It is a terrifying thought that God stares back at us from the eyes of our ‘opponent’ …
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
– Primo Levi (Holocaust Survivor) –
Primo Levi did not consider himself a hero for surviving Auschwitz. Like other survivors, he had seen and experienced too much. He was one of only 700 survivors of more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Upon his release in 1945, he began writing about his experiences. In a heartbreaking interview he reflects on the cost of not asking questions and of doing as you are told without really understanding. In Nazi Germany, the cost was millions of lives. “Shutting his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, the typical German citizen built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence of not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”
Questions are dangerous things. To question means that we are prepared to engage in the risky task of letting go of what we thought we knew and to admit not knowing. Perhaps that’s why ego is one of the great barriers to questions. In a society that often prides itself in the pretense of knowledge, questioning has fallen out of favour. We no longer see the value of questions or we have been told to avoid them (such as in some cult or extremist religions). Yet questions are the key to innovation and growth. Questions can change our world. Never stop asking questions.
Not only do we need to learn to question again, we also need to consider changing our questions. If our life decisions and choices are consistently detrimental to our well-being, then perhaps the problem is the lack of questions prior to making these decisions? Or maybe we are asking the wrong questions? This was the advice from one of my favourite high school teachers. He seldom provided answers when I was stuck in the complexity of learning. Rather, he would challenge me to ask different questions. Most of the time it was the uncomfortable process of stepping out of a pre-set paradigm in order to ask those questions that then provided brilliant answers. Claude Levi-Strauss says, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.”
Social change, transformation, innovation and the growth of companies and industry has often been the result of a single question. For example, “Why can’t I have the photo immediately,” was the question of a 3-year-old to her father, Edwin Land. The result of that question was the invention of the polaroid camera. “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” writes Warren Berger in his excellent book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” But like Primo Levi points out, often we are conditioned not to question – and that has to do with power.
Berger writes, “To encourage or even allow questions is to cede power.” If you take a look around you at social, religious or political settings that are dying and filled with fear you will find a common denominator – they have shut down questions a long time ago! If you are employed in a workspace or living in some form of community that treats questions with fear and paranoia, you will be unable to live authentically and you will stop growing. Questions are the fertiliser for the seeds that lie dormant in your heart.
So, friend, what are you facing right now that needs a new set of questions? What are you afraid of right now that needs you to let go of the safe harbour of certainty so you can go into the uncharted waters of questions? Where are you gagged right now from asking questions? Why are you allowing that setting to silence you? Not to question preserves the status quo. It is time for beautiful questions and to allow your inquiry to unsettle assumptions, a sense of ‘stuckness’, and of fear … it is time to grow! Ask!
“Are we too enthralled with answers? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long?”
– Stuart Firestein –
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –
Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.
If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions, while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.
I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.
Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.
We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.
Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.
Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.
So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.
“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –
“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” Brennan Manning
I remember walking through the doors of a house we had built in semi-rural Melbourne. It was a home that in years ahead would be the place where many friends and family members would gather – a place of welcome, tears, laughter, food and stories. I loved that home. It was a place that I wanted to grow old in. But it was not to be. The day came that a SOLD sign went up outside the gates, boxes were packed and I took one last look at the magnificent garden that had been a labour of love for my partner, my dad and I. It was so hard to say goodbye.
There are people we meet and places we belong to that have us convinced that they will play a significant role for the rest of our lives. But that is not always the case. Dr. Seuss was right – there are many places you will go, but in life there are also places you will have to leave. Places that can no longer hold who you are. Places that have changed. Places that become unsafe.
This can be incredibly difficult when the commentary in these places is one of welcome, belonging and unconditional love. Places where you have been led to believe that you matter, only to have that change in a moment, can have devastating repercussions. Let me share a story with you – and, yes, the name of this person has been changed.
