“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Bertrand Russell
Many years later, I would read the surprising ancient text of the Gospel according to Luke. I approached this biblical narrative with the same mindset as I would a Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale or Norse mythology. Yet, I was very quickly engrossed in the story of a remarkable revolutionary. In the words and life of Christ, I found a compelling blueprint for societal and cultural transformation. The words of Jesus, to me, held no comparison to any fairytale, nor, could they be regarded as wisdom literature from a benevolent Jewish rabbi. They were dangerous words – subversive and highly political in their context. They led to his death. This Jesus story was very different to those of my childhood. And this man, carrying a cross, beckoned me to do the same. It was an invitation to follow in his radical footsteps and learn that love is greater than fear.
There was a fearlessness about Jesus that was breathtaking. The centrality of his message was transformation through the realisation that a different kingdom had been ushered in – different to the kingdoms that were built on power, politics, fear, greed, or even religion. It was a message of hope to the oppressed. His kingdom message turns societal norms on its head: where the first will be last, where the poor are blessed, where the humble are honoured, where the servant is the greatest, where the outcast and marginalised are welcomed and accepted, where love overcomes fear …
When you begin to critically examine some of the contemporary Christian messaging, you may find it extremely difficult to tell the difference between faith and superstition:
– A God who is portrayed as love, yet will banish those who refuse to reciprocate his love to eternal torture.
– A God who ensures that you get a car park in some shopping centre when you pray ‘just right’, but seems to be deaf to the cries of 22,000 children that die every day due to poverty.
– A God who will give you ‘your best life now’ when you adhere to certain success paradigms, or tithe, or send money to that evangelist.
– An everlasting, almighty God who loves everybody, but in a twist that resembles an Orwell novel, especially if they are white, male, privileged and conservative …
… it all sounds a bit superstitious, doesn’t it?
“Our relentless emphasis on success and productivity has become a form of violence. We have lost the necessary rhythm of life, the balance between effort and rest, doing and not doing.” Wayne Muller
If you happen to find yourself in Israel on a Saturday you may encounter this peculiar phenomenon when using the elevators: they automatically stop on every level. And if you want to learn from this post, and not make an idiot of yourself like I did, do not go up to the receptionist and tell them that their elevator is out of order. Have compassion on this poor human. After all, how many ‘tourist ignoramisus’ can one person bear?! On Shabbat, many of the elevators work in a special mode to allow Jews to observe Shabbat and abstain from operating electrical switches. It is a day of rest. And in a speed-crazy world we have so much to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters.
The Jewish tradition of keeping Shabbat stems from the Creation narrative and the Torah (Law). It was a day of rest and worship for the ancient Israelites. Violating Shabbat had serious consequences as the day was considered holy, dedicated to G-d. It established and bolstered Jewish identity amongst other nations and cultures as it was an expression of Jewish faith, a national identity marker. Today Shabbat is considered the most important day in the Jewish calendar and often referred to as “Shabbat HaMalka”, the Sabbath Queen.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born American Rabbi and leading Jewish theologian and philosopher of the 20th century, writes this about Shabbat:
“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world … When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time.” (The Sabbath)
Whether we are people of a particular faith or not, we can all learn from Shabbat. It calls us to mindfulness. It reminds us that rest is to be celebrated. It is not something to be ashamed of or forced. The centrality of keeping Shabbat is to remind Jews of the release of slavery from Egypt. The Egyptian exile is a metaphor for any enslavement, says Rabbi Becher, be it physical or spiritual. By ceasing work and resting we demonstrate that we are not enslaved to the physical world. When a person is incapable of refraining from work, then they have indeed become a slave!
Walter Brueggemann writes, “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”
(Sabbath as Resistance)
Shabbat confronts us with our own restlessness and constant addiction to activity and engagement. For people of faith, Shabbat is a space that is holy and blessed, and beckons us to connect again with creation and the Creator.
