Maybe You Are Asking The Wrong Questions?

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
– Primo Levi (Holocaust Survivor) –

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Primo Levi did not consider himself a hero for surviving Auschwitz. Like other survivors, he had seen and experienced too much. He was one of only 700 survivors of more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Upon his release in 1945, he began writing about his experiences. In a heartbreaking interview he reflects on the cost of not asking questions and of doing as you are told without really understanding. In Nazi Germany, the cost was millions of lives. Shutting his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, the typical German citizen built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence of not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

Questions are dangerous things. To question means that we are prepared to engage in the risky task of letting go of what we thought we knew and to admit not knowing. Perhaps that’s why ego is one of the great barriers to questions. In a society that often prides itself in the pretense of knowledge, questioning has fallen out of favour. We no longer see the value of questions or we have been told to avoid them (such as in some cult or extremist religions). Yet questions are the key to innovation and growth. Questions can change our world. Never stop asking questions.

Not only do we need to learn to question again, we also need to consider changing our questions. If our life decisions and choices are consistently detrimental to our well-being, then perhaps the problem is the lack of questions prior to making these decisions? Or maybe we are asking the wrong questions? This was the advice from one of my favourite high school teachers. He seldom provided answers when I was stuck in the complexity of learning. Rather, he would challenge me to ask different questions. Most of the time it was the uncomfortable process of stepping out of a pre-set paradigm in order to ask those questions that then provided brilliant answers. Claude Levi-Strauss says, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.

Social change, transformation, innovation and the growth of companies and industry has often been the result of a single question. For example, “Why can’t I have the photo immediately,” was the question of a 3-year-old to her father, Edwin Land. The result of that question was the invention of the polaroid camera. “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” writes Warren Berger in his excellent book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” But like Primo Levi points out, often we are conditioned not to question – and that has to do with power.

Berger writes, “To encourage or even allow questions is to cede power.” If you take a look around you at social, religious or political settings that are dying and filled with fear you will find a common denominator – they have shut down questions a long time ago! If you are employed in a workspace or living in some form of community that treats questions with fear and paranoia, you will be unable to live authentically and you will stop growing. Questions are the fertiliser for the seeds that lie dormant in your heart.

So, friend, what are you facing right now that needs a new set of questions? What are you afraid of right now that needs you to let go of the safe harbour of certainty so you can go into the uncharted waters of questions? Where are you gagged right now from asking questions? Why are you allowing that setting to silence you? Not to question preserves the status quo. It is time for beautiful questions and to allow your inquiry to unsettle assumptions, a sense of ‘stuckness’, and of fear … it is time to grow! Ask!

“Are we too enthralled with answers? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long?”
– Stuart Firestein –

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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Apartheid and the Ideas about God that Upheld It

This is a blog post from 2 years ago. As I travel Germany and am confronted by the many monuments that remember the holocaust and persecuted minorities, I am again aware of the fundamental role that dominant religions often play in oppressive regimes. May we never forget. 

I still remember the feeling of stifling hot air hitting my face as we disembarked from our long journey at Jan Smuts International Airport (now O.R. Tambo International Airport), in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the early 70’s. State President J.J. Fouché, Prime Minister B.J. Forster, and the National Party were in power. We had started our arduous trek from Frankfurt, Germany, after many months of preparation to migrate to this southernmost African Republic. For a tiny seven year old, the world had just become a whole lot bigger.

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Amidst the many new experiences, language gaps, huge learning curves and cultural differences, one phenomenon stood head and shoulders above all others: Apartheid. Apartheid was a political and social system that protected the dominant rule of the 20% white minority through racial segregation. The term literally means ‘apartness’.  Although racial discrimination has deep roots in South Africa, it was D.F. Malan and the National Party who formerly established the racist system when they swept into power in 1948md1. It was toppled in 1994, with the appointment of South Africa’s first democratically elected, black President, Nelson Mandela.

