A Chat with Kathy Baldock: Ally and Advocate – Part TWO

Dear Reader, this BLOG post is the second part of an interview with Kathy Baldock. For Part One please see this link.

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4.  Many religious people have expressed their concern as they see ‘homosexual behaviour’ as a sin against God and against Scripture. In fact, the Bible has been used as one of the main tools of exclusion. Can you give us some thoughts on this?

It is essential to read any text in context. It becomes even more critical to read an ancient text in ancient context. 

It’s foolhardy to take what we understand about human sexuality today in the 21st century and try to impose that knowledge onto the writings and thinking of people from several millennia ago.

As I mentioned in an answer in Part One, as late as the 1870s, we were just beginning to struggle with the concept of human sexuality questioning the “whys” and “hows” surrounding two people of the same sex and how they could experience a mutual and respectful attraction. It would be another century before mental health professionals understood that there was a natural attraction that some people experienced for the same sex. To imagine the writers of Leviticus or the writings of the Apostle Paul in the first century could have understood these things about same-sex attractions is not within the realm of possibility.

Before the critical period of the 1870s, when sex occurred between two people of the same sex, there was always one person taking the power and dominant role and the other person being subjugated. Every example of same-sex interaction in the Bible is an example of subjugation through rape or violence or excessive or lustful behaviour with full disregard of acceptable social and sexual norms. We would not expect to see any favourable or positive examples of sexual relationships between two males of equal status in cultural literature, and certainly not in ancient texts like the Bible, anytime before the late 1800s.

Again, to be clear, all male-male sexual interaction involved age and/or power differential. The most abrupt change in biblical translations concerning same-sex behaviour was seen in the 1946 Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. Here was the first time in any translation, and in any language that two Greek words in the New Testament, “arsenokoitai” and “malakos,” were combined to one word and translated as “homosexual.”

Again, referring back to an answer I gave above, this was a time in medical professions and in the culture where people still did not understand what same-sex attractions even meant. It was seen as a mental illness. 

When the translators of the 1946 RSV were attempting to update previous translations they based their work mainly on the King James (1611), the American Standard (1901), and the English Standard Versions (1885). The translation team relied mainly upon fairly recent translations of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” and catamite and sodomite, respectively, that had appeared in the Moffat Bible (1925). (James Moffatt was a member of the RSV translation team.) Those two words, although somewhat problematic even in the Moffatt translation, were more reflective of the actual meaning of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos.”

 Simply put, the Greek words more reflect a person participating in exploited sex, typically associated with money, and a man taking the social and sexual position of a woman respectively. And once again, they reflect a differential of both power and age between partners. To understand what happened in the RSV, you have to put yourself into the mindset and culture of the translation team in the 1930s and early 1940s when they were working on their specific task. There was so much mystery around who homosexuals were during that period of time.

In attempting to modernise the terms catamite and sodomite, the team thought the “obvious” translation would be a combination of those two words as “homosexual.” 

This was a dreadful, unfortunate, and ill-informed decision.

I had been wondering about the specific translation of these two words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 for several years. Every time I spoke during presentations, I would say that I believed that the translation made by this team was more ideological and cultural than theological. Finally, a friend named Ed Oxford asked me one day, “Kathy, would you like to prove your theory?” My goodness, I thought, of course, I’d like to prove this!

Ed suggested that we dig into the archived materials from the translation team of the 1946 RSV. The head of that translation team was a man named Dr. Luther Weigle. Weigle had been the dean of the Yale Divinity School. Upon his death, all of his papers were housed in the Yale archives. 

Ed and I went back to the archives for five days in September and spent time pouring through dozens of boxes of archived materials and 22 rolls of microfilm materials, each film containing over 2,000 sheets of paper. We found what we were looking for on the third day of searching. 

Amongst all those documents, there was a single exchange of three letters in each direction between a young seminarian and Dr. Weigle.

The seminarian questioned Dr. Weigle and the team’s translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” as “homosexual.” The seminarian went on to construct a most excellent case as to why he believed this was an inaccurate translation. It was as if this young man had the clarity we have today about this translation. It was remarkable!

 The stunning finding was that this exchange was the only interaction on this monumental change found in all of those documents.
In the hundreds of articles written about the RSV, absolutely no one referred to the newly introduced word “homosexual” into the Bible for the first time. It did not register on anyone’s radar. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone except this one young seminarian. 

After spending time “living” with Dr. Weigle through his expansive archived papers, I am convinced that the translation team intended no malice. Their translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” to the word “homosexual”, although a damaging and clearly inaccurate translation, was originally done in ignorance.

