A Time to Give Thanks

“To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for ALL OUR LIVES – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.”

– Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey –

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I am challenged by Nouwen’s words. How easy it is to give thanks on the mountain tops when all the stars align and God answers our prayers. How entitled and privileged we feel there. It is easy to form our theology, our ideas, and musings from this vantage point and pontificate them on to a burdened world. Gratitude in paradise takes no effort or spiritual discipline.

In the dark, shadow path gratitude does not always flow as freely. In the winter space, when our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, it is easy to feel forgotten. And in the words of the great prophet, Leonard Cohen, from here we utter a broken Hallelujah. Gratitude, like breathing, has to become a way of life. At 51 years of age, I am still learning to walk this path.

So as this year comes to a close, one of the more difficult years of my life, I make a choice to give thanks. I choose gratitude because I know gratitude heals broken hearts and keeps the soul unstuck from resentment. I don’t always feel like giving thanks … but I choose it anyway.

I am grateful for life: life with all its ups and downs, its pleasant surprises and terrifying cliff-hangers.

I am grateful for love … a faithful man once wrote that the greatest of all is love … he was right – love is all we really have that lasts forever.

I am grateful for relationships – some old, some new, some family, some that feel like family, some complex, some as carefree as the morning song of our resident kookaburra – to love and be loved is one of the greatest joys of living.

I am grateful for this season I live in … this liminal space that both my partner and I sense has been given to us as a gift to rest and recoup – surrounded by the nurture and care of Mother Nature we feel our weary hearts recovering every day. A quote hangs in my entrance, the gift of a friend: “To be here is Glorious” … thank you for the reminder, Rainer Maria Rilke.

I am grateful for the past – this is a big statement as I also hold regret – but the past has taught and shaped me, my life experience, the good and the shadows, the accomplishments and the many failures … they all play together somehow …

I am grateful for hope, springing deep in my heart, a song that cannot be quenched even in the Shadowlands … a hope that whispers, “nothing can separate you from love.”

I am even grateful for this “silly season” of packed shops, impatient carpark-searchers and mindless renditions of “Jingle Bells” … because amidst all the hype there is a low, consistent melody of a world that hums and rotates in Divine rhythm and wisdom … pointing to the news often forgotten at Christmas – a tiny baby, heavenly joy … Christ has come and Christ is with us …

I am grateful …

“To pray is to regain a sense of mystery that animates all beings, the Divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live … It is embarrassing to live. How strange we are in the world and how presumptuous our doings. Only one response can maintain us: GRATITUDE for witnessing the wonder – for the gift of our unearned right to live, to adore, to fulfil. It is gratitude that makes the soul great.”
– Abraham Heschel, I Asked for Wonder –

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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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Lisa’s Story: The Path of Courage

“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is ‘cor’ – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant, ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognise the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage’.”

Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

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What can tell you about my friend Lisa?

Hers is a story of pain, abuse, survival, hope and courage … courage that is so ordinary and yet so magnificent.

Hers is the story of a turbulent childhood, raised in an abusive cult.

Hers is a story through the valley of the shadow of death as she had to bid goodbye to her husband, who lost his life to cancer.

Hers is the story of being exiled from all the people she loved and finding the strength to go on with three young children.

Hers is the story of rebuilding, of finding love again, of raising a blended family with all its ups and downs.

Hers is the story of trusting again, of using her amazing creative gifts in a new faith community, only to once again be disappointed.

Hers is the story of digging deep, starting yet again, of standing tall.

If there is one word I would use to define Lisa it would be courage – and her story will bring you hope.

  1. “Lisa, thank you so much for being willing to share a bit of your life. You have written more extensively about your experience in growing up in a religious cult (readers, please find the link here and here).
    If we could go back in time, what are some of the thoughts that defined who you were as a six, twelve and sixteen years old?”