I knew Harry from when he was little. He used to be in the same Sunday school class as one of my children. I did not know him well – enough to say hello and recognise the various family members. Harry grew up in the faith community I came to as an adult. He had only ever known this place as a spiritual home and the people were his spiritual family. He grew into a young man who became part of the youth group; a strong, dedicated leader, adored by those he cared for on a pastoral level. It all changed overnight.
Harry was gay. It took him a very long time to come to grips with his orientation and the consequences this would have in a conservative religious setting, not only for himself, but also for his family. It was handled kindly at first. Harry was allowed to continue leading, even amidst complaints from concerned parents as word got out. Eventually, Harry fell in love. This was problematic. Harry could no longer lead and was ‘relieved’ from all his responsibility. In an instant he went from a contributing member of the community to a ‘problem’.
Harry tried very hard to keep connected and involved – an impossible task in an environment where someone like him is viewed with great suspicion and concern. Sheepish smiles and general avoidance was probably the only way most community members knew how to handle Harry’s exile. He tried desperately to convince people that nothing had changed – he was still the same Harry they had known, loved and trusted for nearly twenty years. But for Harry, like many others, his status had changed from ‘human’ to ‘issue’. His parents received sympathetic looks and offers for prayer. They rejected them all. Harry’s decision to come out and live authentically, and to fall in love, now meant a whole family somehow found themselves on the margins. The family eventually left the church.
“There are other churches he can go to,” was the comment made when concerns were raised. I wonder whether people really understood the heartache of being forced out of your community simply because of being true to who you are? I wonder whether anyone understood the pain of rejection that Harry had to face and how this haunted him for years to come? I wonder what these concerned parents, that complained about Harry, will do and say when one of their children or grandchildren come out to them?
There are some places we hope will hold us and truly ‘see’ us in times of vulnerability, but that is not always the case. We can stay, endure and hope, but that comes at a price. For LGBTIQ people raised or existing in non-accepting or homophobic spaces, the price is highlighted in the horrific statistics of mental health, self-harm, rejection and suicide. It is extremely difficult to ‘hang around’ in a setting that questions your very identity.
The wheels of change grind very slowly. For many conservative religious people, someone who identifies as LGBTIQ and ‘Christian’ still remains an oxymoron, someone they think who has made a ‘lifestyle choice’ that is against their understanding and interpretation of the Bible. In these settings, the fear and distrust of a community has already condemned that person.
As I have observed my social media feed over the last month of Australia’s Marriage Equality ‘debate’, I am hopeful in that there are many more folk who are seeking to understand, read and educate themselves – they are eager to ask questions and listen to the many stories. I am also discouraged by so much misinformation and continued acceptance of “ex-gay therapy” by religious and political leaders that hold influence. Like a friend of mine says, “Ex-gay therapy and homophobia are like the oxygen in these settings. There is no true welcome there.” If you are an LGBTIQ person in these places, please be careful, they are not safe.
We made a choice to sell and leave our home and place of belonging. It hurt like hell. Yet it holds no comparison to the momentous grief for people like Harry. They most often have had to leave the places of spiritual belonging by no choice of their own. By their very identity they have become the scapegoat that carries a community’s angst and phobias under the guise of orthodoxy and dogma. The place they had loved so deeply is no longer safe.
This blog post is dedicated to the ‘Harrys’ of the ecclesiastical zoo all over the world. It is dedicated to the many people whose stories of heartache have pierced my own heart and who I am honoured to call friends. I want you to know that there are many who see you and who love you … just the way you are. I want to acknowledge the grief you have had to face in leaving behind your spiritual home. I want you to know that your tears have not gone unnoticed. Your lament is heard, I believe in the highest heavens, and the One who became the ultimate scapegoat stands with you on the margins. You are the prophetic voice of protest to a religious world that lost its way when pursuing its ‘rights’ became the focus, instead of the Gospel. You are brave.
