Grief – Stay With It

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much love to you all this Christmas.

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God on My Side?

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I spent the first seven years of my life in a small village in Northern Germany. It was the sort of place where everyone knew each other and the children roamed the streets like herds of sheep. You had to be tough in those herds! Children aren’t always as nice as we like to imagine. My last resort when things got hairy was to remind everyone that my dad lives just a few houses away and he will sort out anyone threatening his daughter’s well-being. That normally did the trick. Dad was respected and no one liked the idea of having an angry German-Russian breathing down their neck. Of course, to my utter disappointment, the times dad did show up and I tried to dob on someone I perceived a threat to the welfare of the community, dad would be as kind and pleasant to the wee human as he could. I remember being furious. Dad was supposed to be on my side!

Several decades later, it occurs to me how hard it is to grow out of this. We simply change the ‘dad’ figure to reason, physical strength, positions of power, or ‘God’. If you conduct a brief search throughout the corridors of human history of wars fought with strong religious ideals, you will discover a common thread: each blood-lusting party had the novel idea that God was on their side. There seems to be a ferocious zeal that overcomes those who believe that the Divine is blessing their violence. As Blaise Pascal dryly commented, Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

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Those of us who would consider ourselves people of faith may recoil at the idea of thrusting a spear through an opponent’s heart in the name of God, or of terrorising villages and families in order to execute a ‘just’ war on terror, but perhaps we have other ways to vilify those we deem as an ‘enemy’, a ‘threat’, or simply people who have differing views from us. If we can insinuate that we have ‘God on our side’ then there is a high chance that the masses will ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, and that they will follow our cause without engaging in critical thinking. If we really want to drive a point home, we can ensure that people understand that our idea has God’s backing.

Positions of political and religious influence can be precarious places. These platforms provide all the necessary ingredients for deception, greed and power, which can corrupt hearts. When we adopt a ‘Joan of Arc’ persona and use sentences like “God told me”, we are using our influence, in whatever capacity, with the danger of engaging in control and manipulation – possibly with the best intentions, but still potentially dangerous. No amount of ‘scriptural backing’ gives us the right to put people in such a position that if they question us, they question God.

History should serve as a teacher. Take a moment to consider just a few of the many examples like the Apartheid ideology undergirded by the Dutch Reformed Church, the long history of Anti-Semitism in the Catholic church, the Spanish Inquisition, the Religious Wars of Ireland, the exuberant preachers of the pro-slavery era, the modern day ‘Kill the Gay’ bill enthusiastically propagated and supported by Religious Leaders from the USA, or the horrendous consequence of banning contraceptives in Africa and other parts of the world. We need to consider the wake of destruction that often accompanied ideologies and people of power who claimed God on their side – be it Presidents, dictators, Popes, priests or ministers.

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The moment our idea of God paints us as the ‘Messiah’ to liberate the misguided, evil ‘Other’, we come dangerously close to creating a ‘God’ in our own image, who looks and thinks like us. I would urge us to exercise caution before we marginalise and label those who differ. Many of the dogmas that were held with such certainty in a previous era, are now considered fallacies. Perhaps most confronting is the notion that what often irritates us in others is mirrored in our own shadow side. Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves, said C.G. Jung. The French writer, Vauvenargues, responds: We discover in ourselves what others hide from us and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.”

It is a terrifying thought that God stares back at us from the eyes of our ‘opponent’
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The Shepherd’s Psalm

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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
forever.

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

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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.

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Want to Walk the Road Less Travelled? Get off the Success Treadmill!

Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost – 
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The ‘road less travelled’ is an alluring and romantic notion. It’s the idea that we can take steps out of our secure boundaries from time to time and feel like a dare devil. If this venture goes relatively well we may try it again and we may even become ‘heroes’ or ‘courageous’ in the eyes of others … until we fail!

The fear of failure keeps the masses at bay. It is one of the most powerful tools of rhetoric, regularly accessed by political and religious leaders. Everyone wants everything to be ‘great’ – we want to make everything great again. Triumph, success, adulation – the opium of the masses of the developed world.

