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.

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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.

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* 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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Shhh…

(Warning: Trigger alert for those who have experienced abuse or emotional trauma in a church setting.)

______

Shhh. You can’t say that!

What? Why not?*

It’s not positive. It doesn’t look good. People will think . . . Well, you just can’t put that stuff out there. At least not on Facebook.

But this is how I feel right now.

Yeah, I know. But it’s still not appropriate to spread that stuff around. People will think… Well, it just doesn’t seem right for a Christian to use that language.

What language? Words like ‘sad,’ ‘angry,’ ‘frustrated,’ and ‘disappointed’ are me right now.

Yeah. But maybe you could lift the tone a little . . .

You mean pretend?

Hmmm . . . No, well not . . . not rrreally. it’s just a little “attitude shift.” Be a little more upbeat, positive, happy.

Sounds like pretending to me.

No, it’s not . . . Well, maybe just a little. But it’s for a good cause. I mean, you don’t want everyone to catch your negativity. It is contagious, you know. People need to see that you’re victorious over your negative feelings. You need to be an example, a shining light of God’s joy, love and peace in difficult circumstances.

But I’m not happy right now. I’m churning up inside. I don’t have anything I feel that I can give right now.

Looking at the big picture, that’s not really important. Give your doubts to God. What people need to see is that you’re trusting God, that you believe God is in control.

church-lonelinessBut I don’t feel like anyone’s in control right now. I’m aching inside and I’m so mad at those stupid people. I warned them! When they stood up and said ‘We must do this,’ and ‘It’s part of God’s grand plan,’ I said, ‘How can God have such a nutty plan that requires us to check our brains at the door and blindly say ‘Yes’ to what one group of men has told us we should do?’

I know it looks complicated right now, but you’ll see one day as you look back on this time of testing that it was all for the best.

Really? The best for who? People are . . . hurting. I’m hurting. I’m afraid. I don’t feel like I have it in me to go back there.** My Facebook friends may be feeling the same way I am and they might need my understanding. They need to know they’re not the only ones who feel like this. But the truth is . . . The truth is we’re all grieving what could have been. We’re grieving what we could have accomplished, given the chance. We thought we would be heard and understood. . . . but it seems like we’ve been wasting our time. And now all we have is an empty feeling. Loss. Hurt. Grief. I’d like to think honesty would go a long way right now towards our collective healing and recovery. I just need to be real right now.

But people will think . . .

Think what? That I’m like them? That I’m human and have emotions? Flaws? Fears?

People will think you’re not a good example of a Christian.

That’s so shallow! Seriously? They can <insert your choice of expletive-laden phrase here> Let them think whatever they want to.

(And, just like that I had one less Facebook friend.)

_____

*Based on actual conversations. **Image from the pen of the talented David Hayward a.k.a. Naked Pastor www.nakedpastor.com. If you are suffering from or have experienced spiritual abuse, there is a community that can support and encourage you in your path towards healing at www.thelastingsupper.com

The Woods, Part 1

woods1“Don’t go into the woods,” they said.

“There are things unspeakable that happen beyond the village wall.”

“I hear there are monsters,” another warned. “I’ve heard about how they’re waiting just inside the tree line to grab you and make you their dinner.”

“Oh, yes!” cried another, her eyes growing as big as saucers as she spoke (not really, but you know what I mean). “They have eyes that see in the dark and claws like razor blades. They will tear you apart slowly, drooling as they hear your screams. Then they will eat you and nothing will be left to show that you ever existed.”

The thought of this sent shivers down my spine. Not that I would be such a great feast, but I’d like to think I would at least be a tasty appetiser.

“Yes. yes! Beware of stepping off the narrow path,” whispered a tall, rather plain-looking woman whom I recognised as my schoolteacher. “Many have thought that there is nothing to lose, and these are the same who lost their lives to the terrible creatures of the woods.”

She continued: “The elders have a book in which they’ve written the names of all who have strayed from the one path to the river and have never returned . . .” (Her voice faded away as if she were channelling the spirit of one of the dear departed.)

Suddenly, as if she was snapping out of a trance, she turned and looked directly at me. “You knew Robert.” she stated, rather matter-of-factly..

Everyone knew Robert. He was the village clown-slash-idiot. Funniest guy I ever met. We used to love hanging around him. He was the life of the party because of his uncanny way of summing up every situation with the most hilarious comedic commentary. His jokes, though sometimes verging on the border of insults, had most of us in tears–and sometimes our sides ached for days.

“Yeah. Of course I knew Robert.”

“He went out into the woods one day . . . and  n e v e r   r e t u r n e d . . .”

