Category Archives: Leadership

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from an unpublished work

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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.”

 

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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

Katecia’s Story: Resilience, Courage and Grace

I met Katecia (Teash) a couple of years ago. Over time we began chatting and I had the privilege of listening to some of her story of courage, resilience and quiet grace. Today I would like to thank Teash for making time to share some of her life experience for this BLOG post. I have no doubt you will be impacted as you read about her journey.

1. Teash, you grew up in a religious setting. Can you tell us a little about your formative years?

Some of my earliest memories are of family and church. As a pastor’s kid, they have always been entwined. I have fond memories of running down aisles, riding a pony as Mary in the nativity play, making clay Bible characters and of trying to sneak an extra cookie at morning tea after the service. Church often felt like a second home. I knew all the hiding spots and I loved all the people. I used to live a block from my church growing up. My brothers and I would often duck past on the way home from school. I distinctly remember running into the church building after school one time when my brother and I were running from kids who wanted to bash us. It was a place of refuge and an enjoyable place for me.

Mum and Dad were quite strict growing up but they were also incredibly loving and encouraging. People often ask what it was like growing up as a pastor’s kid and I never quite know what to say. It was normal for me. I suppose it meant I hung around church more than the average kid. I knew where the cookies were kept and could swing past and utilise the smooth scootering surface in the church hall. At this time, I fitted into the church and its community seamlessly. However, I felt more pressure as I got older to reflect well on my parents as I realised that, unfortunately, people might judge my parents based on how I acted which has, at times, made me uncomfortable.

 

2. Coming out as gay would not have been easy, especially in a conservative setting. Can you talk about this?

It wasn’t easy. However, I am more fortunate than so many. At the time I had intense anxiety regarding it. If I’m honest part of the reason I came out was that I had anxiety that was causing me physical pain, every day, for several months. I’d been slowly convinced by affirming theology but the move meant that I realised I would probably need to come out. I think if it weren’t for my anxiety I might have waited a few more years. However, given the mostly subtle hostility towards queer people in conservative environments, it’s unlikely I could have emerged from the closet with no mental health issues. I was in so much physical pain from hiding this part of myself that I figured coming out couldn’t be that much worse.

Like so many others, Christian spaces that I had once found so welcoming became harder and harder to exist in happily. People that I looked up to and loved treated me as though I were an entirely different, and less trustworthy, person.

My immediate family has been fantastic and I am so thankful for them. I know how rare their incredible support can be in Christian circles. They may not have always understood but they have always listened and supported and loved me.

I may have been judged by Christians for being gay but I have never felt anything but love and peace from God, fully inclusive of my sexuality.

3. You recently spoke at the “Better Together” Conference in Melbourne and shared some of your faith journey. Would you mind elaborating on this, especially reconciling your sexuality and your faith (which for some may be problematic)?

I was raised in a Baptist church. Growing up in the church I knew what to say and how to act. Essentially, I knew how to fit in. I didn’t know a single gay Christian let alone any other amazing letter of the acronym growing up (at least not that I knew of at the time). What I did know was what I was told: “Christians weren’t gay”. Christians might be same-sex attracted but to act on that attraction was a sin, and if they couldn’t change then celibacy was required. I was a Christian so I could never be gay. It was honestly that simple in my mind. Gay people were them over there and not the people in the pews next to me or eating scones after church.

For most of my teen years, I saw it as a sign of purity and even holiness that I wasn’t attracted to men. The attraction was only meant for your husband, so my lack of attraction to men meant that I clearly just hadn’t met my husband yet. 

But slowly that logic fell away as I realised that I wasn’t just not attracted to men, I was attracted to women. I prayed and tried to change it as so many of us do. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t change. I accepted that, until I changed, celibacy was the only option and I realised that I would probably be celibate for life. I told no one because I was ashamed and I knew the grief, shame and even scandal it would cause those I loved.

While this internal conflict was going on, I was an outgoing and enthusiastic evangelical. I was in a senior leadership position at the largest evangelical group at my university. I ran prayer groups and Bible studies and camps.

After realising celibacy was something I would have to do I began googling things such as what does the Bible say about homosexuality? I wasn’t looking for the Bible to say it was okay. I was looking for encouragement in remaining celibate. I had always been told that any theology that said it was “okay to be gay” was very “wishy-washy” and was by people who didn’t take the Bible seriously. In evangelical terms, “not taking the Bible seriously” was code for being a bad Christian. Being “biblical” and taking “the Bible seriously” was code for being a good Christian. But I was surprised by what I found. Being the nerdy art student I was, I figured I’d better research the other side – to refute it as wishy-washy, obviously. Only I couldn’t and slowly and extremely grumpily I found myself shifting over and leaning towards becoming affirming. In affirming theology, I could see myself. I saw myself as a whole and beloved child of God. It was rigorous and thoughtful. It was loving and non-judgemental, and it terrified me.

