Tag Archives: Spirituality

Katecia’s Story: Resilience, Courage and Grace

I met Katecia (Teash) a couple of years ago. Over time we began chatting and I had the privilege of listening to some of her story of courage, resilience and quiet grace. Today I would like to thank Teash for making time to share some of her life experience for this BLOG post. I have no doubt you will be impacted as you read about her journey.

1. Teash, you grew up in a religious setting. Can you tell us a little about your formative years?

Some of my earliest memories are of family and church. As a pastor’s kid, they have always been entwined. I have fond memories of running down aisles, riding a pony as Mary in the nativity play, making clay Bible characters and of trying to sneak an extra cookie at morning tea after the service. Church often felt like a second home. I knew all the hiding spots and I loved all the people. I used to live a block from my church growing up. My brothers and I would often duck past on the way home from school. I distinctly remember running into the church building after school one time when my brother and I were running from kids who wanted to bash us. It was a place of refuge and an enjoyable place for me.

Mum and Dad were quite strict growing up but they were also incredibly loving and encouraging. People often ask what it was like growing up as a pastor’s kid and I never quite know what to say. It was normal for me. I suppose it meant I hung around church more than the average kid. I knew where the cookies were kept and could swing past and utilise the smooth scootering surface in the church hall. At this time, I fitted into the church and its community seamlessly. However, I felt more pressure as I got older to reflect well on my parents as I realised that, unfortunately, people might judge my parents based on how I acted which has, at times, made me uncomfortable.

 

2. Coming out as gay would not have been easy, especially in a conservative setting. Can you talk about this?

It wasn’t easy. However, I am more fortunate than so many. At the time I had intense anxiety regarding it. If I’m honest part of the reason I came out was that I had anxiety that was causing me physical pain, every day, for several months. I’d been slowly convinced by affirming theology but the move meant that I realised I would probably need to come out. I think if it weren’t for my anxiety I might have waited a few more years. However, given the mostly subtle hostility towards queer people in conservative environments, it’s unlikely I could have emerged from the closet with no mental health issues. I was in so much physical pain from hiding this part of myself that I figured coming out couldn’t be that much worse.

Like so many others, Christian spaces that I had once found so welcoming became harder and harder to exist in happily. People that I looked up to and loved treated me as though I were an entirely different, and less trustworthy, person.

My immediate family has been fantastic and I am so thankful for them. I know how rare their incredible support can be in Christian circles. They may not have always understood but they have always listened and supported and loved me.

I may have been judged by Christians for being gay but I have never felt anything but love and peace from God, fully inclusive of my sexuality.

3. You recently spoke at the “Better Together” Conference in Melbourne and shared some of your faith journey. Would you mind elaborating on this, especially reconciling your sexuality and your faith (which for some may be problematic)?

I was raised in a Baptist church. Growing up in the church I knew what to say and how to act. Essentially, I knew how to fit in. I didn’t know a single gay Christian let alone any other amazing letter of the acronym growing up (at least not that I knew of at the time). What I did know was what I was told: “Christians weren’t gay”. Christians might be same-sex attracted but to act on that attraction was a sin, and if they couldn’t change then celibacy was required. I was a Christian so I could never be gay. It was honestly that simple in my mind. Gay people were them over there and not the people in the pews next to me or eating scones after church.

For most of my teen years, I saw it as a sign of purity and even holiness that I wasn’t attracted to men. The attraction was only meant for your husband, so my lack of attraction to men meant that I clearly just hadn’t met my husband yet. 

But slowly that logic fell away as I realised that I wasn’t just not attracted to men, I was attracted to women. I prayed and tried to change it as so many of us do. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t change. I accepted that, until I changed, celibacy was the only option and I realised that I would probably be celibate for life. I told no one because I was ashamed and I knew the grief, shame and even scandal it would cause those I loved.

While this internal conflict was going on, I was an outgoing and enthusiastic evangelical. I was in a senior leadership position at the largest evangelical group at my university. I ran prayer groups and Bible studies and camps.

