Friends make the world a much better place and when you find a new friend you feel the universe smiling on you 🙂 This is a guest post by a new friend, Tim Carson.
Tim is a writer, musician, holds a D.Min, pastor, traveller, horseman, scuba diver, healer, and when the weather is fair found atop his Indian motorcycle heading into the next liminal space. For a more extensive bio and his blog please follow this link.
Have you ever felt surrounded? I know I have.
A long time ago I was in Bangladesh and taking a riverboat to travel from the capital city of Dhaka to another part of the country. As a passenger, you move through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds to the landing where the triple-decker ships are lined up. And after you make it to the gangplank you have to find a place on one of the decks, the lower two being open air decks. There are mats everywhere with people camped out as far as the eye can see. The scene is like a gymnasium shelter after a disaster with all the people camped out on cots. It would be like our Room at the Inn except instead of 50 there are 200 campers.
I had never felt so absolutely surrounded and haven’t since. Everywhere I turned there were people. No matter whether I looked before or behind, decks below or above, I was surrounded. There was no escape. And certainly, no privacy.
If you have had a similar experience or even a time when you felt you were under the microscope with no chance of evading the eyes of those watching, you might share some of the feelings of the Psalmist.
The difference is that the Psalmist was not speaking of being surrounded by people. He was speaking of being surrounded by God. This is the hymn to the inescapable God, the all-knowing and all-present God. There is not a place, a time, a word, or a thought that is not known. Regardless of where and when God is in the centre of it, or as the Psalmist says, “You lay your hand upon me.”
There is no suffering, there is no ecstasy, there is no despair, there is no hope without God in the centre of it. So we are never alone. But we also can’t escape, because escaping would mean somehow leaving our own being, our own souls.
This awareness of the inescapability of God may come to many of us: wonder and awe before the mystery of the cosmos.
Or in his words, “It is too high for me, I cannot comprehend it.” It is beyond the capacity of finite minds to grasp the infinite.
This is the story of anyone who dares leave the certainty of the known and entertain the uncertainty of God’s vastness and mystery. What the Psalmist teaches us and what we intuitively know is that there is more unknown than is known. We are surrounded by an all-knowing God even as we know hardly anything. Welcome to the mystery.
In Biblical imagery, this mystery of God is often represented by the shadows, the darkness, the dark cloud. And mystics through the ages have described it in similar ways, a dark unknowing that is more powerful than anything we do know.
Imagine the iceberg with the tip showing itself above the water line. What we see above the water is a very small percentage of the whole – maybe 10% of what is beneath the water line, beneath what we see or comprehend. The 90% below is present whether we see it or not.
Like the shadows of the unconscious, it is there whether we are aware of it or not.
One of my favourite sayings, one that Carl Jung chose to put on his tombstone, is “Called or not called, God is present.” (vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit)
And so the Psalmist is slain by the all-present and all-knowing sacred spirit that animates the cosmos, what physicists might describe as the “field” of energy and forces that sustain all things. Nothing escapes their influence whether we see them or don’t. This is the dark matter and energy that makes up almost everything.
Like Richard Rohr’s now-famous analogy, we are “falling upward” to the mystery of God. Once you let go of your illusions of control and knowledge, you abandon yourself, surrender yourself to the God who knows and loves you before you can possibly know and love God back. That leap of faith – required over and over again – transports us to the realm of God we cannot know in fullness.
Now we only “see through a darkened glass, but then face to face.”(I Cor 13)
And how does the Psalmist describe this? He describes this as the luminous darkness: “Even the dark is not dark to You.”
We’re not just talking about a nightlight in the darkness. No, the darkness is not dark to God because God is in the dark, a part of the dark. God is in the realm of the unknown mystery, the hidden treasures of God. What seems dark to us is not dark to God. Since the energy of God is everywhere God is not limited by our perception of light/darkness.
