A Time to Give Thanks

“To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for ALL OUR LIVES – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.”

– Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey –

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I am challenged by Nouwen’s words. How easy it is to give thanks on the mountain tops when all the stars align and God answers our prayers. How entitled and privileged we feel there. It is easy to form our theology, our ideas, and musings from this vantage point and pontificate them on to a burdened world. Gratitude in paradise takes no effort or spiritual discipline.

In the dark, shadow path gratitude does not always flow as freely. In the winter space, when our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, it is easy to feel forgotten. And in the words of the great prophet, Leonard Cohen, from here we utter a broken Hallelujah. Gratitude, like breathing, has to become a way of life. At 51 years of age, I am still learning to walk this path.

So as this year comes to a close, one of the more difficult years of my life, I make a choice to give thanks. I choose gratitude because I know gratitude heals broken hearts and keeps the soul unstuck from resentment. I don’t always feel like giving thanks … but I choose it anyway.

I am grateful for life: life with all its ups and downs, its pleasant surprises and terrifying cliff-hangers.

I am grateful for love … a faithful man once wrote that the greatest of all is love … he was right – love is all we really have that lasts forever.

I am grateful for relationships – some old, some new, some family, some that feel like family, some complex, some as carefree as the morning song of our resident kookaburra – to love and be loved is one of the greatest joys of living.

I am grateful for this season I live in … this liminal space that both my partner and I sense has been given to us as a gift to rest and recoup – surrounded by the nurture and care of Mother Nature we feel our weary hearts recovering every day. A quote hangs in my entrance, the gift of a friend: “To be here is Glorious” … thank you for the reminder, Rainer Maria Rilke.

I am grateful for the past – this is a big statement as I also hold regret – but the past has taught and shaped me, my life experience, the good and the shadows, the accomplishments and the many failures … they all play together somehow …

I am grateful for hope, springing deep in my heart, a song that cannot be quenched even in the Shadowlands … a hope that whispers, “nothing can separate you from love.”

I am even grateful for this “silly season” of packed shops, impatient carpark-searchers and mindless renditions of “Jingle Bells” … because amidst all the hype there is a low, consistent melody of a world that hums and rotates in Divine rhythm and wisdom … pointing to the news often forgotten at Christmas – a tiny baby, heavenly joy … Christ has come and Christ is with us …

I am grateful …

“To pray is to regain a sense of mystery that animates all beings, the Divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live … It is embarrassing to live. How strange we are in the world and how presumptuous our doings. Only one response can maintain us: GRATITUDE for witnessing the wonder – for the gift of our unearned right to live, to adore, to fulfil. It is gratitude that makes the soul great.”
– Abraham Heschel, I Asked for Wonder –

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Grief – Stay With It

 

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Scrolling through Facebook the other day, this post of a friend caught my eye:

We can’t leap over our grief work,
Nor can we skip over our despair work.
We have to feel it…. Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid”
– Richard Rohr –

It was a poignant reminder for a very wobbly time of year for me. I have blogged about grief and loss numerous times. In “An Uninvited Guest: Reflections on Grief”, I outlined why the Christmas season holds a lot of triggers for me. Since that post, life has continued with crazy highs and lows – the loss of a house that I loved and a faith community that I thought would always be ‘home’. I have said goodbye to a city I treasure and the precious individuals it holds, some of those goodbyes have been gut-wrenching as they held a finality that we didn’t see coming.

I am not outlining these circumstances to evoke your sympathy. Far from it. Rather, I am writing them down because as living creatures we all identify with grief and sorrow. Someone explained grief as the feeling you have when you have been winded – everything stops and you wonder whether you will ever breathe again. No wonder that we do all we can to try and usher this uninvited guest out of our house. And maybe that why we create hyperreal spaces and experiences?

After my mum passed away a lot of well-meaning people (especially those who held tightly to a more ‘triumphant’ form of Christianity) made a lot of comments and queries about ‘moving on’. “Time heals,” they would say, “and you will move on.” I heard what they were saying. I appreciated their concern. They wanted me to join the dance again – that dance of oblivious happiness. And I do dance again – but it is not the smooth Cha Cha from the first half of life.

Nowadays, grief pays a regular visit. I no longer feel shocked. I no longer try to usher this guest out of my house. Rather, and probably to the horror of some, I welcome this visitor. I sit with it and share in the memories. Grief has dramatically changed the way I look at the world. I feel so much more connected and grounded because of it. I know I have a level of compassion that I never had in my “black-and-white” paradigm. I also wonder whether I ever really understood what love meant in the first half of life? That is a rather ironic reflection considering I spoke on so many platforms about love.