After realising celibacy was something I would have to do I began googling things such as what does the Bible say about homosexuality? I wasn’t looking for the Bible to say it was okay. I was looking for encouragement in remaining celibate. I had always been told that any theology that said it was “okay to be gay” was very “wishy-washy” and was by people who didn’t take the Bible seriously. In evangelical terms, “not taking the Bible seriously” was code for being a bad Christian. Being “biblical” and taking “the Bible seriously” was code for being a good Christian. But I was surprised by what I found. Being the nerdy art student I was, I figured I’d better research the other side – to refute it as wishy-washy, obviously. Only I couldn’t and slowly and extremely grumpily I found myself shifting over and leaning towards becoming affirming. In affirming theology, I could see myself. I saw myself as a whole and beloved child of God. It was rigorous and thoughtful. It was loving and non-judgemental, and it terrified me.

So I became affirming after a couple of years of study and prayer. I wish I could say it was an easy or quick process. It took time. I didn’t want to be affirming because I was comfortable in my beliefs and my life. I just wanted to fit in and be a “good Christian.” Having affirming theology meant that this was no longer possible for me in many circles. I came out as gay and affirming at the same time. I lost a lot of evangelical friends and I was treated as an outsider in the same evangelical circles that I had once fit in to so well. At the time I thought it was one of the worst things to happen to me. Now I’m grateful that I have sat on the outside because it was the wakeup call I needed to look around and see who else was on the margins with me. I worry that if I’d never been pushed out I might have missed meeting and learning from so many who don’t fit into my old evangelical worldview.

What drew me most to affirming theology was that in it I felt seen, known and loved by God. It also made a lot more contextual and theological sense to me. But most interestingly affirming theology brings me closer to a God who made me, knows me and loves me as I am.

4. When we look back we see a turbulent and painful journey for LGBTIQ people of faith and some of the churches that they were part of. What do you see looking ahead? Is there hope for apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation and a better path?

I think there is hope. I think of myself only a few years ago. I held negative attitudes towards gay people like many other Christians today that contribute to our negative experiences in churches and Christian communities.

The queer Christians and allies I have met all have amazing stories of change: of them being convinced to alter their beliefs and attitudes. I’m given hope every time I see queer Christians love themselves fully. I’m given hope every time I see allies step up and love us as we are. I’m given hope when I remember how I used to think and the hurt I could or may have perpetuated, and how I changed. Looking ahead, I am hopeful, but still aware of the past and the present pain. I am filled with hope but remaining grounded in the reality that we have a long way to go.

There is a path for apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation, however, as Christians, we need to recognise the harm and grief that we have caused and continue to cause. The church is overwhelmingly viewed as a source of pain and hateful rhetoric for most queer people, and this reputation is all too often deserved. Everything from homophobic jokes to the psychological torture of conversion therapy to the more subtle exclusion contributes to the struggle queer people can face.

When we ‘other’ queer people in large or small ways we are failing in our calling to, first and foremost, be loving, and failing to walk the better path – the path of Jesus. It is hard to expect queer people to remain in the pews when we are often made to feel unwelcome and unloved. Specific effort must be made to undo what we have done. While I think there is hope for a better path, I think we need always to hold the hurt we’ve caused in tension with the hope we hold for the future. We cannot erase the past but we can learn from it and therein lies the hope for a better future.

Teash, our lives are all enriched because you were prepared to share a bit of your story. Thank you so much.

 

For those interested in affirming theology, I recommend:

David Gushee – “Changing our Minds

Kathy Baldock – “Walking the Bridgeless Canyon” – you can also read Kathy’s interview on my blog here and here

And for a plethora of information please see the podcasts/library  of Inside Ex-Gay

and the Reformation Project

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Patience or Procrastination? Know the Difference … Know Thyself

“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”  – Paulo Coehlo –

I often wonder how much of what I call “Patience” is simply me avoiding a decision that I do not want to make? Calling my avoidance-crisis patience has such a pleasant, self-deluding ring to it, doesn’t it? On the other hand, how many of you, like me, have found yourselves in less than favourable circumstances because the idea of waiting patiently was not a comforting option – so you jumped too soon? How do we know the difference between these two “P’s”?

