Tag Archives: Spirituality

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 …

 

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)

2017: The Year of Discernment

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” 

Parker Palmer

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It is probably a good thing that we are extremely limited in seeing our future. We can make all sorts of plans and set ambitious goals, yet we have to constantly live with the reality that we never quite know where the path of life will take us.

I did not know that 2016 would be a year when my premonitions of ‘letting go’ would culminate in a thousand goodbyes. A relocation to the Sunshine Coast brought this home like Thor’s hammer. As my partner and I recalibrate and look ahead, while at the same time dealing with the heartache of saying goodbye, a friend helped me shape language and perspective around 2017. It is a year of discernment for us. This blog is written for people on a similar path.

Discernment is an ancient practice that finds it’s origin in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is the belief that humans can seek divine guidance through the process of discernment. We see this practice through Sacred Text and in the ways of the early church fathers and mothers. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are an example of a discernment process developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. For a historical overview on the ‘History of Spiritual Discernment’ please see Greg Caruso’s blog post.

Regardless of whether you are a person of faith or not, discernment is something we implement regularly in our lives. We may not always recognise this. Every day we have a multitude of voices and invitations pulling us in all directions. We have been shaped by these voices – for the good and the bad. Part of the process of discernment is taking time to silence our noisy world, take out our compass, and find out what direction we are going and whether we actually want to keep heading that way. This takes discipline and, as I am finding out, great courage. To sit with ourselves for an extended period of time and really delve into our past, present and future, can be a most terrifying and lonely experience. It can also be one of the most liberating and life-giving exercises we can do for ourselves.

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Our lives speak to us … and we can choose to pay attention. In a frantic world we take little time for discernment and we end up telling our life how it needs to be lived, instead of listening deeply. The result is that our lives are not integrated with who we really are. This is what happened to me in a staff leadership role I once held at a church – I simply adopted some of its dogmas and practices without question. My Jenga blocks started tumbling when I recognised that some of these ideas did not integrate with who I was and what I understood as the gospel of Christ. This discernment process took time and the subsequent actions required were painful – but I can truly say that I am so profoundly grateful for that journey. Reflecting on it gives me hope for 2017 as we again come to a place of stopping the noise and listening.

It is easy to seek guidance from everything and everyone except from within. We desperately look for life purpose or vocation as something that needs to be hunted, conquered and achieved, instead of recognising that it is a gift given, waiting to be discovered. Listening to that quiet voice within helps us understand who we are at our core. Discernment is a practice that helps us re-discover this quiet voice.

So, for my friends on a similar journey – take time to listen. There are some fantastic resources available on the art of discernment and listening. Invest time and value into this important process. There is a kingdom within you that has the ability to nourish, not just yourself, but many others. May you find that space.

“The art of awareness of God, the art of sensing his presence in our daily lives cannot be learned off-hand. God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes comes the ability to grasp them.” 

Abraham Joshua Heschel

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A Thrill of Hope

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
– Adolphe Adam – 

It’s that time of year again. While some folks claim there is a ‘war on Christmas’, it takes very little research to discover that this apocalyptic, deluded conspiracy theory holds little truth. Christmas, or at least the capitalist, indulgent, endless carol jingles, deck-the-halls-with-boughs-of-holly version is alive and well. The joy can be felt in shopping centre carparks and on the faces of folks standing in long queues as they spend their last dollars on items that will decorate an Op Shop next year. Christmas is going strong.

Christmas as we know it today has a most interesting history. Early Christianity never celebrated the birth of Jesus – only his death and resurrection at Easter. It was in the fourth century that some bright, ecclesiastical persona decided it would be rather jolly to also celebrate his birth – but when? Pope Julius I chose December 25, the same time as the winter solstice festivals, in the hope that this new ‘Feast of the Nativity’ would be popular … and by the amount of tinsel on my balcony several hundred years later, he was absolutely right.