Grief changes us. It transforms us from the inside out. When we refuse to ‘leap over our grief work or skip over our despair work’ we grow. Things that were once so important and that are still heralded as desirables, like success and influence, no longer hold much appeal. Grief teaches us that we have life, that life is precious, and the response to life is gratitude …

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –

I also reflect on my faith. Grief challenges the platitudes, the certainties, the absolutes. Many years ago Grief came calling with a friend … Doubt. I was horrified back then. There was no room for grief, never mind doubt, in my early ideological framework. Now I smile to myself as I write this. How wrong I was. If anything, grief and doubt have deepened, enriched and strengthened my faith – through these guests I discovered an all-gracious, incarnate God who undergirds our universe.

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But grief is not pleasant. Grief is painful. It still brings with it times of panic and anxiety and a deep desire to escape. No one goes looking for it – grief find us and there is no place to run. So we have to take courage, we have to stop, turn and stay with it. No one can outrun or remain immune from grief.

Dear Reader, if you, like me find the Christmas season a little more difficult than those around you, please know you are not alone. The heartache you feel, for whatever reason, is real and there are some things in life that sit with us and us with them for a long time. I would recommend that you do not go this alone or isolate yourself – this link provides some keys in coping with grief in the holiday season. A season that for many holds a marred joy … where we can feel pain AND we can sing carols … where we can smile at the delight of the young AND mourn the loss of those who have gone before us … it’s all part of sitting with an uninvited guest while still dancing our life dance … with a limp …

As I finished this blog another friend put up a post – needless to say, it is the perfect way to end:

“We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled. It is hard, painful, unbidden work. No one goes in search of loss; rather, it finds us and reminds us of the temporary gift we have been given, these few sweet breaths we call life…. It was through the dark waters of grief that I came to touch my unlived life, by at last unleashing tears I had never shed for the losses in my world. Grief led me back into a world that was vivid and radiant. There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive. Through this, I have come to have a lasting faith in grief.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –

Much love to you all this Christmas.

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A Chat with Kathy Baldock: Ally and Advocate – Part ONE

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I was excited to meet Kathy Baldock in person last year when she visited Australia. Over the years I have admired her staunch support as an ally and advocate for the LGBTIQ community. Her writing is well-researched, articulate and informative (you can find more information about Kathy on this link). I am so pleased that Kathy has given of her precious time to introduce herself and answer some questions for this BLOG.

1. Kathy, first of all, thank you for your time. I know many of my BLOG readers will have read some of your research or heard about you. But, as a way of introduction, what caused you to start this journey of advocacy for LGBTIQ people, especially for people of faith?

A very important part of my story is that I came into an advocacy role by way of a crisis in my own life. Frequently, crises stop us in our tracks and we find ourselves re-evaluating things we are sure about and question what once seemed too risky to consider. 
This is also true with much of the Evangelical community. I thought my ways of following God and the understanding I had of Him and His ways were right. I followed the “rules” and they worked for me. Until they did not! 

My marriage of 20 years began to fall apart. My husband had had an affair with an employee in our business who was over 30 years younger. That’ll stop you in your tracks. We had a family business. I was homeschooling our kids. Our social lives were based on church relationships. We were seen as fixtures and leaders in the laity.

 When it was all working for me, I had had a great ease of telling somebody else what they needed to do with their lives to get right with God. I had the gift of evangelism and I used it. Suddenly, there I was, my life in utter chaos, despite doing all the “right things.” I didn’t suffer a crisis of faith, but I no longer felt comfortable telling another person what they needed to do to bring their life to order. It would have felt utterly hypocritical.

One of the prime ways I dealt with processing the pain of impending divorce was daily hiking; I live within five miles of at least a dozen trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Hiking was a way for me to escape the tension in my home and even process out loud what was going on in my head. My husband “demanded,” and I obeyed, that we do not tell the kids, ages 12 and 13, or the staff employees what was happening. It would be bad for the upcoming holiday season and business, so I agonised in isolation as he began to feel a sense of freedom.

I noticed that there was a hiker on the trails who was hiking the same speeds and intensity as I was. After many months of noticing her, one day, at the end of my hike and not wanting to return to the tension of home, I asked if she minded if I joined her on her hike. That’s how I met Netto Montoya. Netto was everything that I was not. She is a woman of colour, an agnostic, has a Hispanic last name, and is a lesbian. Rather than then doing what had been so natural to me in the past, which was “telling,” I opted to listen and establish a relationship. It seems quite funny to admit, but she became a safe spot for me. My Christian girlfriends of many decades were not a safe place. I had agreed with my husband to an unhealthy level of secrecy about the upcoming divorce and knew that private crisis shared, with even close Christian friends, would likely become a prayer request or a “concern” that they would discuss with others. Over the next year, Netto and I became good friends as we hiked together almost weekly. It was obvious to me that she was gay, yet I avoided the subject, as did she. My Christian friends constantly urged me to witness to her so that she would stop being a lesbian and become a believer. Still, I did none of that. I got to know her.