The other stunning thing that Ed and I found was that nobody had gone through the archives and the microfilms in total before us. In the many subsequent translations of the Bible in which the various translation teams have chosen to translate “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” as homosexual, it certainly appears that nobody went back to the original source and ask the question that we did: “Why did the 1946 translation team opt, for the first time ever, to use this word ‘homosexual’ in the Bible?”

Sometimes, the simplest questions lead to great discoveries.

When I came home from Yale, I kept thinking about all that we had found. This caused me to wonder about the notes, motives and intents of subsequent translation teams, particularly those of The New American Standard Version, The New International Version, the New King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the New Living Translation. What was going on in the conversations of the theologians and Bible scholars on those teams?

It becomes quite obvious to those of us who are intent on discovering the purity, clarity, and the true meanings of ancient text in ancient context, that the word “homosexual” does not belong in any Bible translation. So now, I plan on digging into the work of the modern translation teams to try to separate out what they believe is theological work from what I believe is once again ideological and cultural. And, I believe there are even some political implications in these translations as well.

5. I am sure, like me, you have heard untold sad stories of rejection, betrayal, and exclusion of LGBTIQ people from their Christian families and churches. Is this changing at all? Do we have hope for a different tomorrow?

Oh my goodness, do we have hope for tomorrow! 

Yes, the damaging power structures are changing. The beginning of the change actually came in the 1960s civil rights movement in America. That directly led to the feminist movement that followed. The feminist movement led to the LGBTQ movement. All of these movements have directly challenged the patriarchal social organisation. 

When you realise the entrenchment of patriarchy over the last twelve thousand years has only been challenged within the last 50 years, this is really a remarkable time to be living in.

All of these dominant structures are beginning to fall. It certainly feels uncomfortable to those who have held the power, and it may even feel uncomfortable and hopeless to those who have been in the minority status. But it is changing, and it is incredibly hopeful. 

When I teach, I try to give people a visible way of understanding how long these power structures have been in place. Patriarchy, gender binaries, and white superiority are intermeshed and have been challenged for the last 50 years in significant ways, and it is collapsing.

6.  What is something you would like to say to people of faith who are really struggling in coming to a place of acceptance of LGBTIQ people – perhaps because they are afraid of the reaction of their church or of ‘displeasing’ God?

I would like people to try to look at this from a different point of view. I think most of us have been told that God doesn’t like LGBTQ people and that LGBTQ people don’t like God. This is what I too believed only 15 years ago. We are told something so often that we are tempted to believe that it’s true and not to question it. 

This is where I found myself many years ago. You may feel like if you question anything that you’ve been told by authority figures that you may be cast out from the tribe, out of the fold. That is a very real risk in many conservative faith environments. As I stated at the onset, it often requires a crisis to prompt us to challenge these so-called truths that have been told to us. People in the pews, LGBTQ Christians, their families, and even pastors are revisiting what we have assumed are “truths.”

7.   Kathy, for your final words I would like you to address the LGBTIQ readers of this BLOG, especially anyone who is feeling particularly fragile and vulnerable right now.

Significant shifts in the culture and the church may indeed seem fraught with chaos. But the chaos can signal something very beautiful in deconstructing systems that man, and not God, has built to maintain power and control.

In the 1960s, it also looked like things were falling apart in the United States. The civil rights movement had kicked in, along with the feminist movement, and the anti-Vietnam war movement. Gay people were beginning to come out of the closet. It was a hopeful time for the non-dominant minorities. 

The momentum of several of these movements was slammed down by the rise of the religious right and their merger with conservative politics in the United States in the 1980s. It continued for the next several decades.

Misogyny, homophobia, and racism are all intertwined. This is the basis of intersectionality. When you begin to dismantle each of them, you inherently dismantle the whole. This certainly does feel uncomfortable to those in the dominant power structures. Heck, the mantra “Make America Great Again” harkens back to the “good old days” when people of colour, women, and gays knew their place. 

What is happening now should be a signal of hopefulness to those on the minority edges. I believe what was started in the 60s and 70s, will come to fruition this time.

The anti-trans pushback from conservative quarters, at its root, is really an attempt to safeguard gender binaries and strict lines between male and female. These binaries are part of a man-made myth. 

The creation account written in Genesis about events no less than 6,000 years ago, even in the most conservative of terms, was seen through the eyes of ancient peoples. It is their account of how they viewed their world, creation, procreation, and the roles of men and women. These ancient writers could have never understood what we now know and are learning about human sexuality and gender identity. Unlike ancient writers, we clearly know that intersex people exist and transgender people exist.

