Becoming

As I write this, it’s a beautiful autumn day outside. After a week of extreme heat, today is a desperately-needed refreshment. It rained lightly last night and the smell of rain is still hanging in the air. The sky is cloudy with some spots of blue daring to peep through from time to time. Some leaves on the trees are starting to change colour, but I think this is more due to the recent heatwave than to the new season, which is not even a week old.

AshWedesdayCrossIt’s also Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this is the day the liturgical church declares the depravity and mortality of humankind.

As a cross of ash is made on our foreheads, we are reminded of our transient state:

“Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Or, instead, we may be challenged:

“Repent and believe the good news”

Or, in different words:

“Turn from your sins and follow the Saviour.”

Ash Wednesday contains in its essence both a reminder of who we are and also a challenge to become who we are meant to be.

While our own mortality is something we all must learn to deal with (death happens to all, no exceptions), turning from a life of self-fulfilment and self-pleasure to walk in the way of Jesus is counter-intuitive at its best. Giving up what we want? Letting go of what we have? Forsaking the identity we’ve forged for ourselves and lived out all of our life?

In the words of Coldplay:

Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh take me back to the start

(The Scientist)

It’s always difficult when we are called to give up, let go and forsake. We must come first to the place of recognition that there is a better way. We must then go through the process of casting off the old and exposing ourselves–being vulnerable–in acknowledging the part we have played in who we are at the present.

But then . . . but then! We are privileged to be able to start again. No matter what we have done. Regardless of where we have been. Despite all our past.

In this moment we are made new. The slate is wiped clean. We begin again.

We start on a journey as we, through humility and courage, move forward in the way of Love, becoming who we were created to me.

I’m not a big fan of the institutional Church nor of what Christianity has become. There is no argument that organised religion has a lot for which to answer, both in the past and in our world today.

Yet, the symbolism attracts me and speaks to me in ways no catechism, no systematic theology, no rules or standards ever could. And in accepting the symbol of ash in a sign of the cross on my head, I am accepting that I have not yet arrived at where I need to be, but, every day I am changing, growing, learning, loving . . . becoming.

This is where I need to be today.

And, on Ash Wednesday, this is my hope and prayer for you:

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.

All things work together

lightbulbI had an epiphany this week.

Oddly enough, it was while listening to a podcast recorded on Epiphany, the day on which the liturgical church celebrates the appearance (unveiling, revealing) of Christ to humankind.

My light-bulb moment, however, wasn’t in any way related to the magi visiting baby Jesus nor was it inspired by the words found in the gospel text about the precious gifts they presented to him.

But it was about a gift: life. And it’s a precious gift that we often take for granted. Or we get side-tracked from living it because we’re caught up in trying to work out all the bad things that happen.

A loved one receives a terminal diagnosis.

A marriage breaks down.

A “sure thing” bet on the stock market collapses.

A house burns down.

A business fails.

In all these circumstances, we, as Christians, have had a terrible track record of glibly offering platitudes and cliché-ridden comfort to one another.

“God has a plan.”

“God is trying to teach you something.”

“All things work together for good.”

That last one really hits me because I’ve used it and heard it used so many times, thinking it was a simple affirmation that meant all would be well, or that this too will work out for the best in my life.

Then the light switch was turned on.

All things work together.

Good things. Bad things. Health. Sickness. Happy times. Sad times. Life. Death.

All things work together.

Those life events that stress us, debilitate us, humiliate us, frustrate us, weaken us, work together with those circumstances that encourage us, heal us, empower us, bring us joy and strength.

All things work together.

And this statement that we can find in Romans 8, verse 28, does not mean that all will work out well in the end. Nor does it mean that everything we experience results in what is best for us. It simply means that all things we experience work together and, for us, this is good.

That loved one with the cancer dies.

That divorce still happens.

Our credit record may never recover.

We may find ourselves living in poverty.

This verse is not a cure-all, grief-healing, success-guaranteeing platitude. It is s statement of fact.

Life is a gift. We may choose to focus on the bad or, like Pollyanna, be happily optimistic about everything we face. This does not alter the truth that life is still a gift.

And whether it be good or bad, happy or sad, it is still a precious gift.

And like the gift of all of God’s creation, it is good.