After about a year, Netto finally came out to me. By then, it no longer mattered to me that she was a lesbian. I knew she was a wonderful person and my judgments of gay people had significantly waned.

The friendship with Netto caused me to question so much of what I had heard about LGBTQ people. It’s embarrassing to say and admit, but I had bought into so much of the Evangelical rhetoric that was simply not true. I had believed that gay people experienced lust, not love; and that they made a choice to be gay, that their orientation was not intrinsic to their nature.

Before meeting Netto, no one had ever come out directly to me and told me they were gay. Even in college in the 1970s, though I participated in sports with numerous lesbians, “gay” was not a term we would have used nor understood. We viewed same-sex relationships as a “preference.” 

In friendship with Netto, she brought me into her social circles. Relationships with gay people caused me to question my sureness about my theology concerning same-sex relationships. Yet, it would still be another five years before I would dig into the Scriptures to try to figure out what the Bible actually said, if anything, about gay people.

Kathy and Netto
Kathy and Netto

2. Your book is such a great source of information for those seeking to understand or educate themselves. As a lover of history, I was particularly impressed by the way you dealt with historical context, as this is most important in understanding the politicising and scape-goating of LGBTIQ people today. What, do you think, are some of the key historical events that people should be aware of in helping them understand the political/religious dynamics at work today?

I’m really glad that you asked this question. The typical way in which traditional Christians have dealt with the subject of same-sex behaviour in the Bible is to view the Scriptures referring to same-sex behaviour in isolation of anything else going on in either the time in which they were penned, as well as ignoring what is presently known about human sexuality.

This question requires a multi-layer answer. 

Many other influences have impacted our beliefs about those who participate in same-sex behaviour. (Incidentally, I am quite intentional about the nuance of words that I use whether this is same-sex behaviour or homosexuality. Clearly, same-sex behaviour is referred to in Scripture, but is it homosexuality — a natural romantic, emotional and sexual attraction to people of the same sex?)

If one looks at same-sex interaction anytime before about the end of the 19th century, it would have been based on power and/or age differentials. It’s also important to note that, typically, few would even be discussing or noticing sex between women until about the 1960s. The entire topic of same-sex interaction focused primarily on sex between two males. Not only was the Bible written through a very distinct lens of patriarchy and gender hierarchy, both have been the social organisational structure of every predominant culture throughout time. For a man to maintain the social and sexual role of being “manly,” he would have had to have been the penetrator in a sexual act. 

Social patriarchal organisation began to gradually shift at the end of the 19th century. Several factors led to this. Many cultures shifted from agrarian-based to industrial-based. With the movement of people to cities and subsequent large concentrations of same-sex populations, people were able to act on curiosities they may have felt but could not have acted on. Equal status men found that they were attracted to other equal status men. Before this time, it would have only been appropriate for a man to have had sex with a lower status man, perhaps an immigrant (or in ancient cultures, a slave), or more commonly, a boy between about the ages of 12 and 20.

The obvious presence of these kinds of relationships caught the eye of people who were beginning to think about human sexuality at the turn of the 19th century. There was a period from about the 1870s until the late 1920s when sex experts (for their day) and thinkers were trying to figure out “what is this thing we’re seeing happening between equal status men?” It was a pivotal point in considering human sexuality.

Another great influence on how we’ve thought about same-sex relationships came from the merger of conservative religion and politics which emerged in the United States in the late 1970s and in Australia at the turn of the 21st Century. Though the beginnings of the understanding of human sexuality may have had quite a slow and scattered process, by the time the 1970s came around, the psychological community certainly understood that attraction to people of the same sex was not a ‘mental illness’, as it once had been thought of, but it was to be expected along the natural spectrum of human sexuality.

Following this time, there was a very small span of less than a decade once homosexuality was “de-pathologised” before it became a convenient wedge issue used to motivate conservative voters to get to the polls and vote for conservative issues. Jerry Falwell, the infamous leader of the religious right’s Moral Majority, had as his mantra “Get ‘em saved, get ‘em baptised, get ‘em registered.”

For an overview of the History of Cultural and Religious Discrimination against LGBTIQ Community in America please see this link.

3. How much do you think the Australian political/religious world has been affected by the politicising of LGBTIQ people in American history?

American conservative family groups have long been guilty of exporting extremism and dominionism to other countries even as they recognise their influence is becoming less effective in the United States.

