Category Archives: Religion

Things I choose to leave behind: God in my Image

“I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now. Most of the time, I feel so ashamed about this that I do not own up to it unless someone else mentions it first. Then we find a quiet place where we can talk about what it is like to feel more and more devoted to a relationship that we are less and less able to say anything about.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

 

I have a memory of my dear father tidying my room when I was little. We were living in a small village in northern Germany at that time. I had just started school and I remember coming home to a terrifyingly immaculate room – dad was on a mission as we were preparing to move to South Africa. Instead of expressing gratitude, I noticed something immediately. Flicka was missing! Flicka was an old tattered blue corduroy horse that had gathered dust on one of my shelves.
I turned to dad accusingly, “Where is Flicka?”
“Who is Flicka?”
“My blue horse!”
“O darling, I am so sorry, that thing looked very, very sick and I threw it out.”
“You THREW OUT Flicka?!”
Tears … Trauma … Tantrums
The end of the world had come!
I recovered fairly quickly at the mention of ice cream.
It was time to leave an old toy behind.

Sometimes we leave things behind by calculated choice. Often we simply have to leave things behind because they no longer fit our present reality and life. Some find that strange. I have been accused of changing my theology in some random, fruitless social media stoush. It seems that a change of thought, ideas, or, theology, is a forbidden practice. As a woman who can vote, and someone who witnessed the atrocities under an apartheid regime, I am so grateful for the changes of thought, ideas and theology. May there be many more that benefit our earth and progress us toward kindness and compassion.

One of the many things I have left behind in this second half of life is the need to control God. I ‘found’ God in my teen years and it didn’t take me long before I had God all figured out. I had studied theology. I understood how God is orthodox in dogma and conservative in ideas and politics. Of course, God followed my interpretation of the Bible. Was there another interpretation? Alas, heretics! We won’t even begin to talk about other religions or non-religions. I was a zealous crusader with a mindset to ‘save the world’. And then, one by one, my neatly stacked Jenga blocks began to topple. I recall a vivid moment in the late 90s … it was an Aha moment: my idea of the Divine with all the trimmings, was a mirror of my life, my culture, my history, my religious ideas fashioned in a crucible of social norms and morality – in many ways I had successfully created God in my own image. That providential moment became a splinter in my soul – it began to push me out of my tightly held comfort zone.

Years have come and gone since then. Mercy, like the character V in ‘V for Vendetta‘, took my fearful heart (that I had mistakingly called faith) and led me to the edge of an endless, roaring sea, immeasurable in width and depth. I began to realise how futile my attempts to place God in the box of religious conformity really were. And the sheer arrogance that accompanied such endeavours. So just like Flicka, it was time to leave the God of my making behind.

Now, I know there are people who will read this and react with anger. You know how I know that? Because I was that reader once. I still hear my own voice of outrage – “there are rules, there are boundaries, it’s not a wishy-washy gospel”. I agree. To live in love is fierce living – the path of love demands our all.

I look back now at my first half of life and I am beginning to smile at my attempts to build a totem pole of all the things I thought needed to be in place in order to follow Divine Love. Like an overstuffed shish kebab, I had ‘should’ and ‘should nots’ for everything and everyone. And now I sail the seas of liminality and paradox and feel the wind of mystery on my face. It was time to leave the God of my fearful ideas and interpretations (and that of my modern culture) behind.

I don’t assume to know where you are on your journey, dear reader. You alone are the narrator of your life and the meaning and stories your draw from it. Perhaps you have a faith, perhaps you don’t, perhaps this blog post has brought you comfort, perhaps it has infuriated you? I will not attempt to calm those raging seas. Experience tells me that this is unproductive. Grace is sufficient for all our different lives.

Wherever you are … you are held in love … and that is all that matters.

“For individuals who are less traditional in their search for a meaningful relationship with the sacred, the possibility that God is a complex, inexplicable, unpredictable mystery explains their lifelong discomfort in the presence of religious dogmas that don’t correspond with their own personal encounters with God. Many quiet, unassuming everyday mystics choose to remain silent because religious traditions and leaders discount their personal experiences of God for failing to substantiate a doctrine.”