In our modern, success-driven, technology-addicted world we stand in danger of loosing our souls in a zombie-like trance of mindlessness. We stand to loose connection to the rhythm of life. Rhythm is the heartbeat that G-d has put as a sacred marker throughout creation to remind us of the sacredness of time and the importance of being mindful of our days. Whether Jewish or not, or whether we are a person of faith or not, considering and learning from Shabbat makes us mindful of this rhythm. It teaches us to listen, to hear, to see … to breathe!
Dear friend, I trust this blog may be helpful in jolting you out of entrenched mindlessness. We are the people of ‘ruach’ and life. All around us is rhythm. May your ears hear its gentle sound and not the hypnotic lies of a fear-mongering, power-hungry, consumer-addicted ideology that blares at us through the various media channels. Rather, may you free yourself from those chains … may you rediscover rest and rhythm … and may you dance …
“Everything has rhythm, everything dances.” Maya Angelou
(If you are interested in listening to an address I gave at a church on ‘The Sabbath’, please click here.)
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin
“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
They are wrong. Words can kill you.
Words are powerful. They shape our perception of the world around us. A single word can make us feel sad, mad, happy, or dissatisfied. Sometimes the words of others can pierce our heart like a sword. Words can wound. Some of those wounds we never really recover from.
With the skill of an artisan weaver, politicians, religious leaders, media, friends, family and our own minds, can weave words together that dramatically affect how we see another person or people group. Or how we see ourselves.
The delusional words of fanatics have led to some of the greatest crimes against humanity. While the words of wisdom of a young woman, shot in the head by her enemies, can mesmerise a room of powerful world leaders.
The words of artists can tap into our souls like no other. The gift of poets and lyricists amongst us help us express our deepest fears, prejudice, and longings.
Words are never expressed in a vacuum. And when the context of jokes and jests are made in a social atmosphere that is charged with violence, tension, or trauma, these words cannot, must not, be ignored.
The Orlando massacre was not simply a deranged man killing the innocent. It is the action of a man living in a world filled with many words of hatred, religious elitism, prejudice and ignorance, towards those who are deemed as ‘other’.
The words of a mob mocking an Australian Indigenous footballer are not heard or made in a void. Rather, they are a declaration in a historical context of racism, violence, genocide, and wounding.
The words of jest about killing a woman are not made from a position of non-violence. They often come from the mouths of the privileged, made in the context of a growing body-count of women killed, or maimed, as a result of violence.
The words of disdain towards those who choose not to eat the flesh of animals are not heard or absorbed by people who have not seen suffering. Rather, from a place where human hearts are broken as we bear witness to the horrific reality of abuse and cruelty towards our gentle earthling friends.
Words can wreck lives. There are so many words I wish I hadn’t said. So many words I can never take back. So many words that were just the product of internal strife, anger, ignorance, arrogance, or presumption.
If we want to be proud supporters of Freedom of Speech, then we should also hold a compulsory license of compassion and understanding.
If we view any curtailing of ‘free speech’ as an imposition or even ‘persecution’ by the ‘tolerance police’ then perhaps we should also consider that the words spoken from positions of power and influence, that marginalise or slander others, can be viewed as a form of bigotry and hatred.
Perhaps our very word-filled world needs to take breaths of silence? Imagine if we used that silence to walk in the shoes of another, to feel their pain, their heartache …
Sticks and Stones may break your bones but Words … ?
Words are thrown at you every day. Please know that you do not owe them your homage.
And words are also given to you, dear friend. Consider how you use them in our vulnerable world.
A Repost from last year:
It was November 2007. My 11 year old German Shepherd staggered into the kitchen and collapsed. His heart had failed. We called a mobile vet and it was on this day we said goodbye to Simba. I grieved that dog. Those who love their animal friends will understand the pain of losing a fur child. A couple of weeks later, after I had come back from a retreat, the phone rang. It was my dad, informing me that my mum had been taken to hospital. She died three weeks later. It was just before Christmas. Mum had been undergoing treatment for a thyroid condition, which turned out to be a misdiagnosis. My world stopped. Just a week after we said goodbye to mum, early on New Years’ morning, we received another phone call. That type of phone call that any parent who has ever received one, never really recovers from. All our three children and two of their friends had been involved in a horrific car crash. All were injured and the next few days became a nightmare of emergency and intensive care wards. It was all a blur and it felt like somewhere in November I had opened my front door and Grief walked in, uninvited.