For several decades, as the gay rights movement has grown in the United States, some of our political lobbying groups have been meddling in the affairs of other countries and in international organisations. There is a group of religious conservatives called United Families International, primarily based in the Mormon (LDS) church, that have been working within the United Nations trying to influence women’s reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTQ population in the global south. They have been accomplishing their propaganda work while going fairly unnoticed.

What is more well-known is that some conservative family groups, including Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom, and numerous other “traditional family” organisations, have had an impact in African nations, Russia, and eastern bloc nations. This meddling continues.

The Heritage Foundation, a very conservative think tank and policy group in the United States, is known to have sent representatives to Australia in about 2004 to advise Australia about how to deal with the impending question of same-sex marriage that would at some point come to Australia.

Knowing that Australians would not react quite the same way to the American message used to motivate conservative Christians against same-sex marriage laws, they helped Australians repackage and fashion their message from one of a biblical message to one centred on traditional family values. It is really just a nuance of the same discriminatory and exclusionary message. It also brilliantly played into the deeply entrenched Australian “manly” psyche. Australians have a level of homophobia that does not have a strong American equivalent.

There is a historical tie between criminality and same-sex behaviour in Australia that Americans do not have, at least not to the depth that it resides in the Aussie psyche. When Australia was “founded” (that is even a funny term as if the continent did not exist before the English got there), in the late 1700s as an English penal colony, very few white women were shipped over as prisoners. Same-sex behaviour was obviously happening in prisons and it became associated with criminals. (They even put women in the prisons with men to “correct” the perversion.)

So where the Aussies lack the American religious fervour to be anti-gay as we are, the Aussies are more prone to attach same-sex behaviour to anti-masculinity, perversion, and criminality. This is part of the reason the ‘Vote NO’ groups so heavily focused on the safety of children rather than one man-one women language as did Americans.

When I first started to write a decade ago, the three biggest groups sending the bulk of my hate mail were, in order: men who had been in the military or law enforcement, black women, and Aussie men. Really!

As long as there are leaders in any country who will listen to the message of these traditional family groups, America will likely continue to send and export this merger of religion and politics that has been going on for the last 50 years here. 

The toxic entanglement is certainly being dismantled in the US, but sadly, there is a market throughout the rest of the world for one of our worst exports.

Kathy Baldock

Reno, Nevada
November 25, 2017
kathy@canyonwalkerconnections.com

Part TWO of this blog will be posted tomorrow.

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What if our Whole Life is a Liminal Space?

Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
– The Psalmist –

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Last week I had a fascinating conversation with someone about liminal spaces. It is a topic that I am very interested in as I have found that my life has often led me into these perplexing spaces. “Betwixt and Between” is what Victor Turner called them. Threshold moments of letting go of a season in your life while still not having fully landed in the next phase. Liminality is not a comfortable place as it brings with it a sense of pilgrimage and movement. It’s like living out of a caravan. It is the ‘free fall’ between separation and re-assimilation.

The man I was talking to was a professor of history and the question he posed to me that day has given me some serious reflection moments: “Don’t you think that our whole life is a liminal space?” At first, I resisted this idea. Surely we are not on a perpetual pilgrimage? Or are we? Is the idea of reaching the next chapter and settling in, just that? An idea? Or perhaps even a mirage? Human nature would not allow for this permanent liminality – falling between the cracks of an imagined social structure and remaining there like a sewer dweller. We want safety, borders, predictability, and acceptance. This is not what liminal spaces are all about. And maybe that is why we spend our whole life fighting them!

That hit me like a ton of bricks in the middle of the night. Of course! Our ridiculous notions of happiness are nothing else than an escape plan out of liminality. Existential angst manifests itself in so many ways. We may never acknowledge the anxiety that accompanies what it means to simply live. And maybe that is why we have such a terribly hard time coming to grips with the ever-shifting sand under our feet from the time we are born to the time we go to the grave.

But what if we simply accept the fact that liminality is what life is about? What if we created a different narrative around the ‘shifting sand’? What if we recognised in this consistent state of flux we can also find freedom and growth? Understanding liminality as a part of everyday life prepares us for the one thing that is certain: change! Change comes to all of us, whether we like it or not, admit it or not. Just take a look in the mirror and then look at a photo of ten years ago … it’s called change.

I realise we need stability. I am not suggesting we turn into unreliable liminal travellers driven by every whim or fancy. Rather, I am asking how seeing our whole life as a liminal space can help us in navigating the twists and turns that life brings. We are pilgrims on this earth. We are a moment, a breath. The Psalmist said we are like wildflowers … we bloom and we die (Psalm 103:15). If we begin to really see our lives like this, perhaps we can curb our empty pursuit of happiness and simply enjoy the moment, the shifting sand, the twists, and the turns?