This is Love

heartI am writing this on Valentine’s Day (the Feast Day of St Valentine,, for the purists out there). Traditionally, it’s a day when much of the world celebrates love–particularly romantic love–with all its trappings: cards, flowers, chocolates, romantic dinners, and actions that show how much we love those who have a special place in our heart.

In our collective lives we are inundated with the theme of love. It makes headlines as those in the public eye hook up with (or unhook from) other famous people. It’s celebrated in tabloid magazines. It’s the reason why most music is written–at least most country music. It’s the theme of nearly every movie, every novel, every story worth telling. It’s on every channel of our television sets, every night.

Love Island.

The Bachelor.

The Bachelorette.

Married at First Sight.

Perfect Match.

We get so addicted to the drama of romance. Perhaps this is because we have an inner longing to find ourselves that perfect soulmate, the One who will solve all our problems and satisfy all our desires (in and out of bed). Or maybe its simply a residual trait from a long evolutionary process where the fittest of our ancestors were those who procreated the most.

Or maybe not.

Regardless, love is, as immortalised in song, is all around me, is in the air, is a battlefield (a little like ‘choose your own adventure’). Love is all you need, it will keep us together, it’s more than a feeling and it ‘ain’t for keeping.’

At the heart of our desire for the love of another, I believe, is the need to know another and be intimately known by another, and accepted regardless of what that knowledge uncovers. We all crave a relationship with someone who will love us in spite of our flaws, our bad taste, our sub-standard looks, our dad bod/dad jokes and our annoying habits.

And when we find that person, we are not afraid of what that relationship will bring because we know that we are truly loved.

As St John wrote two millennia ago, “Perfect love casts out fear.” In the embrace of a genuine, accepting, forgiving and including love, there is no room for nor necessity to be afraid. You are loved.

The opposite of fear, then, is love. In the absence of fear, love thrives. In the presence of love, fear flees. You cannot have both.

And we know from the same biblical letter, that God is Love and anyone who truly loves (loves with the generous, fear-scattering kind of love), is of God.

So on this auspicious day of the celebration of love, may I offer this blessing:

May Love bless you, and keep you.

May Love shine upon you and give you peace.

And may the blessing of Love–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–be upon you and remain with you always.

Amen.

 

A New Story

Cory-and-the-Seventh-Story-Cover-LargeBrian McLaren has written a new book. There’s nothing new about that. He’s been churning out around one a year for a few decades now. I personally have been blessed, challenged and changed by reading his writings. By far, the book that has had the greatest impact on my life of faith has been A New Kind of Christian which, for me at the time, echoed so many I-dare-not-speak thoughts and questions about what had become to me a stale, dead, rote-memory, agenda-driven Christianity.

And that story is told in a new, embraceable way in this brightly-illustrated children’s book by Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins, Cory & the Seventh Story.

If you are familiar with Brian’s work, the seventh story will definitely ring a bell. In this child-friendly version, Cory the raccoon and his friend Owl (who, unfortunately, remains nameless) live through the evolution of human civilisation as symbols of ourselves in their animal village. As the story unfolds, the creatures play out the stories, centring around the possession of a ‘shiny object,’ that we all, at some point, have lived:

Domination: Us ruling over Them
Revolution: Us overthrowing Them
Isolation: Us apart from Them
Purification: Us marginalising or excluding Them
Victimisation: Us defeated by Them
Accumulation: Us with more than Them
Reconciliation: Us for Them

Cleverly weaving in very relatable interactions between Cory and the main players in these stories, McLaren and Higgins reveal the great flaws in history’s six stories which are only overcome in the telling of a seventh story by a poet-horse named Swift.

In this new story, a bigger table is built and all the animals are welcomed to a great feast. They are to come as they are and leave their ‘shiny objects’ at home and simply enjoy what has been prepared for them. Those who up until now had been considered ‘the least’ are given places of honour at the table and there is plenty of food for everyone–nobody is left out.

As they enjoy the celebration, Swifthorse tells the new story:

“There is no big or small, no short or tall,
No best or worst, no blessed or cursed,
No dirty or clean, no cause to be mean,
No rich or poor, no reason for war,
We have more than enough in the story of love.
Each is for all of us, and all are for each of us.
This is the wisdom this new story teaches us.”