Some staunchly conservative pockets of politics and religion may never willingly change. It is too difficult for some people, after being entrenched in 50 or 60 years of a worldview, to choose to revisit core beliefs. It most often takes a crisis to prompt that questioning. This may be prompted by a child, grandchild, favourite niece or nephew, or co-worker coming out. Some of the greatest transformations happen in the simplicity of relationship. This is what happened to me, thankfully. 

There is great hope that those who are younger and being raised in a reality that not everything is heterosexual, male-dominant, cisgender, and white. Change is coming and it is for the better. 

I have been working in focused LGBTQ activism for over a decade. Conversations for equality and inclusion were tough ten years ago. Now I find that educating willing recipients is highly productive. Of course, of major concern are the lives of those at risk as we progress on the road to justice and inclusion.

My final comment – thank you, Nicole, for the opportunity to share this information. As you prepare yourselves as a nation to welcome and celebrate marriage equality, also be aware that there is still work to do in churches toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people of faith. We’ve had marriage equality in the US for a few years, yet, the progress is virtually unseen inside the walls of the most conservative denominations. We are plodding through the task with education and relationship. I hope our efforts will help those of you who fight a similar fight in Australia. Let this good work be something we Americans can be proud of exporting!

Kathy Baldock

Reno, Nevada
November 25, 2017
kathy@canyonwalkerconnections.com

Kathy’s blog

Kathy’s book

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A Chat with Kathy Baldock: Ally and Advocate – Part ONE

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I was excited to meet Kathy Baldock in person last year when she visited Australia. Over the years I have admired her staunch support as an ally and advocate for the LGBTIQ community. Her writing is well-researched, articulate and informative (you can find more information about Kathy on this link). I am so pleased that Kathy has given of her precious time to introduce herself and answer some questions for this BLOG.

1. Kathy, first of all, thank you for your time. I know many of my BLOG readers will have read some of your research or heard about you. But, as a way of introduction, what caused you to start this journey of advocacy for LGBTIQ people, especially for people of faith?

A very important part of my story is that I came into an advocacy role by way of a crisis in my own life. Frequently, crises stop us in our tracks and we find ourselves re-evaluating things we are sure about and question what once seemed too risky to consider. 
This is also true with much of the Evangelical community. I thought my ways of following God and the understanding I had of Him and His ways were right. I followed the “rules” and they worked for me. Until they did not! 

My marriage of 20 years began to fall apart. My husband had had an affair with an employee in our business who was over 30 years younger. That’ll stop you in your tracks. We had a family business. I was homeschooling our kids. Our social lives were based on church relationships. We were seen as fixtures and leaders in the laity.

 When it was all working for me, I had had a great ease of telling somebody else what they needed to do with their lives to get right with God. I had the gift of evangelism and I used it. Suddenly, there I was, my life in utter chaos, despite doing all the “right things.” I didn’t suffer a crisis of faith, but I no longer felt comfortable telling another person what they needed to do to bring their life to order. It would have felt utterly hypocritical.

One of the prime ways I dealt with processing the pain of impending divorce was daily hiking; I live within five miles of at least a dozen trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Hiking was a way for me to escape the tension in my home and even process out loud what was going on in my head. My husband “demanded,” and I obeyed, that we do not tell the kids, ages 12 and 13, or the staff employees what was happening. It would be bad for the upcoming holiday season and business, so I agonised in isolation as he began to feel a sense of freedom.

I noticed that there was a hiker on the trails who was hiking the same speeds and intensity as I was. After many months of noticing her, one day, at the end of my hike and not wanting to return to the tension of home, I asked if she minded if I joined her on her hike. That’s how I met Netto Montoya. Netto was everything that I was not. She is a woman of colour, an agnostic, has a Hispanic last name, and is a lesbian. Rather than then doing what had been so natural to me in the past, which was “telling,” I opted to listen and establish a relationship. It seems quite funny to admit, but she became a safe spot for me. My Christian girlfriends of many decades were not a safe place. I had agreed with my husband to an unhealthy level of secrecy about the upcoming divorce and knew that private crisis shared, with even close Christian friends, would likely become a prayer request or a “concern” that they would discuss with others. Over the next year, Netto and I became good friends as we hiked together almost weekly. It was obvious to me that she was gay, yet I avoided the subject, as did she. My Christian friends constantly urged me to witness to her so that she would stop being a lesbian and become a believer. Still, I did none of that. I got to know her.

After about a year, Netto finally came out to me. By then, it no longer mattered to me that she was a lesbian. I knew she was a wonderful person and my judgments of gay people had significantly waned.

The friendship with Netto caused me to question so much of what I had heard about LGBTQ people. It’s embarrassing to say and admit, but I had bought into so much of the Evangelical rhetoric that was simply not true. I had believed that gay people experienced lust, not love; and that they made a choice to be gay, that their orientation was not intrinsic to their nature.

