has us continually choosing the risk-free, ‘shiny’ options instead of learning to tell our stories amidst and with the messiness of life. We never own our own shit, fears, or failures, when tatter-free is the idolised communal choice. We can never apologise. And grace remains on the margins, amidst the tattered people with tattered hearts.

So, dear reader, next time someone tries to peddle you a tatter-free spiel about life, turn your back and walk away. You don’t need that sort of toxicity in your life. Confront the tatter-free judgement in your own mind, disguised under all sorts of fraudulent gobbledygook. Live that wild tattered life that you yearn for. And when, like Baer, it is time for you to go to God, may your tattered being give one last sigh – ‘It is well with this Tattered Heart!’

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)