Hello. Wow what a question:

At six, I was third in birth order and had a small adopted sister 12 months younger than me. At the time, I was still living with both biological parents and three siblings under the same roof. The home was emotionally very turbulent. Being a small empath, those emotional storms were channelled into my body so I was actually a very sick child. I suffered from migraines, high temperatures and dark hallucinations.

One day in my sixth year, the cult leader, Ray Jackson Snr (the then leader of a group called Immanuel, now called Melbourne Christian Fellowship), lined us all up in the kitchen and made us all say out loud, one by one, in front of my father that he – ‘Ray Jackson’ was our father – (spiritual head). This was the last straw for my Dad who was trying to get us all out of the cult. Realising that he was losing the battle he attempted suicide. The suicide attempt was at home and my sister found him unconscious in his bed. This was the event the cult needed to remove us from my father. A truck arrived and whisked us all away in deep secrecy to a ‘safe’ house.

Sadness and confusion would have been my overriding thoughts. I became an observer in my own life and learned very early on that I had little or no control over what happened to me or to those that I loved. This was a lesson that helped me later on in life.

At the age of twelve, my mother was living in a relationship with a woman who was an elder in the cult. I had no contact with my father and very little with my older siblings.

It was the 1970’s and my home life became even more turbulent. Our home was called “Immanuel House” and was also a home for Bible college students and for many young girls who were wards of the state:

Children have been placed in institutions for many reasons, including family poverty; being orphaned; being born to a single mother; family dislocation from domestic violence, divorce or mental illness; lack of assistance to single parents and parents’ inability to cope with their children … State wards were listed as ‘being uncontrollable’, ‘neglected’ or ‘in moral danger’. In other words, children were often declared ‘uncontrollable’, ‘neglected’ or ‘exposed to moral danger’ and deemed to be wards of the state, not because they had done anything wrong, but because the circumstances in which they found themselves in.” (link)

At times there were 3 or 4 wards of the state living with us. You can imagine how scary this was for a 12-year-old. These older 14 and 15-year-old girls were often quite terrifying, they were traumatised and street smart.

One of the rules for those living with us was that they had to attend our church on a weekly basis. Unbeknownst to my mother, the cult leaders were using this house to collect and groom young women. Ironically, these girls who came to us from situations of moral danger were put directly in the path of those who were morally dangerous. These women have their own stories of sexual abuse and mind control.

Therefore, my home life was unstable, unpredictable and confusing. I did, however, have a faith in God and used to pray and read the Bible a lot. I did have a knowledge of the supernatural and understood quite clearly the impact of good and evil as I saw it out work in my life firsthand. One of the things these girls used to do, as a way of flipping the bird to my mother, was to hold seances. When you are used as a guinea pig in a spiritual ritual and are floating 2 feet off the ground unassisted, you understand that there are supernatural powers at work.

Grief, fear and loss were overriding emotions in my little life at this time. I was also initiated into the supernatural in many ways during this period. The world of angels and demons, prophecies, dreams and hallucinations became very real for me.

By the age of sixteen, I was living 50% of my time with a cult family. My mother, in consultation with the cult leader, ‘gave me’ to another family within the cult when I was about 14. I adored this family and was grafted in very easily. They were a pretty stereotypical nuclear family and I thrived in the order and predictability of ‘normal’ family life (if being part of a cult can be normal). The father was the music director of the church and, being a creative, I absolutely loved the music and creativity of this space.

At sixteen, I was highly mind-controlled and was in weekly private programming meetings with the cult leaders and eldership.I was being groomed for total control and manipulation. My overriding thoughts were of fear and panic as I never knew what punishment was coming or how I would be treated. I received beatings at this age by the cult leader in front of groups of men. I would have to publicly repent and pray out loud for my sins and faults which were brought to my attention weekly. I was by this stage completely consumed by cult life and was 100% submissive.

I believed that submission was the way to God. If that were the case then I must be very close to God because I was too terrified to disobey.