I guess what I am really trying to say is that perhaps liminality is given to us as a gift? Instead of fighting it, we can make peace with it. When we truly grasp that our whole life is a liminal space then we can also learn how to live in the moment and the now. Liminality undergirds mindfulness as we take nothing for granted. Liminality assists us in overcoming a sense of entitlement. Liminality is what gives sight to blind privilege.

So, dear friend, next time life grabs you like an unexpected wave in the ocean and tosses you around, breathe deeply. You are a pilgrim. Your whole life is a liminal space. You are that trapeze artist who can let go and not freak out. You can change. You eat “betwixt and between” for breakfast. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You’ve got this!

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The paradox: there can be no pilgrimage without a destination but the destination is also not the real point of the endeavour. Not the destination, but the willingness to wander in pursuit characterises pilgrimage. Willingness: to hear the tales along the way, to make the casual choices of travel, to acquiesce even to boredom. That’s pilgrimage – a mind full of journey.  
– Patricia Hampl –

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The Power of Yes

“Love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

YES is a world
& in this world of yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds”
– E.E. Cummings –

Yesterday was a Yes day. It was also a historic day in Australia. 79.5% of Australians took part in a non-binding plebiscite to vote about marriage equality – “Can same-sex couples tie the knot?” 61.6% said Yes – providing the government with a clear and decisive mandate to pave the way for full inclusion.

I watched the moment the results were read over and over again. I cried with my friends. The joy was palpable. The various gathering places were awash with rainbow colours and ecstatic and relieved faces. It has been a very long journey that has taken its toll on many. I thought of some of my friends who are no longer with us and who would have loved to have seen this day … this day when a nation said Yes.

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There were also people who were bitterly disappointed. Amidst my social media feed people called it a ‘very sad day’, lamenting that only a few are still standing for ‘traditional’ marriage, and there were ominous warnings of doom. Others were more gracious, acknowledging that Australia has spoken and were determined to work together in the future.

I watched some of the faces of people responding to the news closely. People that have had to stay strong, keep a measured tone, even when it was their families and their children who were dragged through the mud in what often became a hostile and ugly debate. Yes broke the most stoic demeanour. Yes has power. Yes opens doors. Yes puts out a Welcome sign and means it. There is magic in yes.

We can all identify with the power of Yes. We feel it when we walk into a room not knowing anyone and we look for that Yes face, the person who will welcome us and acknowledge us. Yes is a finely crafted key that unlocks doors. Yes is the bulldozer that crushes fear. Yes speaks of new opportunities and possibilities. For LGBTIQ people in Australia, Yes has paved the way to equality, inclusion and acceptance.

Yes is the language of the Divine.

As Sally Douglas of Richmond Uniting Church wrote so beautifully,

“The scandalous heart of Christianity is not about sexuality or about hetero-normative relationships. It is about the conviction that in the person of Jesus we glimpse the Divine. And that in this Jesus, as sacred text tells it again and again, we discover the Divine who is outrageously including, forgiving and self-giving. In Jesus, we are confronted with the humble Holy One who heals and nourishes and who continues to challenge all people in the Divine’s self-same compassion dynamic, that cannot be contained or diminished, even by all our violence and death dealing.”

Dear friend, have you ever considered the power of Yes? Perhaps you grew up in a No setting with deeply embedded No ideals. So when you hear Yes you automatically think it must be wrong, heretical or simply not for you? Perhaps it is time to consider and examine the No that you have taken as normative for your life?

Yesterday was Yes day. A Yes day that has, and will continue to change lives. May Yes change yours.

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Sometimes You Will Back into a Lamp Post in the Middle of Nowhere!

“Life just doesn’t care about our aspirations or sadness. It’s often random, and it’s often stupid and it’s often completely unexpected, and the closures and the epiphanies and revelations we end up receiving from life, begrudgingly, rarely turn out to be the ones we thought.” – Khaled Hosseini –

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Iceland has become one of my favourite places on the planet. My partner and I had the privilege of circumnavigating this magnificent piece of terra firma last year (I kept some travel reflections – Part One starts on this link). We hired a 4 wheel drive that took us to some of the more remote areas where we crossed streams that totally disregarded the ‘road’ and held our breath while ascending and descending the terrifying steep cliffs on either side of fjords.