Before meeting Netto, no one had ever come out directly to me and told me they were gay. Even in college in the 1970s, though I participated in sports with numerous lesbians, “gay” was not a term we would have used nor understood. We viewed same-sex relationships as a “preference.” 

In friendship with Netto, she brought me into her social circles. Relationships with gay people caused me to question my sureness about my theology concerning same-sex relationships. Yet, it would still be another five years before I would dig into the Scriptures to try to figure out what the Bible actually said, if anything, about gay people.

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Kathy and Netto

2. Your book is such a great source of information for those seeking to understand or educate themselves. As a lover of history, I was particularly impressed by the way you dealt with historical context, as this is most important in understanding the politicising and scape-goating of LGBTIQ people today. What, do you think, are some of the key historical events that people should be aware of in helping them understand the political/religious dynamics at work today?

I’m really glad that you asked this question. The typical way in which traditional Christians have dealt with the subject of same-sex behaviour in the Bible is to view the Scriptures referring to same-sex behaviour in isolation of anything else going on in either the time in which they were penned, as well as ignoring what is presently known about human sexuality.

This question requires a multi-layer answer. 

Many other influences have impacted our beliefs about those who participate in same-sex behaviour. (Incidentally, I am quite intentional about the nuance of words that I use whether this is same-sex behaviour or homosexuality. Clearly, same-sex behaviour is referred to in Scripture, but is it homosexuality — a natural romantic, emotional and sexual attraction to people of the same sex?)

If one looks at same-sex interaction anytime before about the end of the 19th century, it would have been based on power and/or age differentials. It’s also important to note that, typically, few would even be discussing or noticing sex between women until about the 1960s. The entire topic of same-sex interaction focused primarily on sex between two males. Not only was the Bible written through a very distinct lens of patriarchy and gender hierarchy, both have been the social organisational structure of every predominant culture throughout time. For a man to maintain the social and sexual role of being “manly,” he would have had to have been the penetrator in a sexual act. 

Social patriarchal organisation began to gradually shift at the end of the 19th century. Several factors led to this. Many cultures shifted from agrarian-based to industrial-based. With the movement of people to cities and subsequent large concentrations of same-sex populations, people were able to act on curiosities they may have felt but could not have acted on. Equal status men found that they were attracted to other equal status men. Before this time, it would have only been appropriate for a man to have had sex with a lower status man, perhaps an immigrant (or in ancient cultures, a slave), or more commonly, a boy between about the ages of 12 and 20.

The obvious presence of these kinds of relationships caught the eye of people who were beginning to think about human sexuality at the turn of the 19th century. There was a period from about the 1870s until the late 1920s when sex experts (for their day) and thinkers were trying to figure out “what is this thing we’re seeing happening between equal status men?” It was a pivotal point in considering human sexuality.

Another great influence on how we’ve thought about same-sex relationships came from the merger of conservative religion and politics which emerged in the United States in the late 1970s and in Australia at the turn of the 21st Century. Though the beginnings of the understanding of human sexuality may have had quite a slow and scattered process, by the time the 1970s came around, the psychological community certainly understood that attraction to people of the same sex was not a ‘mental illness’, as it once had been thought of, but it was to be expected along the natural spectrum of human sexuality.

Following this time, there was a very small span of less than a decade once homosexuality was “de-pathologised” before it became a convenient wedge issue used to motivate conservative voters to get to the polls and vote for conservative issues. Jerry Falwell, the infamous leader of the religious right’s Moral Majority, had as his mantra “Get ‘em saved, get ‘em baptised, get ‘em registered.”

For an overview of the History of Cultural and Religious Discrimination against LGBTIQ Community in America please see this link.

3. How much do you think the Australian political/religious world has been affected by the politicising of LGBTIQ people in American history?

American conservative family groups have long been guilty of exporting extremism and dominionism to other countries even as they recognise their influence is becoming less effective in the United States.

For several decades, as the gay rights movement has grown in the United States, some of our political lobbying groups have been meddling in the affairs of other countries and in international organisations. There is a group of religious conservatives called United Families International, primarily based in the Mormon (LDS) church, that have been working within the United Nations trying to influence women’s reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTQ population in the global south. They have been accomplishing their propaganda work while going fairly unnoticed.

What is more well-known is that some conservative family groups, including Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom, and numerous other “traditional family” organisations, have had an impact in African nations, Russia, and eastern bloc nations. This meddling continues.

The Heritage Foundation, a very conservative think tank and policy group in the United States, is known to have sent representatives to Australia in about 2004 to advise Australia about how to deal with the impending question of same-sex marriage that would at some point come to Australia.