I want to suggest that the unknown realm of God, the darkness of knowledge in which the treasures of God may be found, is found in that interval between truth and illusion, somewhere in the margins of life. There are the words on the page, the obvious rational meanings, but then there are the spaces between the words, between the letters. If we were speaking of music we would say there is the silence between the notes.
So often the hidden meanings of God are found there, in the margins. Much of the rest belongs to illusion. And here is the secret to walking by faith in these margins: You don’t need to own or control the mystery of God as much as point to it, give testimony to it. “Even the dark is not dark to You,” prayed the Psalmist. In a world of truth and illusion, God’s truth always shines through. But how do we know the difference? Where do we look? In what intervals? In what margins?
One of the most beloved children’s stories of all time was written by the Danish Hans Christian Andersen and is entitled The Emperor’s New Clothing.
Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money and time on being well dressed. In fact, he cared about little else.
One day two swindlers came to town and masqueraded as fine weavers and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colours and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.
“Those would be just the clothes for me,” thought the Emperor. “I could tell the wise men from the fools.” He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once.
They set up two looms and pretended to weave, though there was nothing on the looms.
As the Emperor sent his emissaries to the weavers to check on their progress they would always remark on how beautiful they were, even though they couldn’t see a thing. They didn’t want to be revealed as fools.
Finally, the Emperor came in to view the new clothing for himself. But looking he couldn’t see a thing. He wondered to himself, “Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor?”
And so he said in the presence of them all, “Oh! It’s very pretty. It has my highest approval.” Nothing could make him say that he couldn’t see anything.
Finally, the day came for the Emperor to show his new clothing and the town was all a flutter. The Emperor went to the weavers to be dressed and they said to him, holding up the invisible clothing, “All of them are as light as a spider web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that’s what makes them so fine.” The Emperor nodded with appreciation.
At that, the swindlers asked the Emperor to take off his clothes and they dressed him in his new specially made clothing.
So off went the Emperor in procession and everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!”
Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him a fool, but near the end of the procession a little child said: “He hasn’t got anything on!”
“He hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.
The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.
Andersen’s comical story reveals just how we live in an interval somewhere between truth and illusion, and how illusions are maintained in our minds and the minds of entire tribes. Only when we become like a child and look out with innocence and simplicity may we see the truth. Out of the crowd, out of the margins, the shadows, the dark, a lone voice arises and names the truth that has been missed, ignored or even distorted. We live in a world of illusions and the truth often emerges from the sidelines, the odd margins, strange places that seem dark to us.
In just a couple of weeks, we will be re-telling the stories of some other processions of truth and illusion. A humble prophet will ride into the city that kills people like him and then take up his part in some street theatre. His ride will provide ironic commentary in which he rides a beast of burden rather than a chariot of imperial power. The crowds will hail him as king and cast branches on the road in tribute. But what sort of king is he?
Then, just a week later, the procession will turn deadly, winding through the same crowds but crowds who now do not praise but rather mock him. Who is he now? Who are we? What is real and what is not? Where is God, the God we think we have? Where now?
We are surrounded by God and there is no escape. We are known and there is no evasion. The mystery is so high that we cannot comprehend it. We have entered the darkness between truth and illusion. It is the place where we may discover and then pray, “Even the dark is not dark to You.”
“Called or not called, God is present” – Desiderius Erasmus
Scrolling through Facebook the other day, this post of a friend caught my eye:
“We can’t leap over our grief work,
Nor can we skip over our despair work.
We have to feel it…. Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid”
– Richard Rohr –
It was a poignant reminder for a very wobbly time of year for me. I have blogged about grief and loss numerous times. In “An Uninvited Guest: Reflections on Grief”, I outlined why the Christmas season holds a lot of triggers for me. Since that post, life has continued with crazy highs and lows – the loss of a house that I loved and a faith community that I thought would always be ‘home’. I have said goodbye to a city I treasure and the precious individuals it holds, some of those goodbyes have been gut-wrenching as they held a finality that we didn’t see coming.