Patience has often been called a virtue. It is the ability to wait for things, accepting our lack of control over our world. In an age of immediate gratification and super-fast technology, patience often has no value or meaning in our lives. We would rather have fulfillment, stuff, money, and all kinds of others things NOW than wait and receive a little more later. It’s called “present bias.” Present bias is the tendency to over-value immediate rewards at the expense of our long-term intentions. We prefer to eat the seed, instead of waiting for it to grow. We live in a culture that suffers from present bias and unless we recognise how this has affected us, we will never understand the virtue of Patience or the sacrament of Waiting.

Procrastination, even though it can be so beautifully dressed up in a patience camouflage, is not a virtue. It simply is avoiding what needs to be done. All of us struggle with delaying and avoiding on important issues. Strangely enough, IMpatience and procrastination both have to do with present bias or what behavioral psychology calls “time inconsistency”. In the case of procrastination, we put things off because we value the immediate gratification of having ‘no pain’ more highly than doing what we need to do, which often involves feeling pain for a moment but it can change our future. For example, we would like to lose weight but we procrastinate because five donuts and a can of coke keep ambushing us at 10 am and 3 pm every day. It’s too painful to say no to them. So, we procrastinate.

Underneath all of our impatience or procrastination issues lies a very common human trait – fear! Anxiety feeds both of these gremlins. We may never have articulated our angst of what it means to live as vulnerable humans in a world that we have very little control over but it can still take its toll by manifesting itself through anxiety, depression, anger, etc. We all try to drown out that reality in many different ways. Some use harmful substances, some drown themselves in work, some turn to religion or philosophy or accumulating stuff or … do nothing – immobilised by the whole caboodle. We all have to face the many ways we cope with this fear of lack of control, and how these coping mechanisms have made us all addicts. Acknowledging this is the first step to living a more peaceful, integrated life. Know thyself.

Practicing mindfulness can be so helpful. Instead of rushing through your day, practice being present, practice breathing, practice listening – just be. Instead of being impatient when you have to wait, consider changing how you perceive ‘waiting’. Waiting can be a holy moment, a sacrament. While you wait, be present, even if that is painful. Waiting is part of the rhythm of life. You see it in the winter seasons when everything seems dead … waiting for new life. Your 24 hour day should at least have about 8 hours of sleep … sleep is you waiting for your body to rest and recover.

Perhaps you feel overwhelmed with life and this sense has almost immobilised you. You keep calling it waiting or patience but deep inside you know that you are simply putting off a difficult task(s). Procrastination can become a habit. To change a habit, we need to rewire our brain! We need to break out of the rut. The Ivy Lee Method may be of some assistance. It has been successfully applied in various contexts since 1918. Just a little word of warning: sometimes we go through ‘wobbly’ seasons, seasons of grief, disappointment, etc. As we surface from the valley and begin to take life by the horns again, writing down six tasks, as Ivy Lee recommends, may be too much. Instead, start with two, then add another one every week. Step by step you are, what Richard Rohr would say, “living yourself into a new way of thinking.”

So, dear friend, on this journey of life – know thyself. The answer in discovering the difference between patience and procrastination is in our motivation. If we are putting things off that we know we need to do because of fear, then we may be procrastinating (please note, our fear can be directly related to our safety and well-being – I encourage you to seek help and counsel if this is the case). Procrastination always ends with regret. However, I may also be putting things off because I know I have done what needs to be done, there is no more I can do, now I wait patiently. This sort of waiting, although it may be painful, is calm and rational. Know the difference. Take courage.

“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.” Anne Frank

 

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Why don’t you all take a hike?!

A repost and a good reminder for 2018!

“There comes … a longing never to travel again except on foot.”

Wendell Berry, ‘Remembering’

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“Komm, wir gehen im Wald spazieren”,  was our family weekend anthem when I was growing up. “Let’s take a walk in the forest.” Like all children, I often had much better things to do than to trudge through a forest, but my parents never understood this. So we would walk for miles through the woodlands surrounding our village in northern Germany, and later through the bushland in South Africa. Both my parents were interested in local flora and fauna, and to this day dad brews all sorts of healing potions from herbs and exotic plants that he finds or grows … but more of that in another post.