The injustice of a system that discriminated people by the colour of their skin felt like a cultural tsunami to freshly arrived, wide-eyed immigrants. Yet for many people who had lived in and under that system, especially those who benefitted from it, it seemed a ‘normal’ part of everyday life. The memories of what I witnessed under apartheid do not diminish with time: the beating of a man until he was bloodied, bruised and motionless, by a neighbour who thought he should not be in the ‘white’ part of town; the anger directed at my friends of colour when they stepped too close to the drinking fountains that were designated ‘whites only’; and the squalid, overcrowded townships with their tiny ‘match box houses’.

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South Africa came under the rule of the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. Christianity played a major role in the shaping of colonised South Africa. But it was in the twentieth century that many churches started actively promoting racial division. The largest of the various denominations, the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk – NGK), became the ‘official religion’ of the National Party during the apartheid era. Fear ruled the day. A white minority began to increasingly feel that their own existence was threatened. Church doctrine and beliefs were fashioned to uphold a political ideology of segregation.

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The Bible became the central tool for apartheid dogma. Genesis 11 was used to argue that God divided humanity into different races, with the white race being superior. Difficult Bible verses such as Galatians 3:28, where the Apostle Paul presents the Gospel as breaking down barriers of division, were adapted to claim that he was addressing spiritual, not physical, equality. This teaching became so entrenched that many believed that South Africa’s apartheid was God’s will, that races should be kept apart, that whites had better opportunities because they were ‘favoured’ by God, and that above all, God was the ‘Great Divider’. One of the first laws to come into legislation under the apartheid regime was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, banning the marriage of a white person to a person of any other colour. It was believed that these relationships were sinful, an idea that had been fuelled by the passing of the 1927 Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between white people and that of other races. During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, enthusiasm for apartheid theology began to wane amongst followers, yet many church leaders remained fervent adherers to the apartheid doctrine. At this point, it is also important to mention that there were numerous churches and church leaders who stood in fierce opposition to apartheid.

Gradually societal paradigms began to shift. The work and words of many anti-apartheid advocates was beginning to fall on more receptive ears. The effect of having black South Africans form the majority in all church denominations, except the Dutch Reformed Church, cannot be underestimated. Slowly, and facing much criticism, more church leaders began to speak out against apartheid. The South African Council of Churches became one of the most effective anti-apartheid organisation. Pentecostal churches tended to be more conservative than the older, more established, churches. They expressed vague ideas about the racial dilemma, indicating that God was the only hope for the future.

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The Conservative Right, concerned about the growing acceptance of anti-apartheid ideology and the effect of foreign investment boycotts, organised themselves into new groups, like the ‘Christian Forum’, to protest sanctions. The founder of ‘Open Door Ministry’, Brother Andrew, distributed comic tracts in English and Afrikaans to South African defence troops, claiming  that the anti-apartheid struggle was an invasion of ‘communism’ against ‘democracy’, and the final contest between Christ and the Anti-Christ. His ideas, that South Africa had a mission to evangelise all of Africa, and that the international movement for economic sanctions was a ploy of Satan “to isolate South Africa to prevent it from fulfilling its divine commission”, resonated with many. Of course, it is important to remember that pro-apartheid support was also found amongst many high-profiled Christians in the USA, such as President Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson. To this day there are still pro-apartheid advocates who argue that the struggle against apartheid was sinful, and that people who were involved need to ‘repent or face the wrath of God’.

At the heart of it all, apartheid was a radical survival plan. It was the construction of a deeply nationalistic and religious Afrikaner minority group who were terrified of being subjugated by another people and culturally swamped by black Africans. It was this fear that gave apartheid its impetus. The renown Afrikaans poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw, supported apartheid because he, like many others, believed that integration meant Afrikaner National suicide. Fear propaganda reached fever pitch as the walls of segregation began to tumble rather quickly in the late 80’s. Pro-apartheid arguments became shrill and hysterical, a rather common occurrence when dominating powers begin to fall.

The rise and fall of apartheid shows the social and political power of religious movements. God is often claimed and ordained by the various religious voices seeking to present their perspective as right and true. “God is on my side” is perhaps one of the most comforting and often deceptive notions of the religious faithful. Deceptive, especially when it propagates oppression, violence and discrimination against other people in the name of God, claiming their suffering is unavoidable and “for the greater good”.

