Category Archives: Health, Wellbeing, Spirituality

Listen to Your Life!

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“God comes to you disguised as your life.” – Paula D’Arcy

Wherever you are right now, reading this post, you have arrived at this point because your unique life has brought you here. For some of you, your path has not been easy. Perhaps you are just bone weary from the relentless difficulties that have come your way. Others of you are gripped with unrelenting guilt and regret as you look at where your life has taken you. While still others of you have a deep sense of satisfaction and joy as you ponder the circumstances, people and decisions that have shaped who you are today. Studying your life is an important discipline; from it we learn, we change, we grow, we heal, and we discern our current situation and consider the decisions placed in front of us.

There is a grave danger of travelling through this thing called life having eyes to see but never looking, having ears to hear but never listening, having a mind that can think but never wondering, and a voice that can speak but that remains silent. Many of us are so swept up in simply surviving or pursuing this idea called happiness that our life gets very little scrutiny, and the process of discernment remains a lost art to many.

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Religions don’t always help. Centres of Spirituality can and should provide spaces where people are invited to discover that they have eyes that can see deeply, ears that can hear with the heart, a mind that soars amidst mystery and complexities, and a voice, that coupled with courage, can make a remarkable difference in the affairs of this world. Instead, some religious systems, functioning from a place of fear, power or survival, embed blind acceptance and inattentiveness even further. The shrill voices of dogmatic absolutes often drown out, or simply silence, the whispers of longing and wonder. Yet your life, and the questions that unfold living it, are sacred and worthy of attention.

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So, sadly, the art of discernment, so essential for this journey we are on, is not always imparted to us from the places, or from the people, we had hoped would guide us. If we are not careful, we can live in the cloistered, heavily-guarded walls of adopted, unexamined paradigms for years. Some remain there for a lifetime. Yet, your life is given to you as one of the greatest gifts of discernment. If you desire to engage in it with your whole heart then it is time to break down some walls and pay attention.

When I am mindful of my life, I recognise, for example, why I love the things I do: gardens, animals, outdoors, family and close friends, books, history … I can even trace my love for coffee in my memories. When I pay attention I am less likely to have my life hijacked by wrong decisions or someone else’s ‘wonderful plan for my life’. As I develop the art of discernment, I understand why I choose the things I do, what I am drawn to, or what I need to be cautious about. I also begin to recognise and acknowledge my own shadow. Discernment is the key to looking deeper and recognising the patterns my life have left.

Friend, I have not walked in your shoes, experienced your heartbreak nor moments of triumph. Only you have lived your life. But I can tell you that your life speaks, no begs, for you to pay attention. The discernment process at any life stage is never easy. It’s not meant to be. Discernment, by its very nature is meant to be an expedition into unknown terrains. It is this very process that is part of growth and maturity. So the easy, instant answers we look for are seldom a reality. Your life comes to you like a wise and faithful friend offering you insight and counsel. The keys you are looking for are not in the life of another – they are within you. Listen to your life.

I have come so they may have life. I want them to have it in the fullest possible way.  Jesus

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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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Slow Down and Chew Your Food!

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I used to eat fast. No, I mean it. I used to eat really fast. In fact, if you sat around our dinner table you would have noticed this terrible personal habit had become a family trait. We all tended to inhale our food. As a child, my parents worked busy and stressful jobs and I remember meal times were somewhat like the Grand Prix – ready, set … finish. That is until my grandmothers came over. I can still hear their voices, “Slow down and chew your food!”

This reprimand was most often ignored as we continued to shovel
nutrients into our facial cavity. In my hurried, stressful, all-consuming first half of life as a religious zealot, I continued eating with great haste. And my poor children probably felt they had Mr. Squiggles’ grumpy chalkboard at the table (not their mother): “Hurry up, hurry up.” And then it struck … acid reflux. My gut began to protest the
under-masticated volume of fodder thrown at it because of a frenzied need for speed. And so the wonderful and under-rated discipline of mindfulness began to be a part of my meal time routine.