Some religious folks have a real problem with Christmas. So if there’s a ‘war on Christmas’, a lot of it is coming from a counter conspiracy theory that sees Christmas as pagan worship. Oh, and don’t mention a Christmas tree, or Santa, or elves, or tinsel to these fervent, anti-Christmas believers. So the ‘war on Christmas’ is rather awkward as it seems to be a civil Christian war (maybe that’s where the whole silly idea of ‘just’ war came from??). Someone should let dear Peter Dutton know, who is appalled at the resistance to Christmas … I am for democracy and free speech and I totally agree that Mr. Dutton should be allowed to sing about a refugee family desperately looking for shelter. Sing away, Mr. Dutton, sing away!

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Whether we choose to celebrate Christmas or not, is a personal  decision. For me, the fanfare around this time of year is not that convincing or enticing. For many, Christmas is a difficult season as it can highlight a strained relationship, loneliness, as well as grief or loss, amidst the explosion of ‘happiness’ from the media marketing machine. I also reflect on the reason we celebrate Christmas: to remember a child born in poverty and harsh oppression. The real Christmas had no jingle bells or red nosed reindeers. The real Christmas brought hope in the very fact that it was so messy and controversial.

The thrill of hope which marked that holy night so long ago was not because superman had been born. It did not lie in the religious institutions that would lay claim to the little baby and brand their ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ in his name. It is not the act of belief itself, or a belief in sacred text. The thrill of hope is the child: Emmanuel – God Incarnate, God with us. The messy, scandalous and difficult birth, life and death of Christ reminds everyone that God takes on human form, with all the complexities of what it means to be human.

The thrill of hope is not a list of rules. It is not a group of exclusive, privileged people arguing who is more holy or right than the other. The thrill of hope is that the child born to Mary, is the Saviour of the world, who also identifies with our frailty, our sorrow, our disappointments, our questions, our joys and all our longings. His very life served as a signpost to a different tomorrow and a different kingdom. A kingdom not built on power, pride, patriotism, nationalism, racism, exclusivism, religion, sexism or all the other silly human notions we construct to make us feel more safe and stem a little bit of our existential angst. The kingdom that this child ushered in was one of hope, love, joy, serving, kindness, inclusion and equality. It is a counter-cultural, subversive way that the sacred text calls the ‘narrow way’.

We see the whispers of this hope both now and not yet. We see it when love conquers fear, when kindness conquers prejudice, when faith conquers superstition, when hope conquers despair, when generosity conquers the need to consume and protect. So whatever you think of Christmas or the claims of Christ, my wish for you, dear friend, is that the atmosphere and virtues of that subversive kingdom may be yours. To contemplate humanity embracing these ideals truly brings a thrill of hope … it is, after all, still a beautiful world.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
– Adolphe Adam –
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Remember with Purpose

You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
– Exodus 22:21 –
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Part of the problem in reading an ancient sacred text with modern minds is that there is a disconnect and dissonance in context, culture and thought. When reading the Bible, for example, it is easy to revert to a form of fundamentalist literalism that leaves us with naive absolutism. Some may miss the point that in the Hebrew culture “deed was always more important than creed” (Wilson).  For example, when Habakkuk speaks of the just living by ‘faith’ (emunah), it implies an unwavering hope or trust that is backed through deed and action, not just an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines!

The idea of remembering or to remember (zakar) in the Bible and/or Torah, has to do with far more than just a simple retention of information. Rather, remembering is always accompanied by action. For example, Shabbat, returns every week. She reminds devout Jews that Yahweh is their Creator and Redeemer. Shabbat calls to action and repetitive observance enforces remembrance. There is an emphasis made throughout this sacred text that purposeful remembrance is very important in everyday life, in the nurture of tradition, and in the shaping of worldview. Why this emphasis?

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People, or people groups, who forget or deny their past, their story or their language, forget who they really are. Our society’s infatuation with wealth, power and dominion keeps us hyper-active, anxious, and hurriedly forgetful. We, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, obsessed with the ring of power, forget our name and our story, and with the forgetting we loose all connection with our past and our belonging in this world.  We forget that societies that focus on the ‘ring’ seldom find their way back to the ‘Shire’.

The study of history is an exercise in remembering. In the collection of our past narratives, we inform, guide, assist and shape our present and future. To forget history, or deny it, is to cut off our belonging through the corridors of time. All over the world today we find people remembering with purpose: through festivals, marches, holidays and holy days, memorials and solemn ceremonies, traditions and habits … We are made to remember.

