Friends make the world a much better place and when you find a new friend you feel the universe smiling on you 🙂 This is a guest post by a new friend, Tim Carson.
Tim is a writer, musician, holds a D.Min, pastor, traveller, horseman, scuba diver, healer, and when the weather is fair found atop his Indian motorcycle heading into the next liminal space. For a more extensive bio and his blog please follow this link.
Have you ever felt surrounded? I know I have.
A long time ago I was in Bangladesh and taking a riverboat to travel from the capital city of Dhaka to another part of the country. As a passenger, you move through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds to the landing where the triple-decker ships are lined up. And after you make it to the gangplank you have to find a place on one of the decks, the lower two being open air decks. There are mats everywhere with people camped out as far as the eye can see. The scene is like a gymnasium shelter after a disaster with all the people camped out on cots. It would be like our Room at the Inn except instead of 50 there are 200 campers.
I had never felt so absolutely surrounded and haven’t since. Everywhere I turned there were people. No matter whether I looked before or behind, decks below or above, I was surrounded. There was no escape. And certainly, no privacy.
If you have had a similar experience or even a time when you felt you were under the microscope with no chance of evading the eyes of those watching, you might share some of the feelings of the Psalmist.
The difference is that the Psalmist was not speaking of being surrounded by people. He was speaking of being surrounded by God. This is the hymn to the inescapable God, the all-knowing and all-present God. There is not a place, a time, a word, or a thought that is not known. Regardless of where and when God is in the centre of it, or as the Psalmist says, “You lay your hand upon me.”
There is no suffering, there is no ecstasy, there is no despair, there is no hope without God in the centre of it. So we are never alone. But we also can’t escape, because escaping would mean somehow leaving our own being, our own souls.
This awareness of the inescapability of God may come to many of us: wonder and awe before the mystery of the cosmos.
Or in his words, “It is too high for me, I cannot comprehend it.” It is beyond the capacity of finite minds to grasp the infinite.
This is the story of anyone who dares leave the certainty of the known and entertain the uncertainty of God’s vastness and mystery. What the Psalmist teaches us and what we intuitively know is that there is more unknown than is known. We are surrounded by an all-knowing God even as we know hardly anything. Welcome to the mystery.
In Biblical imagery, this mystery of God is often represented by the shadows, the darkness, the dark cloud. And mystics through the ages have described it in similar ways, a dark unknowing that is more powerful than anything we do know.
Imagine the iceberg with the tip showing itself above the water line. What we see above the water is a very small percentage of the whole – maybe 10% of what is beneath the water line, beneath what we see or comprehend. The 90% below is present whether we see it or not.
Like the shadows of the unconscious, it is there whether we are aware of it or not.
One of my favourite sayings, one that Carl Jung chose to put on his tombstone, is “Called or not called, God is present.” (vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit)
And so the Psalmist is slain by the all-present and all-knowing sacred spirit that animates the cosmos, what physicists might describe as the “field” of energy and forces that sustain all things. Nothing escapes their influence whether we see them or don’t. This is the dark matter and energy that makes up almost everything.
Like Richard Rohr’s now-famous analogy, we are “falling upward” to the mystery of God. Once you let go of your illusions of control and knowledge, you abandon yourself, surrender yourself to the God who knows and loves you before you can possibly know and love God back. That leap of faith – required over and over again – transports us to the realm of God we cannot know in fullness.
Now we only “see through a darkened glass, but then face to face.”(I Cor 13)
And how does the Psalmist describe this? He describes this as the luminous darkness: “Even the dark is not dark to You.”
We’re not just talking about a nightlight in the darkness. No, the darkness is not dark to God because God is in the dark, a part of the dark. God is in the realm of the unknown mystery, the hidden treasures of God. What seems dark to us is not dark to God. Since the energy of God is everywhere God is not limited by our perception of light/darkness.
I want to suggest that the unknown realm of God, the darkness of knowledge in which the treasures of God may be found, is found in that interval between truth and illusion, somewhere in the margins of life. There are the words on the page, the obvious rational meanings, but then there are the spaces between the words, between the letters. If we were speaking of music we would say there is the silence between the notes.
So often the hidden meanings of God are found there, in the margins. Much of the rest belongs to illusion. And here is the secret to walking by faith in these margins: You don’t need to own or control the mystery of God as much as point to it, give testimony to it. “Even the dark is not dark to You,” prayed the Psalmist. In a world of truth and illusion, God’s truth always shines through. But how do we know the difference? Where do we look? In what intervals? In what margins?
