Category Archives: Religion

Thin Places: Where Heaven and Earth Embrace

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Exodus 3:5

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Last year I visited Elk, or Lyck as it was known to my family. The town of my ancestors. I stood on the shores of the lake that held so many of my childhood fantasies. Fantasies that were fed by my grandmother’s mesmerising stories. I walked through the vibrant forest, up a hill, overlooking that magical place of a thousand lakes. I could hear whispers from the past, a distinct sense of the closeness of another dimension. It hit me. I was again standing amidst a Thin Place.

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The Celts coined the term ‘Thin Place’ for spaces and moments where the distance between heaven and earth seems almost non-existent. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places the distance is even smaller. My guess would be that the first person to utter the term probably did so in an Irish brogue, as they stood in wonder, looking at the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick.

Thin Places confuse our senses. We suddenly see the world in a different light. Our perceptions change. With breathless wonder we encounter the Divine and it changes us. For people who hold to a faith, Thin Places are those places where we feel most strongly connected to God’s presence.

“Thin Places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.”

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As I stood looking around by the lake at Elk, memories came flooding back. I was familiar with Thin Places. I remember the moment I stepped onto the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, that holy hush that descends as all words fall short in the face of such beauty. Or as I watched the sea eagles swoop through pristine Norwegian fjords. I recall the Thin Place moment as I trudged through the dark, cold catacombs along the via Appia in Rome, sensing that I was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And then there are those Thin Places of life and death. The moment when I took my newborn into my arms and marvelled at the wonder of life. Or when I held the hand of my dying mother on one warm and balmy December evening, and watched her pass over to another dimension filled with light.

So what makes a Thin Place ‘thin’? Not every beautiful place we encounter is a ‘Thin Place’ and it is not necessarily marked because of its tranquility. Perhaps a Thin Place can best be identified through how it effects us, changes us, strips us, and transforms us. We can’t really plan day trips to Thin Places. Rather, it seems, that Thin Places find us. Those mindful moments when suddenly we catch a glimpse of heaven and earth, unencumbered. It is that moment of recognition that Jacob experienced and exclaimed: “God is in this place — truly. And I didn’t even know it!”

It is the moment we passionately wake up:

“Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies towards the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope.” John O’Donohue

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As I stand on the threshold of a new and different tomorrow, I also sense this is a Thin Place. I feel like the last few decades, lived in a blur of hurry and productivity, have given way to a rhythm of grace, and of seeing and hearing with an ever increasing sense of wonder. It has not been a comfortable place. I don’t think Thin Places are intended to be. Rather, it has been a place of irrevocable change of the way I view and relate to the world and who I am.

What about you? Can you identify some Thin Places in your life? What was it about them that made them Thin Places? How are you different because of those moments?

You only have one life to live and it’s not as long as we’d like to imagine. May you resist the temptation to live it in the way others expect of you. May you live deeply and not be asleep when the sun rises. May your very life be the sacrament of a Thin Place for you.

“A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time … you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” Frederick Buechner

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Leap of Faith? It’s Easier to Talk about It!

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” 
– Soren Kierkegaard

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For most of us, life is often a fairly mundane rhythm of existence. Weeks go by before we notice how much time has actually elapsed. Now and then we have an unexpected visitor: Risk! Situations or moments come our way and we are faced with decisions and choices. One of these decisions is a choice for safety and comfort, to remain in what we know, and this is certainly not a ‘wrong’ choice, per se. When risk comes knocking, there is also another choice. A choice that propels us into uncharted waters and requires something of us. It invites us to step out into a place of not knowing, of instability, of following your heart … it requires a Leap of Faith.

I have often spoken about these places of peril over the last three decades. I spoke of them from a position of security, growth, and the idealism that accompanies youth and strength. But it is a different thing altogether to have Risk come calling for a cup of tea now that I am older. With age comes a sense of realism, a recognition that life does not read the “play fair” manual, and that the God of my youth was more like a shrine to my ideals than the God whose ways and thoughts are far above those of finite humanity. It is daunting, to say the least, to be invited to dust off the old Indiana Jones hat and take a leap of faith.

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The stirring started in my heart quite a few years ago. I remembered why I chose to follow the teachings of  Christ. It never has been a path about safety, comfort, and acquisition. It is not a path were our objective is to impress people, create bigger platforms, or seek greater influence. It is not a way of life that allows for the building of ethereal castles, where we reside in the safety of our self-assured orthodoxy with people who agree with us. Rather, it is a narrow path of peace, mercy and justice. It is a path that requires sacrifice if these are the values we choose to live by. It is an adventure that will often require us to step into the total unknown, and like that famous scene from “The Last Crusade”, hope there is a path that meets us, even when we can’t see one.

For most of us there will come a time when we are asked to take that leap. It is both a terrifying and liberating moment. Here are some of my reflections:

1. Fear will Disguise itself as Your Friend

Fear is what undergirds so much of our vulnerable existence. Religion can placate the angst with all sorts of promises and stern warnings, yet so much of religion is itself steeped in fear and superstition. The first step to freedom is recognising this. It is to understand that the notions of safety are not that realistic. The more we make our peace with this recognition the more readily we notice the many disguises of fear. No wonder the call of Christ includes the path of being willing to lose our life in order to find life.

