Oh The Places You Will Go … And The Places You Must Leave …

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” Brennan Manning

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I remember walking through the doors of a house we had built in semi-rural Melbourne. It was a home that in years ahead would be the place where many friends and family members would gather – a place of welcome, tears, laughter, food and stories. I loved that home. It was a place that I wanted to grow old in. But it was not to be. The day came that a SOLD sign went up outside the gates, boxes were packed and I took one last look at the magnificent garden that had been a labour of love for my partner, my dad and I. It was so hard to say goodbye.

There are people we meet and places we belong to that have us convinced that they will play a significant role for the rest of our lives. But that is not always the case. Dr. Seuss was right – there are many places you will go, but in life there are also places you will have to leave. Places that can no longer hold who you are. Places that have changed. Places that become unsafe.

This can be incredibly difficult when the commentary in these places is one of welcome, belonging and unconditional love. Places where you have been led to believe that you matter, only to have that change in a moment, can have devastating repercussions. Let me share a story with you – and, yes, the name of this person has been changed.

I knew Harry from when he was little. He used to be in the same Sunday school class as one of my children. I did not know him well – enough to say hello and recognise the various family members. Harry grew up in the faith community I came to as an adult. He had only ever known this place as a spiritual home and the people were his spiritual family. He grew into a young man who became part of the youth group; a strong, dedicated leader, adored by those he cared for on a pastoral level. It all changed overnight.

Harry was gay. It took him a very long time to come to grips with his orientation and the consequences this would have in a conservative religious setting, not only for himself, but also for his family. It was handled kindly at first. Harry was allowed to continue leading, even amidst complaints from concerned parents as word got out. Eventually, Harry fell in love. This was problematic. Harry could no longer lead and was ‘relieved’ from all his responsibility. In an instant he went from a contributing member of the community to a ‘problem’.

Harry tried very hard to keep connected and involved – an impossible task in an environment where someone like him is viewed with great suspicion and concern. Sheepish smiles and general avoidance was probably the only way most community members knew how to handle Harry’s exile. He tried desperately to convince people that nothing had changed – he was still the same Harry they had known, loved and trusted for nearly twenty years. But for Harry, like many others, his status had changed from ‘human’ to ‘issue’. His parents received sympathetic looks and offers for prayer. They rejected them all. Harry’s decision to come out and live authentically, and to fall in love, now meant a whole family somehow found themselves on the margins. The family eventually left the church.

“There are other churches he can go to,” was the comment made when concerns were raised. I wonder whether people really understood the heartache of being forced out of your community simply because of being true to who you are? I wonder whether anyone understood the pain of rejection that Harry had to face and how this haunted him for years to come? I wonder what these concerned parents, that complained about Harry, will do and say when one of their children or grandchildren come out to them?

There are some places we hope will hold us and truly ‘see’ us in times of vulnerability, but that is not always the case. We can stay, endure and hope, but that comes at a price. For LGBTIQ people raised or existing in non-accepting or homophobic spaces, the price is highlighted in the horrific statistics of mental health, self-harm, rejection and suicide. It is extremely difficult to ‘hang around’ in a setting that questions your very identity.

The wheels of change grind very slowly. For many conservative religious people, someone who identifies as LGBTIQ and ‘Christian’ still remains an oxymoron, someone they think who has made a ‘lifestyle choice’ that is against their understanding and interpretation of the Bible. In these settings, the fear and distrust of a community has already condemned that person.

As I have observed my social media feed over the last month of Australia’s Marriage Equality ‘debate’, I am hopeful in that there are many more folk who are seeking to understand, read and educate themselves – they are eager to ask questions and listen to the many stories. I am also discouraged by so much misinformation and continued acceptance of “ex-gay therapy” by religious and political leaders that hold influence. Like a friend of mine says, “Ex-gay therapy and homophobia are like the oxygen in these settings. There is no true welcome there.” If you are an LGBTIQ person in these places, please be careful, they are not safe.