I was defined by hierarchy and patriarchy. I began to understand that to be close to the cult leader and those high on the hierarchy ladder brought special privileges and allowances. It also brought horrifying oppression and dominance.

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2. “You have faced some of life’s greatest challenges, including the death of your husband, Ken, and shortly afterwards being totally cut off from your place and people of belonging by the cult. How did you go on? What were the thoughts that pulled you through?”

One of the things that helped me to go on from a place of complete devastation and loss was the understanding that my journey was incomplete. I still had a road to travel and I had to be strong for my children. They were completely reliant on me and needed me to be able to function.

I understood that bad things happen to people, good or bad. In fact, in my life, they happened a lot. Today I see many people completely dissolve under pressure or loss because they have this mindset that bad things shouldn’t happen to them. They are somehow blessed or exempt. These people seem to struggle with the concept of suffering. They feel that they are above it, immune to it.

The biggest illusion is that we have control over our lives. We plan, we save, we dream, we plot our lives and the lives of our children. In reality, we have no control. Illness, tragedy, accidents can hit us out of nowhere. I realised early on that I wasn’t in control. Everything that was happening to me was completely out of my control. So acceptance came to me a little earlier perhaps than those who had led a picture perfect life.

Suffering and grief are a human condition. No one is immune to it and we often have no choice. Up to 90% of what has happened to me has not been my choice. We do have a choice about how we deal with it and the legacy that we leave behind.

Do we allow suffering to mould and strengthen us or do we allow it to break us and make us bitter?

This realisation hit me when I had to choose a tomb stone for my husband. My thought was this. “What could I write that would still speak to my children when they stood here 20 years from now as adults”. I also had a deep faith in God and knew that I was not completely alone in this journey. He was beside me. He could not take the suffering away, but he could support and comfort me.

This was the reading that I chose for the tombstone.

Psalm 84

What joy for those whose strength comes from the LORD,
Who have set their minds on a pilgrimage.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping (Baca),
It will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God

These are my overriding thoughts through this time:
We are each of us, on a journey, a pilgrimage.
We will undoubtedly pass through valleys of weeping this is a given.
However, those valleys can become places of refreshing if we allow them to.
The autumn rains come: inevitably life continues, life goes on.
The promise for us is that we can become stronger until it is our turn to appear before God.

3. “You found love again with Phil, and together with yours and his three children became the ‘Brady Bunch’. Yet in so many ways you were still recovering from trauma – can you tell us a bit about these years? What got you through the tough times?”

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. LOL…

Being a stepmother is one of the hardest gigs that I have ever done. (And can I just say that it was the Brady Bunch without Alice).

It was a whole new world. We had just left the cult and did not know a soul. We had to start again. Completely from scratch. I was still very mind controlled and affected by extreme conservative fundamentalist thinking and very sick physically.

In some ways, this total isolation gave us the space we needed to start again without any external influences. I had to hold everything very loosely, all my support structures were gone. I didn’t know which way was up.

I engaged the help of professionals. We had an amazing family doctor and for the first three years we had a standing weekly appointment. I also made regular appointments with a clinical child psychologist from the Royal Children’s Hospital and took all eight of us along. I needed to know:

What were normal teenage and child behaviours?
What was grief?
What was abandonment?
What was it like to blend a family and for children to change birth orders?

I could not have done this alone. I also started seeing a counsellor and psychologist and have continued to do so for the last 17 years. I needed many tools and a lot of help to navigate these new waters.

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4. “You rebuilt your life and became an integral part of a different faith community where you served diligently for many years. Yet again you were disappointed, and in a sense betrayed, in a space that had become a safe haven for you. How the heck did you recover from that? Has this impacted you in how you view religious communities as a whole?”

I am slowly recovering from the gut wrenching pain of feeling betrayed and mishandled in this space. It has been a slow road to recovery.