Sorcerer's Cottage, Klúka, Bjarnafjörður
Sorcerer’s Cottage, Klúka, Bjarnafjörður

The Westfjord of Iceland does not see that much traffic. The bulk of tourists stick to the Golden Circle down south. It was my turn to drive when we explored this exquisite area. Even though I was driving on the ‘right’ side, which is actually the ‘wrong side for us Aussies, it was a fairly easy, serene tour. We noticed a small guesthouse with a “Sorcerer’s Cottage” sign and out of sheer curiosity drove into the empty, small carpark. And, yes, it was in this desolate carpark that we actually argued about where to park… long story. So out of sheer irritation, I reversed back to a spot suggested by my partner and that’s when I hit the lamp post.

Now you need to understand that this was THE only lamp post, not just in the carpark, but probably for miles and miles around. I managed to hit that one and only lamp post in what felt like all of Iceland! The lamp post, like a soccer diva (player), did not just absorb the small bump and hide my embarrassment! No, it shuddered, and began a slo-mo lean, creaking dangerously, as if to lament the fact that it had stood there for decades and now a stupid tourist has brought about its demise. I was mortified.

A woman walked on to the porch of the guesthouse, presumably the owner of the guesthouse and therefore the lamp post guardian. She just stood with her mouth open. When I eventually ceased the long flow of descriptive German words and cracked the car door open, she uttered profundities, “Why would you hit the lamp post when you have all this carpark and the surrounding fields to park in?” It was a vexing question. A question that, gauging by the conversation that followed, never really was rewarded with a satisfactory answer. Simply because in life there are days when you will defy the law of 99.99999% possibility and hit a lamp post in the middle of nowhere.

The rest of the day was ruined for me, even though I was surrounded by the most stunning vistas. I was dreading the Icelandic powers-that-be to banish me from their northern kingdom or to receive a ginormous bill to run a new power line stretching for hundreds of kilometres in order to erect a new lamp post. But it turns out that Icelanders do not just have a wicked sense of humour, they are also very kind. I never heard another thing about that lamp post. I know it would not have survived the ordeal.

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Friend, in life there are days and seasons that feel like Iceland Lamp Post Moments. One moment we are neatly tucked away in our part of the world, minding our own business, the next moment we are surrounded by drama through a most bizarre set of circumstances. We can beat ourselves up, question the lamp post gods, fret over the cosmic injustice that allows us to be part of the 0.00001% of people that back into lamp posts in the middle of nowhere … or simply embrace life with all its strange lamp post moments.

Embracing lamp post moments is not easy. Trust me, you are talking to a lamp post anxiety expert! We have to change the narrative about how we view those moments and seasons – something like, “How gifted am I to have hit the only lamp post in Iceland!” Now some would call that delusion, I call it survival with style! In all seriousness, I will never forget our fantastic Iceland getaway … and I have a lamp post to thank for that!

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Celebrating an Ordinary Life

“And while it takes courage to achieve greatness, it takes more courage to find fulfillment in being ordinary. For the joys that last have little relationship to achievement, to standing one step higher on the victory platform. What is the adventure in being ordinary? It is daring to love just for the pleasure of giving it away. It is
venturing to give new life and to nurture it to maturity. It is
working hard for the pure joy of being tired at the end of the day. It is caring and sharing and giving and loving …”

~ Marilyn Thomsen

My first half of life was lived in a hurry and in the limelight. With a demanding role as a minister in a large faith community and traveling the globe, whilst also raising a family, there was no time for ‘ordinary’. I spent a lot of time on platforms, speaking to people. Add an embedded ideal of ’save our broken world’ and a slight Messiah-complex, easily adopted through the importance modern, charismatic Christianity puts on speakers and leaders, and I was a zealot convinced that ‘ordinary’ is simply missing the mark. You would be forgiven for thinking that ‘ordinary’ is really an unpardonable sin when listening to the many sermons preached from pulpits on Sundays.

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Other than religious ideas, we also live in a world that is enthralled with extraordinary. Don’t believe me? Pay attention to the relentless, consumer marketing machine or just have a look through the titles in the self-help section of a bookstore. Do you notice the obsession with perfection and excellence? It seems, at least in many developed countries, that being extraordinary equates to the right to exist. Now add the hyper-reality of social media, with photos of the ‘perfect’ family, holiday, house, car, designer-dog, and you have a virtual social world frantically trying to convince one another that they are anything but ordinary. The anxiety and stress this farcical comparison has created even has a name: FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – and it has reached epidemic levels.

So in direct protest, I am calling out this infatuation of our modern world with the idea of being extraordinary. In fact, not only am I calling it out, I am convinced that the worship of extraordinary has created a long list of human emotional maladies: comparison, frustration, depression, anxiety, discontentment, despair, exaggeration, lying, etc. No, I am not suggesting that someone suffering from a mental health issue has a problem with FOMO. I am suggesting that our continual obsession with excellence has created a toxic oxygen inhaled by modern society in every dimension of life (work, leisure, relationships, etc) and plays a contributing factor in mental health.