In the faith tradition that I embraced like a zealot in my first half of life, triumph was the goal. We were encouraged to step out in order to ‘walk on water’ or ‘break the boundaries’ or ‘slay the giants’. ‘Live on the edge and God will bless you’ was the modus operandi. If you bought into the persuasive, manipulative garble of some, you would be convinced that only success matters. You will eventually become wealthy, healthy and wise. You will not fail.

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The fear of failure is a tenacious force in many social structures, especially modern Pentecostalism. Failure, for many, would be a sign of God’s disapproval. It would be a given that if you took a step into the unknown, into a path of ‘faith’, then God is obliged to ‘bless’ you. The thought of not being ‘blessed’ can seriously risk your status, identity and belonging in these religious social groups. That thought is simply awful. That’s why it remains a ‘road less travelled’.

But what, if just for a moment, we would consider that failure, just like grief, sorrow and disappointment, is really not our enemy? What if we were to grasp that the success-treadmill-mentality that lies so deeply embedded because of a thousand different clever messages thrown at us every day, that this treadmill can be abandoned? What if, despite the disapproval of our community, we adopted a sort of quixotic lunacy and fight for what we believe, even if it means failure? How would we live then?

Perhaps it is time to take another look at this perceived, scary fiend called ‘failure’. What if we were to have a cup of coffee with failure and discuss some of our deepest hopes and dreams? We may come to realise that making failure a friend allows us to live life in a manner that evades most – with the freedom to pursue the most difficult of dreams because we value them more than success.

If we only act because there is a great likelihood that we will succeed then we will live relatively safe, confined lives. And perhaps that is satisfactory to many. But I find that the success treadmill is a constraint when we want to live from a place of value and ethics because the success treadmill creates constant value transgressions. The value of my endeavours cannot be determined by the odds of success. I have to face the fact that negative consequences may be a result of my most daring adventures. And that’s ok!

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So can I suggest that you investigate your relationship with failure. As an only child and a One on the enneagram, mine is a rather precarious one. However, I am learning that failure is not my adversary, no matter what the success-addicted crowd thinks. In stark contrast to popular opinion, I am finding that the more I embrace this strange companion, the more I live life from the inner sanctum of authenticity and freedom.

Remember, dear friend, there are many lofty goals worth far more than success – pursue them!

“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.” – Elizabeth Gilbert – 
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This Ancient Mountain

I acknowledge the original custodians of this land and pay my respects to the Elders both past, present and future for they hold the memories, the spiritual connections, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of  Australia.

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Every morning when I step on to my front verandah I greet a Dreamtime legend. A warrior that caused havoc amongst young love and was turned to stone and became Mount Ninderry.

The original Aboriginal people of the Yandina area and its distinct land formation belonged to the Gubbi Gubbi language group. The tribes included Nalbo, Kabi, Dallambara and Undabi. These tribes lived in Yandina and the surrounding area for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Middens, scarred trees, bora rings and burial grounds remain a silent witness to their presence and rich heritage. Stories like that of Mount Ninderry speak of their dreaming.

In the evening I sit and watch the mountain light up as the setting sun begins to dance and flicker upon its ancient surface. One moment it is bathed in golden light and shining so brightly that I squint watching it. John Muir wrote, “How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains.” Then the shadows come, pouring out of the rocks and bushes like warriors of old. Ninderry becomes dark and ominous reminding everyone that this idyllic setting also has a dark and bloody past.

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View from Mount Ninderry to Mount Coolum and the coast.

As I sit in silence and contemplate this giant of rock, I find solace and am reminded of a few things …

  1. 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.
“Thousand of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” (Muir)

  1. 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.
        “This mountain, the arched back of the earth risen before us, it made me feel humble, like a beggar, just lucky to be here at all, even briefly.”

  1. 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.
    “Mountains are the cathedrals where I practice my religion” – Anatoli Boukreev

Mount Ninderry has become my immovable friend. A constant reminder of past, present and future. When I am long gone this regal mountain will still stand guard. However, right now Ninderry reminds me that I have one glorious life to live … and live it I shall.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey
 
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Arctic Terns and Lupin Flowers: Reflections on Relentless Thoughts

“The Arctic Tern is one of the most aggressive terns, fiercely defensive of its nest and young. It will attack humans and large predators, usually striking the top or back of the head. Although it is too small to cause serious injury, it is capable of drawing blood. Other birds can benefit from nesting in an area defended by Arctic Terns.”
Migration – 

Our road trip through Iceland had to be one of the major highlights of 2016. I loved that hauntingly beautiful country.  This past week I spent time looking through photos and came across this:

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Arctic Tern COLONY you might be attacked by hundreds of angry birds, wear a hat and or hold a stick or Lupin flower above your head. 
 
