New Streets and Old Maps

“Not all those who wander are lost …” – Bilbo Baggins

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In the 1990’s nearly every car in Melbourne still had an often mangled, coffee-stained Melway in the back seat. In the ‘good old days’ we did not have any fancy satellite navigation systems that talk to you in that annoying, patronising voice (you can almost see Mr or Mrs Automated Voice roll their eyes as they incessantly repeat: “Make a U-turn, Dumbass!” when you take the wrong turn). No, we were tough. We had printed maps that led us to our destination – most of the time!

Using a printed map for direction is problematic in several ways. First, you have to keep driving with your eyes on the road, while frantically scanning the map on your lap to ensure you are going the right way. Second, due to destructive car occupants such as dogs and toddlers, you may have found that the page you needed has been ripped out and chewed. Third, if you got lost, there were no mobile phones to let people know that you accidentally arrived in Wangary instead of Wanguri. But most frustrating of all, if you had a Melway that was several years old, you found yourself in deep custard when navigating a new sub-division with brand new streets.

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Old maps and new streets are not great travelling companions. The map will tell you that the street you are looking for does not exist, has never existed, and you are wasting your time looking for it. In fact, if the map suddenly turned into a talking, philosophical, map-person (yep, imagination needed here) they would probably say something like, “Look, I know you desperately think that you can visit someone in Gertrude Street, but I hate to break it to you, Gertrude Street does not exist. Trust me, we have been doing this for a very long time. My father, my father’s father, and my father’s father’s father have all said the same thing. There is no Gertrude Street. You have to let it go. You are looking for a destination we have never been to … and we are the experts.”

No one has told the old maps that landscapes change. These maps, like the old wineskins that Jesus talks about in Luke 5, have only ever known old streets or old wine. It is ludicrous to demand anything else of them. We can hope, we can try, we can get angry, but in the end, old maps direct you around old streets and old wineskins hold only old wine. If you want to drive around new spaces, then you will either have to find a new map or you will have to draw your own.

Friend, I wish I could tell you that the maps you have used in your formative years, or in times of flourishing success, would be sufficient for the rest of your life – but that is not the case. Ideas, paradigms and methods we use to navigate life can disappoint us as we continue to learn new things and drive down streets we have never visited before. Some maps may last a lifetime but the way we read them may need to change, and the person who taught you to read that map is not always the expert. That realisation alone can be life changing.

In this life we have choices. We can allow old maps to rule our lives because the very idea of new streets terrifies us. Or, we can recognise that from the moment of birth, life is an ever changing landscape and without taking risks we will never discover new possibilities. Today we live our lives with certain knowledge, like the earth being round and orbiting around the sun. We forget that this knowledge came at a great price for people who, many years ago, threw away their old maps of thinking. Now it’s our turn. Time to explore some new streets.

I’ll show you a place
High on the desert plain
Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name (U2) 

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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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Lazarus at Our Gate

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In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story to his predominantly devout Jewish listeners. It is a story of a rich man, “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” Jesus draws a strong contrast in his story between this rich man and a beggar by the name of Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gate. “He was covered in sores and longed to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” Jesus continues the story and describes their respective deaths. The rich man ends up in Hades, a place of torment, while Lazarus finds himself at Abraham’s side, where he is comforted. Despite his pleas, the rich man was shown no mercy. “A great chasm has been fixed between us and you”, explains Abraham in the story. The rich man was beyond rescue.

The story leaves me uncomfortable. It is a relief to hear that the character of Lazarus is now in a place of peace. However, the rich man … this is a steep price to pay for being rich?! Wait a minute! Was that the problem? His opulent riches? Then, how the heck, did Abraham sidestep Hades? Abraham was describes as VERY wealthy. He had ample livestock, silver and gold (Genesis 13:1). It seems to me, that having riches alone is not the problem here. Perhaps the point of the story is that the rich man, with all his wealth, had the ability to help a dying beggar at his gate, but did NOTHING about it.