Knowing that Australians would not react quite the same way to the American message used to motivate conservative Christians against same-sex marriage laws, they helped Australians repackage and fashion their message from one of a biblical message to one centred on traditional family values. It is really just a nuance of the same discriminatory and exclusionary message. It also brilliantly played into the deeply entrenched Australian “manly” psyche. Australians have a level of homophobia that does not have a strong American equivalent.

There is a historical tie between criminality and same-sex behaviour in Australia that Americans do not have, at least not to the depth that it resides in the Aussie psyche. When Australia was “founded” (that is even a funny term as if the continent did not exist before the English got there), in the late 1700s as an English penal colony, very few white women were shipped over as prisoners. Same-sex behaviour was obviously happening in prisons and it became associated with criminals. (They even put women in the prisons with men to “correct” the perversion.)

So where the Aussies lack the American religious fervour to be anti-gay as we are, the Aussies are more prone to attach same-sex behaviour to anti-masculinity, perversion, and criminality. This is part of the reason the ‘Vote NO’ groups so heavily focused on the safety of children rather than one man-one women language as did Americans.

When I first started to write a decade ago, the three biggest groups sending the bulk of my hate mail were, in order: men who had been in the military or law enforcement, black women, and Aussie men. Really!

As long as there are leaders in any country who will listen to the message of these traditional family groups, America will likely continue to send and export this merger of religion and politics that has been going on for the last 50 years here. 

The toxic entanglement is certainly being dismantled in the US, but sadly, there is a market throughout the rest of the world for one of our worst exports.

Kathy Baldock

Reno, Nevada
November 25, 2017
kathy@canyonwalkerconnections.com

Part TWO of this blog will be posted tomorrow.

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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 Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Are You Getting Your Beauty Sleep?

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone” Anthony Burgess

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I love my bed. There is something totally therapeutic and delicious about sinking into flannel sheets after a long day. As an introvert I have memories of being at those hideous children’s parties and counting down the minutes until I can go home, crawl into bed and read a book. What words are there to describe that feeling of lying in bed and listening to the pouring rain? Or waking up in the morning, pulling the curtains back, making a cup of coffee and hopping back into bed? Pure luxury comes to mind.

I also love to sleep. I realise that I am one of the more fortunate ones that seldom struggles with insomnia for any great length of time. Sometimes I wonder whether all the different messages we receive about sleep and how important it is to get certain amount of hours of sleep, doesn’t make us all anxious about not sleeping, so we don’t sleep?! Perhaps taking a quick look at the history of sleep will help? As an avid student of history, I always find this a most comforting exercise.

Adam Bulger provides an interesting brief history of how we slept from 8,000 BCE to today. Our nomadic ancestors stuffed grass or straw into hollows near the walls of a cave and slept in an almost foetal position. The Romans simply endured sleep – the wealthy stuffed mattresses with feathers, the poor with straw. Their boudoirs were small rooms with low ceilings and no fuss. Not so with the Egyptians! They treated sleep with great respect and analysed their dreams for greater meaning.

The Middle Ages was a most unpleasant time to sleep. In short, it consisted of small rooms, filled with many bodies and chamber pots. If you have a good nose you can still smell the Middle Ages! Thank God for the Renaissance which provided the great awakening for many areas of European life, including sleep. Meantime China was far more advanced, building exquisite beds with large and ornate bed frames. Their beds were so magnificent that it was a total waste to just use them for sleep – they began to receive and host guests in their beds …!

Prior to the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of artificial light, people were bi-phasic, sleeping in two four-hour intervals, with a waking time in between that they used for prayer, meditation or really great sex! Our current mono-phasic form of attempting to sleep eight hours straight is a modern social convention and has been called the “golden age of rest”.

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This tiny glimpse into history shows us that our idea of having to get those all important eight hours of sleep is a fairly recent development. So if you struggle with a ‘solid’ night’s sleep, maybe your body is simply protesting the imposing sleep virtues of the Industrial Revolution? Maybe you are a sleep revolutionary at heart?! In all seriousness, lack of sleep can be debilitating – so what are some of the things we can do to improve our sleep?

– I try and turn off my computer and social media by 10 pm (unless it’s Eurovision – then my urge to commentate on people who yodel or swing their ponytails around becomes more important than sleep!) Technology keeps my brain alert.

– Don’t have caffeine in the afternoon. I love coffee but having it in the evening has diabolical effects on my sleep, so I stick to herbal tea.

– Develop a relaxing routine at night that helps you sleep. I find reading helpful, others have told me that relaxation exercises work a treat.

– Keep your bedroom dark.