Of course, there are a few who snarl and spit at this idea–these are the dominating creatures of the previous stories: Badger, Fox, Weasel and Skunk–who drive out Swift and, possibly (this part is left unanswered) kill her.

Drive the poet away, but this story will stay.
Long after I’m gone, the story lives on.

In the concluding pages, the creatures, who themselves are treated as outcasts by the antagonists, gather around a fire and retell Swift’s story and promise to live in love and service for the betterment of their world.

For those of us who have grown up in Christianity, the parallels are quite obvious. However, seeing ourselves as tellers of the six stories at various times in our journey is something that, even as an adult, is confronting. In our own interaction with ‘shiny objects’ and the desire for power over others, we have failed in many ways to hear the story of love as it is told–and demonstrated to us–by and in the life of Jesus.

This short, readable parable may not only grow our children’s awareness of the stories by which we live our lives, but may also help us to see how much we need to grow as their parents and role models to not only tell but also show them the reconciling love and acceptance of Jesus.

Cory & the Seventh Story was released on 12 December and, at the time of writing, is only available directly from the website https://www.theseventhstory.com/kids/

 

. . . But we were too busy being Christians

I sat down to watch the (now classic) movie Back to the Future with my mate David. Despite there being 9 years difference in our ages, we both loved the same music and enjoyed the same TV shows (even though he did have an unshared weird fascination with the animated Dragon Ball series). We had dropped by the local Blockbuster and picked up the aforementioned movie on VHS tape and, for 116 minutes precisely, lived life through the eyes of one Marty McFly.

Dave’s mum was in and out of the family room, and at one point sat down at the desk behind us and, like us, got caught up in McFly’s adventures (or maybe she was just keeping tabs on how I was corrupting her son?). I remember turning to her at one point in the movie where Marty’s future mum and dad were slow dancing at the ‘Under the Sea Ball’ and I made an off-handed remark that she must have enjoyed her Senior Prom (seeing as she was, like the McFly elders, coming of age in the rock-n-roll era.)

Her response floored me with its almost-venomous indignation: “We didn’t do things like THAT. We were Christians!”

I tell that story to tell this one:

I enjoyed a long lunch recently with some friends and, as we sat around the table, talk shifted to our shared past in the Church. None of us at that table attend church with anywhere near the regularity we once did, having found so many new and more practical expressions of our faith. Musing on how many good deeds we could have done and how much life we could have shared with others outside our own churches back then, one of the group summed it all up in a truism that echoed in my head for days to come: ‘We were too busy being Christians.’

Yes. We were.*

The world around us was crashing and people were finding themselves jobless, without a home. Interest rates were at an all-time high and unemployment was off the charts. The AIDS epidemic was at its highest. There was famine in places we never heard of. Evil was rampant. In short, the world was going to hell in a hand-basket. But we were too busy meeting in our Church buildings, praising God, praying, and eating shared ‘fellowship’ lunches; meeting to plan our praising, praying and eating times. We were spending our time handing out gospel tracts, going door-to-door in an Evangelism Explosion™, preaching on the street corners, writing letters to politicians to express our anger over any number of anti-morality laws, and pasting up posters advertising the latest evangelistic rally or youth event.

churchfamilyThe next-door neighbour lived with his girlfriend and we all knew that was against God’s law. The folks behind us played KISS (and we all knew what that meant!) The across-the-street family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just down the road, Mrs H was an anxious wreck and spent most of her days in the local psychiatric facility. Around the corner was another family whose son was born with a rare genetic condition and spent most of his life so far recovering from numerous surgeries and extended hospital stays. The man just behind them beat his wife and, she ended up on medication that turned her into a shadow of what she should have been.

But we had to be at church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night and at youth group Friday night. Church visitation was on Monday night. We said we cared. We prayed for these poor folks who weren’t one of us. . . . but, as we well know, thoughts and prayers really are a poor substitute for action. (As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wisely notes: We are the answer to our prayers.)

How dare the people on our street hold drunken parties New Year’s Eve and interrupt our ‘Watchnight’ services! The homeless man who slept rough near the church would never have dreamed of asking us for help because, in our minds, he had no excuse for not getting a job or at least taking a shower once in a while. And any money we gave him, he would spend on drink anyway…

And so we kept ourselves busy.