It took Harry several years to recover from what he had to walk through. But Dr. Seuss was right, he did find new places to go – places of true welcome and embrace. He did find safe spaces and friends, communities who shared his faith. He did find skilled counsellors who listened and walked with him as he chiseled out a path for a different tomorrow. He also exceeded in his studies and chosen career. He is still with the one he fell in love with all those years ago. Harry is proof that life can be gut wrenchingly hard and life can also be beautiful.
Do not give up, dear friend. There are places you must leave and grieve – and these places do not know it yet, but the loss is ultimately theirs. There are also many new and amazing places and people that await your arrival … Oh The Places You Will Go …
Nature’s seasons are a constant reminder that nothing we do or experience in life is permanent. I was part of a mega-church community in Melbourne, Australia, for over thirty years. I never thought that season would come to an end. But it did.
One of the last sermons I gave at this church was on Philip’s encounter with a eunuch in a dusty Palestinian desert, as narrated in Acts 8. Hindsight is a most wonderful thing – looking back now I see the significance of that message in my own life. It is helping me as I learn to dream again, as I reflect on the religion of Christianity and what it has become in modern times, and specifically on the possibilities of a movement that focuses on the love and words of Christ.
Below are some of the notes from this sermon – I will post them over a couple of blogposts so as not to overwhelm the reader 🙂
So when we talk about the ‘Gospel’, does it ever occur to us that this God of messy humanity will deliberately mess with our heads and take us as far out of our comfort zone as our obedience allows?
… Part Two and the first question in next blog …
“Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be in an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.” – Mahmoud Darwish
I remember those in exile from my childhood days. They became outcasts because they protested when people were oppressed and marginalised because of the colour of their skin.
They were mocked and ridiculed as they marched.
The government and church set its face against them. People were persuaded by the lies and slander: “These people will destroy our land as we know it, our families, our homes, our future …” Fear ruled the day.
Many of these exiles never saw liberation. They died with only hope for a different tomorrow.
They fought for justice that they would never see.
We remember those exiled to the margins. We will not forget their tears.
This is my tribute to the exiles both past and present.
The marginalised ones. The forgotten ones. The ones held in contempt. The invisible ones. The ones who have been colonised, murdered, exterminated, raped and beaten, in the hope that they will lose or forget their song and story. The ones who have been displaced and rejected. The ones who have been used as footballs by those in politics and used as scapegoats by those in the business of religion.
This post is to remember those who had a dream: that all people are created equal. It is to remind those who are tired and weary from pleading with deaf ears and stone hearts that every step towards inclusion of people groups that were once socially exiled, both in sacred text and throughout history, was met with great resistance. It takes a long time for the walls of ignorance to crumble. Every privileged generation finds it hard to let go of the safeguards they have set in place that determines who is in and who is out, who is valuable and who is not, who belongs and who is exiled.
To live in exile is to live in a space that does not feel like home. It is standing on the outside looking in. It is yearning for belonging, to be seen, to be heard, to be understood. It is to suffer the disappointment of empty promises. It is to be the target of passive aggressive language by those who become offended when their lukewarm acknowledgement is not met with accolades of adoration from those who carry deep wounds and scars.
This is a tribute to the exiles past and present.
It is to remind you that the margins are sacred, that the Divine sings over those who lament in exile. That the One from whom people hide their faces, who was despised and rejected, familiar with suffering, that very One stands as a prophetic witness amongst the exiled ones to testify to their pain and walk alongside them. You are not forgotten.
This is a tribute to the exiles past and present.
May your path be blessed. Blessed in the truest sense, not the plastic gimmick modernity calls ‘blessing’.
As you are exhausted, with no place to turn, may you be blessed.
As you have lost so much, all that has been dear, may you be blessed.
As you walk with humility, may you be blessed.
As you show mercy to those who showed you no mercy, may you be blessed.
As you seek peace amidst inflated egos of entitlement, may you be blessed.
As you are persecuted for seeking justice, may you be blessed.
This is a tribute to the exiles past and present. You will not be forgotten.