One of the most beloved children’s stories of all time was written by the Danish Hans Christian Andersen and is entitled The Emperor’s New Clothing.
Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money and time on being well dressed. In fact, he cared about little else.
One day two swindlers came to town and masqueraded as fine weavers and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colours and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.
“Those would be just the clothes for me,” thought the Emperor. “I could tell the wise men from the fools.” He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once.
They set up two looms and pretended to weave, though there was nothing on the looms.
As the Emperor sent his emissaries to the weavers to check on their progress they would always remark on how beautiful they were, even though they couldn’t see a thing. They didn’t want to be revealed as fools.
Finally, the Emperor came in to view the new clothing for himself. But looking he couldn’t see a thing. He wondered to himself, “Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor?”
And so he said in the presence of them all, “Oh! It’s very pretty. It has my highest approval.” Nothing could make him say that he couldn’t see anything.
Finally, the day came for the Emperor to show his new clothing and the town was all a flutter. The Emperor went to the weavers to be dressed and they said to him, holding up the invisible clothing, “All of them are as light as a spider web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that’s what makes them so fine.” The Emperor nodded with appreciation.
At that, the swindlers asked the Emperor to take off his clothes and they dressed him in his new specially made clothing.
So off went the Emperor in procession and everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!”
Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him a fool, but near the end of the procession a little child said: “He hasn’t got anything on!”
“He hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.
The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.
Andersen’s comical story reveals just how we live in an interval somewhere between truth and illusion, and how illusions are maintained in our minds and the minds of entire tribes. Only when we become like a child and look out with innocence and simplicity may we see the truth. Out of the crowd, out of the margins, the shadows, the dark, a lone voice arises and names the truth that has been missed, ignored or even distorted. We live in a world of illusions and the truth often emerges from the sidelines, the odd margins, strange places that seem dark to us.
In just a couple of weeks, we will be re-telling the stories of some other processions of truth and illusion. A humble prophet will ride into the city that kills people like him and then take up his part in some street theatre. His ride will provide ironic commentary in which he rides a beast of burden rather than a chariot of imperial power. The crowds will hail him as king and cast branches on the road in tribute. But what sort of king is he?
Then, just a week later, the procession will turn deadly, winding through the same crowds but crowds who now do not praise but rather mock him. Who is he now? Who are we? What is real and what is not? Where is God, the God we think we have? Where now?
We are surrounded by God and there is no escape. We are known and there is no evasion. The mystery is so high that we cannot comprehend it. We have entered the darkness between truth and illusion. It is the place where we may discover and then pray, “Even the dark is not dark to You.”
“Called or not called, God is present” – Desiderius Erasmus
“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”
– Soren Kierkegaard –
I still remember the first time I heard the notion of living life with no regrets. I was at a conference with several thousand attendees, our eyes glued to the platform as an over-excited person yelled at us: “Live your life on the edge, take the risk, no regrets.” Everyone cheered, including me, while conducting an inner argument: “That is totally absurd. Of course, we will have regrets, all of us in this room will have regrets. That is a nice, but an impossible idea.” Regrets, defined as feeling sad, repentant, or disappointed over something that we have or haven’t done, are part of human life.
Pithy quotes along the same lines as the adrenaline-pumped speaker are everywhere. We should ‘regret nothing’ and ‘not do anything differently’ if we had our lives over. Well, that’s just a load of bollocks, isn’t it? Imagine getting a second go at life with all the hindsight that you have acquired? Wouldn’t you do life differently or at least change a few things? I certainly would.
According to Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, who wrote ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’, the list of regrets of those under her care were:
1. “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Oh, I can relate to this one. I have spent the first half of my life taking on what I thought God and people expected of me like the typical ‘good girl’ (classic Type One for those familiar with the Enneagram).
2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
Anyone else have their hand up? Yep, I was soooo important in my first half of life that I didn’t even have much time to visit my parents in Queensland. I was busy doing ‘God’s work’ … *Jesus face palms*
3. “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”
Expression of emotion is diverse amongst people and culture. Ware is referring to people who have bottled their feelings and kept them from their friends and loved ones.
4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
Life is all the sweeter with friends. There is something about history in friendship. A long-term friend is a treasure. Life is better in relationships. Nurture your friendships.