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Let’s just face it: we are creatures of our hurried culture. Most of us hardly give any thought to chewing our food. It has simply become a habit. Yet this chewing process is a vital step in a functional digestive process – the way you chew and how long you chew dramatically affects your health.

Dr. Mercola provides 7 reasons why chewing your food properly has
significant benefits
:

1. You absorb more nutrients and energy from your food.
Smaller particles are easier to digest and increase nutrient absorption by your intestines.

“Particle size [affects the] bio-accessibility of the energy of the food that is being consumed. The more you chew, the less is lost and the more is
retained in the body.”
– Dr. Richard Mattes (Medical News
Today July 18, 2013)
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2. You maintain a healthy body weight.
It takes time (generally about 20 minutes) for your brain to signal to your stomach that you’re full and this may explain why one study found people reported feeling fuller when they ate slowly.

3. The longer you chew, the more your food is exposed to saliva.
Saliva contains enzymes that assist in breaking down food.

4. Chewing assists digestion as it pre-digests food into small pieces.

5. It is great for your teeth.
The bones holding your teeth get a good workout while the saliva produced cleans the mouth of food particles and bacteria.

6. Properly chewed food decreases excess bacteria in your intestine.
Excess bacteria causes side effects such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, cramping and digestive problems.

7. Chewing your food helps you enjoy and really taste your food.

Over the last few years, I am slowly learning to eat at a far more leisurely pace. I am learning to enjoy my food and to be grateful. It has made a remarkable difference. How I chew my food these days is probably a
picture of how I am now living this second half of my life. I have learnt to breathe, to allow space, and to say ‘no’ without always feeling responsible or guilty. My grandmothers would be so proud.

‘Hurry sickness’ is the malady of our modern culture. How are you
faring? Are you overloading your intestinal tract with copious amounts of junk hitting it at lightning velocity? Slow down. Think about the food that you eat. Will it nourish your complex, wonderful body? Take a moment to consider your meal choices. Are they harming our intricate planet? Remember, you are part of this world and with it comes responsibility.

You will find that as you begin to live and eat more mindfully you won’t need the volume of food you normally consume. So eat in peace, dear friend, and chomp, chomp, chomp.

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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.

Navigating the Great Unkown

“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s
family, and go to the land that I will show you …” – 
Genesis 12:1
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I dream vividly every night. Some of my dreams are rather significant. Two years ago (yes, I keep a dream journal with dates), I dreamt that I was standing on the shores of a stormy sea. The skies were grey and menacing, the water green and dark, with white foam churning on top, creating the appearance of a bubbling cauldron. The wind was howling. I was holding a windsurfing sail, just the sail, no board. For whatever
peculiar reason, I waded into the water and began to windsurf over the top of the waves with bare feet – a near impossible feat. Flying over the water at the mercy of the wind, I began to noticbreakwater-379242_1920e dark shadows under my feet – the whole ocean, it seemed, was alive with monsters of the deep. I was terrified. Finally, I made it back to shore and stood there panting, with exhilarating horror … and then I went back into the water … to do it all again …
Fortunately, I woke up!

The dream was compelling. My subconscious was trying to desperately process what was happening in my life. It was a season of great risk, new defining moments, pivotal paradigm shifts, deep inner work, and I was staring down the path of an adventure that would take me into uncharted territory. A very similar place to where my partner and I are standing right now, as we face momentous changes in our lives. These times come to all of us; some through our own choice, some far beyond our control, and they all lead us to the mist-covered space of the Great Unknown.

Maybe you have been there? Maybe you are there right now – this murky, foreign place, where you wake up one morning and realise you are “not in Kansas anymore”. This new neighbourhood, perhaps filled with grief, most often with great fear and, at times, a sense of loss.
Perhaps you lost a loved one? Or you have been diagnosed with an
illness? Maybe it is a drastic shift in an area of tightly-held ideology or worldview? Or a literal geographical move? Everything within you wants to again feel the safety of the familiar harbour. Frantically, you search for that mysterious rabbit hole you accidentally fell down that took you to this faraway corner. When you find it you discover, to your horror, that it is locked and bolted. You cannot go back, you are not the same anymore. So, you have to gather your courage, grab your walking stick (or windsurfing sail), and take the first tentative step into the unknown.