I am very grateful for the time spent in that faith community. I learned so much and was empowered to grow and develop in so many areas. It was a season of growth and reinvention. During this time, I committed myself to academic study which helped me enormously. In regard to the brain washing, I threw out all of my theology and started again. I needed to know what to sift, what to throw away and what to keep. I needed to learn how to think critically. I needed new guides and new teachers.

What I have learned now is that patriarchy and hierarchy are everywhere. There is no perfect faith community because community involves people and people are messy. People generally like control, they like packages and they like order. As an artist and creative I think I have had an advantage in many ways because artists embrace chaos and mess. They know that it’s in the space of mystery and darkness that innovation and transformation occur. We take raw materials and transform them into something else.

I feel more freedom now that I am not involved in an institutionalised space. I have learned a lot about myself and what I believe. I don’t believe in patriarchy, I don’t believe in hierarchy, I don’t believe in inequality, and I am very wary of male dominated spaces. Therefore, there is a disconnect for me concerning many of our religious communities today because they are made up of all of the above.

The last three years for me have been a ‘coming alive’ to the teachings of Jesus – His character, His teaching and His concerns.

5. “You have written quite a bit about trauma and mental health (see link here).  What are some practical steps that you recommend for people in recovery, perhaps struggling with poor mental health?”

In your opening, Nicole, you mentioned one of my favourite quotes:

“To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”

For me, mental health has a lot to do with speaking your heart. Healing from abuse starts when you begin to tell your story. Language is powerful – when you can find the words and when you can tell your heart to a safe person, then understanding and healing begins.

Being brave enough to get help is another huge indicator of your ability to recover. You cannot do life alone and you cannot recover alone. You need professionals to help you navigate this space. To give you language to help you to understand where you are and what has happened to you.

6. “Lisa, you are a bit like Fawkes, Dumbledore’s Phoenix in Harry Potter, that keeps rising from the ashes. Today you serve the people in your community, you are one of Victoria’s top 100 Wedding Celebrants, and one of the most others-centred people I know. I am not sure whether I would have your resilience in your circumstances. Can you talk a bit about what goes on inside that makes you rise again?”

Three things: Acceptance, Transformation and Forgiveness

a. Acceptance:

Some people spend more energy fighting the fact that something bad is happening rather than accepting it and getting on with it.

At one, stage in his dying journey, my husband went blind. I was falling apart, crying and he said to me, “Lisa, the sooner you accept that this is God’s will for your life, the easier it will be for you”. The key here is acceptance. I don’t like it, I don’t want it, but this is what it is, this is my life and this is what I need to do about it.

Once a well-intentioned woman said to me: “I don’t know how you do this. I know if this happened to me I just wouldn’t cope.”

My response: Is there a choice? Is there another way to do this? If there is please let me know.

It’s a bit like childbirth. That baby is coming and you cannot get off that conveyor belt. You don’t have a choice, you have to give birth. You may not like it but that’s how it is.

b. Transformation:

Dumbledores Phoenix is an interesting analogy. This mythological bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. Isn’t this the work of salvation? Jesus said you cannot see the Kingdom unless you are born again.Spiritual vision comes with rebirth.

Being born again and again means death and rebirth. It is the cycle of life. It is how a seed turns into a tree.

Richard Rohr says that there are two things that transform us: suffering and prayer. Suffering is the catalyst that is used to transform us. Prayer is the vehicle that keeps us in the furnace until the change is complete. Prayer, which I call conversations with God, is the thing that keeps us sane through the transformation process.

c: Forgiveness:

Forgiveness is the gift you give yourself. It is the key to moving on. You cannot move forward if you are tethered to the past. Only you can cut the bondage that is holding you to the event, the hurt, the trauma. Only forgiveness is powerful enough to release you from this binding. You cannot even mature emotionally. Without forgiveness, you will remain the emotional age that the trauma happened to you.

I had to forgive my husband for getting cancer, for dying and for leaving me. Does that make sense? No. He couldn’t control that, he didn’t intend it but nevertheless, I was angry. I was furious that I was left behind without him. I had to let him go. I had to forgive him and forgive myself for my anger.