5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
We don’t often take time to reflect and contemplate on what brings true ‘happiness’. If we did, we might discover that the pursuit of the bigger house, sleeker car or the next promotion doesn’t feed our existential need and questions about the purpose of life. We may, however, discover that sharing a meal with our neighbour and tending to our garden does. Let’s learn from the dying – what makes you ‘happy’?
I have regrets in my life. None of them have to do with money or careers. I regret that I did not spend more time with my grandparents when I was growing up, and when I did see them that I didn’t listen more to their stories and wisdom. I regret that I accepted fundamentalist ideals without critique, ideals that hurt others, including my children. I regret spending so much time frantically being the ‘good girl’, trying to please a crowd that cannot be pleased while ignoring the rhythms of grace so readily available.
Regrets are part of life. I also believe that we can look regret in the eye, acknowledge it, make our peace with it, and then we can move on. We begin to realise that everything belongs, life is not meant to be lived perfectly. A life truly lived holds suffering and regret. The regret you carry from yesterday can determine the path you choose tomorrow. Regret, like suffering, can shape our lives in a most transformational manner.
Rob Bell’s podcast, ‘What to do with the Waste’, discusses regret and disappointment. We have all given our lives to something, or pursued a dream that turned to ashes – we all carry waste. And yet … it is coming face to face with this ‘waste’ and recognising that nothing that has come into our lives is a waste, all is carried in the hand of Providence. My choices, my failures, my regrets, they are there to shape who I am, and I will not allow them to poison me, neither do I consent to be their victim.
Friend, you will hold regret. Make your peace with it. We have very little control over our lives and we make the choices and decisions given us at a certain moment with a certain mindset. Look gently on your past and show that same grace to others. And now, Carpe Diem, embrace a new day … live life and realise regret is simply part of living.
“We can—and will—move forward as soon as we have completed and lived the previous stage. We almost naturally float forward by the quiet movement of grace when the time is right—and the old agenda shows itself to be insufficient, or even falls apart. All that each of us can do is to live in the now that is given. We cannot rush the process; we can only carry out each stage of our lives to the best of our ability—and then we no longer need to do it anymore!” – Richard Rohr –
Scrolling through Facebook the other day, this post of a friend caught my eye:
“We can’t leap over our grief work,
Nor can we skip over our despair work.
We have to feel it…. Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid”
– Richard Rohr –
It was a poignant reminder for a very wobbly time of year for me. I have blogged about grief and loss numerous times. In “An Uninvited Guest: Reflections on Grief”, I outlined why the Christmas season holds a lot of triggers for me. Since that post, life has continued with crazy highs and lows – the loss of a house that I loved and a faith community that I thought would always be ‘home’. I have said goodbye to a city I treasure and the precious individuals it holds, some of those goodbyes have been gut-wrenching as they held a finality that we didn’t see coming.
I am not outlining these circumstances to evoke your sympathy. Far from it. Rather, I am writing them down because as living creatures we all identify with grief and sorrow. Someone explained grief as the feeling you have when you have been winded – everything stops and you wonder whether you will ever breathe again. No wonder that we do all we can to try and usher this uninvited guest out of our house. And maybe that why we create hyperreal spaces and experiences?
After my mum passed away a lot of well-meaning people (especially those who held tightly to a more ‘triumphant’ form of Christianity) made a lot of comments and queries about ‘moving on’. “Time heals,” they would say, “and you will move on.” I heard what they were saying. I appreciated their concern. They wanted me to join the dance again – that dance of oblivious happiness. And I do dance again – but it is not the smooth Cha Cha from the first half of life.
Nowadays, grief pays a regular visit. I no longer feel shocked. I no longer try to usher this guest out of my house. Rather, and probably to the horror of some, I welcome this visitor. I sit with it and share in the memories. Grief has dramatically changed the way I look at the world. I feel so much more connected and grounded because of it. I know I have a level of compassion that I never had in my “black-and-white” paradigm. I also wonder whether I ever really understood what love meant in the first half of life? That is a rather ironic reflection considering I spoke on so many platforms about love.