Meredith Jordan, Embracing the Mystery

 

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Letting Go

“Everything I have ever let go of has my claw marks on it.” David Foster Wallace
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When I first posted this BLOG back in 2015, I was living in Upper Beaconsfield on the outskirts of Melbourne. The serene surrounding did not match my turbulent world at that time. It was a fairly stressful season as I was facing some very hostile responses from the religious pious who found my affirming position on LGBTIQ peoples difficult, to say the least!  I began to recognise that the tension created by my continual drift away from a fundamentalist ideology, and my relationship with the more conservative faith community that I was part of, would not always be tenable. Another season of letting go was ahead. No one can really prepare us for the pain of what letting go really means. No one can really adequately describe the liminal space it flings us into. And it is hard to put into words the freedom that comes when we walk through the fire into the unknown.

Since this post, I have again moved house – twice! To Queensland and back again … should be a title of a book. I have begun to realise that our whole life, in a sense, is a liminal space. The West is ill-prepared for this reality. We don’t like to let go. It is a contradiction to the philosophy of our times and the messages that come at us at the speed of sound such as, “Hold on!” and “You will get there!” We also rarely consider that letting go can be one of the most liberating decisions we can make for our life.

But letting go does mean an ending is coming or has come. And endings are difficult. Endings feel a bit like dying. Maybe that is why we are so adverse to the idea of letting go?

Internet Yoda, aka Google, supplies us with endless articles and self-help tips on how to let go. Letting go of material goods, relationships or friendships, a role or position, anger, insecurity, a belief system, places of belonging, etc, etc. This is an indication that humans do not like to let go! And maybe we just need to face that. There is a part of us that is attached to what we need to let go of. Walking away is letting go of a sense of identity and belonging to that object, emotion, or relationship(s). Some of the studies conducted with people with hoarding disorders show an inability to let go of ‘stuff’ because they have assigned so much value to their possessions (interestingly, the same people found it relatively easy to throw out other people’s belongings). There is a lesson for all of us in this. We assign a value to things/people that we have deeply invested in and that is why ‘letting go’ feels so much like dying.

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And yet we all have to face the reality that life does not remain the same: things change, people change, relationships change, friendships change, and then there comes the inevitable time of necessary endings. A time when you realise that you have to let go for many reasons. Maybe you are desperately clasping to an ideology in order to belong but you are beginning to realise that this sort of approval-based sense of community is actually toxic? Maybe you have come to recognise that you have become morose holding on to ‘stuff’ that simply does not satisfy or produce any sense of health or well-being? Maybe you simply feel stuck and stagnant, holding on to what once was? Maybe it is time to take courage and embrace a different tomorrow? Sometimes we have a choice in this letting go business. Often we don’t. When loss finds us without our decision or approval, the process of ‘letting go’ needs to be even more gentle, the grief needs to be realised, the trauma understood and processed.

So, friends, as you journey through life many of you have and will face loss. Some may be facing very difficult decisions at this very moment, while others are in the process of stepping through this invisible door of ‘letting go’. As you do, may you discover that amidst the tears and heartache, memories of joy and regret, there is also the faintest trace of hope, faith and love … and, yes, you will learn to breathe underwater …

BREATHING UNDER WATER

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.

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

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, not death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

(Carol Bieleck, R.S.C.J. from an unpublished work)

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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!”

 

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Suffer the little Children

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela

 

 

With bated breath I watched the commencement of the rescue of the Thai soccer team stuck in a cave for over two weeks. It would be very hard not to feel any empathy for these boys, their coach, their families, and the members of the rescue team who risked their lives to see these children liberated. We can only imagine what it would have felt like to be one of them, entombed in total darkness for such a long time, then discovered, and hope returns softly. And what would it have been like to be one of those family members, sitting outside the entrance of the monstrous darkness that holds captive their loved one? Being engulfed in feelings of helplessness, just waiting and trusting the people that have come to assist. No wonder the world was watching. It caught all our attention and empathy. We celebrated at the news they had all been rescued. And so we should!

Yet, as I watched the drama unfolding, there was a gnawing pain, a disturbance of conscience that will not leave me alone. It is the recognition that with every story of hope there are untold stories of despair. We may not like to hear this, yet around our blue planet children are suffering and children are dying. They “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death” (Global Issues). Perhaps the hardest thing to hear is that in some way we are all connected and complicit to their death. Unless we begin to recognise these painful shadows of social and economic collaboration, we will never address the systemic issues that cause their suffering. In the words of Richard Rohr, “You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.”