2. Fear will Insist you Take the Path of Safety

I kissed Christian Fundamentalism goodbye quite a few years ago. It was a leap of faith. For someone who had bought into the austerity of these ideals, including the over-emphasised teaching that humans are depraved and that the heart is deceitful above all, I had to learn to listen to my heart again. I discovered my inner core was a joyful space, full of light, wonder and goodness. When we live in Spirit rhythm we begin to breathe again. Fear beckoned me to the safety of ‘absolute certainty’. Grace called me to take a leap of faith. I am so glad I took that leap.

3. You will Pay a Price – No Matter the Choice

When Risk comes calling we have to make decisions. The decisions and choices we make in these times have a price tag – all of them! Do we risk the sense of belonging and recognition we have acquired in our social tribe by stepping beyond the borders of their acceptability? Do we stay and live with the incongruity of living at odds with our deep held values? Do we risk all by following that still, small voice? Do we risk our joy by not? Make no mistake – choices have a price tag. All of them.

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4. Your Leap of Faith may End in a Spectacular Dive of Failure

Friend, where did we get the idea that risk is, well, risk free? You may take a leap and it may not end well, or at least, not like you thought it would … and that’s ok! We are humans, we risk, we leap, we triumph … except when we don’t. Failures are part of life. No, you are not a failure! You simply took a risk and maybe it didn’t turn out the way you hoped. But you still took a risk. Well done! And the people who are muttering after your spectacular mishap should simply be reminded that the spiritual beer gut they are parading from inactivity does absolutely nothing to convince you to take any remote notice of them.

5. Celebrate the Leap!

If you do decide to take that leap – then celebrate it. Celebrate it with tenacious joy and full belly laughs. Celebrate it with your kindred and adventure-loving friends. Remind everyone that we have one very short life to live and that regret is the saddest of all companions. Be open about the lessons you have learnt – the highs, the lows, the misery, the wonder.

A Leap of Faith sounds wonderful in theory. It is intoxicating to talk about it in front of crowds, cheering you on. It is a different thing altogether to make a decision as you stare into the menacing unknown. I will be the last person to judge you if you choose not to take that leap. For only you can make that decision and only you will face the consequences of your choice. However, if you do decide to go on this adventure, with all my heart, I wish you well. Maybe one day we will meet, chink glasses, tell our stories, and be grateful for the hell of a ride called life.

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Scapegoats: Our Desperate Need to Blame Others

“The search for scapegoats is essentially an abnegation of responsibility: it indicates an inability to assess honestly and intelligently the true nature of the problems which lie at the root of social and economic difficulties and a lack of resolve in grappling with them.”
–  Aung San Suu Kyi –

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We find our Scapegoats at a young age.

Her name was Helen. She wore glasses that were too big for her face. Her school skirt nearly touched her ankles. She smelt of mothballs. She was the perfect playground scapegoat. And we all reminded her of her role everyday. Our need to deflect from our own anger, guilt, aggression, rejection, and project it on someone else, starts very early in our life. In fact, it seems like we have a genetic human default of wanting to blame someone or something else for the angst we carry as vulnerable
humans.

History eagerly awaits to be summoned and reveal its countless files on scapegoats. Animals often wore the brunt of the blame game. The early pilgrims to the USA brought a religious superstition to its shores that
resulted in wariness of anything not defined in their worldview. Black cats were among their targets in looking for explanations for disasters. Unfortunately, this irrational belief lingers to this day as black cats are five times more likely to be euthanised and continue to be subjected to horrendous abuse. Christian pig farmers in Egypt found their property attacked and pigs killed by Sunni Muslims who blamed the pigs and the Christian farmers for spreading the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 (a pointless carnage). And, of course, then there’s Mrs. O’Leary’s famous scapegoat cow who was blamed for the Great Chicago Fires.

Charlie Campbell’s excellent book, Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, devotes a great deal of attention to the scapegoating of women throughout history. He contends that the witch hunts and trials of early modern Europe were mainly motivated by men’s fear and hatred of women. Scapegoating women is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. Alexis Carrel blamed the shambles and ageing of a post World War I France on women, for they had “ceased to obey the law that binds them to the propagation of the human race.” The Spanish Civil war was blamed on women whose “vaginas had given birth to republican filth.” From the Laws of Manu to early Christian apologists like Tertullian to the Buddhist thinker Santideva, men found solace in blaming women for their desires. Women were called evil and confined to the home, as
society needed to be protected. Jack Holland in his book Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice argues that women are the universal scapegoat of history.

History is littered with notorious individual scapegoats like the French Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, or the Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, or Hitler’s Party Leader, Rudolf Hess, or the tragic figure of Gaëtan Dugas (Patient Zero). Then there are the minority groups that become the scapegoats for community ignorance, religious beliefs, or fear: the Albino children in Africa, the LGBTIQ community, Jews, Palestinians, and perhaps in modern Australian history nothing exemplifies the scapegoating of minority groups more perfectly than the consistent
slandering of refugees by political power puppets. All of this to say that us humans have never had a problem of finding someone to blame!