Grief changes us. It transforms us from the inside out. When we refuse to ‘leap over our grief work or skip over our despair work’ we grow. Things that were once so important and that are still heralded as desirables, like success and influence, no longer hold much appeal. Grief teaches us that we have life, that life is precious, and the response to life is gratitude …
“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –
I also reflect on my faith. Grief challenges the platitudes, the certainties, the absolutes. Many years ago Grief came calling with a friend … Doubt. I was horrified back then. There was no room for grief, never mind doubt, in my early ideological framework. Now I smile to myself as I write this. How wrong I was. If anything, grief and doubt have deepened, enriched and strengthened my faith – through these guests I discovered an all-gracious, incarnate God who undergirds our universe.
But grief is not pleasant. Grief is painful. It still brings with it times of panic and anxiety and a deep desire to escape. No one goes looking for it – grief find us and there is no place to run. So we have to take courage, we have to stop, turn and stay with it. No one can outrun or remain immune from grief.
Dear Reader, if you, like me find the Christmas season a little more difficult than those around you, please know you are not alone. The heartache you feel, for whatever reason, is real and there are some things in life that sit with us and us with them for a long time. I would recommend that you do not go this alone or isolate yourself – this link provides some keys in coping with grief in the holiday season. A season that for many holds a marred joy … where we can feel pain AND we can sing carols … where we can smile at the delight of the young AND mourn the loss of those who have gone before us … it’s all part of sitting with an uninvited guest while still dancing our life dance … with a limp …
As I finished this blog another friend put up a post – needless to say, it is the perfect way to end:
“We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled. It is hard, painful, unbidden work. No one goes in search of loss; rather, it finds us and reminds us of the temporary gift we have been given, these few sweet breaths we call life…. It was through the dark waters of grief that I came to touch my unlived life, by at last unleashing tears I had never shed for the losses in my world. Grief led me back into a world that was vivid and radiant. There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive. Through this, I have come to have a lasting faith in grief.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow –
Much love to you all this Christmas.
And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
The sea came.
Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work
I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.
The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.
Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.
Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …
I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!
I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.
The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!
So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work
This is a blog post from 2 years ago. As I travel Germany and am confronted by the many monuments that remember the holocaust and persecuted minorities, I am again aware of the fundamental role that dominant religions often play in oppressive regimes. May we never forget.
I still remember the feeling of stifling hot air hitting my face as we disembarked from our long journey at Jan Smuts International Airport (now O.R. Tambo International Airport), in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the early 70’s. State President J.J. Fouché, Prime Minister B.J. Forster, and the National Party were in power. We had started our arduous trek from Frankfurt, Germany, after many months of preparation to migrate to this southernmost African Republic. For a tiny seven year old, the world had just become a whole lot bigger.
Amidst the many new experiences, language gaps, huge learning curves and cultural differences, one phenomenon stood head and shoulders above all others: Apartheid. Apartheid was a political and social system that protected the dominant rule of the 20% white minority through racial segregation. The term literally means ‘apartness’. Although racial discrimination has deep roots in South Africa, it was D.F. Malan and the National Party who formerly established the racist system when they swept into power in 1948. It was toppled in 1994, with the appointment of South Africa’s first democratically elected, black President, Nelson Mandela.
The injustice of a system that discriminated people by the colour of their skin felt like a cultural tsunami to freshly arrived, wide-eyed immigrants. Yet for many people who had lived in and under that system, especially those who benefitted from it, it seemed a ‘normal’ part of everyday life. The memories of what I witnessed under apartheid do not diminish with time: the beating of a man until he was bloodied, bruised and motionless, by a neighbour who thought he should not be in the ‘white’ part of town; the anger directed at my friends of colour when they stepped too close to the drinking fountains that were designated ‘whites only’; and the squalid, overcrowded townships with their tiny ‘match box houses’.
South Africa came under the rule of the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. Christianity played a major role in the shaping of colonised South Africa. But it was in the twentieth century that many churches started actively promoting racial division. The largest of the various denominations, the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk – NGK), became the ‘official religion’ of the National Party during the apartheid era. Fear ruled the day. A white minority began to increasingly feel that their own existence was threatened. Church doctrine and beliefs were fashioned to uphold a political ideology of segregation.
