A Letter to My Heart

 “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller 

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It was a remarkable experience to observe my heart on the echocardiographer’s screen. A tiny benefit of having a sudden onset of heart palpitations and the myriad of tests that accompany this complaint. I listed to my heart as he turned the sound up – pumping in a regular rhythm like it has for fifty-one years. Life really is phenomenal.

Aristotle described the heart as the most important organ in the body. Ancient civilisations identified the heart as the seat of intelligence, spirituality and emotion. All over the world, the heart shape is synonymous with romantic love and affection. It grew particularly popular through the Renaissance when it was used in the religious arts, depicting the Sacred Heart of Christ. Today the heart symbol dominates our social media feed – like the ancient Romans, we use the heart as a symbol of love and life.

Mystics of every faith tradition have had a connection to the heart and the Way of Love. Mystics speak to the heart. They see the journey of the heart as a cosmic love song. The prayer of the mystic is one of the heart, of deepening love and finding inner peace and solace. This prayer begins by listening to the heart …

“My heart, aflame in love, set afire every heart that came in touch with it.
My heart has been rent and joined again;
My heart has been broken and again made whole;
My heart has been wounded and healed again,” writes Hazrat Inayat Khan (The Dance of the Soul)

“Only from the heart can you touch the sky.” Rumi

“Happy the heart where love has come to birth.” Teresa of Avila

“The seasons of my heart change like the seasons of the fields. There are seasons of wonder and hope, seasons of suffering and love, seasons of healing. There are seasons of dying and rising, seasons of faith.” Macrina Wiederkehr (Seasons of Your Heart)

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So as I lay there, looking at my hard working heart, I was overcome with gratitude. My heart and I have been through the storms and sunshine of life. Together we have loved deeply, raged bitterly, grieved quietly and laughed outrageously. So I write this note of gratitude to my heart:

Dear Heart,

Seldom do I stop to express my gratitude to you. Thank you for being there through the many seasons of my life. As a young child, travelling the world and continents, anxiously trying to adapt to new people and new surroundings, you were there, your rhythm brought me comfort.

In moments of my greatest joy, like meeting the love of my life, or holding my three precious babies in my arms, you beat a little faster to remind me of the wonder of love.

When I walked through the storm and fire, when I had to say goodbye and I thought you would break, you remained steadfast.

I don’t always heed your warnings: slow down, listen, come sit for awhile. Rather, I often charge through life like a tornado that has lost its way. Yet you do not give up on me, your remain faithful as the tides of the sea.

So, dear heart, as I walk through this second half of life, I choose to listen to you. I realise that love is what makes this world go round and that all my endeavours are in vain unless I have you filled with love. Love for those around me, love for my enemies, love for our fragile planet, love for myself … which probably is the hardest of all. I choose to listen and I choose love. I choose the path of gratitude. I choose the journey of the heart.”

Now, dear friend, it’s your turn. Take a moment to listen to your heart. What does it want to say to you? Draw a picture, write a poem and remember that you, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” – Oscar Wilde

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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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Comfort For Those Waking Up In The Matrix

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I was confused. This cannot be happening. They are lying. They have to be lying. If they are not lying then what I believed with such fierce devotion was a farce! What can I believe now? If I had the words back then, that is pretty much how I would have summed up the moment when I realised Santa Claus was not real! My young four years of firmly embedded belief in a man with a white beard and red jumpsuit that brings presents just came crashing down like a Jenga block tower.

Our childhood ‘Santa Claus’ moment repeats itself throughout our lives. Nowadays, I call it ‘waking up in the Matrix’. If you have seen that famous movie, you know that it is the moment that Neo decides that knowing the truth is more important than living the comfortable illusion – he takes the red pill and begins to see the Matrix for what it really is. Once you see, you cannot unsee …

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For people of faith, waking up in the Matrix, can be a most difficult process. The moment we realise that our lived reality is not always connected to our tightly-held religious ideals. Perhaps it is because so much of what has been called ‘faith’ is actually fear: fear of losing our faith, fear of an angry God, fear of ‘hell’, fear of falling down some ‘heretical’ rabbit hole of no return, fear of not measuring up …

There is great comfort in the controlled environment of total assurance and absolute certainty. It is a blissful space … blissful until a time of severe suffering and crisis, when in a moment of total openness and honesty we admit that some of the ideas we have been told to believe actually stand juxtaposed to who we really are and what we have experienced. Like frightened turtles we tuck our heads back into our shell and pretend that this is not happening. We keep saying the same things, nodding enthusiastically at the same cliches, desperately wishing ourselves back into the Matrix … but we cannot go back. The gates have shut. Grace has shut those gates.