– Try and stick to a consistent schedule of when you go to bed and when you wake up – this sets your ‘internal clock’.

– If you have trouble sleeping, don’t toss and turn and become anxious about not sleeping. Remember, our ancestors survived. Get up, say “Damn you” to the Industrial Revolution, and have a cup of chamomile tea.

One last thing. Shortly after our wedding, now over thirty years ago, we discovered the miracle of separate doonas. Why, o, why did we ever think we had to ‘share’ our doonas? What a stupid idea. It created great marital hostility and lack of sleep as one of us would cocoon themselves, while the other froze and became increasingly frustrated. So we bought separate doonas. It created a sleep revolution – and we lived happily ever after!

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.
– D.H. Lawrence –

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Hildegard of Bingen and her Love Affair with Fennel

“Even eaten raw fennel does not harm the body in any way. In whatever form one eats fennel, it makes us happy, gives us a good skin colour and body odour and promotes good digestion.”
– Hildegard – 

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Fennel was a regular star in the meals consumed in my childhood. To this day I can identify it blindfolded, simply by its unique, slightly sweet taste. It is also somewhat of a divisive culinary accompaniment, a bit like coriander. People such as my parents and grandparents were devoted to this humble vegetable, while others refuse to allow it anywhere near their kitchen. But there was one historical figure who swore by fennel – and her love affair was recorded in the annals of history.

In the fertile, temperate Rhine valley, near the River Main, a convent of Benedictine nuns became the focal point of many religious devotees in the Twelfth Century. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) remains somewhat of an historical phenomenon to this day. Her many visions and knowledge about the meaning of Scripture drew the attention of people such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Pope himself, Eugenius (1145-1153), who read her writings to a synod held in the German city of Trier. It did not take long for the news to circulate that a prophetess was living in Disibodenberg. You can read more about her remarkable life here.

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Hildegard may well have been Germany’s first nutritionist and produced writings on medicine, science and the healing power of nature. She saw fennel as one of the most important plants for achieving physical wellbeing. It is excellent, she wrote, for the eyes, brain, hearing and heart. Eating fennel makes one happy. Her applications for fennel were numerous:

– For puffy eyes, place 2 tsp of roasted fennel seeds or ground fennel seeds in hot water, let steep for 5 minutes or more. Once cool enough to touch, dip the corner of a folded paper towel in the solution and apply to the under eye region.

– For weight loss, steep 1/2 tsp roasted fennel seeds in warm water and drink twice a day.

– For a cold, drink warm fennel tea 2-3 times a day.

– For heartburn, bloating and gas, eat a pinch of roasted fennel seeds immediately following a meal.

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Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family, second cousin to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander. It contains a unique combination of phyto-nutrients that allow for strong antioxidant activity. Research has found that one of it’s most interesting phyto-nutrient compounds is anethole. Anethole has reduced inflammation and prevented the occurrence of cancer. It has shown to be able to protect the liver from toxic chemical injury. The high Vitamin C content in the fennel bulb is anti-microbial and needed for the proper function of the immune system. It is also a great source of fiber, folate and potassium.

Fennel has also been called the pearl of aphrodisiacs. A recent concoction of fennel seeds, liquorice root and water was named the ‘tonic for happy lovers’ (yes, I know, you will all rush to brew this now!!). It holds benefits for lungs, liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys and to help dissolve kidney stones. One of its main historic uses was to cure issues surrounding indigestion. In short – fennel is fantastic! Why aren’t we all in love fennel?!

I find it surprising how many people shake their heads at things they have never tried. Over the years we have had countless people around our dinner table. Herbs and vegetables have been the ones regarded with the greatest suspicion by many. Of course, I understand that once tasted some may decline delicious vegetables or salads because of poorly-evolved, artificially-sabotaged taste buds, but at least give it a go. Shock horror – it may even improve your health!

You may never develop a love affair with fennel like Hildegard did. However, you could discover in fennel a friend that has been sent to make you feel happy! Here is to health, and cheers to a beautiful earth that graciously shares with us her fennel friend.

“There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.”
– William Shakespeare (Hamlet) –

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2017: The Year of Discernment

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” 

Parker Palmer

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It is probably a good thing that we are extremely limited in seeing our future. We can make all sorts of plans and set ambitious goals, yet we have to constantly live with the reality that we never quite know where the path of life will take us.

I did not know that 2016 would be a year when my premonitions of ‘letting go’ would culminate in a thousand goodbyes. A relocation to the Sunshine Coast brought this home like Thor’s hammer. As my partner and I recalibrate and look ahead, while at the same time dealing with the heartache of saying goodbye, a friend helped me shape language and perspective around 2017. It is a year of discernment for us. This blog is written for people on a similar path.