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We often tend to think of scapegoating as something that happens outside our family of origin. Nothing can be further from the truth. There are many  people who will tell their stories of being picked on and
excluded from the people who were meant to love and care for them. Scapegoating is often a way for families to hide problems they cannot face. Blaming a vulnerable family member can be the practice, for
example, of a parent with Borderline Personality or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The child, or scapegoat, is the one who wears their
frustrations, aggression and hatred, as they unite the rest of the family against the one being attacked. If you have been a family scapegoat there is no sugar-coating it: you have been abused. This is not ok! Please consider the effect it has had on your life. Perhaps it is time to say “No More” to the bullies?

Sadly, religious institutions are not immune from scapegoating. The ‘God of Wrath and Judgement’ is keenly at work in the minds of some
religious leaders, zapping anyone who does not agree with that leader’s
interpretation of the Sacred Text. I think the fairly modern flavours of Christian Fundamentalism and biblicism, that have permeated some faith communities, have contributed to the fervency devoted to scapegoat hunting. When adherence to a certain code of beliefs and behaviour is the litmus test to achieve belonging and affirmation, then it is fairly easy to find a scapegoat that is not living up to the ’standards of holiness’. Blaming another for our own existential angst and catastrophes is nothing new. Hear the echoes of the disciples asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Of course, if we can convince the rest of our social tribe that God also blames them, then the dehumanising has even greater repercussions for the damned scapegoats.

A month ago, many people around the world celebrated one of the most significant events of the Christian Liturgical Year: Easter. We reflected on the Passion of the Christ: The Innocent One, without any guilt, who breaks the mythical cycle of human superstitious violence. The scapegoat becomes the Lamb of God. With his brutal death, “the foolish genesis of blood-stained idols and the false gods of superstition, politics, and ideologies” are exposed. “It is finished,” is the Gospel declaration of a Kingdom that is not of this world and has put an end to scapegoating. The unjust slaying of Christ reveals the foundation of a culture built on murder and a lie. Jesus, knowing we are mimetic creatures, calls us to follow his footsteps on the path of peace. It is time to lay aside the scapegoat. It is time to face our own souls.

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Mama Mia! God as Mother?

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“Mother is the name of God in the lips and hearts of little children” – William Makepeace Thackeray

The retail machine is gathering speed with the approach of Mother’s Day. If you have stopped by the consumer caverns recently you might have been overwhelmed with the amount of beautiful cards, fluffy toys, enough slipper options to create severe option-angst and chocolates … so many chocolates. Amidst all the expressions of matriarchal veneration amongst modern day consumers we also have ideologies shaped by the history of religions and discover at times a somewhat hostile attitude towards women, especially amongst the Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Islam and Christianity were constructed in predominantly patriarchal social orders where women played an inferior role stemming from interpretations of the various creation narratives. So, to raise the theological concepts of the feminine aspects of God, in particular, God as Mother, in some setting where people consider themselves Christian and orthodox, will take the nerves of a kamikaze pilot, with perhaps the same outcome. So here I go … 🙂

In Christianity, God the Father has been revealed to believers through the person of Jesus Christ, an image that for many becomes inalterable in how they see God: male. This is the central argument of many Christian scholars who oppose the idea of God as Mother. While Mary, as the mother of Jesus, is considered a superstar by some faith traditions,
especially Catholics, the concept of God as Mother has certainly opened some bloggers to a tirade of hostile responses when they dared to raise it. The President of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, Owen Strachan, went as far as calling blogger and author, Rachel Held Evans, a ‘false teacher’ spreading an ‘unbiblical doctrine’, who needs to turn from her falsehood. Why this eyebrow singeing tirade? In an interview  in 2012, she made a one and only reference to God as ‘Herself’, a description that places Evans clearly in the ‘heretic’ box according to Strachan.

Then there are those brave souls who dare to not just suggest the
possibility of God as Mother, but also publish these ideas in a novel, that in turn becomes a bestseller. The Shack represents God the Father as “Papa”, a large African-American woman, and of the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu. The very idea sent somimages-173e conservative Christians into meltdown spawning websites of warning of the heretical and diabolical nature of this publication, with frenzied accusations that it promotes ‘goddess’ worship. All this to say that when it comes to the idea of God as Mother, portions of Christianity may have Mama issues.

Despite the Mama angst, Christian traditions also have a historical precedent for understanding God as both Father and Mother. Julian of
Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen both presented a gender-balanced view of divinity. Julian depicts Christ as a feminine and maternal divine figure, whilst Hildegard in her book 
Scivias, posits a gender-balanced Godhead that can be experienced through its feminine aspects. Hudson argues that both concepts revolutionise the ‘Imago Dei’ into one bearing feminine characteristics and these feminine cosmic
visions hold feminist implications.

It is in the feminist theological tradition, both past and present, where we come to the heart of the search for an embodied understanding of God. A God that can be found manifested in the reality of women’s lives. The central question of feminist theology is: What does it mean to speak of God in the light of women’s lives throughout the pages of history? As Natalie Watson brings out in her book Feminist Theology: Is the Trinity an all-male club or is there room for an understanding of God in feminine relationships that equally affirms relationships between women? As I pose this question, I can only imagine that some readers may have imploded in front of their computers or iPads like the bird on Shrek! However, we must allow ourselves the privilege of critical thought and recognize that these questions are not sacrilegeMary Daly, the 1970s American feminist, jolts us in the implications of how we answer: “If God is male, then male is God.” If we use exclusive masculine language in our reference to the Trinity, are we not depicting God in a manner that removes women from inclusivity of relationship with and through the divine?