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In fact, it seems that the rich man’s ailment was the same as that of the pious and pristine religious leaders of that day. They went to great length to protect their pedigree, orthodoxy and pious devotion and missed the whole damn point! “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:23-24).” The rich man, like the religious lobby group of Jesus’ day, became blind amidst their power and wealth, and failed to notice the beggar at their gate with his horrific injuries.

I can identify with the rich man. I, too, live in opulence in comparison to over 80% of the world. I cannot recall a day in my life that I went hungry, or when I was thirsty, or cold and did not have extra clothes to put on. When I get sick, I find a doctor and buy medicine. At night I sleep in a warm house and a warm bed. In so many ways, I represent the ‘rich man’. This reality is brought home to me every single day – when I see the faces of distraught asylum seekers, when I notice the plight of my city’s homeless, when I study the horrific statistics provided by UNICEF – that 29,000 children under five die every single day due to poverty, when I talk to friends and others who suffer from mental health disorders, struggling to receive adequate care, daily facing discrimination from so many sectors of society, and as I listen to the stories of my LGBTIQ friends, marginalised by their churches and often rejected by their families who attend those churches. In comparison to the rest of the world, I am that ‘rich man’. The only question left to answer is how I will respond to Lazarus at MY gate.

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So is there an antidote to ‘rich man blindness’? Are we doomed to live our lives in compassion paralysis as we hoard our goods and safeguard our assets? Do we keep making excuses for our lack of involvement in the fate of Lazarus at our gate? Perhaps we can pretend Lazarus is a threat? Some ‘other’ that has come to invade our peace and quiet. Maybe we can change the language by describing a broken, destitute man as an ‘illegal gate squatter’. That will make us feel like we have a right to ignore his needs. It would even be better if we can dump him at our neighbour’s gate and let him become their problem while we safeguard our own borders. And while we tell ourselves all these lies, the rot continues to grow inside of us. But there is another way …

Woven through the sacred text is the virtue of Generosity. Not only is it a virtue, it is the very essence of the Divine. The offence of the rich man is that another human being lay suffering at his very gate and he withheld generosity and mercy. Generosity is displayed in so many ways – our connection to others; our willingness to listen, to understand, to help; the way we see, talk and behave towards those who are on the margins of society; how we treat all of God’s creatures; and the consideration we show to our planet. The list goes on. In a culture of fear and paranoia, to live with a spirit of generosity towards others is indeed an anomaly.

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In a world dominated by greed and violence, where the rich become richer, whilst feeling threatened and ‘persecuted’, and the poor continue to languish at the expense of our lusts, the story that Jesus told snaps us to attention. We need to consider our ways. Dr. Charles Birch once said that the rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live. When we develop a generous heart and way of life we usher in a different tomorrow, one that brings healing to the wounded and hope to those in despair. Generosity, my friend, comes to us at the price of self-sacrifice. Just like the rich man we have a choice: fear or generosity. May we choose that which brings life.

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

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Reflections on Faith & Superstition

“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Bertrand Russell

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Myth, legend and superstition: the stuff of my childhood. Those familiar with Norse and Germanic mythology will know some of the popular Icelandic sagas like The Saga of Volsungs, with dragons and treasure and a hero called Sigurd. Then you add the East Prussian myths and superstitions and you have a cauldron of fear and excitement. Both sets of my grandparents were superstitious. I recall my mother telling a story of how her parents treated the wart on her finger by rubbing a potatoe on it under a full moon, and the next day it was gone. These were the stories that filled my imagination as a child.
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Many years later, I would read the surprising ancient text of the Gospel according to Luke. I approached this biblical narrative with the same mindset as I would a Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale or Norse mythology. Yet, I was very quickly engrossed in the story of a remarkable revolutionary. In the words and life of Christ, I found a compelling blueprint for societal and cultural transformation. The words of Jesus, to me, held no comparison to any fairytale, nor, could they be regarded as wisdom literature from a benevolent Jewish rabbi. They were dangerous words – subversive and highly political in their context. They led to his death. This Jesus story was very different to those of my childhood. And this man, carrying a cross, beckoned me to do the same. It was an invitation to follow in his radical footsteps and learn that love is greater than fear.