True. We haven’t heard anything from Robert for around 5 years now. Once he went into the woods, a renewed fear became the norm in the village. There was debate over how this could have happened. Training was given in the used of swords, spears, and fighting skills. There was also a great ceremony about writing his name in The Book, and then the Town Crier went up and down the streets of the village, calling out a list of misdeeds of which the elders had declared Robert guilty: neglecting his family, turning his back on the goodness of his village, being enticed by a desire to know more than any mortal should know. The list went on, but it was all gobbledegook to me. His own family, while never ever recovering their former happiness, seemed to write him off and go on with their lives as if he had never existed.

“But what about the birds?” I asked. “They fly into the forest every day, and happily return the next day with full stomachs and cheery songs.”

“Of course they do,” an older woman called out from behind me. I turned. “They have a special spell cast over them and the monsters don’t harm them.”

“But what about the rabbits, the foxes, the deer . . .?”

“You’d better stop asking questions, sonny.” This time it was my Uncle Tony in his low, soothing–yet stamped-with years-of experience–voice. “We all want to know what happens outside our village wall, but that is a mystery that we must learn to live with. There are some things its best we don’t know. Surely the elders who have looked after us so well for the thousands of years would never want anything but the absolute best for us.”

Uncle Tony, although getting on in years, was sharp as a tack. Of anyone in the village, he was deemed to be the wisest and most revered. He had often spoken about the value of ‘staying with the family’ and being active in village life. He didn’t just talk about it, but he lived it every day. There was nobody who thought ill of this man. It was said his own son was one of those whose names were in The Book.

I nodded. More out of respect than out of a sense that I could agree with anything he was saying. After all, nobody–at least nobody in my memory–had ever really seen the elders. (There’s a story about the old baker who happened upon an elder about 70 years ago when he was delivering bread to the castle. Apparently he came back down the hill quite fearful and shaken and nothing he said after that ever seemed to make sense. Regardless, that was only hearsay, legend. Nobody made much of it.)

And so life in the village continued.

Every morning I watched the sun rise beyond the great woods and watched it cast its golden beams into the trees. I saw birds rise up out of the forest singing. I heard the sounds of animals greeting the dawn, and felt a growing sense of wanting to know what was beyond the village wall.

(To be continued)

Beware of those who Shout the Loudest

Immigration ProtestsThe televangelist who preaches the loudest about the sin of adultery is discovered checking into a seedy hotel with a prostitute.

The preacher who decries most vehemently the homosexual ‘lifestyle’ is found to be having an affair with a young man in a nearby town.

The politician who campaigns on the ticket of ‘family values’ ends up having a fling with one of his staff, leaving his own family when it’s discovered she is pregnant with his child.

The youth pastor who is known for his long sermons to his youth group on the subject of purity winds up in prison convicted of sexually abusing a girl in the same youth group.

It appears that one very common tactic to distract folks from an unpopular action is to shout very loudly against whatever one actually practices.

And its not limited to sexual hypocrisy.

The alcoholic speaks the loudest about the evils of drink.

The obese woman preaches the message of healthy eating to her family.

The environmentalist makes regular use of toxic chemicals and pesticides in his garden.

Isn’t this a little like the Tupperware lady campaigning against the use of plastic? Or the oil company promoting electric cars?

There is a common misconception that being seen to loudly oppose something will make you more able to resist the temptation. It doesn’t.

But maybe it’s not about resisting per se, but being seen to be so much in opposition that people watching would dare not think you could actually do that.

If we have learned one thing from years of watching momentous ‘falls from grace’ unfold on The Evening News it is this: vehement opposition to a particular vice, addiction, or suspect behaviour often signals participation in the very thing being condemned.

We have learned well the lesson: Beware of those who shout the loudest. It’s they who (usually) have something to hide.

Perhaps this is what St Paul meant when he wrote: “Let your moderation be known to all.” In other words, don’t go overboard. Maybe he took his cue from the teachings of his Master, who instructed his disciples not to blow a trumpet when they gave alms and not to stand on street corners praying loudly. Instead, live a humble life before God and before others. Let your actions speak louder than your words (or trumpet).

In a world of biggest, greatest, loudest, richest and most bedazzling, may we have the grace to live quietly and let our deeds speak for themselves.

 

 

Morning

elijah-hail-28932-unsplash

Morning Poem (by Mary Oliver)

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

” . . . Whether or not you have ever dared to pray.” 

I love Mary’s poetry. She has a way of painting a picture with the reader square in the middle of the scene. Here, it is morning. We see the rising sun, the trees, the pond, the lilies. There is the happy person swimming through the lilies or the one who is burdened with life’s circumstance, trudging along carrying the heavy “thorn.”

And, even if one is focused on the drudgery of existence and cannot see it, there is that voice within–that beast–that knows that this morning brings exactly what it needs, “Whether or not.”

Even if we don’t notice it around us, even if we have never thought we were worthy, even if we have never dared to pray, the morning arrives in all its glorious splendour.