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For the more conservative readers who are considering the predominance of God as ‘male’ throughout the sacred text (Father, shepherd, warrior, king, etc.), we can also not negate God as Sophia: the wisdom of God. There are also many Scriptures providing a feminine face of God. The Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, assumes that all human language of God is symbolic anthropomorphisms and therefore even the analogies of God as ‘male’ are not normatively privileged. If we consider this assertion and that the God of Christian faith traditions transcends gender, culture, age, then surely our language depicting God should not be restricted to just male terms?

In many modern faith traditions, we are observing a slow exodus of women from the church. Women are increasingly disenfranchised with church hierarchy and antiquated gender roles that stem from various interpretations of the creation myths and a perception of God as male. Jann Aldredge-Clanton argues that Christianity itself is at stake unless we begin to find ways of speaking of and understanding God that includes female, male and all of creation in new and empowering ways. I tend to agree with her. As I observe my own fiery female offspring, it becomes abundantly clear that this next generation does not possess the level of tolerance to a faith that suppresses women through its theology and that gives no recognition to the feminine in the divine.

Mother’s Day is fast approaching. Maybe it is a day that is celebrated with great gusto in your life. Or perhaps the day is shrouded with grief or disappointment. In faith communities, we spend a lot of time discussing the love of Father God, but we neglect or ignore the images of God as Mother. Yet a Mother’s love is the wonder and marvel of poets, philosophers, writers and artists … May we take time to consider this Divine Love and may it bring us Shalom.

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Inside Ex-Gay: A Year On

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It was on the 8th April 2015 that I sat down with Nathan Despott and Dean Beck at JOY FM and discussed my observations about the
difficulties faced by LGBTI Christians as they interact in an often
conservative religious world that, by and large, sees them as anomalies around the table of Christ. The programme was called Inside Ex-Gay.

Years before the interview, my path intertwined with many folks who became friends. People who were followers of Jesus and who had faced
incredible persecution based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Through these friendships and their life stories, along with
research, I began to gain a perspective of the depth of my own lack of understanding and education. As a minister, I had blindly accepted what I was told about LGBTI people. When I took a closer look, I was suddenly confronted by my own specious embedded ideology that I realised had devastated people’s lives.

The interview was a small step for me in making things right. It also
unleashed the fury and ire of some who saw my stance as threatening and heretical. The display of outrage from certain sectors of the
Christian world was most spectacular. It showed me that in some
religious settings you are only one disagreement away from exile.
However, far more beautiful and meaningful was the kindness,
encouragement, and correspondence I received from so many people, a large number of them total strangers.

It is now one year later. How time flies.

Here are some of my reflections:

1. I am learning to let go and discover the “unforced rhythm of grace“. Amidst the escalating hysteria over the interview and my own anxiety, I discovered that the grace I had preached about all those years prior was very real. I am now learning to free fall into its life-giving rhythm.

2. Brave are the hearts of those on the margins. I have personacolorful-1254432_1280lly
observed the margins, or scapegoats, of cultures and societies for some time now. In the lives and
stories of refugees, people of colour in apartheid South Africa, and LGBTI people, I have noticed something they all hold in common. They are brave. Faced with discrimination, slander, fear-mongering and persecution, people who dwell in the margins must learn to find their own identity without the luxury of wider, social approval. If you want to feel the heartbeat of brave humanity, go to the margins.

3. Fear + Ignorance + “The Bible Tells Me So” = Marginalisation. I defend freedom of speech. However, some of the nonsense peddled on social media and other forums have disastrous consequences. Fear of ‘the
other’ can make us do and say irrational things. Let us just stop for a
moment and take a look at the actions justified over centuries because “The Bible tells us so.” Read the sermons of pro-slavery preachers,
consider the culpability of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Apartheid era, think about the effect of patriarchy on women (upheld through a hierarchical view on gender), especially in developing nations. The Bible can be used to justify just about anything. Friends, I understand we are all entitled to our opinion, but when our entitled opinion threatens the lives of others, and when our belief stands in opposition to Jesus’ command to love others unconditionally, shouldn’t we consider our words, actions and theology?

4. I think part of my problem in not engaging with this issue for so long was simply that the suffering of LGBTI Christians did not affect me
directly. It was a taboo subject and therefore I did not enter any
discussion or education. But that doesn’t make it right. I understand that there’s a large portion of gracious Christ-followers grappling with
questions about all of this. My encouragement to you is that you keep searching: ask questions, research, but most importantly of all, become a genuine, all-weather, unconditional friend to LGBTI people and really listen to their stories.