There was a fearlessness about Jesus that was breathtaking. The centrality of his message was transformation through the realisation that a different kingdom had been ushered in – different to the kingdoms that were built on power, politics, fear, greed, or even religion. It was a message of hope to the oppressed. His kingdom message turns societal norms on its head: where the first will be last, where the poor are blessed, where the humble are honoured, where the servant is the greatest, where the outcast and marginalised are welcomed and accepted, where love overcomes fear …

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Where love overcomes fear! Perhaps this holds a key to the genetic difference between faith and superstition? They both look so alike at times, like wheat and tares. Some of my friends would argue that there really is no difference. The same factors that motivate a mother to rub a potatoe on the finger of her child, believing for healing under the full moon, some say, would be the same factors that cause another mother to pray for her child and believe for the same result. Faith and superstition: is there really a difference? They seem identical.

When you begin to critically examine some of the contemporary Christian messaging, you may find it extremely difficult to tell the difference between faith and superstition:

– A God who is portrayed as love, yet will banish those who refuse to reciprocate his love to eternal torture.9_funny_jesus_thumbs_up

– A God who ensures that you get a car park in some shopping centre when you pray ‘just right’, but seems to be deaf to the cries of 22,000 children that die every day due to poverty.

– A God who will give you ‘your best life now’ when you adhere to certain success paradigms, or tithe, or send money to that evangelist.

– An everlasting, almighty God who loves everybody, but in a twist that resembles an Orwell novel, especially if they are white, male, privileged and conservative …

… it all sounds a bit superstitious, doesn’t it?

Some modern expressions of Christianity seem to have drifted a little ways from a Rabbi who preached about a kingdom of good news that seemed to benefit ‘the least of them’ the most. In fact, it seems that the basis of some of the current Christian ideology is based on karma and superstition: “Do this and God will do that.”

It is in the time of crisis that these apparent identical twins of faith and superstition begin to bear fruit. And it is in their motivation that the difference is most noted: Love vs. Fear. Crisis is one of the few times that you can stand back and very clearly distinguish the two. Superstition, which I observed in my childhood and later in some Christian paradigms (including my own, when I was in the throes of fundamentalism), is driven by fear.

Fear that becomes palpable in times of crisis or contradiction.
Fear that reverts to karma.
Fear that paints pictures of a God that needs to be appeased.
Fear that sees ‘the other’ as evil, far from God, or responsible for the bad things that happen.
Fear that forgets that loving your neighbour the way you would want to be loved and accepted, kind of goes with this radical Jesus that Christianity is meant to be built upon.
(O and let me just spell out this neighbour bit: this could be your Muslim Neighbour, your LGBTIQ Neighbour, your Refugee Neighbour, your Poor Neighbour, your Other Religion Neighbour, your Obnoxious Neighbour, your Ill Neighbour, your Old Neighbour, your Asian Neighbour, your Black Neighbour, your White Neighbour, your Global Neighbour … get the picture?)
Fear and conspiracy theories that can reduce followers of Christ to angry and paranoid people, with a massive persecution complex.
Fear that always needs a scapegoat so we can feel better about the angst of our own vulnerability.

Faith, on the other hand, approaches times of crisis quite differently:
Faith recognises in the biblical narrative a greater story of Divine Providence.
Faith sees Christ as the expression of this Divine Providence.
Faith believes that the good news of Christ’s kingdom brings hope and light in times of darkness.
Faith produces actions that speak of hope, light and love.
Faith sees the image of God in every human being and therefore treats every person with dignity and respect.
Faith believes in Grace, not Karma.
Faith believes that love is the greatest – no excuses, no uncomfortable pauses … The greatest of all is love.

The genetic make-up of faith causes it to shine with love in times of crisis. Where fear becomes a quagmire of paranoia, protocol and law, faith chooses the path of risk and courage, because for faith, perfect love drives out fear.

So for faith, love always wins.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear … 1 John 4

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