We made a choice to sell and leave our home and place of belonging. It hurt like hell. Yet it holds no comparison to the momentous grief for people like Harry. They most often have had to leave the places of spiritual belonging by no choice of their own. By their very identity they have become the scapegoat that carries a community’s angst and phobias under the guise of orthodoxy and dogma. The place they had loved so deeply is no longer safe.

This blog post is dedicated to the ‘Harrys’ of the ecclesiastical zoo all over the world. It is dedicated to the many people whose stories of heartache have pierced my own heart and who I am honoured to call friends. I want you to know that there are many who see you and who love you … just the way you are. I want to acknowledge the grief you have had to face in leaving behind your spiritual home. I want you to know that your tears have not gone unnoticed. Your lament is heard, I believe in the highest heavens, and the One who became the ultimate scapegoat stands with you on the margins. You are the prophetic voice of protest to a religious world that lost its way when pursuing its ‘rights’ became the focus, instead of the Gospel. You are brave.

It took Harry several years to recover from what he had to walk through. But Dr. Seuss was right, he did find new places to go – places of true welcome and embrace. He did find safe spaces and friends, communities who shared his faith. He did find skilled counsellors who listened and walked with him as he chiseled out a path for a different tomorrow. He also exceeded in his studies and chosen career. He is still with the one he fell in love with all those years ago. Harry is proof that life can be gut wrenchingly hard and life can also be beautiful.

Do not give up, dear friend. There are places you must leave and grieve – and these places do not know it yet, but the loss is ultimately theirs. There are also many new and amazing places and people that await your arrival … Oh The Places You Will Go …

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The Challenge: Learn Something New!

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. 
– Ghandi –

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How fortunate are the ones who at least once a day can exclaim, “I did not know that!” What a privilege to be able to walk with our eyes open, with a sense of wonder, and hopefully with enough humility to recognise that our specific field of knowledge is minuscule, no matter how well educated we are. There is always more to learn.

Most of us have a very broad understanding of the world around us. We may specialise in one or two areas of study, but it is a wise person who adopts a posture of learning that lasts a lifetime. We can all discipline and train our minds to think critically and to ask key questions. Practicing mindfulness helps us slow down, open our eyes, breathe and learn. It is also one of the best things we can do for our health and well-being.

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We recently relocated to the Sunshine Coast from Melbourne. In this new place, I am learning something new every day. For example, I discovered that I could have spared myself the freak-out meltdown when I found a tick burrowing itself into my hip. A calm Queensland nurse informed me that this is not of the virulent type I encountered in South Africa. I was ecstatic. I would have hated to have been taken by a tick … that would have just ticked me off (sorry, I had to!)

I learnt that the people who live here are relaxed, compared to this adrenaline-driven Southerner. That they keep pet pigs to keep “the JW’s from knocking on my door” and they say “F..k” really loudly as it keeps their pious, Christian neighbour at bay. I also discovered that they are infatuated with the word “but”. In this sunny part of the world it is placed at the end of sentences. Which sounds a tad strange but.

I learnt that there is a cool breeze that blows every afternoon in this warm, hilly place that I now call home. I anticipate its arrival and welcome my new friend.

I also learnt that there are people who really go out of their way to make you feel welcome in a new place. Thank you to those salt-of-the-earth folk who brought so much love, kindness, food and wine. For someone in major life transition, you have been angels in disguise.

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It truly is a wonderful thing to discover that we may have been ignorant in some areas. How easily we allow paradigms and ideals to become deeply embedded in our psyche without question. Especially, it seems, if those ideas are delivered by people we see as ‘experts’. The good news is that we are allowed to do our own research and investigation. We are given full permission.

So what new things are you learning?

According to Dustin Wax, learning something new:

– Gives us a range of perspectives to call on every day.
– Helps us to adapt to new situations.
– Feeds innovation by inspiring us to think creatively.
– Deepens our character and makes us more inspiring (and less arrogant!).
– Creates confidence.
– Helps us broaden our understanding of historical, social, and natural processes.