5. To have a paradigm challenged and changed, one that has been held in my own faith tradition, is one of the scariest things I have done for a long time. We all desperately want to belong. The fear of becoming an outcast is one of the reasons we often don’t speak up. When our belonging is threatened, we most often prefer to privately negotiate the inner conflict of values, rather than to have our place in the tribe threatened. We dread tribal shaming. Some of the things I dreaded became a reality and yet I wouldn’t change a thing. When our belonging is based in fear, and we are unable to voice concerns or challenge a status quo that
oppresses others, then it is not true belonging. As I now look back, my major regret is not that I decided to speak out, but that it took me so long to open my eyes, heart and mind to the great diversity of God’s precious children.

6. These are my reflections on a year gone by. This is not a theological thesis (I will include some excellent resources at the end of this blog for those interested). I am not asking you whether you approve or disapprove of my life. I am not here to argue or change your mind, if you disagree. There are many places on social media that allow for vigorous theological debate and argument. This is not one of them. This is the voice of an LGBTI ally, seeking to serve those whom I have wounded with decades of indifference, posting some personal reflections.

7. Love wins and there is room at the table. I believe in a God who is
defined through love. Love is the greatest. The work of Christ is
sufficient. The table is big enough. The current sorry state of affairs is not how the story will end. God is the great iconoclast. Throughout the pages of history God continues to clear more places where prejudice and ignorance once sat. The places around the table continue to be filled with people who have been told – for centuries – that there is no room for them. But I believe there is! There is room for the great diversity of God’s children. Welcome to the table.

Recommended Resources

1. Vicky Beeching’s outstanding address at the Reformation project provides a poignant account of what it feels like to be LGBTI in the Christian world.

2. Kathy Baldock’s book, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, is a great overall, well-researched read. I especially love the history she provides on the LGBTI movement. History is vitally important in understanding the current context.

3. David Gushee, with gracious tone, provides an ethical/theological reasoning to why he changed his mind from a conservative perspective in his book, Changing our Mind.

4. Jim Brownson (Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships) and Matthew Vine (God and the Gay Christian), both provide well-researched, theological perspectives.

5. Justin Lee (Torn) and Anthony Venn-Brown (A Life of Unlearning) provide two unique, personal stories of ‘coming out’ and being true to one’s self.

6. The Inside Ex-Gay Library provides many more excellent resources.

The Disappointing Messiah

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Several years ago, we had the opportunity to visit beautiful France. Our time in Paris included a trip to the famous Louvre Museum. It was everything I imagined. Every step left me stunned and mesmerised. I do
confess hurrying through the first part just to clap my eyes on the world’s most famous painting: Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Holding my breath as I walked into the great hall that housed her, surrounded by a huge crowd of admirers, I stood therpicture-1053852_1920e … disappointed. I had built up an idea about how this moment would unfold, how I would feel, and none of my imagined ideals where realised. The admiring tourists were annoying (yes, I was one of them, thanks for pointing that out), and Mona just seemed shrivelled and small in her place of honour. Others have different experiences, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed.

As Easter approaches, the most significant event on the Christian
calendar, commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ, it may be lost on us how disappointing the person of Christ would have been to the original Jewish audience. The prophets that strode through the pages of the Old Testament spoke of a Messiah, or an Anointed One, that would deliver the people of Israel from their oppression and their enemies. This Messianic hope would have reached fever pitch with the wild man, John the Baptist, coming out of the desert, announcing the imminent
arrival of the Messiah. Every eye would have been on Jesus as he began to minister in Roman-occupied Judea. But they would be severely disappointed.

Jesus was not the blazing, Thor-like character that people had
anticipated. He was humble, from questionable origin, and annoyingly subversive. He did not play the expected power games and then, just to top it all off, he gets himself crucified. He was betrayed by one of his own … perhaps because the betrayer was so disappointed in him. To die
between accursed criminals, was not the ideal that people of Jesus’ day held about the Messiah. His very disciples and family questioned his identity and claims – questions that culminated with great grief and
confusion the day he was crucified. This was not what they expected. A crucified, silent Messiah was most certainly disappointing.

Very quickly modern readers and people of Christian faith jump to the resurrection. Very quickly we seek to settle our own nagging doubts and disappointments. Very quickly we ignore the disappointing Messiah of Friday and Saturday, because, after all, we know that “Sunday is
coming!” However, we deny our own humanity, our own important doubts, questions, and lament, when we ignore the disappointment of Easter Friday and Saturday – the days the Messiah was killed and tombed. The days of violence, horror, and silence. The days that we, at some stage in our lives, will all face. The days of gut-wrenching defeat.

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At the heart of disappointment lie failed expectations. We thought one thing but got something else. For people of faith, disappointment with God is an uneasy subject. The faith tradition that shaped so much of the first half of my life was constructed on positive certitudes. To discuss doubt and disappointment was not that welcome. However, a faith that is built on the predictability of God and carefully honed triumphant mantras, allowing no room for suffering, failure, or disappointment, is in danger of being shipwrecked on the  harsh cliffs of life experience. When we have not been given permission to hold our doubts and
disappointments, times of paradox and seeming unanswered prayers will erupt our spiritual Neverland into giant volcanic activity – because disappointment will not be pacified through platitudes.