So I choose to celebrate Ordinary!

I am celebrating my tattered garden pants and gumboots.
I am celebrating the wrinkles and grey hair that points to living life.

I am celebrating the ordinary people behind the scenes, working
ordinary jobs.

I am celebrating the ones who society sees as a ‘burden’, their beauty and kindness so often overlooked in a world of botox and plastic surgery.

I am celebrating all the students who have the privilege of education no matter what their ‘score’, in a world gone mad on comparing the
intellect of the young.

I am celebrating the young ones who will never receive an education, stuck in some factory to serve the greed and vanity of others.

I am celebrating those millions and millions of ordinary people living in parts of the world where their life is hard and their death goes
unnoticed.

I am celebrating the places and people who live in parts of the world where the ‘prosperity’ gospel is exposed as a sham, but the good news of Immanuel flourishes.

I am celebrating the people in the pews, who hang their head in shame when they don’t feel they measure up to the challenges of ‘change’. You are beautiful.

I am celebrating our planet and its creatures, used and abused by
practices that are fed by the search for greater thrills, wealth and
importance.

I am celebrating the poor, those who are mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful.

Today, I celebrate my very ordinary life – so far removed from the adrenaline rush that was the first half of my life. I celebrate the shattered triumphal ideologies that lie at my feet, grateful for the many failures that destroyed them. Day by day I live my ordinary life, I take a breath and reflect on the fact that I am a living being. Life does not need inflated ideas of self-importance to matter. Life is a miracle all by itself.

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So dear friend, pay attention to the voices that speak to you on never-ending sound waves. Are they suggesting that you are simply not enough? That you are ‘wasting’ your life with your ordinary routine? That you should be this or that – anything but you? Then perhaps it is time to ruthlessly declutter the voices that make you miserable. Life is Ordinary. Life is Beautiful. Grace is sufficient. You are enough.

“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.” 
– William Martin

 

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The Sinking Island

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

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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Have Your Cake And Eat It Too: Protecting Our Religious Rights!

“When we hide discrimination under the guise of ‘religious freedom,’ we make a mockery of human rights.” – DaShanne Stokes –

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There’s been a lot of talk around our fair isle about preserving ‘religious rights’ and ‘religious freedom’ in the last few months. The fear is palpable and has been used to keep campaigns alive and well-resourced, while conspiracy theories thrive with enough slander fertiliser to sprout new angst and anguish amongst many. There is a fear that religious organisations could be silenced or forced to stop their activity in spreading hope and good news (wouldn’t it be great to be able to write this hope in the sky??? But I transgress!). There are villains out there, you know. Villains who are clearly persecuting those who want to bake cakes and only sell them to those whose ideology lines up with theirs. Very unreasonable. You cannot actually bake your cake and eat it too. It’s doomsday, people! Doomsday!

So. I have a plan. I think it’s time we ensure that religious rights are protected. We need a blue print. For Christianity, you cannot get better than the words of Jesus, right? A Religious Rights & Freedom Manifesto according to the words of Jesus, will no doubt, settle the matter once and for all. So here are some ideas to get us started:

1. Every church and religious organisation should have absolute freedom to feed the hungry! No messing with this religious right. This is clearly a religious freedom that is protected by Jesus in his address to a group called “The Sheep and the Goats”. Christians should be vocal and active in addressing world famine. We should be holding our politicians accountable in the treatment of our global neighbour. We all know we have participated in inequality and hunger – so lets be part of the solution. Feed the hungry. Tick. Don’t mess with this right!

2. “I was thirsty,” said Jesus – so let us who follow him ensure that all over the world people have access to safe drinking water. Did you know that water scarcity affects more than 40% of the global population and is projected to rise? It is estimated that 783 million people do not have access to clean water and over 1.7 billion people are currently living in river basins where water use exceeds recharge (source). It would be disastrous to curb the religious rights and freedom of churches to assist people who are ‘thirsty”. Let’s protect the right to get actively involved in solving this global crisis.