(His blog also provides tips on expanding your horizon)

So, dear friend, it’s time to become uncomfortable and stretch the brain and the imagination. Maybe cares and concerns have clouded your ability to dream and reflect? I empathise, as I know that feeling well. It is difficult to consider learning something new when we are barely coping with the present and what we do know!

A friend recently said to me, “There are many times in life when we need to be brave”. As you stand tall, adjust your eyes and follow your heart, may you be brave and discover the beauty of wonder. Here is my challenge to you: Learn Something New Today.

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Job, His Friends, and Disappointment

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. 
– Martin Luther King, Jr. –
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The book of Job has always fascinated me. One of the oldest books in the Old Testament and most celebrated pieces of biblical literature, it is dominated by two main characters: Yahweh and a wealthy man called Job, who faced utter devastation. The book is loosely divided into five parts: the prologue, the symposium, the speeches of Elihu, the nature poems, and the epilogue. It is a book that raises questions about suffering and directly challenges the idea of karma – that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits.

It is a book of poetic and philosophical depth and beauty. It is a book of suffering and grief. It is also a book that provides an example of how to be a really annoying friend. After Job loses everything, his friends come to ‘comfort’ him. They do well at first because they shut up. However, when Job begins to speak they never really hear him or seek to understand. They simply pontificate their opinions on his suffering and try to fit him into their little boxes of comfortable reasoning. Nothing much has changed … humans just don’t evolve that quickly ?

Eliphaz is convinced that Job has done something sinister to deserve this pain. Bildad suggests that maybe his deceased children were guilty of evil. Zophar really has no idea but is convinced that God has a plan and is on the throne (sound familiar?). Elihu, the zealous youngster, thinks that maybe Job is just a tad arrogant and that his pain is God’s way of humbling him and he will be a better person because of it. In summary, this is a group of Shit Friends or ‘worthless physicians’ as Job refers to them. People who practice triumphant monologue, provide unhelpful answers (accusations) or cliches, and are in on the ride because they cannot cope with the existential angst of not knowing why bad stuff happens to good people. Yes, we have all been in the presence of Job’s friends. We all have been Job’s friends.

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Disappointment is the cousin of grief. Disappointment is tied to our expectations. Our expectation of people, of events, of God, that is if we happen to be someone who holds a faith. When they do not ‘behave’ the way we expect, we become disappointed. Job was disappointed because he had spent his life in faithful devotion to God, expecting God to protect him, and yet disaster and suffering entered his life. He was disappointed in his friends because in the time of his greatest need they were … well they were just shit friends.

There are many lessons we can draw from Job. One would be that the questions we often ask about theodicy seem to have no satisfying answers. Another is that suffering is part of the human existence and disappointment is part of life. We can also learn how not to be a friend!

We will all face disappointment in our life time. If we happen to be one of the people to walk alongside another as they face disappointment, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Let’s stop pretending that we know exactly what they are feeling. We don’t. We  may be able to empathise to a certain degree, but we have not lived their life, walked a single step in their shoes, and we have no idea how exactly they are processing the disappointment that they are facing.
  2. Let’s learn to shut up and listen. If we are genuine about being an ‘alongsider’, then let’s be a sounding board. Don’t let’s use our friend’s pain as a soapbox to practice our philosophical or religious ideals. It’s like rubbing salt on a wound. The greatest gift we can give at that moment is to listen deeply.
  3. We are not the Messiah – and that really is good news. There is an innate urge in each of us to ‘fix’ things and people. The reality of life is that there are some things we can ‘fix’ and many things that we can’t. Mindfulness, kindness, practical expressions of love are most helpful to those facing disappointment. Job’s friends failed at these. Like Christopher Pyne, they were ‘fixers’ – and both Job and Yahweh grew weary of them.
  4. Walking alongside needs us to deal with our ego. People facing disappointment will be angry, grieving, sullen, and maybe rude. If we are in a support role and have not done some serious shadow-work we will find ourselves ‘hurt and offended’. Then the person who is facing crisis now has to deal with our wounded egos … Nicht Gut.
  5. Let’s practice our theology at these times, not preach it. Love in action is the best sermon we will ever preach. The day may come when we will be facing disappointment and will discover how annoying it is when someone, oblivious to our heartache, gets all “God-is-on-the-throne-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life” on us. In moments of deep disappointment we won’t really give a crap about anyone’s ideas about God, rather make “me a cup of coffee and feed me chocolate”.