Discernment is an ancient practice that finds it’s origin in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is the belief that humans can seek divine guidance through the process of discernment. We see this practice through Sacred Text and in the ways of the early church fathers and mothers. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are an example of a discernment process developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. For a historical overview on the ‘History of Spiritual Discernment’ please see Greg Caruso’s blog post.

Regardless of whether you are a person of faith or not, discernment is something we implement regularly in our lives. We may not always recognise this. Every day we have a multitude of voices and invitations pulling us in all directions. We have been shaped by these voices – for the good and the bad. Part of the process of discernment is taking time to silence our noisy world, take out our compass, and find out what direction we are going and whether we actually want to keep heading that way. This takes discipline and, as I am finding out, great courage. To sit with ourselves for an extended period of time and really delve into our past, present and future, can be a most terrifying and lonely experience. It can also be one of the most liberating and life-giving exercises we can do for ourselves.

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Our lives speak to us … and we can choose to pay attention. In a frantic world we take little time for discernment and we end up telling our life how it needs to be lived, instead of listening deeply. The result is that our lives are not integrated with who we really are. This is what happened to me in a staff leadership role I once held at a church – I simply adopted some of its dogmas and practices without question. My Jenga blocks started tumbling when I recognised that some of these ideas did not integrate with who I was and what I understood as the gospel of Christ. This discernment process took time and the subsequent actions required were painful – but I can truly say that I am so profoundly grateful for that journey. Reflecting on it gives me hope for 2017 as we again come to a place of stopping the noise and listening.

It is easy to seek guidance from everything and everyone except from within. We desperately look for life purpose or vocation as something that needs to be hunted, conquered and achieved, instead of recognising that it is a gift given, waiting to be discovered. Listening to that quiet voice within helps us understand who we are at our core. Discernment is a practice that helps us re-discover this quiet voice.

So, for my friends on a similar journey – take time to listen. There are some fantastic resources available on the art of discernment and listening. Invest time and value into this important process. There is a kingdom within you that has the ability to nourish, not just yourself, but many others. May you find that space.

“The art of awareness of God, the art of sensing his presence in our daily lives cannot be learned off-hand. God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes comes the ability to grasp them.” 

Abraham Joshua Heschel

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A Thrill of Hope

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
– Adolphe Adam – 

It’s that time of year again. While some folks claim there is a ‘war on Christmas’, it takes very little research to discover that this apocalyptic, deluded conspiracy theory holds little truth. Christmas, or at least the capitalist, indulgent, endless carol jingles, deck-the-halls-with-boughs-of-holly version is alive and well. The joy can be felt in shopping centre carparks and on the faces of folks standing in long queues as they spend their last dollars on items that will decorate an Op Shop next year. Christmas is going strong.

Christmas as we know it today has a most interesting history. Early Christianity never celebrated the birth of Jesus – only his death and resurrection at Easter. It was in the fourth century that some bright, ecclesiastical persona decided it would be rather jolly to also celebrate his birth – but when? Pope Julius I chose December 25, the same time as the winter solstice festivals, in the hope that this new ‘Feast of the Nativity’ would be popular … and by the amount of tinsel on my balcony several hundred years later, he was absolutely right.

Some religious folks have a real problem with Christmas. So if there’s a ‘war on Christmas’, a lot of it is coming from a counter conspiracy theory that sees Christmas as pagan worship. Oh, and don’t mention a Christmas tree, or Santa, or elves, or tinsel to these fervent, anti-Christmas believers. So the ‘war on Christmas’ is rather awkward as it seems to be a civil Christian war (maybe that’s where the whole silly idea of ‘just’ war came from??). Someone should let dear Peter Dutton know, who is appalled at the resistance to Christmas … I am for democracy and free speech and I totally agree that Mr. Dutton should be allowed to sing about a refugee family desperately looking for shelter. Sing away, Mr. Dutton, sing away!

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Whether we choose to celebrate Christmas or not, is a personal  decision. For me, the fanfare around this time of year is not that convincing or enticing. For many, Christmas is a difficult season as it can highlight a strained relationship, loneliness, as well as grief or loss, amidst the explosion of ‘happiness’ from the media marketing machine. I also reflect on the reason we celebrate Christmas: to remember a child born in poverty and harsh oppression. The real Christmas had no jingle bells or red nosed reindeers. The real Christmas brought hope in the very fact that it was so messy and controversial.

The thrill of hope which marked that holy night so long ago was not because superman had been born. It did not lie in the religious institutions that would lay claim to the little baby and brand their ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ in his name. It is not the act of belief itself, or a belief in sacred text. The thrill of hope is the child: Emmanuel – God Incarnate, God with us. The messy, scandalous and difficult birth, life and death of Christ reminds everyone that God takes on human form, with all the complexities of what it means to be human.