Today, more than 357 million children are living in a conflict zone. That is one in six children in the world today are afflicted by conflict. Of these, 165 million are classified as living in ‘high-intensity’ conflict zones and their suffering includes: being recruited as child soldiers, sexual violence, abduction, personal attacks, denial of humanitarian access, as well as maiming and killing. If there’s a child you love in your life, take a moment to look in their eyes. There is absolutely nothing you have done that has privileged that child to be born into an environment of safety and care. Instead, in this paradox of life, that child you are looking at is likely to live in relative peace in comparison to one of the 357 million children who is now traumatised because their little eyes have seen too much.

Whether we like it or not, globalisation is a reality. We are all connected. Australia’s island status and the insular identity that it fashions through this in politics, society, and culture, is somewhat laughable but certainly imagined. We cannot simply claim global connection when it suits us economically. Instead, we also have to consider our global responsibility, especially as we have been part of conflicts that have left countries debilitated and as ongoing war zones. Children are suffering in those countries.

Poverty is, of course, another contributor to the suffering of children around the globe. Despite our wealth, the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) released statistics in 2016 that showed that 731,300 children or 17.4% of all children in Australia are living in poverty – an increase of 2% over the past ten years. Children account for nearly half of the world’s extreme poor and 1 in 4 children are living in poverty in the world’s wealthiest countries. Only half of all countries in the world have child poverty data, ensuring their suffering remains invisible and a most convenient way to keep up the lies we tell ourselves!

Conflict, persecution, and poverty have been the major cause of the unprecedented rise of displaced people like we have never seen before. Considering what we know about how children are suffering through this, it would make sense that a rational response would be to enable forums of people with the necessary knowledge and skills to urgently discuss how we can address this in a global, compassionate and united way? Especially considering we are connected and complicit? Not so! Fear, slander, and control is the order of the day. From Trump’s horrendous “Zero Tolerance” policy, separating children from their parents, the trauma of which will be recorded for years to come, to the concentration-style camps that prove to be places of mental torture, that the Australian government(s) provides for the destitute. We know these policies are causing children to suffer but unlike the Thai soccer team, they do not make it to the headlines.

There really is no argument that justifies such political/social evil that puts a child in harm’s way. Any religious notions that refuse to condemn these actions, yet insist on the rights of the unborn, need to be questioned, critiqued and ultimately, dismissed. If the religious elite who hold these ideas genuinely want to save unborn children then they would also fight for a world in which all women and men can be confident that their children’s future will include education, food, and housing. They would make contraception a major issue, instead of allowing their beliefs to take precedence over the unborn child they are fighting for. As Joan Chittister put it, “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” Selah.

I am part of a modern society that is outraged over having their plastic bags culled at the supermarket, yet remains relatively silent at the imprisonment of children at the hands of my own government. I do not remove myself from this society. In hundreds of different ways I have enabled it. I look back and I cringe at some of the things I have done and believed. I am not ok with this. I can do better. We can do better. We can rise above the fear and the slander. We have and hold collective solutions that, if given consideration, pave a better way forward in line with values of kindness and sustainability. Like that little soccer team, huddled in the darkness, let us refuse to give up hope. In fact, let us demand that hope and the actions that give it wings, of each other.

Suffer the little children … unless we resist.
Long live the resistance.

 

 

 

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In a World of Blind Privilege and Exclusion – Be a Mama Tammye

“I am on this planet, not for myself, but for the betterment of humanity” – Mamma Tammye
(Queer Eye SO2, EO1)

 

It started a few weeks ago. The texts, that is …

“Have you started Queer Eye Season 2? OMG!!!”
“Ok – STOP what you are doing and watch Queer Eye Season 2, Episode 1 … now…. text me…”
“Can’t stop crying – you must have seen Mama Tammye on Queer Eye?”
“Now you know what I think about church, but you might just drag me along if Mama Tammye was preaching.”

So, needless to say, I positioned my derriere on the couch, a glass of red in hand, 2 fur children snoring loudly next to me and started watching Queer Eye – Season 2, Episode 1 as instructed. I nearly convulsed, I was sobbing so hard through the show. I love the Fab 5 and the way they seek to bring meaning and transformation to the lives of others. And who would not fall in love with Mama Tammye?? She reminded me of everything that was okay about religion – she was a personification of the Good News that Jesus talks about.