So as Easter approaches, do not rush for Sunday. Sit with the horror of Friday, lean into the silence of a tombed king on Saturday. Reflect on your disappointments – particularly in your relationship with God.
Consider a disappointed Christ who begged for the cup to be taken from him in Gethsemane. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “In Gethsemane, the
holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a cup may pass from him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.
” In a world that looks for an instant fix we forget that some things are not that fixable. Sometimes God, just like my ideas about Mona Lisa, does not meet any of our expectations.  Sometimes life is disappointing. Sometimes the Messiah is silent. Sometimes that disappointment becomes the great Iconoclast … and that too, is grace.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. – C.S. Lewis

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Welcome to the Dark Side: Understanding Your Shadow

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“There is no other way. To be known is to be pursued, examined, and shaken. To be known is to be loved and to have hopes and even demands placed on you. It is to risk, not only the furniture in your home being re-arranged, but your floor plans being re-written, your walls being demolished and re-constructed. To be known means that you allow your shame and guilt to be exposed – in order for them to be healed.” Curt Tompson

Those who have an understanding of the Enneagram, would know how much the Ones (Moi!) need to have their shit together. As a result, like most people, I find it difficult to face my dark side. However, let me
assure you, suffering and failure tends to make you far more open to face your own Darth Vader. Learning to welcome your own dark side can be most confronting.

It was Carl Jung who first used the idea of our shadow or dark side in a psychological context. He used the idea of a shadow to describe the part of ourselves that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. As a result, our shadow is what we try to keep hidden from others. We are ashamed of our dark side. Unfortunately, what we hide or repress always ends up controlling us.

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It is foolish to dismiss our shadow as an evil entity, existing apart from our personhood. When we ignore our own darkness, or repress it, we build a bogus identity or ‘false self’, as Thomas Merton suggested. This denied shadow self can often present itself as virtuous and righteous, whilst its underlying motivations are fear, control or manipulation. It is important to remember that the shadow self is not of itself evil; it just
allows us to do evil without calling it evil. It is this sort of hypocrisy that caused Jesus to get really upset.

If we are serious about growth in our lives, we need to be serious about ‘shadow boxing’ or facing our shadow. Sadly, this is something that
religion, which tends to focus on being an exemplary model of virtue,  is not very good at. When our belonging is based on believing ‘right’ and keeping up appearances, vulnerability and authenticity, two elements crucial for growth, are sacrificed on the altar of ego and denial.

So how do we recognise our shadow? By asking ourselves what causes us to overreact? There’s a clue in that. Most of us have never been taught, either in our homes, education, or our religion, to recognise our shadows, and, therefore, we tend to respond in irrational over-reaction when we catch glimpses of it – often reflected in others! Richard Rohr says this, “Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has been exposed. Watch for any over-reaction or denials. When you notice them, notice also that the cock has crowed (Mark 14:72)!” We often try to deflect from our own shadow by pointing to the apparent deficiency in another person and in this way we can avoid confronting our own evil or hateful behaviour. History bears
witness to this: Nazism, the Spanish Inquisition, violence agains women, Colonialism, Apartheid and some of the religious hatred levelled at LGBTI people.

Jesus had an antidote. He suggested concentrating on the plank hanging out of our own eye before trying to pick the speck out of our neighbour’s eye (Matthew 7:5). This is an insight that would have most mystics smiling, realising that the process of confronting your own darkness or removing the plank from your own eye really is a lifetime work. It takes a long time before we stop all the excuses, denials, and self-justifying story lines and face the fact: I know Darth Vader – he lives within me 🙂

So when you are ready to meet Darth Vader, here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Don’t kid yourself. Shadow work is humiliating. Personally, for me, it meant learning to face the motives behind my often high ideals and the resentment that brews when these are not reached. Yet, it is the only way forward for enlightenment and growth. Carl Jung said, “Where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold.
  • Begin to notice and be mindful of your patterns and reactions. What is the narrative you use to justify these? Confronting ourselves is … well, very confronting! To the pointed question, “What is wrong with this world?”, Chesterton replied, “I am!” 
  • Learn to welcome and embrace our shadow in times of prayer. Rohr calls this mirroring: “What’s happening in prayer is that you’re presenting yourself for the ultimate gaze, the ultimate mirroring, the gaze of God. It is also important to have the sort of community around you that allows for vulnerability, openness, and authenticity. Sadly, this is rarely found in modern religion where the emphasis and affirmation is awarded for right behaviour and belief, according to each faith tradition’s interpretation of their sacred text.
  • Remember, your shadow is not evil in itself, it simply is the repressed and hidden part of you. It is the part of you that you are denying or neglecting and therefore often appears in your dreams (but that is a whole different post). The more you face your false, idealised self, accepting the fact that the ludicrous, perfect self-image is not a reality (and extremely stressful to manage), the more you will experience a great sense of freedom. The necessity to judge yourself and all those around you begins to slowly drift away. Jesus said he came to light up our darkness and to give us life. May you live it to the full!
“God comes to us disguised as our lives.” Paula D’Arcy
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I See You!

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“ … for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” 
– Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Empathy. A word flung around in many contexts today. It is the
experience of understanding another person’s condition from their
perspective. It is the ability to imagine what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It is feeling what the other person or people are feeling in their circumstance. Empathy is all about seeing the other.

Empathy enables us to see ourselves in the other. When someone
stumbles and falls in public, we see their pain and embarrassment, and rush to help them. Empathy sees the other. It imagines their narrative and this moves one to action.