Yet to remember is not always an easy task. Looking back we discover that the ancient paths did not just lead through green pastures and beautiful scenery, but there are also times of walking through deserts, storms, and very dark and treacherous moments. It is tempting to remember the good and forget the bad. Many Australian history books have done just that for decades – seeking to sanitise the past and educate another generation in a more palatable rendition of the atrocities committed under Colonial rule. My hope is that we will become far more active in recording an accurate version of what transpires on our fair isle. Our children’s children have a right to remember and lament these current days – where we house refugees in concentration camps and where we have allowed the fear, racism and propaganda spread by those in politics to shape our world.

Revising history in order to remember is one thing. Denying it takes us to a whole new level. It is heartbreaking to actively remember the holocaust. For many this path is shut. The grief is too overwhelming. For others the enormity of a horrible event in history can be so unpleasant that denial is preferable. It is much easier to ignore, rationalise or deny what has happened. There is a comfort in numbers and often people find each other and feed the denial. It is easy to pass harsh judgement on those who deny the holocaust, for example, yet many of us stand guilty of historical denial in some manner or other. Sometimes it is the denial of our own personal story.

So as the end of the year approaches, it is often a good time to spend some moments in reflection … to remember. Zakar, to actively remember, helps us to change our ways. The very action requires a transformation. It brings purpose both into our past, present and future. What are some things that happened this year that you would like to remember? In what active way will you do that? How about starting a journal? Begin to actively write down events, people, or circumstances that have made you who you are and that you want to remember. It takes courage to remember. At times there is much pain before there is any healing. May you be brave, dear friend. May you remember.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel

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Congestions, Delays and Detours!

Odd, how life makes twists and turns. I never would have guessed that I’d end up where I am now, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wouldn’t trade this path I’m on for the whole solar system, for that matter. If I’ve learned anything these last several months, it’s that sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
– Angela Blount –

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I was meant to fly back home to the Sunshine Coast yesterday. The alarm went extra early to ensure that we could negotiate Melbourne’s traffic mayhem, and get to the airport in plenty of time for my 10am flight. But, alas, even at 6.30am the freeway had already ground to a standstill. My quick thinking partner took a detour, weaving in and out of tiny streets through sleepy suburbs. Then the phone went with a text message. My flight had been cancelled. I tried to call the airline to change to a different flight and was placed on ‘hold’. We listened to repetitive announcements and the jingle of ‘hold’ music for over an hour. By the time someone eventually picked up we had just arrived at the airport.

The person on the line was not helpful. Referring to the airline as ‘they’ it became obvious that the delicate job of dealing with irritated customers had been handed to some contract group. They showed no mercy. No, I cannot catch another flight that day as they were all fully booked! No, they won’t allow me to detour via another major city! No, they do not compensate in any way or form. You have to find your own accommodation. By the time I put the phone down I was in a frightful fury and we took the long trip home – stopping for strong coffee, as it was too early for wine!

After I managed to downgrade my feelings towards a rude airline encounter from ‘cold hatred’ to ‘loathe entirely’, it occurred to me how much of life was represented in those few frustrating hours. We plan our life journey: how we will travel, what we will do when we get there, and the people we will meet and greet … and then we wake up to life with all its detours, congestion and cancelled travel plans. Have you noticed that?

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Sometimes life feels so congested that we need to be reminded to breathe. We frantically look for a different way and venture on a random detour through uncharted territory. Our congested, helter-skelter life has flung us into some unknown suburbs that we have never heard of or thought we would visit – perhaps an oncology ward? Or an interview for a totally different career? Or surrounded by strange tribe of people that quickly become friends and people we love deeply.

There are times we are caught totally unaware. We thought we were bound for an exotic destination, only to have our dreams and hopes ‘cancelled’. We furiously dial the ‘God’ line – but it feels like God has placed us on hold and taken a liking to elevator music!! We desperately look around for a comforting word from the people around us, but they have been kidnapped and replaced with distant, look-alike cousins that mouth robotic, religious cliches that once held meaning.