Watching Mama Tammye interact with the Fab 5 and her complete love and acceptance of her magnificent gay son, Myles, brought up much grief and disappointment for me. If only modern expressions of church and Christianity, held so tightly and loudly by powers and authorities that are often very conservative, privileged and exclusive, had more of Mama Tammy and less of fear and control. What would that look like? Is an ‘old wineskin’ of ecclesiastical methodology and tradition, shaped by the triumphant rise of Christianity as a super-religion under Constantine, even able to hold such a dream? Does it need a whole new wineskin? Could we imagine religious settings that are able to love as fierce and fearless as Mama Tammye? I know there are many that do. Unfortunately, they are not always the ones who are seen or heard. Fundamentalism, that undergirds so much of modern Christianity, has set itself up as the truth bearer – shaming those who do not heed its ideas or peddle its control. So silencing critics and dreamers becomes very important. Yet nothing good has ever come from shaming people into silence.

But back to Mama Tammye and her genuine love, welcome, and affirmation of the diverse expressions of what it means to be human. She is truly welcoming. A welcome that says – “You are loved, just the way you are.” Let’s be like Mama Tammye and open our hearts and arms to love and include for the ‘betterment of humanity.’ Let’s open our eyes to the harmful ideas that claim to be welcoming but not affirming. But what does that even mean?! It means LGBTIQ people can be lulled into a false sense of safety, that a space or group is welcoming, while the toxic ideas of ‘ex-gay’ are still the oxygen that people breathe. “You are welcome here … but you can’t serve or lead until you become straight or at least stay celibate.” The demand for LGBTIQ people to be celibate is the new ex-gay movement, and in the same vein as its insidious ‘pray-the-gay-away therapy’ predecessor (a belief that people who are gay can become straight and that it is God’s will for them to be straight) it continues to wreak havoc with vulnerable lives – to understand some of the heartbreak, please take time to listen to this excellent interview with Vicky Beeching. So let me spell it out – any religious space or group that claims to be welcoming, but not affirming, that sees LGBTIQ people as ‘broken’ and ‘not ideal’, but is motivated by a ‘burden’ to ‘love’ them with a messiah-like, saccharine approach is NOT a safe place. We can all exercise our freedom to go to these places but please do so with your eyes wide open.

I loved the way Mama Tammye repented of the idea that her son was anything but beautiful because he was gay. She rejected a dogma of exclusion that says you are accepted and affirmed by God if you are hetero or celibate. Dogmas of exclusion have been around for centuries. Politics and religion keep them alive. Study Germany when Hitler rose to power. We see similarities in the vilification and exclusion of people in the modern day phenomenon that is unravelling in Trump’s USA. I have witnessed it in apartheid South Africa and as a woman of faith, I very quickly realised that in some denominational circles it is only if you possess certain genitalia that you are fit to preach from a pulpit or be in any form of governmental church roles.

If you, like me, have been part of a more fundamentalist religious setting you have probably been complicit in some form of dogma that marginalised others. Nowadays, the flavour of the month for exclusion in religious settings is LGBTIQ people and it seems immigrants and asylum seekers are the favourites on the political front. We all love ‘others’ as long as they all look and think like us 🙂 We all love God – especially when God is male, white, conservative, and approving only of heterosexual orientation 🙂 The idea that the gospel is bigger than our constructed, socialised interpretation of sacred text is a terrifying thought. Mama Tammye repented from that fear and arrogance. What a breath of fresh air she was blowing into her church and giving that marvellous speech:

“How can I say I love God, but I cannot love the ones who are right next to me?”

Imagine a world filled with Mama Tammyes?
Imagine a world were people like Antoni Porowski and Bobby Berk are brought to tears as they are reminded that the love and face of Jesus are often very different to the words and actions of those who proclaim to be his followers?
Imagine a religious space that has let go of the fundamentalist idea that we need to control who people are and what they believe?
Imagine a group of people that simply spread the good news: that God is not the enemy, rather God is revealed in Immanuel – with us.

In the current climate of increasing political and religious exclusion – let’s be counter-cultural. Let’s be people of a different way. The way of Jesus. Let’s open up our arms wide, tell fear to get back into the box, and trust that love will win the day.

Be like Mama Tammye.

“But I need to ask you for your forgiveness because Mama has not loved you unconditionally.” Mama Tammye – speaking of her son, Myles.