When I married and had children, I became as cruel as my parents. Amidst howls of protest, I would drag the offspring from their crucial tasks of mutilating creatures on the computer screens to take a walk. “It’s sooooobeach-768642_1280o boring, mum!” Yes, it is. It certainly is. When we compare a walk to what assaults our senses on a daily basis, from news channels to social media updates, advertisements, and a very loud world, a walk in the woods is by comparison … boring!

A walk in nature creates perspective. When I walk past a giant gum, I consider how this magnificent tree has stood the test of time. It is still here, while many ‘important’ people are not. The chances are that it will still be here when you and I no longer walk on this earth. Apart from the scared wallaby dashing past me at break-neck speed, nature reminds me of rhythm and seasons, and how in a bygone era, humans used to try and live by these. “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” said Albert Einstein. Studies reveal how great minds; Goethe, Dickens, Darwin, Steve Jobs, and others, all took a daily walk. It has a direct, positive effect on a person’s health, creativity, productivity, and communication. Life makes a little more sense when you take a walk.

Wanderlust’ runs deep in a German’s veins. It’s hard to translate this wonderful word. It is about a philosophy, a way you look at life. It is insatiable curiosity, a desire to discover and learn. The word is derived from ‘wander’ and holds the idea of roaming or hiking. From Schopenhauer to Schumann to Goethe, German literature, poetry, and song, heralds the romantic notion of being deeply connected to nature by ‘wandering’ (for a delightful series on wanderlust by BBC, check out this link).

For some, wanderlust is translated into their own spiritual pilgrimage. Camino de Santiago is certainly on my bucket list. To join the joy of walking with the idea that thousands of other people have walked this path, for spiritual or personal reasons, certainly inspires me.

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Today, walking has become a regular way of keeping fit for many folks around the globe. The evidence of physical and mental benefits that a daily walk provides is massive. IMG_0855In a developed world, which faces an epidemic of coronary heart disease, diabetes, and the health complications related to obesity, walking is a simple way to improve health. You can walk nearly anywhere – all you need is some comfortable clothes and good shoes.

So, if you have not already done so, why not start a habit that could change your life? It can help slow your frantic pace, make you aware of the beautiful home we call Planet Earth, and improve your health. Up for the challenge?

A few reminders:

  • Please don’t randomly throw yourself on some bushwalking trail and hope for the best! If you are going for a hike, inform others, walk with someone else, have a phone with full battery, and good directions. It is a sobering thought that your survival is not very high on Mother Nature’s priority list!
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Wear comfortable clothes, a hat, and most importantly, great shoes. My personal choice are a pair of lightweight, waterproof hiking boots.
  • Please lose the headphones! Firstly, they are a safety hazard as you become unaware of your surrounding with AC/DC blasting out your ear canals. Secondly, they hinder mindfulness, the discipline of being present. So tell your brain that the songs of Mother Nature are quite adequate for an hour or so.

If all this sounds too complicated, why not start with a simple walk in a beautiful garden? Go on, get off your butt and enjoy a few hours outdoors … it is annoying how your social media ‘friends’ won’t even miss you.

This is far more important … start something new, be radical, take a hike!

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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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Autumn: A Time to See More Clearly

“There is something incredibly nostalgic and significant about the annual cascade of autumn leaves.”
– Joe L. Wheeler –

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I was on retreat at the beautiful and cold Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, this past week. It is autumn in our ‘down under’ part of the world. Each season speaks to us, holding its own treasures and reflections – but I love Autumn the most. I can almost feel the Autumn Equinox arrive each year. There is a shift in the atmosphere as summer gives her last hurrah and is ushered off the stage. Dressed in Jacob’s coat of many colours, Autumn takes centre stage, bringing with her breathless beauty a sense of melancholy and the paradox of life and death.

Autumn is a most inviting, contemplative companion. Unlike any other season, it calls us to nature and to listen to her wisdom. Over the years, I have found that I am drawn to thoroughly clean my house in Spring, but my soul cleaning happens in Autumn. Personally, many things have fallen away for me over the last several years. It has been a time of surrender. As the Autumn leaves have fallen, my perspective has changed. It is amazing how we can begin to really see in times of letting go.

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I would like to encourage all my readers to take time out for some ‘soul cleaning’, regardless of whether you are in Autumn or Spring (hello, to my friends in the Northern Hemisphere). There are many great writers, poets and artists who we can choose as ‘alongsiders’ as we sort through the cupboards of our lives.