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Apartheid, at one stage in earlier South African history, was just an idea. An idea to control a large people group. An idea that would have been difficult to embody without the assistance of religion. Religion provided the ‘divine mandate’ that the idea needed to become a force – a force that brought years of injustice. We need to consider that Christianity, or an ideology based on Christianity, played a central role in this oppressive regime. This is rather ironic considering that Christianity itself began not as a religion, but with a persecuted minority group desperately trying to follow the teaching of a lowly carpenter. A man who became such a threat to the dominant social and political order that he was executed. It was not until Constantine that Christianity became acquainted with political power and a dramatic change occurred. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Overnight the Church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas.” Christianity became the religion of the empire and was no longer at the very bottom of society,  which is the best vantage point to “understand the liberating power of the Gospel for both the individual and society.” With power, wealth and nobility, Christianity began to deviate from the simple teaching of Christ, whose concern for the poor, downtrodden and marginalised, was evident in his ministry. Apartheid serves as an example of what happens when our ideas about God are driven by an agenda of control and dominion, conveniently hidden under religious robes of moral piety.

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This is a most chilling lesson indeed, that if we are not careful, our very notions about God can be misplaced, and instead of bringing life and freedom, become a tool in the hand of the oppressor. History is not short of examples.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. – Nelson Mandela

 

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A very brief Introduction to Christian Fundamentalism

“There are few things more dangerous than inbred religious certainty.” – Bart D. Ehrman

This is a REPOST of a blog I wrote a couple of years ago … most fitting at this time of Australian religious and political discussions!

There is a danger in assuming that every Christian belief and practice that we adhere to today has always been part of the Christian faith throughout the centuries. “Well, Christians have believed this for two thousand years,” is a common phrase we fling around. We can line ourselves up with the ‘saints’ who have gone before, convinced that our Christian enlightenment happens to be the ‘orthodox’ portion, whilst everyone else has, unfortunately, landed with a distorted version. If this is our subconscious paradigm, then the way we engage with the wider world outside our theological framework tends to be from a benevolent, Messiah-like stance, patiently patting a delinquent society on the head. But over time we find this irksome. People who are not as pious and pure as we would like them to be can lead us to ‘righteous’ anger. We find lawmakers and politicians with similar views and hinge our wagon of outrage to their public persona, their dogma, and their power … Welcome to Christian Fundamentalism.

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This blog post will provide a very brief glimpse into the Fundamentalist movement within the North American and British context. Why is this of interest? It is most relevant to the Australian setting as fundamentalism still undergirds the ethos of so many faith communities, often without them being truly aware of the origin. Understanding this history provides a frame of reference of the motivation behind some of their beliefs and behaviour.

Some of the earliest scholars to write on fundamentalism were Stewart G. Cole, History of Fundamentalism (1931), and Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (1954). Both academics were rather negative as they saw the rise of fundamentalism not driven by religious convictions, but rather by the desire for political denomination power. Fundamentalism was primarily a reaction. It was a reaction to liberal theology, secularism, science, and especially the theory of evolution. According to Timothy Gloege, North American Christian fundamentalism was invented in an advertising campaign. The all-UnknownAmerican brand of ‘old-time religion’ was developed by an early adopter of consumer capitalism, who wanted to sell pure Christianity like he sold breakfast cereal. Enter Henry Parsons Crowell, whose Quaker Oats was one of the pioneers of the branding revolution.

So how do you create a brand of conservative orthodoxy that goes beyond the traditional Presbyterian Orthodoxy, Methodist orthodoxy, etc? You work with the fear of those who felt that the ‘true’ Christian message was being watered down through some of the factors mentioned (liberalism, secularism, etc). Crowell’s idea of orthodoxy was a prescription that came with a set of ‘fundamentals’ that anyone who was conservative within any denomination could ascribe to and set themselves apart from the liberals.

Crowell used a publication called The Fundamentals to further his ideas. This is a twelve volume set of theological treatises written by various scholars writing on the fundamentals of faith, or as the subheading says, a testimony to the truth. Those who actually bother reading the volumes quickly discover that they carry no precise creed and that articles contradict each other, but they did create an impression of orthodoxy.  The volumes brought together conservatives from all different denominations who felt embattled by liberalism. They united under some very specific ideas, particularly biblical literalism and creationism. (A timeline of the rise of fundamentalism and the Scopes Trscopessignial).