Job faced bitter disappointment. We will also have to handle our fair share in our short life. And when we are comforting those who are disappointed let’s not add to their burden by being shit friends like those of Job.  Bake that cake, cook that meal, mind those children, and let’s learn to listen …

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Saying Goodbye Sucks!

Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say good-bye. I hate good-byes. I know what I need. I need more hellos. – Charles M. Schulz

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It was February 1985 when I loaded up my 1967 Valiant Station wagon, affectionally called “Boris” (the nickname of an old flame), and drove myself from Rockhampton to Melbourne. I was all of 19 years old and, of course, had the world all figured out …!! What took me to Melbourne? Well, I could say it was the leading of the Divine, or a career move, or a whole bunch of other crap, but really I came down because a tall, gorgeous redhead young man had stolen my heart on his short visit to Rockhampton and I was stalking him ?

I had no idea that this guy was also the pastor’s son at a conservative, Pentecostal church in Melbourne. I still remember the first time I set foot in that place. I felt like I had stepped into another planet and I’m sure with my tight jeans, several ear piercings and motorbike-friendly hair I would have looked like an alien to the parishioners. That was over thirty years ago! How time flies! Here we are all these years later with three incredible young adult kids, two amazing daughters-in-law and two fur children, facing yet another major move and transition in life.

Melbourne has been home for over three decades. As we move to the Sunny State we say goodbye to a city that has held our great joys, amazing triumphs, disastrous failures, disappointments and seasons of what felt like intolerable grief. We say goodbye to family and friends who, when you boil it all down, really are all that matters in life. We say goodbye to communities we love. We say goodbye to a home that has been our haven and most pleasant place. And before I can talk about a different tomorrow, I have to rest in this hauntingly painful place of goodbye. Goodbye sucks!

Is there an elegant way to let go? Can you really say goodbye without anxiety, grief, fear, and horribly ugly crying? If so, I haven’t figured it out. In the past, I have heard people speak lightly and with great excitement about closing a chapter and beginning a new one. I have also heard people talk about living life without regrets. I have not mastered either of these. I find letting go and closing chapters extremely painful. And if you are short on regrets – please come and see me, I’m happy to share.

So I sit here in this liminal space. I am not sure what tomorrow holds. As a person of faith I trust the guidance of Providence. I reflect on my life and like Jacob would say, “You have been here all along, and I didn’t even realise.” I choose to trust this Divine Presence in this place of great unknown. However, I do not deny the tears or the grief. For these are all part of what it means to say farewell.

So, Melbourne, thank you for opening your arms to me. Thank you to my faithful and loving friends. I could not imagine life without you. Thank you to my family – you are my greatest joy and sense of fulfilment in this short life. Thank you to my adversaries – from you I have learnt that I am stronger and have more courage than I ever realised. I’m forever grateful. Thank you to the Spirit of Life that lives in and through me, forever pushing me beyond the edges of safety and comfort.

For all of you, who for many reasons have had to say goodbye – you know this feeling well. Goodbye really does suck. We need to learn to feel, rest and trust the seasons, even the sucky ones.

Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes. – Henry David Thoreau

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Friends!

“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”
– Helen Keller
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Friends! They shape our lives, whether we realise it or not. From an early age, our friends play a crucial role in developing our sense of self. Friends help tell the narrative of our lives. Friendships make the world a far more beautiful place. Friends provide a safe haven, a sounding board, a reality check, comfort and a true sense of belonging. Friends make us better people. Friends, of course, can also make us miserable.