Here is a piece from Joyce Rupp’s and Macrina Wiederkehr’s “The Circle of Life“. May it bring you joy, hope and wisdom.

“In this lovely season when the dance of surrender is obvious,
We find large spaces left where something beautiful once lived.
As one by one the leaves let go,
A precious emptiness appears in the trees.
The naked beauty of the branches can be seen,
The bird’s abandoned nests become visible.
These new spaces of emptiness reveal mountain ridges.
At night if you stand beneath a tree and gaze upward,
Stars now peer through the branches.

This is an important Autumn lesson – when certain things fall away,
Here are other things that can be seen more clearly.

This same truth is celebrated in our personal lives.
When we are able to let go of a relationship that is not healthy,
The heart is given more room to grow.
We are able to receive new people into our lives whose gifts we never noticed.

Perhaps it is not a person we have lost but our dreams of good health that would last forever.
Our health fails, our dream dies.

Another significant area of surrender comes with possessions.
Our possessions can become like little gods that eventually get in our way.

There are those who struggle to discover the blessing and wisdom of ageing process.
The surrender of youth can be the most difficult of all.

Autumn invites us to let go, to yield … yes, to die.

We are encouraged to let things move in our lives.
Let them flow on into some new life form just as the earth is modelling these changes to us.”

“He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn,
about the wild lands, and the strange visions and mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien –

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Hildegard of Bingen and her Love Affair with Fennel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Questions in the Desert – Part Three

Faith is a dynamic and ever-changing process, not some fixed body of truth that exists outside our world and our understanding. God’s truth may be fixed and unchanging, but our comprehension of that truth will always be partial and flawed at best. – Bishop Gene Robinson –

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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is the third and final instalment of Questions in the Desert, a continuation of Part One and Part Two …

3. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Was it mere coincidence that the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53?

Isaiah is a book written by a Jewish prophet and part of the Tanakh, the Jewish Scriptures. This, in and of itself, is mildly fascinating, in that the Eunuch continued to search the Scriptures, looking for meaning, despite having been rejected at the Temple.

There is something more interesting, however. The passage he is reflecting on is the last of the four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” and it tells the story of a “Man of Sorrows”. People throughout the history of the church have understood this passage as prophesying the coming of Jesus: the One who was to be the “Suffering Servant”.

Importantly, this passage, immediately before the part read by the Eunuch, describes this coming Servant – who we now understand as Jesus – as physically marred and then rejected by the Jewish people.

Much like the Eunuch.

So as the Eunuch speaks to Philip, you can imagine the urgency in his voice: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” … Who is this man who, like me, is physically marred and rejected? Is it the writer? Is it someone else? Is this about me?

Here the yearning heart of an outcast is being reflected in the prophet Isaiah – who shows him that the Saviour of the world, was an outcast like him. Rejected by his own people, rejected by the fine religious institution of his day, he too was wounded and mutilated.

I wonder what Philip said to him. Maybe it was something like this: “What you are reading is about a man named Jesus, who, like you, pursued God. In his pursuit, he, too, went to the Temple, and he, too, was rejected. But this was no ordinary man. This was God made flesh. This God of the universe knows your story, the story of being outcast, of being refused from the place of worship, and God came into the world to show that the God of the universe is not defeated by rejection, even rejection unto death.”

Philip helped the Eunuch understand that the Scripture he was reading demonstrated how God was already at work in his life. Like a “Join the Dots” game, Philip simply brought God, who had always been with the Eunuch, just like God is with each and every person, to the forefront of the Eunuch’s conscious recognition.

Many of us remember that moment in life when we “awaken”,  our “dots are joined”, and we realise that God has always been at work in us. We have simply been unaware!

4. “Here is water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

I wish we were privy to the whole conversation between Philip and the Eunuch. Suffice to say, that the conversation and interchange of questions and answers brought them both to an “aha!” moment. That moment when the lights went on.

Imagine this moment for the Eunuch, a man who has only known rejection. He wore a stigma and knew ridicule from every social sphere: in his culture, in the religion he was trying to pursue, in his role, in his political positioning – everything about him reminded him every day that he did not belong.