This was not the only stream of fundamentalism. There were several in the 19th century of British and American theology. One of these was Dispensationalism. A new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830’s in England. In this theory, time was divided into seven stages called ‘dispensations’. Each dispensation was a stage of revelation from God. Today, many who hold to this idea believe that the world is on the verge of the last stage, where a final battle will take place at Armageddon. Then Christ will return and a 1000 year reign will begin. An important sign was the rebirth of national Israel, which is central to this ideology.

Princeton Theology of the mid 19th century provided another stream of fundamentalism. It upheld the doctrine of inerrancy, in response to higher criticism of the Bible. Charles Hodge was influential in insisting that the Bible was inerrant because it had been dictated by God, and that faithfulness to the Bible provided the best defence against liberalism. This is important as in his understanding, liberalism and modernism, just like non-Christian religions, would lead people to hell.

Fundamentalism found oxygen in many “Bible Colleges,” especially those modelled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dwight Moody was influential in preaching the imminence of the Kingdom of God thaUnknown-1t was so important to dispensationalism. As Moody’s crusading career came to an end we discover a new strand of fundamentalism through William B. Riley.  In revival meetings around the Midwest and Northwest from 1897 to the 1910s, Riley told crowds to follow the Bible. “God is the one and only author,” he declared, adding that human writers “played the part of becoming mediums of divine communication.”  Riley’s distinctive brand of fundamentalism combined social activism, puritanical moralism, and a literalist premillennialist theology.  In his 1906 book urging Christians to serve the urban poor, Riley defined the mission of the Church as he saw it: “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.”

Fundamentalism is still with us today and it is still a powerful force. In his book, Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American FundamentalismJonathan J. Edwards argues that fundamentalism is not going away and will remain strongest at the level of local politics: “Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical — meaning that it’s constructed in and through language.”

Today we see a second-stage fundamentalism emerging in the United States and around the world. While established churches are embracing contemplation, silent prayer and non-directed worship, fundamentalist churches are actively pursuing consumption, mobility, image and influence. We see this pursuit played out in Australian politics.  Unlike the USA with its firm separation of church and state, Australian governments had supported and been supported by religious groups since the foundation of the European settlement. However, it was not until the election of the conservative national government in 1996, that government preference for the religious provision of services was enshrined as a policy priority.  The extraordinary rise of fundamentalist churches and right-wing lobby groups through the 1980s and 1990s has had direct effects on government and policies … but that is the topic for another day.

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Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Scars Sealed In Gold

“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be effort, and the law of human judgment, mercy.”
– John Rushkin –

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It seems that “banishing imperfection” is the obsessive past time of our modern society. Current ideas about beauty, success, wealth or piety become enshrined upon the golden altar of desire and happiness that the faithful flock to. Perfection is the ultimate goal. It is celebrated and rewarded. Individuals or groups who achieve this rare state are paraded around platforms, their voices filling our sound waves, their images filling our screens, and their formulas filling our bookshelves. It is a lucrative business to be perfect. No wonder we are living in such an epidemic of human anxiety and fear as the banishing of imperfection is not working out that well for 99.99999% of us!

There are many reasons why we may crave perfection. Perhaps the fear of vulnerability is one of the greatest? When we are vulnerable we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection. Vulnerability is risky. Vulnerability destroys the enshrined ideas of perfection. When we choose vulnerability we choose courage instead of fear, authenticity instead of image, and the messiness of what it means to be human, instead of perfection. Vulnerability takes a sledge hammer to the golden calf of perfectionism that reigns supreme in our political, religious and celebrity spaces, and in our own lives.

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I am someone who, especially in my first half of life, struggled with the constant need to get it ‘right’. The fear of failure or not being the ‘good girl’ left me open to all sorts of dreadful possibilities. Ones on the Enneagram are known for our often unhealthy relationship with perfectionism. Over the years it has been crisis and wounding that have served as my faithful and undesirable coaches, calling me out of this unhealthy obsession. Like Rushkin (and my parents) would say, life is not easy. We live with effort and we all need mercy and compassion, not just for others, but most often we need a healthy dose for ourselves.