3. Talk about global crisis. Let’s also make sure we protect the right to “welcome the stranger”. We are now witnessing the highest level of displaced people on record. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their home. Australia has signed the refugee convention, but we like to ignore that, preferring to build concentration camps to house strangers coming to our shores looking for help. I suggest that we safeguard the religious rights and freedom of churches and institutions to care for the ‘stranger’. Welcome would be what the Gospel is all about … let’s write that in the sky …

4. We need to ensure that the religious right and freedom of those visiting people in prison is preserved. Obviously not just in prisons in Australia (although the need for more involvement here is dire). Also, let’s be working towards those caught in a ‘global prison’ of modern day slavery. Slavery continues today in every country in the world. Women are forced into prostitution. People are forced to work in agriculture, domestic work and factories. Children working in sweatshops producing goods sold globally. Entire families in ‘prison’ forced to work for nothing in order to pay off generational debts. This ‘prison’ work will require our focus and finance. Let’s make sure we have the right to be active in bringing liberation under the “Religious Rights & Freedom Manifesto” according to Jesus.

5. Please protect our Religious Right and Freedom to deeply reflect on how we wish to be treated and ensure we treat others in like manner. Otherwise people might call us hypocrites and judgemental – that would not help in getting this Manifesto up and running.

This is just to get us started. We need to be allowed to meet weekly and in small groups so we can take a good, critical look at our progress and utter prayers of hope and thankfulness. We need this time to examine our hearts and repent if we become plagued with the infamous “Messiah Complex”.  We need to ensure that our ‘theology’ lines up with this Jesus’ mandate and that we are not being jerks to other humans.

It’s a mammoth task, people, this kingdom work of hope. We may need to consider how we use our finances. In order to have the right to ‘clothe the naked’ we perhaps need to shed some of our magnificent and delicately embroidered cassocks. After all, it would be a bad look and may even impinge on our rights to be seen with so much pomp and splendour while Lazarus lies dying at the gate of our religiosity.

So, let’s get busy. Jesus has come. Let’s be active in bringing hope to the world we live in – after all, this is our Religious Right and Freedom.

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“If there is some corner of the world which has remained peaceful, but with a peace based on injustices the peace of a swamp with rotten matter fermenting in its depths – we may be sure that that peace is false. Violence attracts violence. Let us repeat fearlessly and ceaselessly: injustices bring revolt, either from the oppressed or from the young, determined to fight for a more just and more human world.” – Dom Helder Camara –

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Maybe You Are Asking The Wrong Questions?

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
– Primo Levi (Holocaust Survivor) –

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Primo Levi did not consider himself a hero for surviving Auschwitz. Like other survivors, he had seen and experienced too much. He was one of only 700 survivors of more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Upon his release in 1945, he began writing about his experiences. In a heartbreaking interview he reflects on the cost of not asking questions and of doing as you are told without really understanding. In Nazi Germany, the cost was millions of lives. Shutting his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, the typical German citizen built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence of not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

Questions are dangerous things. To question means that we are prepared to engage in the risky task of letting go of what we thought we knew and to admit not knowing. Perhaps that’s why ego is one of the great barriers to questions. In a society that often prides itself in the pretense of knowledge, questioning has fallen out of favour. We no longer see the value of questions or we have been told to avoid them (such as in some cult or extremist religions). Yet questions are the key to innovation and growth. Questions can change our world. Never stop asking questions.

Not only do we need to learn to question again, we also need to consider changing our questions. If our life decisions and choices are consistently detrimental to our well-being, then perhaps the problem is the lack of questions prior to making these decisions? Or maybe we are asking the wrong questions? This was the advice from one of my favourite high school teachers. He seldom provided answers when I was stuck in the complexity of learning. Rather, he would challenge me to ask different questions. Most of the time it was the uncomfortable process of stepping out of a pre-set paradigm in order to ask those questions that then provided brilliant answers. Claude Levi-Strauss says, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.

Social change, transformation, innovation and the growth of companies and industry has often been the result of a single question. For example, “Why can’t I have the photo immediately,” was the question of a 3-year-old to her father, Edwin Land. The result of that question was the invention of the polaroid camera. “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” writes Warren Berger in his excellent book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” But like Primo Levi points out, often we are conditioned not to question – and that has to do with power.

Berger writes, “To encourage or even allow questions is to cede power.” If you take a look around you at social, religious or political settings that are dying and filled with fear you will find a common denominator – they have shut down questions a long time ago! If you are employed in a workspace or living in some form of community that treats questions with fear and paranoia, you will be unable to live authentically and you will stop growing. Questions are the fertiliser for the seeds that lie dormant in your heart.

So, friend, what are you facing right now that needs a new set of questions? What are you afraid of right now that needs you to let go of the safe harbour of certainty so you can go into the uncharted waters of questions? Where are you gagged right now from asking questions? Why are you allowing that setting to silence you? Not to question preserves the status quo. It is time for beautiful questions and to allow your inquiry to unsettle assumptions, a sense of ‘stuckness’, and of fear … it is time to grow! Ask!

“Are we too enthralled with answers? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long?”
– Stuart Firestein –

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