And then Philip shares the Gospel. The Gospel that declared him as accepted, loved and included. This man would have no comprehension of what that would be like: to be equal amongst people of faith. This was not the rhetoric of some narcissistic platform personality begging for money, or an angry street “preacher” with a megaphone. This was what the Gospel should always be – wonderful and exceedingly exhilarating Good News. No wonder he saw a puddle in the desert and said, “Water! Why can’t I be baptised?”

And then there’s Philip! Perhaps at some point, he took a big gulp, laid aside his exclusive religious ideals and took a leap of faith! Faith that the Gospel is greater than his paradigms, ignorance and cultural stigmas. We forget that for Philip this is a whole new journey that has taken him totally out of his comfort zone. He realises as he goes to the water with the Eunuch that this will not be a popular move amongst his Jewish friends, and even amongst the Messianic Jews who are still getting their head around the fact that God is bigger than the boundaries of their religion.

The Samaritans were a huge step for Philip. This will take him to a place of no return – he either believes the Gospel is as glorious and scandalous as he has preached, or he returns to the confines of a law-based tradition and acceptance.

And again Philip astounds us with his courage – he takes the step and goes to the place of no return. He baptises the Eunuch. In Philip, God has found a faithful messenger.

And here end the questions in the desert – and for once in the Bible, it has a similar end to fairy tales.

When they came up out of the water, Philip disappears, and that was the last the Eunuch saw of him. But he didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as “happy as he could be” (Message Bible).

I love that – as happy as he could be. A man who never really understood love was now amongst the beloved. A man who had only known exclusion was now included. A man forever on the outer was now in the inner circle. He was equal, he was accepted – no matter what his future held, he was in Christ, and for him, that was all that mattered.

I wonder how people leave our conversations? Do we leave others as “happy as they could be”?  When we walk away are they a little closer to recognising God at work in their lives? A God who loves them immeasurably.

“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” – Brennan Manning –

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Questions in the Desert – Part Two

“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” 
– Jean Vanier-
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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is a continuation from Part One.

… The story of Philip and the Eunuch encourages us to pay attention to God’s Spirit in our lives. It also serves as an important reminder that every human being is loved by God and made in God’s image.

Philip demonstrates great courage as he begins to run next to a presumably heavily armed chariot (remember, the Eunuch was a treasurer) to listen to his questions and engage in his life’s story.

Question 1 (Philip): “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Philip, who has now become an ‘alongsider’ to the Eunuch, is listening to him read from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Prophetic narrative is a most difficult genre for even a seasoned scholar. The Eunuch is reading aloud, a normal practice for people of antiquity. Philip shows concern that perhaps the eunuch does not fully comprehend exactly what Isaiah is saying. He is right.

Question 2 (Eunuch): “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?”

The Eunuch invites Philip to sit with him in his chariot. He invites him to be a spiritual mentor. Like the Eunuch, our faith, cannot be completely understood unless we live it out within community.

It is interesting to take a moment at this point and consider a couple of things:

One, that the whole encounter in the desert was not ‘orchestrated’ or ‘planned’ by human effort. It was one of those Divine providential moments of life.

Two, Philip responded to the moment with courage and humility. Unlike so much of what we see outworking itself in the rhetoric of modern day Christianity, yelling at people from the many social media platforms with a politicised, arrogant, Messiah-complex tone, Philip comes alongside with love and attentiveness.

What sort of transformation must have occurred in Philip’s life! From a young age he would have been raised as an observant Jew and people like the Eunuch were outside his paradigm. They were the outcasts. This encounter was not just a ‘conversion experience’ for the Eunuch, but for Philip as well. Conversion is not something that happens just once in our lives!

And so Philip begins to explain the Scripture from which the Eunuch is reading:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” Isaiah 53

I doubt very much that his reading of Isaiah 53 was mere ‘coincidence’ …

Part Three and the final questions will all be in the next blog post.

“The gospel is not just the illustration (even the best illustration) of an idea. It is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed.” Lesslie Newbigin,The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
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Questions in the Desert – Part One

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Nature’s seasons are a constant reminder that nothing we do or experience in life is permanent. I was part of a mega-church community in Melbourne, Australia, for over thirty years. I never thought that season would come to an end. But it did.