I am not outlining these circumstances to evoke your sympathy. Far from it. Rather, I am writing them down because as living creatures we all identify with grief and sorrow. Someone explained grief as the feeling you have when you have been winded – everything stops and you wonder whether you will ever breathe again. No wonder that we do all we can to try and usher this uninvited guest out of our house. And maybe that why we create hyperreal spaces and experiences?
After my mum passed away a lot of well-meaning people (especially those who held tightly to a more ‘triumphant’ form of Christianity) made a lot of comments and queries about ‘moving on’. “Time heals,” they would say, “and you will move on.” I heard what they were saying. I appreciated their concern. They wanted me to join the dance again – that dance of oblivious happiness. And I do dance again – but it is not the smooth Cha Cha from the first half of life.
Nowadays, grief pays a regular visit. I no longer feel shocked. I no longer try to usher this guest out of my house. Rather, and probably to the horror of some, I welcome this visitor. I sit with it and share in the memories. Grief has dramatically changed the way I look at the world. I feel so much more connected and grounded because of it. I know I have a level of compassion that I never had in my “black-and-white” paradigm. I also wonder whether I ever really understood what love meant in the first half of life? That is a rather ironic reflection considering I spoke on so many platforms about love.
Grief changes us. It transforms us from the inside out. When we refuse to ‘leap over our grief work or skip over our despair work’ we grow. Things that were once so important and that are still heralded as desirables, like success and influence, no longer hold much appeal. Grief teaches us that we have life, that life is precious, and the response to life is gratitude …
“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –
I also reflect on my faith. Grief challenges the platitudes, the certainties, the absolutes. Many years ago Grief came calling with a friend … Doubt. I was horrified back then. There was no room for grief, never mind doubt, in my early ideological framework. Now I smile to myself as I write this. How wrong I was. If anything, grief and doubt have deepened, enriched and strengthened my faith – through these guests I discovered an all-gracious, incarnate God who undergirds our universe.
But grief is not pleasant. Grief is painful. It still brings with it times of panic and anxiety and a deep desire to escape. No one goes looking for it – grief find us and there is no place to run. So we have to take courage, we have to stop, turn and stay with it. No one can outrun or remain immune from grief.
Dear Reader, if you, like me find the Christmas season a little more difficult than those around you, please know you are not alone. The heartache you feel, for whatever reason, is real and there are some things in life that sit with us and us with them for a long time. I would recommend that you do not go this alone or isolate yourself – this link provides some keys in coping with grief in the holiday season. A season that for many holds a marred joy … where we can feel pain AND we can sing carols … where we can smile at the delight of the young AND mourn the loss of those who have gone before us … it’s all part of sitting with an uninvited guest while still dancing our life dance … with a limp …
As I finished this blog another friend put up a post – needless to say, it is the perfect way to end:
“We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled. It is hard, painful, unbidden work. No one goes in search of loss; rather, it finds us and reminds us of the temporary gift we have been given, these few sweet breaths we call life…. It was through the dark waters of grief that I came to touch my unlived life, by at last unleashing tears I had never shed for the losses in my world. Grief led me back into a world that was vivid and radiant. There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive. Through this, I have come to have a lasting faith in grief.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –
Much love to you all this Christmas.
It is a terrifying thought that God stares back at us from the eyes of our ‘opponent’ …
Whether you are a person of faith or not, it is highly likely that at some stage in your life, perhaps at a wedding, christening or funeral, you would have heard the famous Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
This magnificent poetic prose is often read without providing any context. However, context is what makes this Psalm ring with hope.
The authorship of this Psalm is claimed by King David, who once was a shepherd himself. Tradition holds to the idea that it was written in one of the most difficult seasons of his life. His nation and people were at war with one another. Civil war is traumatic in any form, but this civil war carried its own deep level of agony. He was at war with his son, Absalom.
The words of this Psalm came from an exhausted, humiliated, betrayed and heartbroken king and father.
In his darkest day, David remembered God as Shepherd.
A shepherd who knows and cares for his sheep.