There is a Japanese philosophy of ‘wabi sabi’ which compels us to consider the beauty in the flawed. It is hinged to the Japanese feeling of ‘mottainai’, the regret of seeing anything wasted. In other words, in Japanese thought the idea of suppressing something that has happened because it is considered painful, a failure or imperfect, is a total waste. There is something beautiful in life’s imperfections. It is this philosophy that undergirds the art of ‘Kintsugi’, of mending broken pottery not in a way that makes the breaks invisible, but rather highlights them with gold.

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These exceptional pieces of art are not only beautiful because they are crafted by a master potter, but because their imperfections are displayed for the world to see. In a sense, Kintsugi art is a celebration of scars. What a totally different philosophy than the angst-inducing ones that permeate our modern culture.

The idea that we can eradicate imperfection is a futile one and the pursuit of perfection is ultimately meaningless. Consider this in light of ‘body image’, wealth, work, religion, and the expectations of modern life. Humans are not meant to be displayed as a piece of perfect pottery on some grandstand built on cultural, religious or relational accolades. We were meant to live life to the full – to love, to embrace, to listen, to consider, to risk, to fall, to fail, to triumph, to trudge through valleys and to scale mountains. In order to do that we need a huge supply of special golden lacquer so that we can take time to highlight our story when the cracks appear.

So, dear friend, stop listening to the voices from without and within that demand your perfection. Take the risk of becoming vulnerable. You may lose some ‘friends’ and no longer sing in the choir of the impeccably dressed, or stand on the platform of the piously accomplished, but rather you will join the crack pots on the margins, with their bucket loads of gold lacquer … and there you will find grace beyond measure.

“There is a Japanese word, kintsukuroi, that means “golden repair.” It is the art of restoring broken pottery with gold so the fractures are literally illuminated – a kind of physical expression of its spirit. As a philosophy, kintsukuroi celebrates imperfection as an integral part of the story, not something to be disguised … In kintsukuroi, the true life of an object (or a person) begins the moment it breaks and reveals that it is vulnerable.”
– Georgia Pellegrini –

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Are You Getting Your Beauty Sleep?

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone” Anthony Burgess

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I love my bed. There is something totally therapeutic and delicious about sinking into flannel sheets after a long day. As an introvert I have memories of being at those hideous children’s parties and counting down the minutes until I can go home, crawl into bed and read a book. What words are there to describe that feeling of lying in bed and listening to the pouring rain? Or waking up in the morning, pulling the curtains back, making a cup of coffee and hopping back into bed? Pure luxury comes to mind.

I also love to sleep. I realise that I am one of the more fortunate ones that seldom struggles with insomnia for any great length of time. Sometimes I wonder whether all the different messages we receive about sleep and how important it is to get certain amount of hours of sleep, doesn’t make us all anxious about not sleeping, so we don’t sleep?! Perhaps taking a quick look at the history of sleep will help? As an avid student of history, I always find this a most comforting exercise.

Adam Bulger provides an interesting brief history of how we slept from 8,000 BCE to today. Our nomadic ancestors stuffed grass or straw into hollows near the walls of a cave and slept in an almost foetal position. The Romans simply endured sleep – the wealthy stuffed mattresses with feathers, the poor with straw. Their boudoirs were small rooms with low ceilings and no fuss. Not so with the Egyptians! They treated sleep with great respect and analysed their dreams for greater meaning.

The Middle Ages was a most unpleasant time to sleep. In short, it consisted of small rooms, filled with many bodies and chamber pots. If you have a good nose you can still smell the Middle Ages! Thank God for the Renaissance which provided the great awakening for many areas of European life, including sleep. Meantime China was far more advanced, building exquisite beds with large and ornate bed frames. Their beds were so magnificent that it was a total waste to just use them for sleep – they began to receive and host guests in their beds …!

Prior to the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of artificial light, people were bi-phasic, sleeping in two four-hour intervals, with a waking time in between that they used for prayer, meditation or really great sex! Our current mono-phasic form of attempting to sleep eight hours straight is a modern social convention and has been called the “golden age of rest”.