One of the last sermons I gave at this church was on Philip’s encounter with a eunuch in a dusty Palestinian desert, as narrated in Acts 8. Hindsight is a most wonderful thing – looking back now I see the significance of that message in my own life. It is helping me as I learn to dream again, as I reflect on the religion of Christianity and what it has become in modern times, and specifically on the possibilities of a movement that focuses on the love and words of Christ.

Below are some of the notes from this sermon – I will post them over a couple of blogposts so as not to overwhelm the reader 🙂

… The book of Acts, in the New Testament of the Bible, contains vital information linking the life of Jesus and the various epistles (or letters) written after his death. Taking centre stage in this book are two men: Peter and Paul. If it wasn’t for Acts we would know very little about them, especially Paul and his motivation that took him to distant lands. Without Acts we would also not know about Philip, a Eunuch, and questions in the desert …

In Acts 8, we find a disciple of Christ called Philip. The suggested author of Acts, Luke, has taken time to develop Philip’s persona: he was someone who had spread the Gospel in Samaria, and was working throughout the territory of Judea and up the coast to Caesarea. Philip is portrayed as prophetic: he proclaims the Gospel with signs and wonders, he speaks with angels, he is whisked up by the Spirit, and he runs alongside the chariots of mighty men. Luke is painting the prophetic missional character of Philip as a forerunner of the prophetic mission and mandate of the Gospel.

Philip encounters a man from the ‘ends of the earth’. This eunuch is from Ethiopia, which is known in the Bible as the land of Cush. It does not correspond to modern Ethiopia but rather the Nubian kingdom whose capital was Meroe, south of Egypt, which is part of modern-day Sudan.

The eunuch was a wealthy man –  he had a carriage, he could read, he had a driver, and he was in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (a dynasty, not a personal name). He represented people that to the Jewish Christians were at the ‘ends of the earth’. He also represents a people group who have been ostracized and kept away from Yahweh because of his very identity as a eunuch – a mutilated one.

In antiquity, eunuchs belonged to the most abhorred and ridiculed group of men, often being slaves who had been castrated to inflict punishment or enact servitude. If they did rise to a position of prominence they could not escape the stigma of their sexless condition. Eunuchs did at times rise above their social status and find employment at the imperial court, but they would always be victims of negative stereotyping and ridicule during the Persian period. They were always on the outside – Exclusion was a part of life for them.

Absence of sexual organs meant that eunuchs were stigmatized due to their inability to reproduce and represent that culture’s idea of the traditional family. Their ‘otherness’ was amplified not only by their sexual difference and childless state, but also their exclusion from worshipping in the temple with the rest of God’s family. In Deuteronomy 23:1, it says that “no one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”  This man carried the stigma of imperfection and immorality.

This eunuch, although he would be excluded from the religious festival in Jerusalem, went to worship anyway. And now God came looking for him, the outcast, the stigmatized – and in a marvelous scandalous way he becomes wholly accepted.

“This eunuch, symbolizing the community of ostracised sexual minorities, is among the first of the outcasts from ancient Israel to be welcomed into Jesus’ discipleship of equals.”
–  Jerome Neyrey, paper on the social world of Luke-Acts.

This is indeed a strange and scandalous story. I don’t think those early Jerusalem Christians ever imagined this is what the ‘Gospel to the ends of the earth’ message looked like. Perhaps, like us today, they had a much neater, less risqué, ideal of what it would mean for the good news of an incarnate Christ to travel outside their boundaries and tightly held dogma.

So when we talk about the ‘Gospel’, does it ever occur to us that this God of messy humanity will deliberately mess with our heads and take us as far out of our comfort zone as our obedience allows?

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… Part Two and the first question in next blog …

 

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Arctic Terns and Lupin Flowers: Reflections on Relentless Thoughts

“The Arctic Tern is one of the most aggressive terns, fiercely defensive of its nest and young. It will attack humans and large predators, usually striking the top or back of the head. Although it is too small to cause serious injury, it is capable of drawing blood. Other birds can benefit from nesting in an area defended by Arctic Terns.”
Migration – 

Our road trip through Iceland had to be one of the major highlights of 2016. I loved that hauntingly beautiful country.  This past week I spent time looking through photos and came across this:

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Arctic Tern COLONY you might be attacked by hundreds of angry birds, wear a hat and or hold a stick or Lupin flower above your head. 
 