The thrill of hope is not a list of rules. It is not a group of exclusive, privileged people arguing who is more holy or right than the other. The thrill of hope is that the child born to Mary, is the Saviour of the world, who also identifies with our frailty, our sorrow, our disappointments, our questions, our joys and all our longings. His very life served as a signpost to a different tomorrow and a different kingdom. A kingdom not built on power, pride, patriotism, nationalism, racism, exclusivism, religion, sexism or all the other silly human notions we construct to make us feel more safe and stem a little bit of our existential angst. The kingdom that this child ushered in was one of hope, love, joy, serving, kindness, inclusion and equality. It is a counter-cultural, subversive way that the sacred text calls the ‘narrow way’.

We see the whispers of this hope both now and not yet. We see it when love conquers fear, when kindness conquers prejudice, when faith conquers superstition, when hope conquers despair, when generosity conquers the need to consume and protect. So whatever you think of Christmas or the claims of Christ, my wish for you, dear friend, is that the atmosphere and virtues of that subversive kingdom may be yours. To contemplate humanity embracing these ideals truly brings a thrill of hope … it is, after all, still a beautiful world.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
– Adolphe Adam –
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Remember with Purpose

You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
– Exodus 22:21 –
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Part of the problem in reading an ancient sacred text with modern minds is that there is a disconnect and dissonance in context, culture and thought. When reading the Bible, for example, it is easy to revert to a form of fundamentalist literalism that leaves us with naive absolutism. Some may miss the point that in the Hebrew culture “deed was always more important than creed” (Wilson).  For example, when Habakkuk speaks of the just living by ‘faith’ (emunah), it implies an unwavering hope or trust that is backed through deed and action, not just an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines!

The idea of remembering or to remember (zakar) in the Bible and/or Torah, has to do with far more than just a simple retention of information. Rather, remembering is always accompanied by action. For example, Shabbat, returns every week. She reminds devout Jews that Yahweh is their Creator and Redeemer. Shabbat calls to action and repetitive observance enforces remembrance. There is an emphasis made throughout this sacred text that purposeful remembrance is very important in everyday life, in the nurture of tradition, and in the shaping of worldview. Why this emphasis?

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People, or people groups, who forget or deny their past, their story or their language, forget who they really are. Our society’s infatuation with wealth, power and dominion keeps us hyper-active, anxious, and hurriedly forgetful. We, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, obsessed with the ring of power, forget our name and our story, and with the forgetting we loose all connection with our past and our belonging in this world.  We forget that societies that focus on the ‘ring’ seldom find their way back to the ‘Shire’.

The study of history is an exercise in remembering. In the collection of our past narratives, we inform, guide, assist and shape our present and future. To forget history, or deny it, is to cut off our belonging through the corridors of time. All over the world today we find people remembering with purpose: through festivals, marches, holidays and holy days, memorials and solemn ceremonies, traditions and habits … We are made to remember.

Yet to remember is not always an easy task. Looking back we discover that the ancient paths did not just lead through green pastures and beautiful scenery, but there are also times of walking through deserts, storms, and very dark and treacherous moments. It is tempting to remember the good and forget the bad. Many Australian history books have done just that for decades – seeking to sanitise the past and educate another generation in a more palatable rendition of the atrocities committed under Colonial rule. My hope is that we will become far more active in recording an accurate version of what transpires on our fair isle. Our children’s children have a right to remember and lament these current days – where we house refugees in concentration camps and where we have allowed the fear, racism and propaganda spread by those in politics to shape our world.

Revising history in order to remember is one thing. Denying it takes us to a whole new level. It is heartbreaking to actively remember the holocaust. For many this path is shut. The grief is too overwhelming. For others the enormity of a horrible event in history can be so unpleasant that denial is preferable. It is much easier to ignore, rationalise or deny what has happened. There is a comfort in numbers and often people find each other and feed the denial. It is easy to pass harsh judgement on those who deny the holocaust, for example, yet many of us stand guilty of historical denial in some manner or other. Sometimes it is the denial of our own personal story.

So as the end of the year approaches, it is often a good time to spend some moments in reflection … to remember. Zakar, to actively remember, helps us to change our ways. The very action requires a transformation. It brings purpose both into our past, present and future. What are some things that happened this year that you would like to remember? In what active way will you do that? How about starting a journal? Begin to actively write down events, people, or circumstances that have made you who you are and that you want to remember. It takes courage to remember. At times there is much pain before there is any healing. May you be brave, dear friend. May you remember.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel

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