A shepherd who would lead his sheep to good pasture and clean water.
A shepherd who would protect his sheep against their enemies.
A shepherd who would carry the young and risk his life to rescue those who have wandered into precarious spaces.
A shepherd who inspected each sheep as they entered the fold at night to ensure they had no cuts that needed tending.
A shepherd who had a horn filled with olive oil and cedar tar for scratches and pests.
As a shepherd, David knew what it was to love and care for his sheep. In his hour of peril, he reflected on God being such a shepherd.
A few thousand years later we find Jesus speaking to a crowd of tired and oppressed people. His words are not ones of zealous patriotism, neither are they warlike speeches of triumph. Rather, he looks at these people with mercy and his words are like cold water to a parched soul:
“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I know my sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” John 10:11-18
In Africa, we lived for over a year on a farm that was surrounded by mountains where shepherds kept their sheep. In the evening I would race to our gate and sit there and watch as these shepherds came down the hills, often singing and carrying lambs on their shoulders. Some would stop and chat to me, I would pat their sheep, as they impatiently jostled each other to get closer to the shepherd. This picture remains with me to this day
In some of my darkest moments, I think of David, huddled around a fire, tears streaming down his face, composing his beautiful poem.
I think of my African friends who tended their sheep with such compassion.
I think of Jesus, whose life and death, whose words of mercy and non-violent subversion, forever altered my life. This Jesus who identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.
… my Good Shepherd
… your Good Shepherd
I find hope.
- That we have lost our way in a fast-paced, over-stimulated world. We no longer pay heed to the ancient voices. We no longer allow the healing power of sunshine, flowers, wind, storms and mountains to stop us in our tracks and revive. It is time we take stock and acknowledge how much our neglect of nature has cost us and the world we live in.
- That we need to remember our place in this earth … and it is not as grand as we like to think. My ancient friend has seen civilisations rise and fall. The people who rose with grand ambition in the hope of making a name for themselves, now lay forgotten several generations later. Even the ones we remember have had their narrative distorted as we airbrush them into mythical characters. Not much remains of our one short life – except, perhaps, those things we did when we rose above our fear and pride and gave ourselves to love without borders. Ninderry reminds me to walk in humility.
- That God is faithful. Mountains have always spoken to me of faithfulness. I don’t mean to sound trite or even comforting. Mountains can be treacherous, they can be difficult, they can even claim lives. When I speak of faithfulness I don’t intend it in the diluted manner so often flung about in modern, pop religions. Rather, it is a faithfulness despite of … a faithfulness that my ‘in spite of’ faith can connect with. I believe in faithful Providence and a Creator that remains faithful to all of creation, not just an elite few.
But I digress! Back to those Arctic Terns that at times take it upon themselves to disrupt our peaceful state. Lupin flowers, it seems, are Iceland’s answer for this force of nature. The Nootka Lupin is a native to North America. It was introduced to Iceland in the first half of the 20th century to combat erosion, speed up land reclamation, and help with re-forestation. The Nootka Lupin has proven to be effective for land reclamation. However, some are concerned because it is spreading too quickly and becoming too invasive, and this delightful purple flower has now earned the name ‘Alaskan Wolf’.
So what does that Lupin flower look like for you? A bungee jump down some mountain cliffs? A long walk on the beach? Getting out your paint brushes and creating art that has no rules attached? A motorbike ride? A visit to the state library or national gallery? A good glass of red and a cigar? A cup of coffee with a dear friend? Singing in the rain? Goethe? Jazz or Viking Metal? When we open our eyes, we discover that we are surrounded by Lupin flowers.
Arctic terns come and go. We don’t pretend they don’t exist. They do and they have a role to play. So do Lupin flowers. Through the yin and yang of life, we discover that for every Arctic Tern there is also a Lupin flower. Remember that, dear friend. Pick your favourite flower, wave it above your head, and do a wild dance … just for the heck of it!
“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 some 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.
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.
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.