Category Archives: Leadership

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)

 

 

The Sinking Island

I blogged this piece on Tangier Island back in 2017. As I read it today, I found it helpful and thought I would post it again … perhaps it also finds resonance in your life at this time.

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

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

tangier-island-2708170_1920

I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.

The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.

Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.

Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …

I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!

I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.

The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!

So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”

 

wave-1760350_1920

Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

Neither Here nor There – The Many Voices of Liminality

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.’

Voices from the Grave: Frederick Douglass

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” Frederick Douglas

We know little of the woman Harriet Bailey. We just know she was the mother of the man that would struggle, resist, and rise to become one of America’s great thinkers and staunch abolitionists. There is every chance that she lived her whole life in harsh oppression. The baby she birthed and held in her arms somewhere in the year 1818 was probably fathered by one of the plantation owners in Talbot County, Maryland, where she was a slave. No matter the argument, there was nothing consensual about their sexual relationship. She died when he was seven years old: She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew anything about it.” (Narratives of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

Harriet was one of the millions who died at the hands of a brutal regime, an insidious ideology that upheld the notion that people could be ‘property’ based on the colour of their skin. An injustice held in place by the powers of government and religion. The theological hermeneutics of the day, informed by culture, history and social norms (the same aspects that shape our hermeneutics today) had built a sound argument from the Bible, not just defending, but praising the virtues of enslavement, marginalisation and exclusion of African Americans.

“Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other — devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.” (Narratives) 

It was Sophia, the wife of one of Frederick’s slaveholders who gave him a gift of a lifetime. She taught him the alphabet and he continued to learn to read from the white children in his area after her husband forbade it. This gift of a small and limited education was all that Frederick needed to fuel his passion to learn and to sharpen his arguments against slavery. He also taught other enslaved children to read. His endeavours to educate others drew the ire of his slave master and he was transferred to Edward Covey, a farmer who was known for his brutal treatment of slaves. Covey nearly broke him – but Frederick managed to escape …

“No Man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

He escaped to New York and found refuge in the home of David Ruggles, an abolitionist. In September 1838, he married Anna Murray and they had five children together. It was during this time he changed his surname to Douglass, inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake”.

Frederick Douglass found a mentor in William Lloyd Garrison who encouraged him in his speaking and writing as he rose to leadership in the abolitionist movement. He toured the country with the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving convincing and informed speeches against the practice of slavery. Tragically he was often rewarded with violence. Once he had his hand broken when attacked. He sustained wounds that never really healed.

Douglass worked tirelessly and also became an advocate for the women’s rights movement:

“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” (Seneca Falls Convention, New York, 1848).

But it was the flavour of Christianity of his day that drew Frederick’s greatest outrage. He drew a sharp distinction between the person of Christ and the national religion that paraded around under the name of the lowly carpenter. I will finish this blog with Frederick’s scorching rebuke … I think so much of what he said and wrote bears meaning and wisdom for us today. We should take the time to contemplate how religion influences politics in our particular settings – and is that influence Good News? Or does it enable the oppression and marginalisation of others? Selah.

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I, therefore, hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women- whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cow skin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution.

The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, — sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, — leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate. We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls!”

 

Ignore or Silence Dissent At Your Own Peril!

Today I am reposting a blog on dissent – may you stand tall, stay true and speak up.

“Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.”
Jacob Bronowski

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Dissenters are a real pest, especially in a nice, neat, and controlled environment. When the mantra is to be happy, submissive and comfortable, dissenters, like the prophets of old, upset the royal apple cart. When the power of governments, organisations or institutions, precariously rests on the ‘happiness’ and ‘compliance’ of its subordinates, dissenters are extremely dangerous.

When I talk about dissent, I am referring to an ability to hold a differing opinion to the status quo or to protest an injustice. Please do not mistake dissent for abuse or violence. Also, if you are continually protesting and criticising, it may be wise to take time to reflect and deal with your own shadow, as it may be reflecting back to you in the mirror of others.