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This tiny glimpse into history shows us that our idea of having to get those all important eight hours of sleep is a fairly recent development. So if you struggle with a ‘solid’ night’s sleep, maybe your body is simply protesting the imposing sleep virtues of the Industrial Revolution? Maybe you are a sleep revolutionary at heart?! In all seriousness, lack of sleep can be debilitating – so what are some of the things we can do to improve our sleep?

– I try and turn off my computer and social media by 10 pm (unless it’s Eurovision – then my urge to commentate on people who yodel or swing their ponytails around becomes more important than sleep!) Technology keeps my brain alert.

– Don’t have caffeine in the afternoon. I love coffee but having it in the evening has diabolical effects on my sleep, so I stick to herbal tea.

– Develop a relaxing routine at night that helps you sleep. I find reading helpful, others have told me that relaxation exercises work a treat.

– Keep your bedroom dark.

– Try and stick to a consistent schedule of when you go to bed and when you wake up – this sets your ‘internal clock’.

– If you have trouble sleeping, don’t toss and turn and become anxious about not sleeping. Remember, our ancestors survived. Get up, say “Damn you” to the Industrial Revolution, and have a cup of chamomile tea.

One last thing. Shortly after our wedding, now over thirty years ago, we discovered the miracle of separate doonas. Why, o, why did we ever think we had to ‘share’ our doonas? What a stupid idea. It created great marital hostility and lack of sleep as one of us would cocoon themselves, while the other froze and became increasingly frustrated. So we bought separate doonas. It created a sleep revolution – and we lived happily ever after!

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.
– D.H. Lawrence –

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Hildegard of Bingen and her Love Affair with Fennel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Scarcity of Wonder in our Black-and-White, Know-it-All World

“If I had influence with the good angel who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

– Rachel Carson (The Sense of Wonder) –

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I spent my early years in a small village in northern Germany. A village surrounded by endless pine forests that my parents and I would regularly walk through. To me, it was an enchanted forest. From the large ant-hills with their complex and intricate architecture on which my Oma would lay her handkerchief on the way into the forest only to retrieve it afterwards smelling sour (meant to be good for the sinuses?!) to the many creatures that called that forest home, it filled me with a sense of wonder.

Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher, defines wonder as something that arises within our emotions when “something quite new and singular is presented … and memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.” It is a feeling of surprise and admiration when we experience something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Wonder is intrinsic to human nature, engaging our curiosity and nurturing our creativity. Descartes called wonder our most fundamental emotion.

Wonder unites science, religion and art. It draws on us emotionally, creatively and instils reverence. Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, says that wonder is “one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order.” Environmentalist Rachel Carson argues that we have an inborn sense of wonder, manifested and prevalent in children. She writes, “If a child is to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in …” In a world that is becoming increasingly dogmatic, operating from a stagnant black and white perspective, I lament that we are experiencing a scarcity of wonder in our speed-driven, technology-addicted, and artificially-stimulated world!

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Our developed world suffers from excess-syndrome. We have the level and benefits of health and wealth that our ancestors could not even imagine. Today’s ill health is often caused by excess itself as we gorge ourselves on the bounty that capitalism has provided on the backs of our poorer global neighbours. Yet with all the excess we have not only become increasingly dissatisfied, but fearful, cynical, anxious, paranoid and selfish. The wonder that a walk in a forest may bring, has now become a distant memory. At times it is felt through a sense of nostalgia evoked by the rare poem we read when time permits.

The religious sphere in many parts of the world has been hijacked by a blistering, blustering and self-righteous form of fundamentalism that prides itself on being ‘right’. This form of imagined and desired moral absolutism has reduced the mystery of God to a spreadsheet of culturally preferred yes-and-no answers that have created a tribal shame culture where wonder has been ridiculed and alienated. Sadly, it is this religious space that is shaping so much of the next generation’s worldview, impacting on their perspective and wonder.

C.K. Chesterton said that we are perishing from lack of wonder, not for the lack of wonders. Mike Yaconelli wrote, “Children live in a world of dreams and imagination, a world of aliveness … There is a voice of wonder and amazement inside of all of us, but we grow to realise we can no longer hear it …” It is time to have a wonder renaissance!