“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” – Brennan Manning
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story to his predominantly devout Jewish listeners. It is a story of a rich man, “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” Jesus draws a strong contrast in his story between this rich man and a beggar by the name of Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gate. “He was covered in sores and longed to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” Jesus continues the story and describes their respective deaths. The rich man ends up in Hades, a place of torment, while Lazarus finds himself at Abraham’s side, where he is comforted. Despite his pleas, the rich man was shown no mercy. “A great chasm has been fixed between us and you”, explains Abraham in the story. The rich man was beyond rescue.
The story leaves me uncomfortable. It is a relief to hear that the character of Lazarus is now in a place of peace. However, the rich man … this is a steep price to pay for being rich?! Wait a minute! Was that the problem? His opulent riches? Then, how the heck, did Abraham sidestep Hades? Abraham was describes as VERY wealthy. He had ample livestock, silver and gold (Genesis 13:1). It seems to me, that having riches alone is not the problem here. Perhaps the point of the story is that the rich man, with all his wealth, had the ability to help a dying beggar at his gate, but did NOTHING about it.
In fact, it seems that the rich man’s ailment was the same as that of the pious and pristine religious leaders of that day. They went to great length to protect their pedigree, orthodoxy and pious devotion and missed the whole damn point! “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24).” The rich man, like the religious lobby group of Jesus’ day, became blind amidst their power and wealth, and failed to notice the beggar at their gate with his horrific injuries.
I can identify with the rich man. I, too, live in opulence in comparison to over 80% of the world. I cannot recall a day in my life that I went hungry, or when I was thirsty, or cold and did not have extra clothes to put on. When I get sick, I find a doctor and buy medicine. At night I sleep in a warm house and a warm bed. In so many ways, I represent the ‘rich man’. This reality is brought home to me every single day – when I see the faces of distraught asylum seekers, when I notice the plight of my city’s homeless, when I study the horrific statistics provided by UNICEF – that 29,000 children under five die every single day due to poverty, when I talk to friends and others who suffer from mental health disorders, struggling to receive adequate care, daily facing discrimination from so many sectors of society, and as I listen to the stories of my LGBTIQ friends, marginalised by their churches and often rejected by their families who attend those churches. In comparison to the rest of the world, I am that ‘rich man’. The only question left to answer is how I will respond to Lazarus at MY gate.
So is there an antidote to ‘rich man blindness’? Are we doomed to live our lives in compassion paralysis as we hoard our goods and safeguard our assets? Do we keep making excuses for our lack of involvement in the fate of Lazarus at our gate? Perhaps we can pretend Lazarus is a threat? Some ‘other’ that has come to invade our peace and quiet. Maybe we can change the language by describing a broken, destitute man as an ‘illegal gate squatter’. That will make us feel like we have a right to ignore his needs. It would even be better if we can dump him at our neighbour’s gate and let him become their problem while we safeguard our own borders. And while we tell ourselves all these lies, the rot continues to grow inside of us. But there is another way …
Woven through the sacred text is the virtue of Generosity. Not only is it a virtue, it is the very essence of the Divine. The offence of the rich man is that another human being lay suffering at his very gate and he withheld generosity and mercy. Generosity is displayed in so many ways – our connection to others; our willingness to listen, to understand, to help; the way we see, talk and behave towards those who are on the margins of society; how we treat all of God’s creatures; and the consideration we show to our planet. The list goes on. In a culture of fear and paranoia, to live with a spirit of generosity towards others is indeed an anomaly.
In a world dominated by greed and violence, where the rich become richer, whilst feeling threatened and ‘persecuted’, and the poor continue to languish at the expense of our lusts, the story that Jesus told snaps us to attention. We need to consider our ways. Dr. Charles Birch once said that the rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live. When we develop a generous heart and way of life we usher in a different tomorrow, one that brings healing to the wounded and hope to those in despair. Generosity, my friend, comes to us at the price of self-sacrifice. Just like the rich man we have a choice: fear or generosity. May we choose that which brings life.
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
— Simone Weil