Here are some reflections from a fellow pilgrim that may be of help:

1. You will feel lost and there’s nothing you can do to change or hurry that process. When Providence guides you to the Great Unknown, you will feel lost and disorientated. Familiar habits and belief systems are now under threat, or may even be discarded. You have been beckoned to a radical adventure in which you are asked to leave behind so much of what once brought you security and comfort. Lostness, after all, is a
hidden gift, for in the midst of it you begin to really wake up and pay
attention.

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2. You may discover some very awkward travelling companions: Silence and Darkness. How our modern world fears these friends. Look around, everything is geared for you to ignore them. But when you step into the Great Unknown, they are there, forever at your side. At first you freak out, then you ignore them, and then … then you become their friend. For Silence and Darkness are the womb of the Great Unknown. These are the friends sent to you at this time to confront the greatest of all fears – yourself.

3. You will leave some friends behind. Nothing tests friendship like the Great Unknown. Ask anyone who has travelled here: the ones suddenly unable to partake in ‘normal’ activities because of illness or an accident, the ones who have ‘lost’ job or finance and can no longer ‘benefit’ their friends, the ones who shift in ideas and thought that threaten others, the list goes on. The reality is, for whatever reason, the Great Unknown will show you that the notion that you will take everyone with you, is simply not true. We can get angry and bitter, or we accept this as part of what this space is all about. There are a few friends who stay at your side for a lifetime. There are others that cannot take the journey with you. There are also others who are sent to you at this time – a whole different group of travelling companions, bidding you welcome.

4. You are, and will continue to, change. There is no other place that quite exposes the raw nerve of false cliches and ego than the Great Unknown. The place where we stop pretending, where we realise that
paradox is part of being human, where amongst our friends of Darkness and Silence, we recognise the Grace that has brought us here. It is in this place, fearful and exposed, we discover that we are greatly loved, and we look at the world in a whole new way. “I took the path less travelled,” wrote Robert Frost, “… and it made all the difference.” The Great
Unknown transforms our lives.

If you, like me at this time, feel like you are surfing over deep, dark
waters with no surf board, know that you are in good company. You are not alone. There is nothing wrong with you. You, dear friend, are simply being called to an adventure of a different kind. May you find the courage to answer.

Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an
adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.

Bilbo: I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them …

Gandalf:  You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back

Bilbo:  You can promise that I’ll come back?

Gandalf:  No. And if you do, you will not be the same  

[The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien]

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This is My Story

“We cannot wish old feelings away nor do spiritual exercises for overcoming them until we have woven a healing story that
transforms our previous life’s experience and gives meaning to whatever pain we have endured.”

Joe Borysenko

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When was the first story ever told? We do not know. We do know that storytelling has been an intrinsic part of every society and culture.
Before we could write, we told stories. Stories shape our world. Stories are everywhere: in songs, books, news, religions, art – wherever we look we are being told a story. Stories resonate, we remember stories. Most historians and psychologists would assert that it is storytelling that defines and binds our common humanity.

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The stories that we are told or tell ourselves dramatically shape our world. Both sets of my grandparents were wonderful storytellers. My Oma, from my father’s side, would recall memories of what it was like to live in East Prussia. She would paint pictures with her words of lush forests, mushroom picking, and the giant lake of Lyck (now Elk) that was synonymous with ‘home’. My Oma, on my mother’s side, would
reminisce about what it was like to be one of nine children, the tragic loss of her brother in WWI, and describe the lives of everyday people of Northern Germany. Their stories defined them, how they lived and their interaction with the world. Their stories impacted my life. So, in a sense, I tell my own story, but the stories of my ancestors live on through me.