7. “I know there will be readers who will deeply resonate with your story on many levels. Readers, who like you, are survivors and have had to draw deep in order to rise again. Is there something you would like to say to them?”

I would say to my fellow survivors – “You can do this. Not only can you do this, you can do it and come out even stronger than you were before. Accept this pain and allow it to forge steel in your bones.”

What has suffering taught me?

Compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, love, acceptance and kindness toward my brother and sister. Suffering teaches you humility in your humanity. Humility makes you realise that we all belong. We are all part of the process. We are not exempt, we are not superhuman, we are not elite.

More than comfort, money or fame; my legacy to my children is the example of my life. Yes, bad things happen, but you are able to survive. More importantly, you have the resilience you need to thrive. You can live in Shalom. You can flourish through the journey of suffering. You can live in community with others as gracious, loving, merciful and compassionate human beings. Everyone has the right to belong. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone deserves to be heard. Your story is your life and your life is your story.

“Thank you, Lisa, for your time, your heart and all you are, dear friend.”

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What The Sea Teaches Us

“Listening through the heart is not something you must learn to do. It is something you need only reclaim and remember.”
– Stephanie Dowrick –

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I loved going to the sea ever since I can remember. In Germany it was the chilly harbours along the North Sea. The fishermen would sit there like a line of dominoes on the freezing cement curbs, their buckets filled with a variety of sole, mackerel, cod or whiting, while their cigarettes created a hazy cloud above their heads.

When we moved to South Africa we would use our weekends to visit Durban’s magnificent Indian Ocean. I have a distinct memory of my father and I enjoying the huge waves before being told off by the lifeguard. As newly arrived immigrants we did not understand a word that this bad-tempered, red-faced man was saying to us until he pointed to the rather obvious warning sign displaying a giant shark. Apparently, we were swimming in unprotected water and had thereby become tantalising human bait.

Since moving to Australia over three decades ago, I have never failed to appreciate the beautiful beaches of this fair isle. I have spent many hours walking the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas in Melbourne. The Sunshine Coast here in Queensland, however, has to take the prize for some of the most breathtaking beaches I have ever seen. And there is something so therapeutic about walking on their shores.

The sea teaches us many things. One of them is that there is a rhythm to life that we can miss amongst our often artificial, neon lights of suburbia. Nothing can stop the sun from rising or setting and no barrier can stop the tide from rolling in. Observing and connecting with this rhythmic part of nature stirs something deep inside of us … whispers of hope and providence.

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Swimming in the deep blue sea has always thrilled and scared me. It reminds me of life. The deep is not safe, yet sitting on the shores is not an option. On the shores I will never experience the healing, stinging salt water that washes over me, like my tears and my prayers. You never learn to swim in the shallows. There is something about launching out into the deep. Many years ago Jesus told a disheartened fisherman to launch into the deep. The rest, as they say, is history.

I look at my feet as I squelch the sand between my toes. The many broken shells remind me that they too, once held life, and that life passes quickly. “Travel lightly,” they whisper to me. Life is short and these feet are made for walking, not for being tied to the many cumbersome burdens that modernity claims we need. Accompanied by the unruly frivolity that overtakes my hair at the beach, it adds the classic reminder: “Beach Hair Don’t Care.” The sea and its shores reminds us of the splendid and simple joys of life.

Most of all, the sea reminds me that to wait is holy. The sea cannot be rushed or ruled. We can only wait … and in that sacrament of waiting we find untold treasures. Isn’t it about time you took a walk on the beach, dear friend?