Maybe it is time you reclaim your human birthright of wonder? Maybe you lost it because your sense of wonder was ridiculed? Or analysed? Or prohibited? When was the last time you stared into the fathomless night sky and wondered? When did you last listen to a piece of music that moved you to tears and made you wonder about what it really means to be fully human? In these uncertain times where so many of the messages we receive on a daily basis are filled with gloom and dread, may you again find the courage to wonder. May this wonder bring you joy.

The root of the word “educate” meant “to care” – a caring that flows naturally from a deep feeling for the world. This kind of care seems to embody a type of wisdom that has nothing to do with information or knowledge in its restricted sense. Our connection to the world is not through information about it, but through a sense of wonder. How long since the cry of insects and the sight of the setting sun brought us deeply into ourselves?
– John Wilson (Reflections on Everyday Life)

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Joy and the Narrow Path

This post is dedicated to the LGBTI community who were and are a prophetic voice in my life – I am forever grateful.
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On the 15th April it was two years since Dean Beck, Nathan Despott and I sat down at the Joy FM Radio station and recorded an interview to discuss the damage done to LGBTI people through ex-gay therapy programmes. This erroneous idea that LGBTI people are ‘broken’ and need to be ‘healed’ or ‘fixed’ goes a lot further than the programmes run through parachurch programmes or ministry. Rather, it is the very oxygen in most conservative, fundamentalist religious spaces that view LGBTI people of faith as ‘other’.

I should know this because I was part of one of the many people that held this idea that there was something ‘wrong’ with those who identified as anything but heterosexual. My paradigms were supported by ignorance, fear, and religious ‘experts’ who had very LOUD opinions and very little knowledge. My doubts and questions about this harmful exclusion started long before that interview.

Two years on and my world has changed … dramatically. The interview literally brought extremist religious leaders out of retirement. There was a bombarding of emails, letters and flyers. The board of the faith community that I was part of, supportive at first of my right to speak as an individual not representing the church, felt the pressure of lobby groups and found this rather difficult. It became easier to distance myself.

It was one of the more difficult journeys of my life. As I reflect back, I realise that anytime we endeavour to live true to our values we often come against strong power structures. Structures and ideals that are deeply embedded and share an umbilical cord with political agendas (similar to the apartheid ideals in South Africa, or the segregation ideals that spurred the civil rights movement in the USA).

I learnt a lot of things through this experience:

Perhaps the most important learning was the bravery shown by LGBTI people and people of faith. My exclusion and treatment shrinks into insignificance as I listened to many, many stories of heartache, rejection, condemnation, prejudice, and sheer hurtful behaviour by people who claim to hold to the Gospel of Christ, while condemning their brothers and sisters in a most saccharine “O-we-love-you-but-hate-your-sin” manner. I discovered friends and heroes on the margins – a magnificent and fierce rainbow clan that I am honoured to call friends.

I discovered a fairly lonely, narrow path. For someone who has spent a decent amount of time surrounded by loads of people, it was a strange experience. It brought its own significant anxiety. On this lonely path there was not much backslapping and grandiose talk about the modern church or its mission to ‘save the world’ – rather I came face to face with my own shadows, with my own insecurities, and with the painful process of detoxing from a hyperreality that creates religious addicts with a silo mentality.

I learnt that to let go is a death experience. I lost reputation, friends, status, power, influence, and all invitations to speak at other churches stopped rather abruptly. It is a dangerous thing to ask questions and make up your own mind. Letting go meant laying it all down and walking away … perhaps you know that space? Perhaps this is what you are walking through right now?

But I also learnt there is resurrection. There is hope. There is freedom and joy on this narrow path that is very hard to describe. When you no longer fear the threats because there is not much more to lose then, in a strange, paradoxical way, you begin to really live. There is an insanely, happy dance that accompanies those who refuse to be bullied into dancing to the tune of religious, cultural norms. You see, dear friend, the Gospel really is very good news.

I am not sure what the future holds. The life I thought I would lead has died many years ago. But this Easter, in an old Uniting Church in Richmond, I heard the whispers of Resurrection. This surprising narrow path of joy holds treasures I would never have found surrounded by the accolades and approval of others. This resurrection hope quietly beckons me to keep walking … and that I shall.

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