As an only child, friends played a most important role in my life and relational development. Now that I have reached half a century, friendships have become even more integral to the way I want to do life. There has been much study and research devoted to the friendships of children and adolescents, but not nearly enough on the friendships we hold as adults. As fully grown humans, who have lived on this planet for a few decades, we don’t just enter friendships from a void. Rather, we take into them a suitcase full of our own history, ideology and expectations of what it means to have and be a friend. No wonder friendship can be perplexing at times.

So as I reflect on this most important aspect of friendships and how they play a pivotal role in human existence, here are some thoughts:

α. Not all Friendships are the Same

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Some of my friends and I shared a meal recently. As I looked around the table at my eclectic and diverse group of friends, whom I love so dearly, I realised how fortunate I was to have these people in my life. Each of them come from very different backgrounds, their worldview has been shaped by a myriad of different life experiences, they hold different paradigms and ideas on various issues (some with great passion), and they all express themselves very differently.

We relate differently to different people. I do not hold my succinct, at times cutting, debate-style conversations, with my sensitive-soul friends. It has nothing to do with being ‘real’ or not. Rather, we learn to respect and understand that our friends communicate in different ways. Communication manners can threaten some people. For example, I find passive aggressive modes of communicating extremely stressful. Others stare in fear and wonder when our family unleashes in its loud opinion-slanging fest.

To love and be loved in friendship we come to the mature recognition that each of our friends are different. This difference is reflected in our expectations, relational and communication style, and in the depth of relationship we have fostered over the years. Each friend you have is different, so are the friendships you foster.

β. Imaginary Friends are best suited if you want Perfect Friends

I would hate to think how many times I have been just one giant ball of disappointment to my friends. To be human means that we can be loving, supportive, kind friends, AND we can fail spectacularly at the same time. The point is, if we are expecting perfection out of our friends and tryiimaginary-friendng really hard to control their behaviour in the friendship space, it might be best to find that imaginary friend from our childhood days. The real ones won’t meet our expectations. Unrealistic expectations can put tremendous pressure on friendships, as can a refusal to simply accept that we will fail our friends and they will fail us. Gratitude for the beautiful and imperfect gift of friendship is a marvellous antidote for the silly notion of ‘perfect’ friends.

γ. Not all Friendships last Forever, not all Conflicts are Resolved

In saying all this, it is important to consider any relationships that are toxic: Anger, Judgement, Selfishness, lack of Empathy, Betrayal are some of the harmful ingredients that destroy relationships. We all exhibit these traits from time to time. However, when they are bound to how a person operates and relates, resulting in them refusing to acknowledge how this is hurting others, we have to take time to contemplate how, if at all, we continue to navigate that friendship.

Dysfunctional traits often lead to conflict in friendships. Conflicts are normal to any relationship. If, however, there is no recognition of the ‘shadow side’ that plays into friendship, no forgiving or seeking forgiveness, no humility and respect, then it becomes extremely difficult to resolve serious conflict. As much as we should keep an open heart, bent on reconciliation, perhaps the most difficult of all is to recognise when a friendship has run its course. Not all friends are forever. We bless what we had. At times we have to let go.

δ. Be a Generous Friend

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” – Simone Weil

Generosity has to do with heart and attitude. It is our ability to connect deeply with our friends, with a spirit of hospitality, kindness and support. It’s learning to really listen. The generous gift of taking the time to hear the other, to reflect back their pain, joy, frustration, fear, in a manner that shows that you have listened beyond the words, is truly one of those remarkable measures of friendship.

To live life connected with friends, to share our lives and hearts, has to be one of the greatest gifts we hold as the human family. Money or possessions can never substitute for what it means to love and be loved – the sacred space between kindred heart cannot be bought. Treasure your friends.

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