We spent a few days in the Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre, staying at a Mountain Lodge, 17km east of Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. Taking a walk along the rugged coastline we came across the sign. Our amusement was cut short as the hilarious warning became a chilling reality – we became the focus of hundreds of very angry birds! Running for our lives like the students in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” there was no time to pick a Lupin flower – just get me the hell out of here.

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Months later I now sit in the peaceful forest surroundings in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland with no Arctic Tern in sight. Only the ones in my head. It is amazing what happens when you take time out; the very act of seeking solace in quiet spaces can become a minefield of a thousand thoughts and some of them are very angry. We should go into times of solitude and reflection with warning signs: “You might be attacked by hundreds of relentless, incessant thoughts – stick a Lupin flower in your hair and smile.

As a serial ‘overthinker’, an empath, and an only child, this blog is dedicated to all tortured souls out there who, like me, asked ‘why’ long before we ever said ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’!  Those not wired this way tend to see our questions and cynical streak as negative – and they have a point! We all have our shadows. Understanding that our critical mind can very quickly morph into an Arctic Tern Colony is an important step in self recognition. Just like the folk on the opposite spectrum can fly into the positive hyper-reality of Neverland, never to be seen again.

Existential angst is the hound that snaps at our heels on a daily basis. What a menacing beast it is. We look for meaning and everything needs to be analysed critically. Mistakes and regret are some of our worst nightmares. We have a small-talk phobia and would rather pluck the hair of our big toe than listen to cliches or one word answers. We connect deeply with the German word “Sehnsucht”, or unfathomable longing, that takes our mind on tours and detours as we search for significance and essence, just like Indiana Jones hunts for ancient artefacts.

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Some of us have found meaning in faith. Identifying with the author of Ecclesiastes (another obsessive overthinker!!) who wrestled with profound profundities and in exasperation declared that God has placed eternity in the human heart, we ponder all our lives and still don’t get it (3:11). The great, late C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” My own personal thousand rabbit holes of thought leads me back to the life and claims of Christ – but it is not an easy, ‘happy-go-lucky’ faith path. Rather, I go through seasons of doubt, hounded by questions that I know are veiled in mystery that greater minds have pondered for centuries.

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’.

362036164-nootka-lupin-reykjanes-wildflower-meadow-flowerIcelanders suggest taking this beautiful, purple perennial pest and waving it wildly above our heads to deter angry birds targeting our scalp. There is a lesson in this for all fellow overthinking empaths out there. When critical thinking begins to turn us into brooding balls of melancholy it is time to deliberately find some invasive forms of happy thought and swing them around in our head like a maniac. We don’t ban Arctic Terns, they need to be recognised and acknowledged, but we draw a line when they start to shit on our heads. 

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!

Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive – it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” – Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery)
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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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Those Terrifying Liminal Spaces: Reflections on Not Knowing

“This is the ultimate knowledge of God, to know that we do not know” – Thomas Aquinas
 
I was slowly dying on the inside. The many faith cliches I had used in the first half of my life were turning into ash in my mouth. As a spiritual leader, I found myself answering questions in a manner that I know would bring a sense of comfort to the ones who posed them, whilst leaving me personally deeply unsure about these ‘water tight’ interpretations. An insistent inner voice was growing louder, demanding that I give attention to some of the doubts and hesitancy that I continued to deny in my need for absolute certainty. An ‘absolute certainty’ addiction that had been fed by strong fundamentalist paradigms that allowed little room for ambiguity or paradox. Like a prickle in my shoe or sand in my bed, I could not ignore it. It nagged at me and terrified me: “If I start to question, where would I stop? Where would it take me?” I was unsure that my concept of God was big enough to take this leap. But leap I did …
DSCF0111“Liminal Space” by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
 