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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

 

 

 

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My Addiction to Certitude

There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.
– Sherman Alexie –

In a recent conversation with a friend on the topic of liminality and religion, I entered a path of greater self-discovery. The question he posed that allowed me to enlarge the narrative I tell myself about myself was this: “You speak of being in a form of conservative, religious fundamentalism for thirty years – what you need to ask yourself was what drew you there in the first place?”

It’s a good question. What draws us into spaces of community and belonging? Why do we hang around even when we realise that the values we hold have become juxtaposed to the policies of an organisation? And, specifically, what is it especially about religious communities that make it extremely difficult to discern that the time has come to say goodbye?

The question took me back to my childhood and the recognition from a young age that although I grew up in a loving and encouraging home this was not the reality for many other people. My parents did not shield me from the realisation that this world holds much suffering – something I would witness first hand when we moved to Africa. My pre-liminal space was one that recognised chaos … and as a young person, I yearned for order and structure. I was a prime candidate for the zealous, orderly world of fundamentalism.

In an upcoming book by Tim Carson, I will share more deeply about this experience (thank you, Tim, for the opportunity to contribute). Looking back, I recognise the longing that led me to structure and the addiction that kept me there – an addiction to certitude.

The black and white world of literalism, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”, became my ‘God drug’. I was convinced that I, and the tradition I was part of, held the truth and needed to save the souls of those who did not share this euphoric space of transcendence. I became a zealot – a zealot with the privilege of a platform. I used it to speak of absolutes around the world … and I was cheered on, fuelling my dependence on certainty.

In those days I had no room in my life for paradox – questions and doubts were tucked away and hidden. They were not to be spoken of as I did not want to upset this wonderful world I was in … a world where everything was ‘awesome’. A world that had created order out of my chaos, provided foolproof answers to my yearning and showed me a clear and triumphant way. Certitude, like the matrix, is an intoxicating hyper-reality.

This week I was reminded of my addiction. A cruel tweet from a religious leader against the rainbow community triggered me and I responded with outrage. Amidst the comments on my facebook page, a friend (Daniels Sims) wrote, “I feel for him (religious leader). I really do. It is hard to be saved from behind a wall of certitude.” His words struck such a deep chord with me.

How hard it is to be saved from behind a wall of certitude! That was me … for nearly three decades. I partook and was complicit in supplying the drugs needed to keep our certainty addiction alive and with it dulled some of the discomforts that derive from ‘not knowing’ and embracing mystery. Certitude provides us with all the answers we need to live a cloistered life of dogmatism, perhaps because the alternative is just too scary and difficult.

I look at my life now – what a far cry from the young, impassioned, self-assured, and absolutely convinced person I once was. Most of the time I am not certain and mystery has now become a dear friend. Like any recovering addict, I am still drawn to certainty but I now realise that just like the idea of normality, certainty is a myth. What St Paul wrote is true, we look at the world through a dark, smokey glass. To proclaim anything else is presumption … to recognise it is to walk with humility and compassion.

So, friend, if you, like me, have identified your addiction and need for certitude, perhaps we can sit around a virtual room of belonging together and proclaim: “I am *insert name* and I am a certitude addict.” And then smile and realise that here too, grace abounds and is sufficient.

A paradox is a seeming contradiction, always demanding a change on the side of the observer. If we look at almost all things honestly we see everything has a character of paradox to it. Everything, including ourselves. – Richard Rohr – 

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Love is … Fierce!

“The passion of love bursting into flame is more powerful than death, stronger than the grave.” Song of Songs 8:6.

 

Last Saturday we gathered on the pristine Barwon Heads foreshore in Victoria, Australia. The day was perfection. Sunny and 23 degrees – a gentle breeze blew the white silky banners that marked the aisle down which two friends walked and made public their love and commitment to one another. They had waited a long time to tie this sacred knot. They, like so many before them and so many in the crowd, had fought for their right to say “I Do”. We honoured them … we cried with them … so, it seemed, did half of Barwon Heads, that stopped to watch the ceremony.

The fierce words of love were read:

Love is terribly offensive
To those who would wish it silenced.
Love does not tolerate discrimination.
It does not abide bigotry.
It does not play nice with fear.
Love does not wait in the corner
For hatred to consent to it speaking.
Love always wins
And Today is the fruit of its victory.