We spent a few days in the Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre, staying at a Mountain Lodge, 17km east of Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. Taking a walk along the rugged coastline we came across the sign. Our amusement was cut short as the hilarious warning became a chilling reality – we became the focus of hundreds of very angry birds! Running for our lives like the students in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” there was no time to pick a Lupin flower – just get me the hell out of here.

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Months later I now sit in the peaceful forest surroundings in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland with no Arctic Tern in sight. Only the ones in my head. It is amazing what happens when you take time out; the very act of seeking solace in quiet spaces can become a minefield of a thousand thoughts and some of them are very angry. We should go into times of solitude and reflection with warning signs: “You might be attacked by hundreds of relentless, incessant thoughts – stick a Lupin flower in your hair and smile.

As a serial ‘overthinker’, an empath, and an only child, this blog is dedicated to all tortured souls out there who, like me, asked ‘why’ long before we ever said ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’!  Those not wired this way tend to see our questions and cynical streak as negative – and they have a point! We all have our shadows. Understanding that our critical mind can very quickly morph into an Arctic Tern Colony is an important step in self recognition. Just like the folk on the opposite spectrum can fly into the positive hyper-reality of Neverland, never to be seen again.

Existential angst is the hound that snaps at our heels on a daily basis. What a menacing beast it is. We look for meaning and everything needs to be analysed critically. Mistakes and regret are some of our worst nightmares. We have a small-talk phobia and would rather pluck the hair of our big toe than listen to cliches or one word answers. We connect deeply with the German word “Sehnsucht”, or unfathomable longing, that takes our mind on tours and detours as we search for significance and essence, just like Indiana Jones hunts for ancient artefacts.

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Some of us have found meaning in faith. Identifying with the author of Ecclesiastes (another obsessive overthinker!!) who wrestled with profound profundities and in exasperation declared that God has placed eternity in the human heart, we ponder all our lives and still don’t get it (3:11). The great, late C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” My own personal thousand rabbit holes of thought leads me back to the life and claims of Christ – but it is not an easy, ‘happy-go-lucky’ faith path. Rather, I go through seasons of doubt, hounded by questions that I know are veiled in mystery that greater minds have pondered for centuries.

But I digress! Back to those Arctic Terns that at times take it upon themselves to disrupt our peaceful state. Lupin flowers, it seems, are Iceland’s answer for this force of nature. The Nootka Lupin is a native to North America. It was introduced to Iceland in the first half of the 20th century to combat erosion, speed up land reclamation, and help with re-forestation. The Nootka Lupin has proven to be effective for land reclamation. However, some are concerned because it is spreading too quickly and becoming too invasive, and this delightful purple flower has now earned the name ‘Alaskan Wolf’.

362036164-nootka-lupin-reykjanes-wildflower-meadow-flowerIcelanders suggest taking this beautiful, purple perennial pest and waving it wildly above our heads to deter angry birds targeting our scalp. There is a lesson in this for all fellow overthinking empaths out there. When critical thinking begins to turn us into brooding balls of melancholy it is time to deliberately find some invasive forms of happy thought and swing them around in our head like a maniac. We don’t ban Arctic Terns, they need to be recognised and acknowledged, but we draw a line when they start to shit on our heads. 

So what does that Lupin flower look like for you? A bungee jump down some mountain cliffs? A long walk on the beach? Getting out your paint brushes and creating art that has no rules attached? A motorbike ride? A visit to the state library or national gallery? A good glass of red and a cigar? A cup of coffee with a dear friend? Singing in the rain? Goethe? Jazz or Viking Metal? When we open our eyes, we discover that we are surrounded by Lupin flowers.

Arctic terns come and go. We don’t pretend they don’t exist. They do and they have a role to play. So do Lupin flowers. Through the yin and yang of life, we discover that for every Arctic Tern there is also a Lupin flower. Remember that, dear friend. Pick your favourite flower, wave it above your head, and do a wild dance … just for the heck of it!

Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive – it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” – Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery)
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