There are some stories we live by that need desperate revision. We may find that there are a few life experiences that remain attached to the recording device in our head. Our perspective of those experiences, or the words directed at us through those seasons, will determine how we view ourselves and how we relate to others. David Denborough writes, “Who we are and what we do are influenced by the stories that we tell ourselves  herold-letters-436502_1920e are many different events in our lives, but only some of them get formed into the storylines of our
identities. Whatever storyline we have about our lives makes a
difference in who we are and how we act.
  There are some narratives that need revising in our lives because they paralyse us or affect us in a profoundly negative way. It is time to take back those false memoirs and say: “No, that is not true, but this is my story.”  Perhaps it is time to give yourself permission to rewrite those toxic lines into a healing
autobiography?

Stories are one of the things that make us human. They help explain the world and make sense of what, at times, seems nonsense. For people who are grieving, stories provide a way of coping with loss and assists in healing. Telling one’s story has proved to have significant health benefits as it contributes to creating a sense of meaning and belonging, because we feel both seen and heard. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to listen. Listening is the gift of kindness. It is a modern tragedy that we have so many elderly folk now sitting in isolated care homes, with a rich tapestry of life and adventures, with no one willing to listen to their story.

So maybe it’s time, dear friend, to take a pen, or your computer or iPad, and begin to write your stories down. Live them as you write them.
Describe them in intricacies and with a sense of wonder. Reflect on them as you read and re-read your story. What does your story tell you? How do the whispers of the past beckon you to consider your ways today?
Remember, this alone is your story and your story matters, because,
after all, no other human being will see things, dream things or
experience things just the same as you. This is your story – it is time to remember.

“Don’t let anyone tell your story. Pick up a pen and write your own.”
– Majid Kasmi

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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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The Colours of Autumn

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Autumn burned brightly, a running flame through the mountains, a torch flung to the trees.
– Faith Baldwin

I love Autumn. I love watching the light change to thick, plush gold as our planet tilts on its axis while we orbit the sun. In our Southern Hemisphere, the temperature begins to drop in March. Well, that is in most years! This year of 2016, Melbourne is achieving record high temperatures. It seems the Summer Diva is throwing a tantrum as she has to exit center stage to make room for Sister Autumn.

With Autumn comes the changing colour of the leaves. The stuff of poets and artists. “Autumn … the year’s last loveliest smile,” writes William Cullen Bryant. John Donne chimes in, “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.” French author,
Albert Camus, saw autumn as the second spring, where every leaf is a flower. George Eliot was totally smitten, “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” Emily Bronte discovered that every fluttering
autumn leaf spoke of bliss to her. The colours of autumn are indeed one of those spectacular reminders of a rapid fading season of warmth and light.

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Stanley Horowitz wrote, “Winter is an
etching, spring a watercolour, summer an oil painting, and autumn a mosaic of them all
.” Autumn, to me, is the great crescendo of the seasons. As we observe this dramatic display, we can also take time to ponder the colours and seasons of our lives. Autumn can teach us many things, perhaps one of the greatest lessons is the certainty of change.

In a constructed social culture that generally measures success through growth, influence and numbers, you would be forgiven to think that a ‘Summer Witch’ has taken over ‘Narnia’. Summer speaks of vibrancy, happiness, and growth: the mantras of today’s modern world. Yet, as charming as it is, an unending summer would destroy us. Autumn stops us in our tracks. It reminds us that Winter is Coming. In its flaming glory it tells us to rejoice and stop wasting our energy in the pursuit of a fantastical, everlasting summer.  

forest-411491_1920So take some time out of your busy
schedule. Walk through a magnificent deciduous forest and take in nature’s masterclass on change. Notice the grace and ease with which trees let go of what once was. Discover the easy rhythm with which they embrace transition. There is no frantic panic, for in these magnificent woodlands, change is celebrated.

Autumn colours also have a sobering reminder of death, something our western culture is so ill prepared for. Autumn advises us to live with humility, for nothing is permanent. We need to consider our days carefully, for they are indeed fleeting. Autumn beckons us to surrender ourselves to this divine dance of change. It whispers to us with hope. For there are a few things that remain – Faith, Hope and Love … and the greatest of all is Love. Perhaps this is an indication of how we should colour the leaves of our lives? 