Life is full of congestion, detours and delays. To expect anything else is to live with constant disappointment or frustration. It is not a matter of whether you will encounter these travelling companions but rather a matter of where and when. At any moment, life can grind to a total halt and we sit on the freeway and wonder whether it will ever go back to ‘normal’ – whatever ‘normal’ means. We cannot force things to start moving again, we just need to sit and wait. What a terrible dilemma for all of us addicted to our own adrenaline in a hurry-sick, congested world.

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So I was stranded yesterday. I treated myself to a pedicure and read my ‘Slow‘ magazine. Sitting in the corner of that bustling little store I remembered to be grateful. It was a begrudging sort of gratitude at first, but gratitude nonetheless. As I leant into breathing, being mindful and grateful, I reflected on my life. My whole life has been a set of detours, congestion and delays. I have walked paths I never dreamt of walking, I have met people I never thought I would have the privilege of meeting, I have been in spaces that were thin places – and so many of these encounters happened because of … you guessed it – detours, congestion and delays.

Most of the time we do not know why life can get so awfully complicated. We feel helpless and vulnerable when circumstances come into our lives that we have no control over. But there are a few things we can do. We can remember to breathe. We can practice mindfulness. And we can be grateful. May your delayed, congested and detour-filled life also be filled with unexpected joy, a sense of purpose, wonder and gratitude, dear Pilgrim.

Comfort For Those Waking Up In The Matrix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For those waking up in the Matrix …

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

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

Richard Rohr

Job, His Friends, and Disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Broken Birch


“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” – Parker J. Palmer

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Spring has come to the world’s most liveable city. You would be forgiven for doubting this. As I write, Melbourne is in the throes of arctic-like weather conditions and it is pouring down gallons of water that are creating havoc across the State. But when you look outside, Mother Nature calms our fear and produces the evidence – Spring is here! My garden is thriving. Amongst the many plants bursting with new life is a tree that stands taller than all the others: a birch with a peculiar story.

When we moved into this house we had many generous people give us plants to help establish this ginormous garden. We also kept our eye on any nursery ‘specials’. We planted a small birch grove because a nursery was shutting down and they were selling birches as part of a ‘super’ special. They also gave us a birch for free. Someone had accidentally broken it whilst moving it to a new spot. It was a quarter of the size of its birch brothers and sisters and frankly, looked miserable.

In hindsight, birches were not the best choice for clay soil, but hindsight is not always helpful. Our birches struggled to establish. They needed extra tender loving care in those hot summer months. Except for the broken birch. We all expected it to die. It did the opposite. Defying birch-law, clay soil, brokenness and the misery of its tribe, it grew and flourished. Within three years it outgrew its birch siblings. Today, it is a magnificent tree that provides shelter to so many other plants. It is easy to forget that this was a broken birch once …

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You see, friend, in life you will face many circumstances and situations that will cut you off at the kneecaps: personal failure, the betrayal of friends, financial hardship, death of a loved one, illness, loneliness, changes – the list goes on. When you walk through these shadowed valleys it may feel like everyone else around you is standing tall, growing and flourishing. Everyone else, but you. You feel broken on the inside and no amount of positive thinking and meditation seems to cure that nagging pain within.

There are many times in life that we are that broken birch. It’s no use trying to tell ourselves some pseudo-narrative to dull the pain. There is no way ‘around’ these valleys. We have to learn to walk through them. Religion that calls you to growth without suffering, without pain, without heartache and without experiencing brokenness is no true religion, but simply a decorated band-aid for grievous wounds. In life you will experience brokenness.

Just like my birch, you may also find yourself planted in places that are less than ideal. Environments that should hamper your growth and well being. But my broken birch tree didn’t seem to take that much notice of that. It grew anyway. The environment was not its defining moment or its core identity. The reflection I take away is that sometimes we simply have to ignore the masses and the circumstances, put our head down and grow anyway. The opinions and ignorance of others does not define you.

In the end, dear friend, only you can live the life given you. And you have been assigned to live it amidst all the ups and downs and ‘accidents’ that come your way. Only you hold the integrity of your narrative. Only you can tell your story. No one else. People may try. They may refer to you as that ‘broken birch’. Don’t argue with them. Smile and wave and get on with your life. And when your inner core and strength overshadows their fear and judgement, show them much kindness …

“The Wound is the Place where the Light enters You” – Rumi

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Lazarus at Our Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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