How do you begin to describe this uninvited guest? Maybe by the way it affects us. Sadness, so overwhelming that you can’t even cry. Illogical anger and rage. Guilt, resentfulness, regret, panic, depression and fear. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote about this in ‘A Grief Observed’: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Lewis’ wife, Joy, had passed away from cancer and he had kept a journal observing his grief. This journal was later published. I have found it to be one of the most helpful books on this topic. Grief feels so much like fear because when we have lost a loved one we stare into a future where someone has turned off the light switch and it is utter darkness. Nothing brings back who we have lost. We live in a constant dread that life will never be the same.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler
In a haze of shock and numbness, I recall friends and family doing their best to help make this journey through the valley of tears a bit easier. Please don’t ever underestimate the importance of your actions and words towards someone who is grieving. Your kindness through this time brings a tiny bit of warmth into someone’s world. A world that has not only gone dark, but has frozen over in pain. “The death of a beloved is an amputation,” observes Lewis. I would add it feels like an amputation of the heart.
Grief calls on all of us throughout our lives. This unwelcome visitor does not knock. It just walks right in and for the next few weeks, months or years, you are left to entertain it, as you struggle through the various stages. Grief, that suddenly rushes at you, even years down the track. Grief, that makes you feel so alone in your chronic pain. “In my distress I groan out loud and am reduced to skin and bones,” laments the Psalmist (Psalm 102). Grief, that plays out its visit on every life in a different manner. Grief, that does not stick to any rules. “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape,” writes Lewis. Our grief, just like our life, is a unique journey.
Grief bombards us with every emotion. We cry to the point that we are convinced we will never shed another tear. We may feel guilty as we look at a hurting world around us. “There are so many people worse off than me,” we tell ourselves to try and downplay our reality. Comparing grief is not helpful. It is what it is. Our loss, whatever it may be, is real and hurts like hell. We need to accept it. As we journey, let us try and surround ourselves with loving people. Friends who come, who sit, who talk about our loss, who listen, who are not absent. Don’t do this alone. “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of confusion or despair, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing … not healing … not curing … that is a friend indeed.” – Henri Nouwen
During grief, you are dealing with a muddled mind. If you can, avoid making any major decisions at this time. Be kind to yourself: remember to eat and sleep. It’s bizarre how we forget basic human needs and rhythm in times of trauma. Cry when you feel to and find a place of solitude where you can yell if you want to – or howl at the moon, as a friend of mine recommended. Be patient with yourself. “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” (Rabbi Earl Grollman)
Grief changes us. It changes how we look at things and how we relate to people. Grief, armed with a fiery torch, burns compassion into our souls. In the darkest night our ego dies, and we look at things we once held as so important and wonder what we were thinking. Like Harry Potter, we all of a sudden notice that our carriage is pulled by Thestrals. We are quite sure that we are going nuts because others don’t seem to notice. Thank God for the Luna Lovegoods of this world, who remind us: “You are not mad, Harry. They can only be seen by people who’ve seen death.” Grief, this uninvited guest, it turns out is also an eye surgeon … and one day, however long it takes, the tears will slowly subside and you, my friend, will look at the world with a whole new set of eyes. Life will never be the same again – but peace, and even joy, do return like the prodigal.
The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this:
The faithful love of the Lord never ends. His mercies never cease.
In February, my life partner-in-crime made the massive decision to resign from his role as the Senior Minister of CityLife Church in Melbourne. This is a significant choice for someone who has spent most of his life in the church world, working at CityLife in various staff roles for 31 years and as Senior Minister for the last 21 years. His announcement included this: “At age 54, I am at a time in life when I’d like a smaller world not a bigger one, a slower pace not a faster one, and a simpler life not a more complex one.” I admire his courage and clarity. He has recognised an upcoming ending and determined that a season is about to conclude.