There is a harmony in autumn, and a luster in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen, as if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Percy Bysshe Shelley
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Laughter: Tonic for the Soul

 

Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common
denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.

— W. H. Auden

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A couple of days ago, I was sitting in my car at the traffic lights, deep in thought and paying very little attention to the world around me.
Suddenly I began to awake from my mindless stupor and noticed that the couple in the car next to me were having a rather animated
conversation, possibly a family feud or a heated disagreement. The
elderly female passenger turned her head my way, threw up her hands, rolled her eyes and uttered a rather choice expletive, one that even my limited lip reading skills could decipher without any difficulty. We then caught each other’s eyes and began to laugh. Two strangers, no language to connect, just a moment of hilarity and laughter that stayed with me through to my destination. Laughter truly is a tonic for the soul.

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Laughter cleans the soul. It has the ability to create an effervescent transformation that is tangible. The pursuit of laughter can dramatically change our lives. Laughter reduces pain, strengthens the immune
function, decreases stress, and triggers creativity. Laughing at ourselves prevents us from becoming serious, intolerable, and very self-important pains in the arse. Did you know that laughter contributes to the lowering of blood pressure, reduces stress hormone levels, improves cardiac health, boosts T cells, triggers the release of endorphins and produces a general sense of well-being? The author of Proverbs suggests that a ‘cheerful or merry’ heart is fabulous medicine (17:22).

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Meaningful relationships are far too important to be taken seriously. Laughter improves communication and builds relationship because everyone laughs in the same language. Children are more receptive when they are having fun. Laughter improves all of our memories,
because we tend to remember what we laughed about. Laughter makes us approachable, removes barriers and smoothes over differences.
Humour is vital in delicate circumstances and provides fantastic cover for shooting sacred cows, like Oscar Wilde drily remarked, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Of course, humour that is used to intimidate, manipulate, silence or embarrass another person is not really humour, it’s being a jerk.

So, with countless evidence on the benefits of laughter, how can we
introduce more of it into our lives?

– Learn to laugh in the dark and serious times. This is a ‘skill’ I learnt from my parents. They managed to find humour even in the darkest
moments. We found ourselves laughing even at the most inappropriate times, not to be inappropriate, but to cope with life. It is a ‘skill’ now developed in my children. An ‘evil’ sense of humour is one of the great weapons against stress.

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– Learn to laugh at yourself. To my religious friends out there – please don’t become a serious, pious pain in the bum, so that people think that’s what your faith does to you. It’s not meant to do that. Laughter is a choice. Learning to not take
ourselves seriously is tonic for the soul. Serious self-importance really is one of those major relationship killers.

– Watch the kind of comedy shows that make you laugh.

– Tell your face it drastically improves it’s appearance when it smiles. Smiling is so underrated. A smile can literally make someone’s day. It
really is an instant makeover for our skull surface.

PIC BY THOMAS MARENT / ARDEA / CATERS NEWS - (PICTURED: A juvenile Borneo Orangutan in, Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia laughing) - These comical creatures are clearly up FUR a laugh in these sidesplitting images which show a variety of ecstatic animals enjoying a good old chuckle. The hilarious snaps, taken by a whole host of photographers from around the globe, prove life in the jungle is most definitely jolly, as creatures from an orangutan to a elephant seal are pictured mid-laugh. A cheery chimpanzee can be seen sporting a toothy grin as he enjoys life at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia. And a pot-bellied pig is clearly tickled pink at his home in Lower Saxony, Germany. In another image an Icelandic horse appears to crack up when he spots a photographers camera, while a chuckling cheetah creases up in Kenya. SEE CATERS COPY

PIC BY THOMAS MARENT

Friend, I wish you much laughter. Life is not always easy. There are many times when we find ourselves trudging through the valley of tears. Even in those sacred moments, may you notice something ridiculous, throw your head back and laugh in the face of your opposition!

“Laughter is poison to fear.”

– George R.R. Martin

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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