The second half of life often calls us to put away ‘childish ways’. What has kept us in the first half, no longer sustains us in the second half of life. We begin to wake up to some of our embedded ideals and how they have motivated and shaped us – and some of these we have to let go of. It is a bit like what Jesus talks about in Luke 5 – in order to hold the new wine of the second half of life, you have to have new wine skins. It is the time to ‘fear not’ (mentioned so many times throughout the sacred text). It is the time that you are asked to step out of the boat, like you have perhaps been singing about for decades.

Richard Rohr would say that the first half of life is all about building boundaries and fences that protect our identity, security and survival. These are Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs.’ The first half of life is about ego and certitude. It is an important part of development. However, then we come to the second half of our lives, a place where we have to learn to dismiss some of the ‘loyal soldiers’ and where we open ourselves up to the grace of risk, vulnerability, surrender and trust. A place where we can no longer look at the Matrix with blinded enthusiasm.

So to my friends, those of you who are finding that some of what you believed with such fierce devotion no longer holds true to who you are and who you are becoming, let me acknowledge the pain you are experiencing in that disconnect. You feel like you are flying through the air, after letting go of a very comforting trapeze, and praying like crazy that there is something out there to meet you.

For those waking up in the Matrix …

Trust Love over fear
Trust Grace over shame
Trust Hope over despair
Trust that the Seeker does find
That the Blind do see
That the Deaf do hear
That Questions are holy
That Kindness is the language of the universe
That you … You are loved

There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of our deepest self … the true faith journey only begins at this point. Up to now everything is mere preparation.

Richard Rohr

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Job, His Friends, and Disappointment

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. 
– Martin Luther King, Jr. –
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The book of Job has always fascinated me. One of the oldest books in the Old Testament and most celebrated pieces of biblical literature, it is dominated by two main characters: Yahweh and a wealthy man called Job, who faced utter devastation. The book is loosely divided into five parts: the prologue, the symposium, the speeches of Elihu, the nature poems, and the epilogue. It is a book that raises questions about suffering and directly challenges the idea of karma – that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits.

It is a book of poetic and philosophical depth and beauty. It is a book of suffering and grief. It is also a book that provides an example of how to be a really annoying friend. After Job loses everything, his friends come to ‘comfort’ him. They do well at first because they shut up. However, when Job begins to speak they never really hear him or seek to understand. They simply pontificate their opinions on his suffering and try to fit him into their little boxes of comfortable reasoning. Nothing much has changed … humans just don’t evolve that quickly ?

Eliphaz is convinced that Job has done something sinister to deserve this pain. Bildad suggests that maybe his deceased children were guilty of evil. Zophar really has no idea but is convinced that God has a plan and is on the throne (sound familiar?). Elihu, the zealous youngster, thinks that maybe Job is just a tad arrogant and that his pain is God’s way of humbling him and he will be a better person because of it. In summary, this is a group of Shit Friends or ‘worthless physicians’ as Job refers to them. People who practice triumphant monologue, provide unhelpful answers (accusations) or cliches, and are in on the ride because they cannot cope with the existential angst of not knowing why bad stuff happens to good people. Yes, we have all been in the presence of Job’s friends. We all have been Job’s friends.

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Disappointment is the cousin of grief. Disappointment is tied to our expectations. Our expectation of people, of events, of God, that is if we happen to be someone who holds a faith. When they do not ‘behave’ the way we expect, we become disappointed. Job was disappointed because he had spent his life in faithful devotion to God, expecting God to protect him, and yet disaster and suffering entered his life. He was disappointed in his friends because in the time of his greatest need they were … well they were just shit friends.

There are many lessons we can draw from Job. One would be that the questions we often ask about theodicy seem to have no satisfying answers. Another is that suffering is part of the human existence and disappointment is part of life. We can also learn how not to be a friend!

We will all face disappointment in our life time. If we happen to be one of the people to walk alongside another as they face disappointment, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Let’s stop pretending that we know exactly what they are feeling. We don’t. We  may be able to empathise to a certain degree, but we have not lived their life, walked a single step in their shoes, and we have no idea how exactly they are processing the disappointment that they are facing.
  2. Let’s learn to shut up and listen. If we are genuine about being an ‘alongsider’, then let’s be a sounding board. Don’t let’s use our friend’s pain as a soapbox to practice our philosophical or religious ideals. It’s like rubbing salt on a wound. The greatest gift we can give at that moment is to listen deeply.
  3. We are not the Messiah – and that really is good news. There is an innate urge in each of us to ‘fix’ things and people. The reality of life is that there are some things we can ‘fix’ and many things that we can’t. Mindfulness, kindness, practical expressions of love are most helpful to those facing disappointment. Job’s friends failed at these. Like Christopher Pyne, they were ‘fixers’ – and both Job and Yahweh grew weary of them.
  4. Walking alongside needs us to deal with our ego. People facing disappointment will be angry, grieving, sullen, and maybe rude. If we are in a support role and have not done some serious shadow-work we will find ourselves ‘hurt and offended’. Then the person who is facing crisis now has to deal with our wounded egos … Nicht Gut.
  5. Let’s practice our theology at these times, not preach it. Love in action is the best sermon we will ever preach. The day may come when we will be facing disappointment and will discover how annoying it is when someone, oblivious to our heartache, gets all “God-is-on-the-throne-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life” on us. In moments of deep disappointment we won’t really give a crap about anyone’s ideas about God, rather make “me a cup of coffee and feed me chocolate”.