“The beach is not a place to work; to read, write or to think … The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

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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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Anxiety and Eating Disorders: Tash’s Story

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In the previous blog post, I presented an introduction to anxiety disorders, which affect a large percentage of the general population. I would like to keep the conversation going in the hope of creating further awareness and chipping away at the ridiculous stigma that often
surrounds mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental disorders in
Australia. One in four Australians will experience a form of anxiety
disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders often go hand in hand with
anxiety disorders. In struggling with severe anxiety, for instance, being able to control an aspect of one’s life, such as food, weight, and exercise,
indirectly gives the sufferer a false sense of control.

In this post, I am interviewing my daughter, Natasha. Tash is 23. She is a vibrant, passionate, focused and determined woman – characteristics that were always there from an early age. She completed her Bachelor in Health Science with Honours and is currently pursuing a career as a chef. Tash went through an exceptionally difficult time as she struggled with anxiety that outworked itself in an eating disorder. As a family, we were totally unprepared and uneducated in dealing with this.

Several years on from this dark time in her life, she is now well on to the road to recovery. She was prepared to be interviewed for the same
reason I am blogging about this: to create awareness and help destroy the stigma. As a family that cherishes privacy, this has not been an easy post.

1. “Tash, when was the first time it dawned on you that you were struggling with anxiety disorder?” 

“I started dealing with anxiety during my first year out of high school. I was involved in two car accidents in a short period of time. It was the second car crash, only a few weeks after getting my driver’s license, that I slowly began to spiral and develop, what I now recognise as, an anxiety
disorder. In the years that followed the crash, I was conscious of my
anxiety, but I only became aware of it as a disorder when I
acknowledged my eating disorder. As mentioned, the two are often
interrelated.”

2. “Was there anything you think that triggered it?”

“The second car crash was when I began to unravel. However, I think this was merely the trigger, not the cause, of the disorders. Through my last three years in high school, I had repressed a lot. Not only was I repressing the death of my Oma and the near fatal car crash involving my brothers, I was repressing years of unrealistic expectations and forced beliefs/ideologies experienced in a religious church and education
system as a pastor’s daughter. These unrealistic expectations, projected upon me by systems and people (most of them well-meaning, I’m sure), burdened me with an ongoing sense of guilt and shame. I still struggle with this and, no doubt, it was also a key trigger in my anxiety and
eating disorder.

What I have learnt in my battle with anxiety and eating disorders is that triggers are different for everyone and in many situations there are
multiple triggers. My own experience, and also my studies in health at
university, showed me that a person’s traits and characteristics can also determine their likelihood of experiencing a mental illness. OCD and perfectionist tendencies are not uncommon in our family, and, in my non-healthy mental state, they became my enemy and drove me further into my disorders than I could ever imagine.”

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3. “How did it outwork in your life?”

“An eating disorder can be paralysing, suffocating and exhausting. I
consider myself a pretty rational, educated person, but when anxiety hits you, ‘reason’ does not help. Sometimes it hit me hard in the forms of panic attacks, where it felt like I couldn’t breathe. However, most of the time it was just this ongoing sense of dread that I just couldn’t shake. As an introvert, it also made me withdraw more from social events because being around some groups of people only made it worse. I obsessed over whatever was making me anxious and then I crashed emotionally once it had passed. My moods were often up and down and this affected my
relationships, even with my family. I would then feel anxious and guilty for being so moody towards them. I felt as if I was at war with myself, fighting a battle that no one understood.
 
4. Can you describe to people what goes on inside you when anxiety outworks itself in trying to gain control through eating/food?”

“Poor body image is often a trigger that comes to mind when you hear about someone with an eating disorder. My case was very different. My eating disorder stemmed from my anxiety. It was perpetuated through a need to control and a deep self-loathing from years of shame and guilt.”

“What made the combination of the two disorders so detrimental is the strain I put on my body from losing so much weight. I was completely
irrational, moody, cold and exhausted all the time. Battling an anxiety
disorder while being somewhat physically healthy is hard enough, but when your body is malnourished all it’s energy is focused on staying alive.”

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5. “What was helpful during this time?”