Church Sunday morning. Fellowship Lunch Sunday afternoon. Church Sunday night. Visitation Monday night. Kid’s Club Tuesday afternoon. Bible Study Wednesday night. Church Board Meeting/Worship practice Thursday night. Youth Group Friday night. Saturday (no sports) usually was spent around the house or with some Church folks doing some Safe-for-Christians™ stuff.

The Church always had a roster, a programme, a working bee, a ‘ministry’ that needed volunteers, and we were urged to ‘give our time to God’ to be used for “His glory’. And we all knew the only way God would accept our time-sacrifice, like our money-sacrifice, was if we gave it to the Church.

And when we did have free time, we were encouraged to spend it reading our Bible, praying or listening to Godly Music®. And if we still had time, we could go around the neighbourhood leaving gospel tracts in people’s front doors or letterboxes or sing Christian songs at the mall. (I think the goal was to keep us so busy that we wouldn’t even have time to contemplate drinking, smoking, going to the movies, cruising around town or–God forbid!–sex. After all, we knew well the unwritten Bible verse: ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’)

Yes, we could have mowed the neighbours’ lawn. We could have made Mrs H a nice cake and gone down to her house for a cuppa. We could babysit a little boy so his parents could be with his brother in hospital. We could have just spent time listening to our friend whose life story read more like a tragic, abuse-ridden soap opera.

We could have done ever so much to show that following Jesus meant a great deal to us, so much that we would love our neighbours to the moon and back, even if they never joined our Church.

We could have.

But we were too busy being Christians.

___________________

* Like many posts I write, I have used the literary technique known as ‘Gleaning from many sources [books, talks and personally-related stories, as well as from my personal experience] and condensing it into one short post to make a point.’ While some of these things actually happened to me at some point in my life, some have been related to me by friends and acquaintances along the way. Sadly, I also inflicted many of these expectations on others, for which and to whom I offer my heartfelt and honest apology. I was too busy being a Christian.

What if . . . ?

The haunting tones of the opening credits captivated me as a fleeting reference to a big screen masterpiece with very similar themes flashed in my head. The Man in the High Castle’s producers chose to use an eerie, breathy rendition of Edelweiss to remind us, the viewers, of another story where the Third Reich lost a war. However, not so in this series. Set in 1962, The Man in the High Castle asks the question (and poses a highly credible answer to the same): What if America and its allies lost the Second World War?

Imagine a division of theHighCastle United States into west coast Japanese Pacific States and east coast Nazi-controlled Greater Third Reich. Hitler is still in command. Americans have lost most of their freedoms. The dreaded thought of another H-bomb being dropped (in addition to the war-ending wipe out of Washington D.C.) hangs over everyone’s head. What’s more is that the first adults who have known nothing but occupation are now making their way into the world.

The metaphor isn’t lost on me; many have asked the same kind of questions in recent days.

But this has always been a very present theme in almost every story, movie, play and piece of music since very early days.

What if? sparks the imagination of a young Dorothy caught in a dull black-and-white rural Kansas farm, and she wakes up in Oz.

What if? drives a chained Nelson Mandela to dream of a better South Africa.

What if? is the motivating force of every great scientist who has ever tirelessly flogged themselves to find a way, a cure, an answer or a technological revolution.

Every dream of ours is a What if? question.

Every hope for the future is a What if? question.

Every prayer we pray is a What if? question.

_

More often than not, however, is the other–negative–side of the question: “What if that event hadn’t happened?” “What if I didn’t say that?” “What if I did this instead of that?”

We long for someone to invent a magical DeLorean time machine to take us back in time so we can undo our past mistakes.

There are so many self-help books on specifically this topic that they could fill up any town library. TV Shows abound. YouTube is filled with a well-rehearsed crowd of people offering their wisdom on this topic.

But whatever well-meaning help is given, the past remains untouchable. It is gone. That moment will never come again. No hi-tech time-travelling car will appear to whisk me off to where I can reset my clock or rewrite a few days of upheaval.

I find, though, in an often-used, simple toss-away line, the most helpful words I can find to get me through any past-pity-party: “When you knew better, you did better.” We all have mistakes we would rather change to moments of glory. Given the same circumstances, with the same understanding–not having the advantage of hindsight–we would most likely do the same things, given the chance.