The opposite of empathy is the need to protect ourselves from
‘the other’. De-personification enables us to treat the other as an object (‘objectification’), without having to consider their needs or feelings.
Objectifying is fed by fear and a need to protect: to protect ourselves, our ideals, and even our religious beliefs. It may be towards those we don’t like, the perceived ‘out-group’, the disadvantaged and marginalised, or those considered as ‘enemies’. When we objectify, we create a sanctuary for our cruelty, apathy or neglect.

Currently, our government continues on the historical road of objectifying asylum seekers. It is hard to imagine that we are at this moment protesting a government’s decision about thirty-seven babies born in Australia, and their families, being sent to Nauru – a camp-like environment that doctors, lawyers and welfare workers consider harmful to anyone, let alone vulnerable children. The deafening sound of silence from many Australians, even some Christian lobby groups that claim to have children’s best interest at heart, is a result of a successful objectifying campaign, complete with altered terminology like ‘illegal maritime arrivals’. The difference between empathy and objectifying is in the
language we use to describe others, as history has demonstrated over and over again.

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It takes courage to act on empathy. To truly see the other often means that tightly held tribal laws have to be severed in order to walk and stand with the other. When these tribal laws are contained in religious dogma, the belonging of an individual, and a fear of ‘displeasing God’, it suddenly gives clarity to the perplexing issue of why some religious folks, claiming to believe in a loving God, can be so utterly cruel to those who do not hold to their beliefs.

To see the other means we have to make a choice. A choice to relinquish our power. A choice to relinquish a tightly held position in the ‘inner group’. A choice to believe that love is greater than fear. A choice to seek to understand the belief systems of others, without feeling threatened by them. A choice to let go.

To truly see the other we have to begin to understand and respect the image of God in everyone we meet. Empathy begins when we recognise our own humanity in that of the other. We begin to truly see the other when we wake up from a matrix of tightly held ideas, which we have often uncritically ingested out of a need to protect ourselves.
Empathy says, “I see you.”

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The Advent Tradition

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our Spirits by Thine Advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent

Advent is all about anticipation and preparation. It comes from the Latin word ‘Adventus’, which means ‘coming’. It is a tradition observed by many Christians around the world and marks the beginning of a new liturgical year for many Western churches. It covers four Sundays and begins on the Sunday closest to 30 November, which is the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. It is a season of anticipating the birth of Christ and looks to the time when he returns. It is a season of great joy.

Advent probably had its beginnings in the 4th or 5th century in Spain and Gaul, when new Christians began to prepare themselves for baptism. During the Middle Ages people began to associate Advent with the second coming of Christ – the Greek word for ‘Adventus’ is ‘Parousia’, which holds theological concepts of Christ’s return. In more modern times, Advent is mainly associated with the anticipation of the Nativity on Christmas Day.

My early childhood memories of Christmas time would always include an Advent Calendar, even though ours was not a religious household. The calendar is like a large poster with twenty-four little doors, one is opened every day starting on the 1st December, revealing a picture that points to the Nativity. Importantly, each one that I opened also contained a chocolate. The Advent Calendar tradition began in Germany in the 1800s and from there spread to the rest of Europe and North America.

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The Advent wreath also emerged in northern Europe. In the icy winter nights people would bundle evergreens into a circular shape, symbolising eternal life. Candles where lit on the wreath, bringing cheer, and wistful thoughts of Spring. By the sixteenth century, people were making Advent wreaths like we know them today. Advent wreaths hold four candles: three purple and one rose coloured. The three purple candles symbolise hope, peace, and love, and are lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent. The rose coloured candle, symbolising joy, is lit on the third Sunday. Some people place a fifth candle in the middle of the wreath that is lit on Christmas Day. It is white and recounts the story of the angels and the birth of Christ.

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Some people fast certain foods during Advent. Others get to baking. My grandparents spent hours preparing German Stollen and Advent Biscuits. There are many recipes available. Others see the month of December as sacred and use Advent to reflect and journal. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed a quiet retreat at the start of Advent. For those who would like some recommendations for Daily Advent Meditation:

1. Preparing for Christmas written by Richard Rohr.
2. Advent and Christmas Wisdom written by Henri Nouwen.
3. God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas written by Dietrich    Bonhoeffer.

and for Narnia fans …
5. Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season written by Heidi Haverkamp.

This year Advent begins on Sunday the 29th November. If you have never done so, why not consider establishing some of your own Advent traditions and reflections? If you are not religious, perhaps perceive this month as the Grand Final of the year – spend some time planning and anticipating a coming year?

Advent is a season of joy and hope. In a world where violence assaults our senses every time we engage in social media or watch a graphic news description, God knows we need Advent. A season that reminds us to anticipate a different tomorrow and to be grateful of the stunning Good News of Immanuel – With Us Is God.