So I found myself in this strange place. A place that my early faith tradition did not prepare me for, perhaps because it simply lacked the language to describe it? Like someone debilitated by frenzied religious ideals, I lay waiting to see who would stop. It wasn’t who I expected. Unlike the story of the Good Samaritan, in my case, the ‘priests’ stopped and saved my life: Brennan Manning, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr – pouring healing words on my wounds and helping me to understand this liminal space. This uncomfortable place where I could no longer pretend I had all the answers. The place of not knowing. ‘Liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen’ meaning ‘threshold’. A place of waiting. A place of transition. A place where you finally let go that treasured trapeze bar and you find yourself free falling and hope that the grace that has carried you this far will still be there as you sail through the air, with no safety net, and no alternate trapeze bar swinging to meet you.
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It was the writings of Victor Turner in the second half of the 20th century that made the term ‘liminal’ popular. He borrowed and expanded the ideas of Van Gennep. Some of his writings included, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”,Liminality and Communitas”, and “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas.”
His thoughts on liminality can be summarised as: “For Turner, liminality is one of the three cultural manifestations of communitas — it is one of the most visible expressions of anti-structure in society. Yet even as it is the antithesis of structure, dissolving structure and being perceived as dangerous by those in charge of maintaining structure, it is also the source of structure. Just as chaos is the source of order, liminality represents the unlimited possibilities from which social structure emerges. While in the liminal state, human beings are stripped of anything that might differentiate them from their fellow human beings — they are in between the social structure, temporarily fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and it is in these cracks, in the interstices of social structure, that they are most aware of themselves. Yet liminality is a midpoint between a starting point and an ending point, and as such it is a temporary state that ends when the initiate is re-incorporated into the social structure.”
 
Richard Rohr describes this place most vividly: “Liminal spaces, therefore, are a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the ‘tried and true’ but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is then you are finally out of the way …  If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait – you will run – or more likely you will ‘explain’.” I frantically tried to ‘explain’ this place to myself, to my friends and family, to the wider faith community. You feel like an idiot at this threshold. An idiot who leaves behind a wonderful place of safety and comfort only to find yourself in a place totally beyond your control and comfort. You are left with an unanswered “Now What?” question, and a dangerous assumption that this question will be swiftly answered like Harry’s beautifully wax-sealed, owl-delivered, Hogwarts Acceptance Letter. Rarely is this the case. Rarely is it this simple.  
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The frantic search for that one perfect answer in this disturbing, sacred place will not be helpful. Transition is slow and the transformation that happens here is painful. It is here we find ourselves suddenly faced with our own liminality. We are confronted by the lies of our age – success, influence, importance – everything that has upheld the ego and our own ideas or spiritual superiority, comes crashing down. We beg, plead, tantrum, bargain in this disordered habitat of loss, longing and disequilibrium. But as so many who have gone before us have experienced, there’s no bargaining in the desert, there’s no hidden sun in the middle of the night.
 
Finally, the struggle turns quiet. It would be nice to suggest that this happens due to mindfulness and spiritual practices. These certainly help, but I have found that you come to a place of rest because you are exhausted from the struggle and the only option is to Let Go. The more you do, the more you recognise your own insecurities, false ego and the lies you have believed, and, like Alice, you keep falling down the rabbit hole. When you finally stop freaking out, you discover to your surprise, that the grace that carried you in the hurried first half of life has not left you…
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Grace suddenly becomes far more real. In this suspended, mid-air, confusing liminal space, you are still God’s beloved. Gradually, like a sunrise in slow motion, it begins to dawn on you: All is grace! This one magnificent life that we are given is not made meaningful because we adhere to the messaging or image of a consumer driven culture. Neither do we derive meaning from our ability to ‘succeed’ spiritually or relationally or financially. Liminal spaces expose the unnerving reality that we are really not in control in the way we think we are. Liminal spaces confront us with our innate craving for certainty. Liminal spaces show us that ambiguity and paradox are part of what it means to be human and of the journey with the divine. It is in the not knowing that grace shines. Like Jacob, we wake up in this foreign place and exclaim: “You have been here all along and I was not aware of it.” All is grace. 
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Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
 
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
 
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
 
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.
 
– Hafiz –
 
If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.
– Jesus –
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