The same holds true for those who offended us, abused us, or shamed us. While some choose willingly to continue a life of hurting others, most folks, when they come to a higher level of thinking or a greater understanding of our inter-relatedness and the forces that work within us, tend to do better than in their previous ignorant state. There are times when I too come to a higher level of thinking, when I see from a new perspective that something I had suffered at the hands of another was done to me not out of malice, but out of whatever understanding that person possessed at the time. This doesn’t lessen the pain of what happened, but it does help with the healing.

Sometimes it takes a trained therapist or a qualified professional to help us work through past traumas. By all means, make that appointment, talk things through, seek help in dealing with your personal pain and in building your own emotional wellbeing. That call may be the most important first step you can ever take.*

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It is, I believe, a necessary exercise to ask ourselves the What if? questions. Often this refocuses our perspective and enlightens us to ways we can avoid repeating the same mistakes–or repeating, as a nation, the great mistakes of history.

In the case of The Man in the High Castle, we weave our prayers through the story line–prayers that we may never experience such diabolical authoritarianism in our lifetime, nor leave such a legacy to our children and their children.  Sometimes we need stories like this to help us strengthen our resolve to be the kind of people who have embedded in them the noble character traits of those who stand up for what is true, right and just.

Our imagination is an amazing (and undervalued) tool, but we must now, more than ever before, harness its power to tell better stories, dream bigger dreams and have the courage to let these transform us into the better people we need to be.

_

* In Australia, Lifeline Crisis Support 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue http://www.beyondblue.org.au are both great places to start. There are also numerous qualified counsellors, psychologists and mental health professionals available. Check your local Yellow Pages for listings of those who are members of and recommended by registered professional associations.

 

Counting

1 … 2 … 3 …

Counting.

It could be a game of hide-and-seek. Perhaps it’s a two-year-old learning her numbers. Maybe we’re dealing cards for a quick family round of Uno.

4 … 5 … 6…

Did you learn to count with giant, colourful flash cards? Picture books? By counting the toys on Playschool? Or maybe Count von Count on Sesame Street was your go-to Educator? (1 … ha ha ha … 2 … ha ha ha …)

It seems that we all, from a very early age, began to count things. Toys, books, pencils, cards, candy, peas (maybe if we told mum how many there were, she would have pity on us and not make us eat them!)

counter

And our obsession with quantifying things continued through our teenage years: albums (or CDs), shoes, tops, days until (insert favourite band here) showed up in our city.

19 … 18 … 17 … 16 …

This talent wasn’t lost in the transfer across to our spiritual life. Many churches still seek to quantify ‘spiritual’ activities, assuming the more we do the better people of faith we will be. It could be Bible verses memorised, Rosaries repeated each day, hours spent in prayer or pages in a journal. Unspoken spiritual hierarchies formed based on the things we think we can count.

And no wonder, because it seemed as we were growing up that ‘bums on seats,’ souls ‘saved,’ or baptisms were the measure of the success of a church and religious organisations were ready to do whatever it took to get the numbers up.

146 … 147 … 148 …

It appears that we humans are addicted to measuring and to formulae that we believe will ‘guarantee success.’ We lie awake at night wondering if we have done enough, worrying that we may not reach the nebulous goal of expectations placed on us by our culture, our church, our family, our peers. Our life is overtaken by what we learn in basic mathematics: quantifying every aspect, measuring our goodness, striving to increase our net worth . . . or at least the size and value of our wardrobe.

Surrounded by such a societal norm, Jesus asked the rhetorical question: ‘Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?’ (Matthew 6:27 NIV)

Well, can we?

The obvious answer is ‘No.’ But it’s not even the thought of counting our days (or hours–or cubits as the old version reads). In the context, the Rabbi is addressing the ancient art of worrying, fretting, concerning ourselves with the stuff of life that we can’t–or shouldn’t–count.

Look at the grass.

Look at the birds.

Look at the wildflowers.

Glory surrounds you. And this glorious beauty hasn’t gotten where it is by measuring itself against another, by hoarding its possessions, or striving for a greater quantity of anything.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’ 

We do not need to be wrapped up in measuring, accumulating, primping, counting our possessions and Instagramming our latest look. Rather, we need to rest,  enjoy what we have and be content with who we are. I have value. I am worthy. I am beloved of God.