So I became affirming after a couple of years of study and prayer. I wish I could say it was an easy or quick process. It took time. I didn’t want to be affirming because I was comfortable in my beliefs and my life. I just wanted to fit in and be a “good Christian.” Having affirming theology meant that this was no longer possible for me in many circles. I came out as gay and affirming at the same time. I lost a lot of evangelical friends and I was treated as an outsider in the same evangelical circles that I had once fit in to so well. At the time I thought it was one of the worst things to happen to me. Now I’m grateful that I have sat on the outside because it was the wakeup call I needed to look around and see who else was on the margins with me. I worry that if I’d never been pushed out I might have missed meeting and learning from so many who don’t fit into my old evangelical worldview.

What drew me most to affirming theology was that in it I felt seen, known and loved by God. It also made a lot more contextual and theological sense to me. But most interestingly affirming theology brings me closer to a God who made me, knows me and loves me as I am.

4. When we look back we see a turbulent and painful journey for LGBTIQ people of faith and some of the churches that they were part of. What do you see looking ahead? Is there hope for apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation and a better path?

I think there is hope. I think of myself only a few years ago. I held negative attitudes towards gay people like many other Christians today that contribute to our negative experiences in churches and Christian communities.

The queer Christians and allies I have met all have amazing stories of change: of them being convinced to alter their beliefs and attitudes. I’m given hope every time I see queer Christians love themselves fully. I’m given hope every time I see allies step up and love us as we are. I’m given hope when I remember how I used to think and the hurt I could or may have perpetuated, and how I changed. Looking ahead, I am hopeful, but still aware of the past and the present pain. I am filled with hope but remaining grounded in the reality that we have a long way to go.

There is a path for apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation, however, as Christians, we need to recognise the harm and grief that we have caused and continue to cause. The church is overwhelmingly viewed as a source of pain and hateful rhetoric for most queer people, and this reputation is all too often deserved. Everything from homophobic jokes to the psychological torture of conversion therapy to the more subtle exclusion contributes to the struggle queer people can face.

When we ‘other’ queer people in large or small ways we are failing in our calling to, first and foremost, be loving, and failing to walk the better path – the path of Jesus. It is hard to expect queer people to remain in the pews when we are often made to feel unwelcome and unloved. Specific effort must be made to undo what we have done. While I think there is hope for a better path, I think we need always to hold the hurt we’ve caused in tension with the hope we hold for the future. We cannot erase the past but we can learn from it and therein lies the hope for a better future.

Teash, our lives are all enriched because you were prepared to share a bit of your story. Thank you so much.

 

For those interested in affirming theology, I recommend:

David Gushee – “Changing our Minds

Kathy Baldock – “Walking the Bridgeless Canyon” – you can also read Kathy’s interview on my blog here and here

And for a plethora of information please see the podcasts/library  of Inside Ex-Gay

and the Reformation Project

Patience or Procrastination? Know the Difference … Know Thyself

“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”  – Paulo Coehlo –

I often wonder how much of what I call “Patience” is simply me avoiding a decision that I do not want to make? Calling my avoidance-crisis patience has such a pleasant, self-deluding ring to it, doesn’t it? On the other hand, how many of you, like me, have found yourselves in less than favourable circumstances because the idea of waiting patiently was not a comforting option – so you jumped too soon? How do we know the difference between these two “P’s”?

Patience has often been called a virtue. It is the ability to wait for things, accepting our lack of control over our world. In an age of immediate gratification and super-fast technology, patience often has no value or meaning in our lives. We would rather have fulfillment, stuff, money, and all kinds of others things NOW than wait and receive a little more later. It’s called “present bias.” Present bias is the tendency to over-value immediate rewards at the expense of our long-term intentions. We prefer to eat the seed, instead of waiting for it to grow. We live in a culture that suffers from present bias and unless we recognise how this has affected us, we will never understand the virtue of Patience or the sacrament of Waiting.

Procrastination, even though it can be so beautifully dressed up in a patience camouflage, is not a virtue. It simply is avoiding what needs to be done. All of us struggle with delaying and avoiding on important issues. Strangely enough, IMpatience and procrastination both have to do with present bias or what behavioral psychology calls “time inconsistency”. In the case of procrastination, we put things off because we value the immediate gratification of having ‘no pain’ more highly than doing what we need to do, which often involves feeling pain for a moment but it can change our future. For example, we would like to lose weight but we procrastinate because five donuts and a can of coke keep ambushing us at 10 am and 3 pm every day. It’s too painful to say no to them. So, we procrastinate.

Underneath all of our impatience or procrastination issues lies a very common human trait – fear! Anxiety feeds both of these gremlins. We may never have articulated our angst of what it means to live as vulnerable humans in a world that we have very little control over but it can still take its toll by manifesting itself through anxiety, depression, anger, etc. We all try to drown out that reality in many different ways. Some use harmful substances, some drown themselves in work, some turn to religion or philosophy or accumulating stuff or … do nothing – immobilised by the whole caboodle. We all have to face the many ways we cope with this fear of lack of control, and how these coping mechanisms have made us all addicts. Acknowledging this is the first step to living a more peaceful, integrated life. Know thyself.