The Bible became the central tool for apartheid dogma. Genesis 11 was used to argue that God divided humanity into different races, with the white race being superior. Difficult Bible verses such as Galatians 3:28, where the Apostle Paul presents the Gospel as breaking down barriers of division, were adapted to claim that he was addressing spiritual, not physical, equality. This teaching became so entrenched that many believed that South Africa’s apartheid was God’s will, that races should be kept apart, that whites had better opportunities because they were ‘favoured’ by God, and that above all, God was the ‘Great Divider’. One of the first laws to come into legislation under the apartheid regime was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, banning the marriage of a white person to a person of any other colour. It was believed that these relationships were sinful, an idea that had been fuelled by the passing of the 1927 Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between white people and that of other races. During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, enthusiasm for apartheid theology began to wane amongst followers, yet many church leaders remained fervent adherers to the apartheid doctrine. At this point, it is also important to mention that there were numerous churches and church leaders who stood in fierce opposition to apartheid.
Gradually societal paradigms began to shift. The work and words of many anti-apartheid advocates was beginning to fall on more receptive ears. The effect of having black South Africans form the majority in all church denominations, except the Dutch Reformed Church, cannot be underestimated. Slowly, and facing much criticism, more church leaders began to speak out against apartheid. The South African Council of Churches became one of the most effective anti-apartheid organisation. Pentecostal churches tended to be more conservative than the older, more established, churches. They expressed vague ideas about the racial dilemma, indicating that God was the only hope for the future.
The Conservative Right, concerned about the growing acceptance of anti-apartheid ideology and the effect of foreign investment boycotts, organised themselves into new groups, like the ‘Christian Forum’, to protest sanctions. The founder of ‘Open Door Ministry’, Brother Andrew, distributed comic tracts in English and Afrikaans to South African defence troops, claiming that the anti-apartheid struggle was an invasion of ‘communism’ against ‘democracy’, and the final contest between Christ and the Anti-Christ. His ideas, that South Africa had a mission to evangelise all of Africa, and that the international movement for economic sanctions was a ploy of Satan “to isolate South Africa to prevent it from fulfilling its divine commission”, resonated with many. Of course, it is important to remember that pro-apartheid support was also found amongst many high-profiled Christians in the USA, such as President Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson. To this day there are still pro-apartheid advocates who argue that the struggle against apartheid was sinful, and that people who were involved need to ‘repent or face the wrath of God’.
At the heart of it all, apartheid was a radical survival plan. It was the construction of a deeply nationalistic and religious Afrikaner minority group who were terrified of being subjugated by another people and culturally swamped by black Africans. It was this fear that gave apartheid its impetus. The renown Afrikaans poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw, supported apartheid because he, like many others, believed that integration meant Afrikaner National suicide. Fear propaganda reached fever pitch as the walls of segregation began to tumble rather quickly in the late 80’s. Pro-apartheid arguments became shrill and hysterical, a rather common occurrence when dominating powers begin to fall.
The rise and fall of apartheid shows the social and political power of religious movements. God is often claimed and ordained by the various religious voices seeking to present their perspective as right and true. “God is on my side” is perhaps one of the most comforting and often deceptive notions of the religious faithful. Deceptive, especially when it propagates oppression, violence and discrimination against other people in the name of God, claiming their suffering is unavoidable and “for the greater good”.
Apartheid, at one stage in earlier South African history, was just an idea. An idea to control a large people group. An idea that would have been difficult to embody without the assistance of religion. Religion provided the ‘divine mandate’ that the idea needed to become a force – a force that brought years of injustice. We need to consider that Christianity, or an ideology based on Christianity, played a central role in this oppressive regime. This is rather ironic considering that Christianity itself began not as a religion, but with a persecuted minority group desperately trying to follow the teaching of a lowly carpenter. A man who became such a threat to the dominant social and political order that he was executed. It was not until Constantine that Christianity became acquainted with political power and a dramatic change occurred. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Overnight the Church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas.” Christianity became the religion of the empire and was no longer at the very bottom of society, which is the best vantage point to “understand the liberating power of the Gospel for both the individual and society.” With power, wealth and nobility, Christianity began to deviate from the simple teaching of Christ, whose concern for the poor, downtrodden and marginalised, was evident in his ministry. Apartheid serves as an example of what happens when our ideas about God are driven by an agenda of control and dominion, conveniently hidden under religious robes of moral piety.
This is a most chilling lesson indeed, that if we are not careful, our very notions about God can be misplaced, and instead of bringing life and freedom, become a tool in the hand of the oppressor. History is not short of examples.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. – Nelson Mandela
“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
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.
- “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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
- Rites of Separation
- Liminal Rites
- Rites of Incorporation
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 …
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.