(words attributed to John Pavlovitz)

Love, we are told, and I truly believe, is the greatest of all. Saturday reminded me of that. Love is kind and compassionate. Love listens and is understanding …
AND love is FIERCE …

Love stands up in face of injustice. Love refuses to be silenced.
Love is defiant to an empire of power and greed.
Love turns power on its head – Easter is a fine reminder of that.

And love wins … love always wins in the end …
Remember that, dear friend …

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love 
which sets us free.
– Maya Angelou –

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Unsubscribing from Normal

As I opened my emails one morning and started deleting about twenty of them without even engaging with the content, I knew it was time for another ‘unsubscribe’ purge. Over several years I had subscribed, or was subscribed by the invisible email subscription ghost, to dozens of newsletters, specials, advertisements, health tips, etc, etc… and they all wanted me to hear from them first thing in the morning … but I had lost all interest! Isn’t it peculiar how we remain subscribed to something that is no longer relevant to our lives?!

Just like those pesky emails, I wonder what social norms we have subscribed to over our lives, most often without even considering the price of subscription or their relevance? Things we do and say and judge simply because somewhere in our history and culture we determined that we needed to be subscribers to ‘normal’ in order to ‘fit in’? As an immigrant into various different cultures and contexts, I felt I was forever playing catch up to ‘normal’ … and I never felt certain that I had achieved this social, cultural or later, religious ideal that was held in high regard amongst my ‘tribe’.

I have a vivid memory of my ten-year-old school friend looking at the dark rye sandwich my mother had lovingly prepared for me, complete with cheese and pickles, pulling up her nose and commenting, “I don’t know who eats stuff like that. It’s just not normal.” There it was again! That dreaded word that I had been conscripted to and had no idea how to fulfil all of its demands.

Perhaps most of us don’t spend enough time reflecting on what normal means in our lives? How has it enhanced our way of life? How has it limited our life? In what forum are we picking up ideas about normality and are we actually applying critical thinking to those forums and the rhetoric before putting them to work in our lives? Normality can be the cruellest of taskmasters.

Jane Hutton writes, “The concept of ‘normality’ is relatively new and yet insidiously powerful. It provides the criteria we are comparing ourselves to. Normality can sometimes work for us and often works against us. Perceptions of what is ‘normal’ can marginalise individuals and groups of people and give great power to those who live their lives within its boundaries. They can be used to diminish people on the basis of cultural or spiritual practices, sexuality, physical and mental health, and ability.” (The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2008 No.1)

We have Adolphe Quetelet and his study of social behaviour in a hope to develop a science for managing society, to thank for our obsession with ‘normal’. His cosmic template for the “Average Man” has created all kinds of hell and headaches. This includes parents who are obsessed that their child should not just reach ‘ average‘ milestones but surpass them. Quetelet created a powerful Normal monster. But it would have NO power without OUR consent. You see, ‘normal’ is a myth.

Think about all the ideas we have about normal and then ask yourself seriously:
* What is a normal skin colour?
* What are normal clothes?
* Normal sleep?
* Normal poop?
* What is a normal family?
* What is a normal relationship?
* What the hell really is a normal person?

Normal has created absolute havoc for so many people. It has caused society to create margins for those who we deem not ‘normal’ and sadly that sort of exclusion is so often backed by religion. It’s time we consider … think … STOP!

Friend, I am suggesting that if Normal is making you miserable then it’s time to Kiss or Kick Normal Goodbye.

It is time to unsubscribe to Normal. If you can’t think of a way to do it then here is a little note – you have my permission to use and adapt it as you please … and live your precious life.

Dear Normal,

Somehow I managed to be on your list of everyday emails and I would like you to unsubscribe me.

The moment I wake up you are there dictating to me how I should dress and what I should wear. Then you berate me about my abnormal job choice, you worry me with questions about my non-compliant sleeping patterns, and you yell at me for being a peculiar sort of parent. All through the day you judge me about how I laugh, speak, walk, relate … Normal, I have had it. I am tired of you. You are no longer going to have such a damn loud voice in my life.

Don’t take me wrong – I appreciate some of your concerns about my safety and self-care – and I will allow you to whisper to me in those times. But I am turning off your bloody booming voice.

So, Normal, today I unsubscribe from your daily ranting emails. I wish you well. And I am off to live my bizarrely absurdly preposterously marvellous life.

Ciao

Sincerely,

(Insert your name)

P.s. Normal, please don’t call me – I will call you!

 

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