Practicing mindfulness can be so helpful. Instead of rushing through your day, practice being present, practice breathing, practice listening – just be. Instead of being impatient when you have to wait, consider changing how you perceive ‘waiting’. Waiting can be a holy moment, a sacrament. While you wait, be present, even if that is painful. Waiting is part of the rhythm of life. You see it in the winter seasons when everything seems dead … waiting for new life. Your 24 hour day should at least have about 8 hours of sleep … sleep is you waiting for your body to rest and recover.

Perhaps you feel overwhelmed with life and this sense has almost immobilised you. You keep calling it waiting or patience but deep inside you know that you are simply putting off a difficult task(s). Procrastination can become a habit. To change a habit, we need to rewire our brain! We need to break out of the rut. The Ivy Lee Method may be of some assistance. It has been successfully applied in various contexts since 1918. Just a little word of warning: sometimes we go through ‘wobbly’ seasons, seasons of grief, disappointment, etc. As we surface from the valley and begin to take life by the horns again, writing down six tasks, as Ivy Lee recommends, may be too much. Instead, start with two, then add another one every week. Step by step you are, what Richard Rohr would say, “living yourself into a new way of thinking.”

So, dear friend, on this journey of life – know thyself. The answer in discovering the difference between patience and procrastination is in our motivation. If we are putting things off that we know we need to do because of fear, then we may be procrastinating (please note, our fear can be directly related to our safety and well-being – I encourage you to seek help and counsel if this is the case). Procrastination always ends with regret. However, I may also be putting things off because I know I have done what needs to be done, there is no more I can do, now I wait patiently. This sort of waiting, although it may be painful, is calm and rational. Know the difference. Take courage.

“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.” Anne Frank

 

Are We Better Together?

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending the Better Together Conference at Melbourne Town Hall. It was a historic moment as 657 LGBTIQ people and allies gathered and had the opportunity to attend 56 different sessions highlighting a variety of stories, research and opinions. It was a showcase of the depth of thinking and a collaboration of support for others in the social justice movement, seeking to achieve genuinely meaningful and lasting social change.

One of the highlights was the session delivered by Cr. Tony Briffa JP on understanding intersex variations and how every journey for an intersex person is so very different. As I listened, I was made very aware of my ignorance on this complex issue that affects at least 1.7% of the population. Professor Olaf Hiort, chief of the Division of Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Luebeck University, Germany, recently cited “at least 40” distinct intersex variations. Tony highlighted the heartache of many intersex people who have undergone non-consensual medical normalisation treatment and the continual tough question of who can consent to the treatment of a child. To say my worldview was enlightened is an understatement.

The conference organisers and speakers consistently paid their respect to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation who are the traditional custodians of the land on which the Melbourne Town Hall stands. They honoured the elders past, present and emerging. The many diverse voices emphasised the importance of listening to one another, of being informed, and what inclusion looks like for people with disability, people of colour, for those living in rural communities, for families, and many more. It was great to have some of the Australian Deaf community present and Auslan interpreters signing for the sessions.

As the weekend progressed, with dozens of very meaningful conversations and listening to so many personal stories and perspectives, it again hit me in what a tiny bubble I had existed for nearly 30 years. My life back then was lightyears removed from the folks I encountered this past weekend, many of them people of a deep faith. I had lived in my own religious, middle-class, privileged, suburban, cloistered Truman Show, convinced it was the whole world. Although very painful, I am forever grateful for the crisis that unfolded in my life a decade ago as personal experience and my own values, ethics and theology intersected in a major crossroad and I was shaken out of that space like a coin from a piggy bank. Nowadays, I observe the great divide between social and cultural developments and issues, and so much of what constitutes especially the more conservative sections of church as institution, with sadness. I understand the fear and complexity, as I was once part of it. But it really does not need to be this way.

The conference was aptly themed “Better Together” as it explored the many ways LGBTIQ people and allies are better together as we allow ourselves to hear, to understand and to share our journeys. When people work together in a conscious, humble, dynamic effort something quite transformational begins to happen. The “other” that once loomed as a threat, or alien, or annoying, or someone to be avoided, suddenly takes on flesh and blood and a human face. Fear of the ‘other’ is the most detrimental fear that plagues us as humans – often held in place through politics, nationalism, or religion. We become Better Together when we refuse to allow embedded ideals fed from these power brokers to continue to create a toxic environment in our minds.

For me, Better Together was a gift. It was a great way to kick off 2018, which holds promises of brand new adventures and chapters. I made new friends who I can’t wait to see again. As a person of faith, it reminded me of what the gospel of Christ is all about – good news for our diverse and beautiful world.

So to answer my own Blog post question – yes, we are so much Better Together. May 2018 be the year that you discover that and kiss fear goodbye.

Faith is a dynamic and ever-changing process, not some fixed body of truth that exists outside our world and our understanding. God’s truth may be fixed and unchanging, but our comprehension of that truth will always be partial and flawed at best. – Bishop Gene Robinson –