“When I was in the midst of it, I only spoke to my mum about it. At that time, I had no interest in talking to anyone else because I was in denial about how big of an issue it really was. I know now that this would have been quite a burden for her, but it was life saving for me. I knew she couldn’t ‘fix me’. I didn’t expect that. But she was there. She calmed me down when I was hysterical, rationalised with me when I was troubled, and celebrated with me in my triumphs. Most importantly, she didn’t give up on me despite probably feeling very hopeless and helpless many times. It wasn’t a quick and easy step, but eventually I came to accept what I was battling, and this was when I began building my support
system.”

“Once I had acknowledged my disorders, the most helpful, yet painful thing to do was talking about it. I remember telling my oldest brother over dinner. I was emotional, ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t like showing vulnerability and I felt silly trying to explain what anxiety feels like, especially to my brother. He’s the least anxious person I know, but,
despite having no understanding of what it felt like, he recognised the
torment it put me through. He listened and comforted me. I walked away from that dinner as if I had taken my first breath of air after being
underwater for so long.

“Again, it didn’t happen overnight, I am a very private person, but I began to talk about my situation more with safe people from different walks of life. One of mum’s friends was a saving grace. She understood anxiety and she understood me. She encouraged me to talk to another one of her friends who went through a similar struggle growing up.”

“Eventually, I sought out professional help and that wasn’t without a few failures. I ended up seeing a friend’s doctor who specialised in mental health and it was one of the best things to happen to me. He gave me a proper diagnosis and helped me address it from a psychological and medical point of view. The ongoing support from my family and friends and the help from my doctor was the most helpful and significant step in my recovery.”

6. “What made you decide to seek help?”

“Although I didn’t talk about it for a while, my family and many of my friends could see something was wrong when I began losing so much weight. No one really understood what I was going through and no one said anything, mainly because they were worried I would react. It was an emotional, eye-opening moment when I realised how many people were so concerned about my health and drastic weight loss.”

“As important as a support system is, no one could help me make changes but me. I got to a place where the pain of living like this outweighed the fear and denial. I know of many other people’s situations that become so life-threatening that someone has to intervene. I’m thankful that I came to acknowledge my problem before it got to that state, but that didn’t mean that I was very proactive about seeking help. I wanted to deal with it myself and it felt like I was being dragged kicking and screaming at times. I certainly would not have persevered without the encouragement of my support system.”

7. “What was unhelpful during this time?”

“People trying to diagnose me by reading a book or something they have heard. Books are certainly helpful, but if you are not an expert don’t try and diagnose people from a book or random stuff you find on the
Internet.”

“Downplaying someone’s anxiety is not helpful and can cause great harm. I know that for people who have never experienced anxiety or eating disorders, it can all seem silly and unreasonable, but telling someone that is not helpful. Most of the time we know this and if it was as easy as just shaking it off, believe me, we would.”

Thank you so much, Tash, for being willing to share some of your story. What is a final thing you would like to say to anyone dealing with anxiety and/or eating disorders (or for that matter any mental disorders) reading this, who perhaps is concerned about any stigma/perception from the world around them? 

“Be hopeful about recovery and be kind to yourself in the process. Recovery is not easy and you will battle everyday between wanting to recover and wanting to stick to your habits. Don’t be disheartened. Whether it is an eating disorder or anxiety you are struggling with, there will be bad days and set backs and that is okay. Sometimes you just have to accept that it’s a setback sort of day and that it will be a new day tomorrow. Bad days don’t mean failure. If anything they can give you perspective on how far you have come. What’s important is that you keep choosing life, be kind to yourself and be patient.

The process is not easy either. I tried multiple methods including doctors, focus groups and self research. Many were hit and miss, but it was important that I continued to pursue recovery, even when these things weren’t always helpful.

I also had to let go of the idea that recovery meant going back to who I was before my disorders. I can’t promise you that life after recovery means you will never be anxious again or think about your food or weight. The difference is that you get to a point where you control the power they have over your life rather than them controlling you.”

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