The brilliant Socrates provides a rather sorry example of dissent. He stood up to a system that eventually murdered him. His protest was particularly threatening as Athens began to crumble after the bloody wars with Spasocrates4-400x250rta. Athens’ Golden Age was over. Failing empires, terrified at their dwindling power, will do just about anything to silence the voices that they see as threatening. Socrates likened himself to a gadfly sent to keep a lazy and fat thoroughbred horse (the State) alert and awake. His sentiment was not appreciated, and he was put to death. History proves this to be the fate of many dissenters. In the sacred text of the Old Testament, the prophets sat on the margins of power structures and would regularly protest the shenanigans of unjust systems, and, like Socrates, they often found themselves rather dead.

The unpleasant truth is we need dissent. We need to hear the voices of disagreement and criticism. A thriving organisation will see dissent as a duty. Studies have shown that organisations where board members like each other, dine together and discourage open debate, tend to lose financially: Like-minded people, talking only with one another, usually end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. If you want a healthy organisation, then you need to invite those who think differently into places where policies are made. You need to work hard to prevent laziness of thought that breeds in comfort, sameness, and familiarity. Avoid a culture that does not allow for questions, doubt, or expressing concerns. Those annoying ‘red flag’ fliers can save your hide. You need to see dissent as an obligation and insist on a wide variety of voices. In dissent lie the keys to health and balance. A contrarian can contribute tremendously by offering a different point of view. Research demonstrates that just knowing there’s a dissenting voice is enough to ‘induce different cognitive processes that yield better judgments.’

When it comes to organised and institutional religion, it becomes very concerning to observe the disdain some religious leaders demonstrate towards dissenters. Even though Protestantism has a rather rich history of dissent (check out the name again!), it seems like in some modern churches today, any form of criticism is seen as being disloyal or unbiblical. The church, just like any other organisation, deserves and needs the same honest critique as any other. And, yes, you can be the Church, love the Church, participate in the Church, and also protest the Church.

So for those who are facing an issue of injustice and find themselves wanting to speak up but feeling threatened, remember the words of the novelist William Faulkner, Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth. Remember, we need the voice of dissent, the contrarian in our lives, organisation and world, as painful as it may be. A community that ignores or silences its dissenters is a place that has begun to die a long time ago. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable and healthiest things you can do this week is to give yourself permission to ungag the voices of dissent in your life?

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Lessons from the Fockers: The Circle of Trust

“This is the reason I created the circle of trust – so we can discuss these things.” – Jack Byrnes

What are your favourite movies? You know, those movies that you’ve watched a hundred times but if someone suggested a night that includes red wine and that movie, you would cancel the meeting with royalty to be there! One of mine is Meet the Fockers. There are many reasons why I like this film – the uncanny resemblance of the different family dynamics is uncomfortably familiar and similar to those of my partner’s and my own life. My mother could have embodied Barbara Streisand 🙂 For us, it wasn’t even a comedy – it was the story of our lives.

Jack Byrnes’ (Robert De Niro) insistence of establishing an exclusive “Circle of Trust” that is built on a very fickle set of rules, bullying tactics, and paranoia is a most interesting study in human relations. He obviously does not believe that Gregory Focker is a suitable groom for his “first-born” and threatens him with the removal from the “circle of trust” – “and once you are out, you are out – there is no return.” Ouch! Poor Focker.

Now I do not want to condone Jack’s bullying, manipulative power tactics – BUT Jack has a lesson for all of us. We all have a “circle of trust” or “club membership to our life story” – people who through history and relationship have an elevated position in our lives. We listen to their voices, even when they are long gone, and we take their advice far more seriously because they have impacted our lives in some way or another. Often this is a very positive exchange. We can all think of people who have contributed to our identity in meaningful ways. People who have added to the hopes and dreams we have held. People whose values and ethics have aligned with our own, creating a sense of belonging. Take the time to remember them.

And then there are the others …!! The people who have an elevated access to our lives because of friendship, work association, faith community or family relationship, and who routinely through their words and actions undermine us and compound a problem-laden story-line in our lives. People who break the “circle of trust” not just once or twice but who are consistent in that form of negative behaviour. Perhaps, like me, you tend to put up with this much longer than you should?