Job faced bitter disappointment. We will also have to handle our fair share in our short life. And when we are comforting those who are disappointed let’s not add to their burden by being shit friends like those of Job.  Bake that cake, cook that meal, mind those children, and let’s learn to listen …

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Welcome to the Table

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with them … the people who give you their food give you their heart.
– Cesar Chavez
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The dining room table is a most significant and symbolic piece of furniture in my life. It invokes childhood memories of joy and lament, of delicious meals, of arguments, jokes, intense debate and tantrums. It recalls the many different faces that shared the table with my parents and I, and the lives and stories they represented. My parents welcomed many people to the table.

Today we have a large, circular, red gum table that dominates our dining room. It is so heavy you can’t lift it. It is round to remind those who gather there that there is no hierarchy. Many nights it has family, friends and strangers crammed around it. The conversations are as diverse as the people that hold them – laughing, joking, angry, opinionated, silent, sullen, quiet, peaceful, heart-felt and sometimes simply exhausting. Mouths crammed with food with water and wine being passed from one to the other, we defy every meal etiquette. Politics and religion, no doubt, will always be discussed! I often stop and look around with deep gratitude. There is no better place than to be seated by a table, sharing a meal, sharing our lives.

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Tables have been around for literally ages. Different designs were used by different civilisations. Egyptians used wood or stone and their tables were fashioned like pedestals, the Assyrians used metal, Greeks used bronze, others used marble. The use of tables evolved over time and it was in the 16th century that the dining table really came into its own. The earliest Western tables were simple wooden boards on trestles that were set up for eating and then packed away. Today tables come in all shapes and sizes and man-made materials like plastic or fibreglass.

The dining table has held emblematic significance throughout the ages. It symbolises unity, celebration, togetherness, belonging, and acceptance. Cultures across the world view the dining table as very significant. It is tPeople_eating_in_Tunisiahe heartbeat of a home. The importance of sharing meals features in many religions, like the sharing of the Shabbat meal amongst Jews, or the house-hopping and sharing of meals during Eid al-Fitr for Muslims, or the sharing of the Lord’s supper amongst Christian faith traditions.

In ancient traditions, eating together was a way of forming and forging relationship. It was a sign of acceptance and reconciliation. Ancient Israel had strict dietary laws and maintained clear social and religious boundaries – it was very important to obey laws surrounding what you ate and who you ate with! No wonder Jesus was so irksome to a religious establishment that saw his total disregard of meal protocol and tradition as dangerous. He invited himself to the table of ‘filthy’ tax collectors! This wasn’t just a little step over the etiquette boundary. It was the flipping of the proverbial middle finger to the carefully constructed boundaries that ensured racial and religious purity. This rebel seemed to think that all were invited to God’s table – what a ridiculously scandalous idea. A table without boundary or exclusion?? One commentator suggested that Jesus got himself crucified by the way he ate.

In our hurry-sick world, suffering from a loneliness epidemic, it is time to bring the table back to centre stage. It is time to remind ourselves that we become better people when we welcome others to the table. People from all walks of life, people who are different to us, who may not share our views or faith. Something miraculous happens around a table, whether in a home, restaurant, workplace, a table carved of sand on the beach, or flimsily thrown together in small huddles in our faith communities. That moment of sharing food and stories deepens us like no social media network ever could. In times of violence and sadness in our world we need to remind ourselves of our shared humanity and refresh ourselves with new hope and courage in each other’s company. Around a table we don’t just nurture our bodies with food, we heal each others soul.

I want to live my life with a welcome sign on my table. A place where the stranger can find refuge, where the hungry can be fed, where the marginalised can be affirmed and accepted, and where the sad heart can find hope. I often fail in this endeavour but I will not give up. To me that round red gum table reminds me of welcome and belonging, it reminds me of amazing grace, and most of all it reminds me that love is greater than fear. Welcome to the table.

And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet … II Samuel 9
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