Waiting — that cold, dry period of life when nothing seems to be enough and something else beckons within us — is the grace that Advent comes to bring. It stands before us, within us, pointing to the star for which the wise ones from the East are only icons of ourselves.
– Joan Chittister
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In the Name of God: Reflections on Bullying and Religion

Bullying: the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or dominate others. If you are anything like me, you have experienced your fair share of bullying, especially through those ‘delightful’ school years. In the middle of my cyber-bullying-122156_1280first grade in Germany, they discovered I had severe astigmatism, and I became the proud owner of a rather huge pair of round glasses. My latest acquisition made me the perfect target for those seeking to “intimidate or dominate others”. The following year we relocated to South Africa and I was the immigrant kid who spoke no English or Afrikaans. I became well acquainted with the inside of the school library, as it offered the perfect refuge from bullies.

Today everyone is talking about bullying, sadly because we now need to know how to survive, and teach our children to survive, in a culture of bullying. Social media, reality TV shows, talk shows, politics, schools, workplace, the list goes on – every space has its bullies, with devastating results. People bully because there’s a rush that comes with power, they are often encouraged by others which provides positive reinforcement, they have an inability to feel empathy and may even derive pleasure from someone else’s pain, and/or they come from a background that shows no affection and may even model aggression. Bullying is a rampant social problem and I am pleased to see it addressed in many forums. However, what if that bullying is related to God?

There are a few books released on this subject of bullying and spiritual abuse. Bullying is disastrous in all situations. Yet bullying in the name of God is often tolerated for a very long time. Why? Because it is so hard to recognise. When God is attached to the rhetoric of the bully, the victim is being emotionally attacked and manipulated. However, the victim also has a desire to ‘please God’ or be ‘obedient to God’ and may feel that the bully is speaking for, or acting on, God’s behalf. This makes the whole scenario very confusing. More often than not, the person does not even realise they are being bullied. Someone can use the Bible in such a manner that it sounds correct, but rather than bringing life and comfort, the listener is being intimidated or manipulated. In this case, faith has become toxic.
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I have a dear friend who spent many years of her life in a cult. A cult that determined how she lived her life and that was involved in all major decisions she had to make. A cult that treated her with absolute abusive contempt. Yet she remained faithful and submissive to this group for many years. Brainwashing is a cult tactic. My friend believed that being submissive was ‘God’s will’ and that disobeying the ‘Fatherhood’ (elders and spiritual oversight), was the same as disobeying God. Never underestimate the power of a bully coupled with faith and religion. Some of you may be interested in reading her story.

Religion and bullying take many forms. The bullies are often motivated by sincere religious ideals. As parents we can coerce our children to believe or behave in ways that line up with our faith ideologies. However, these tactics can be soul destroying. I have been listening to the sad stories of many LGBTI young people who have been bullied by their families and/or faith communities, all in the name of God. The ex-gay moment, in their attempt to ‘straighten out’ LGBTI folk, has often resorted to all forms of bullying with devastating results (please know that if you have been a victim of this movement that there is help and information available). Religious schools can resort to a form of bullying in their disciplinary measures. I recall one of my children’s faith and character being questioned because she talked in class, insinuating her childish behaviour does not ‘please God’. This sort of manipulation on impressionable young minds can have long-term effects on a person’s confidence and self-image.
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Perhaps one of the most common forms of bullying is in faith communities themselves. Those deemed spiritual leaders can suggest various things from a place of ‘spiritual authority’ that really is a form of bullying. A friend of mine recently blogged on this topic. He wrote about the harm done to people suffering from mental illness who listen, via sermons or books, to others seeking to ‘educate’ on the subject of mental illness, who have no form of education or qualification: “What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.” This is gross negligence at best, and a form of bullying at its worst.

Although bullying in faith communities is often discussed in regards to abuse from spiritual leaders, I have also observed bullying by congregation members against religious leaders. Most often, both sides believe they have God on their side and therefore the despicable behaviour and/or words are justified. Religious bullies often think themselves as ‘prophetic’, bearers of the truth, and apart from feeling persecuted, they are generally angry with this ‘wicked’ world.

Some signs of religious bullying can include:
– criticism and belittling
– intimidating others
– spreading rumours, gossip and lies
– excluding and isolating others
– never admit any wrong
– refusal to show remorse or seek forgiveness for any wrongdoing
– zero empathy or understanding of what the other feels like
– aggression (this can be in words or even print)bible-879085_1280
– domineering
– martyr complex

 

There are many helpful ideas on how to cope with religious bullies. One of the top rules: Give them no oxygen. Trust me, that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I faced some serious bullying from religious lobby groups earlier this year and everything in me just wanted to take them out … but then I would become just like them: a bully. When we are the target of religious poison everything in us wants to dexify. Don’t. Let it go. That is horrible punishment for bullies who, often suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, crave our reaction.

In conclusion, maybe a most uncomfortable truth. Most of us, at some stage, have acted like bullies. We have intimidated others. We have coerced and manipulated others to do our bidding. No genuine conversation about bullying can happen without this recognition. I look back on my life and recognise many moments when I was the bully, when I was the oppressor, when I inflicted pain on others. To truly see social change in this area we need to recognise the human malady of insatiable hunger for power and dominance. This distorted survival mode does not exempt anyone, including, and maybe especially, religious folk who also have a God to bring into bullying tactics. We all need to be aware of the bully within, to move our lives from an ego-centric focus to one of love and grace.pogo-enemy(Please note: Links are underlined)