I don’t assume to know your story, but one of the reasons I have tolerated this in my life is that I was operating under the false idea that to be a “good Christian” you have to allow people to treat you like shit and then forgive them. Now there’s a lot to say about the journey of forgiveness – perhaps for another blog post. But often in religious circles, we are told we are “loved” and that we “matter” – and we drink the cool aid. So then when abuse happens, we cannot believe that we have been treated that badly. It creates a sense of unreality, confusion and we simply do not trust our perception of the situation – so we stick around. It’s called cognitive dissonance – we are holding two contradicting beliefs. On the one hand, we are told that we are loved, yet on the other, we are treated terribly by those who profess that love. When you go to confront it, you are met with passive aggressive smiles and denial that again throws you into confusion and anxiety. Don’t be surprised that this form of gas-lighting is often rampant by the power brokers of organisations or family units. We may feel powerless caught in such a circle – like Greg Focker.

We may need a neutral or impartial person to come alongside us and help us recognise what is actually going on. When your trust has been badly violated over a long period of time it helps to talk about it, recognise it and build a preferred story-line where the perpetrators are, in Jack Byrne’s words “removed from the circle.” Trust is one of the most precious components in relationships. It is an unrealistic expectation to think that no one we are in relationship with will break our trust, or for that matter, that we won’t break the trust of someone else. However, there is a massive difference between breaking trust, owning it, and providing the hurting party with an unreserved apology, and a pattern of abusive behaviour that consistently breaks our trust and spirals us into anxiety.

We also have to identify and own our complicity in often enabling a toxic circle of trust. Most of us would have played a part of controlling such a circle at some stage or another, often with good intentions. It starts in kindergarten. We form circles with people who think like us, look like us and believe like us. Like Jack, we have prided ourselves on being the guardians of such a circle and have contributed to a plethora of dogmas and policies to hold it all in place. When people don’t measure up they are ousted and become part of the throng of exiles who simply could not fit in. I stand guilty as charged.

So, dear friend, we can take many lessons from Jack Byrne and his circle of trust. Let’s take a good look at whether we are playing a role in a toxic circle that is harming people’s lives. And let’s also consider that healthy circles of trust play a crucial role in relationships. We actually have a choice about whose ‘voice’ we will elevate in our lives. You have that choice.

So, dear friend, take a leaf from the life of Jack Byrnes and choose the Fockers in your circle carefully. Live your rich and multi-faceted life with gusto! xx

 

 

 

The Great Unknown – Guest Post by Mark Conner

A guest post by my life partner, Mark – The Great Unknown:

 

Great Unknown

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of me finishing up 32 years of employment in the one place and stepping out into the great unknown. [See my post from February 2017 called “Time to Say Goodbye” and a poem I wrote in December 2016 called “The Great Unknown“). One year on, I am so glad I did. Words can’t quite express the increasing amounts of joy, excitement and meaning I am starting to experience. I am extremely grateful.

So, what have I learned? There are many things, but here are 10 reflections:

  1. Your calling isn’t limited to your current role. In fact, don’t allow your calling to ever become merely a duty or an obligation. Keep following your curiosity.
  2. Sometimes we need to let our roots go down deep and stick it out through the various seasons of life, being faithful where we have been planted. At others time we need to let go, step out of the boat, and go on an adventure to new places.
  3. Your current world is a lot smaller than you think. There is a much bigger world waiting outside the confines of your pond.
  4. Life goes on. No one is indispensable. True, you can’t replace people but roles can be filled and the wheels of every organisation or industry keep moving on, one way or another.
  5. Your identity, your significance and your security are not in what you do or the position or title you have but in who you are as a person.
  6. Growth means change and change can be hard, especially letting go, but it is healthy and can be good for you. It helps you avoid becoming ‘risk averse’ and losing the sense of adventure in life.
  7. Once you are through the threshold of change, you will see things from a totally different perspective.
  8. Relationships change through every season of life. Not everyone goes with you on your journey. Some old friendships fade but new ones will emerge. Having those closest to you (especially your family) love and respect you the most is what is most important.
  9. Life becomes very liminal as your new world continues to unfold. You have to go of certainty and embrace paradox and a lot of loose ends. Go slowly as you walk this liminal path, moving forward with openness rather than seeking a pre-mature sense of permanence.
  10. There will be grief and loss but there is much joy just around the corner.

May you follow your curiosity, even if it leads you out of your comfort zone and on an adventure into the great unknown!

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!'” Hunter S. Thompson

LINK to Mark’s Blog