As the writer of the Book of Lamentations penned:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; [God’s] mercies never come to an end–they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”

The new day lies open before us.

Whether or not we have ever dared to pray.

Power Corrupts

MarcosI have just finished reading a brilliant volume on the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, The Marcos Dynasty: The Corruption of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I have always had an interest in Philippine history and was pleased to see that the author, expert in Southeast Asian modern history, Sterling Seagrave, took great pains to present at the very start the context and place in time of the nation: its struggles under colonial rule of Spain then the United States, its national heroes, politics and civil and foreign battles, and its strategic importance in Asia and the Pacific.

What presented an intriguing aside throughout the book was the ongoing interactions between the Filipino Leadership and American Presidents, Generals, Diplomats and Secret Service agents, especially surrounding the Japanese invasion and the aftermath of World War II. Truly, as one critic praises it, this book reads like “a fast-paced thriller” and displays “an underlay of thorough investigative work.”

Very few come out looking good.

In fact, Seagrave challenges the popular history that was largely written by the powerful figures at play in this drama and paints a picture of the corruption of the power structures of both the Philippines and the United States, and the stealth by which the CIA and its agents were involved in a multitude of critical political and business decisions in the region during the course of the 20th century. Men who were thought to be heroes, great military leaders and global freedom advocates turn out to be weak, indecisive, and abusers themselves.

The adage is true: Power corrupts, and Absolute Power corrupts absolutely.

Time and time again, the opportunity presents itself to govern wisely and compassionately, and personal gain is chosen over national interest.

  • Billions of dollars was divested from Government accounts into Swiss accounts in the name of Ferdinand, Imelda or any of the Marcos children or companies.
  • Bribes were paid by companies seeking to do business in the Philippines and this money went not to the nation but into the hands of its leaders.
  • Lucrative and over-priced government contracts were awarded to the President’s family, friends, or those who could afford to pay the necessary ‘taxes’ into the Marcos’s personal accounts. Corporations with family ties were given exclusive rights to mining, oil drilling, sugar cane and pineapple plantations and logging.
  • Family members were given plush positions of authority from ambassadorships to provincial governorships, with all the salaries and perks appropriate to such offices.
  • Extravagance was king. From Imelda’s bulletproof bras and huge shoe collection to private jumbo jets with gold fittings and personally-owned hotels, highways, casinos and clubs, no expense was spared.

But this all started as an honest attempt at being a compassionate and patriotic Filipino and having a desire to not only see the nation gain its independence from its colonial rulers but to also grow to be a world leader and influencer in the region.

*  *  *  *  *

I am reminded how this follows the same pattern that many have chosen—or fallen into, not often intentionally but over time, in many small steps, and often with the best motivations.

In Government, a politician will perhaps start off as a local council member. She will delight in helping her community grow, her constituents succeed, and the residents prosper. All her time will be spent working for the people who elected her. Until she starts moving up the ladder of success to state level. Suddenly, so it seems, she is in Federal Parliament/Congress and has a large staff, huge budget and allowances, and spends little, if any, time in her constituency. Rather, lobbyists wine and dine her. Corporations start courting her vote by depositing large amounts into her election campaign. She takes extravagant first-class trips overseas (or ‘study tours’ as they are called). She starts using the nations funds to pay for private parties, flights and holidays for her family. Corporate bodies court her vote on legislation. She ends up betraying the trust of those she represents and selling out so enlarge her own profits and prospects of employment post-politics—if she makes it that far without a corruption scandal.

A young man decides to attend seminary because he is so passionate about Christian community and wants to invest his life in helping folks just like him to grow spirituality and as a community of faith, making a positive impact in their city. He graduates and secures a Youth Pastor position in a small church (often considered the first step in any ministerial career). He loves his job and the kids more than anything and sinks hours of time and immense portions of his life into nurturing and supporting them through all the ups and downs of teenage life. He marries and has a few children. By now he has accepted a call to a larger church as an Associate Pastor and, what seems like such a short time, becomes Senior Pastor. The Church starts growing in numbers and assets. He hires his friends because ‘why not?’ if they are good for the job. He slowly gets rid of the naysayers in the organisation and, before long, the board is populated with those who agree with his ‘vision’ for the church and who will rubber-stamp anything he puts forward. He starts writing books that become bestsellers. His church expands which results in a new multi-million-dollar high tech campus—or two or three. By now he is much in demand as a speaker at conferences around the world. He is at his own church perhaps half of the Sundays in a year. He buys a bigger house, better cars, spends much of his time on expensive holidays none of his parishioners could afford and, eventually justifies a private jet and commands large ‘love offerings’ wherever he speaks. He looks forward to the time he can retire—if he can keep that indiscretion quiet or that affair on the hush-hush long enough.

* *  *  *  *

In the end, the Marcos Dynasty ended in shame when, after the blatant murder of Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino (Marcos’s foremost critic) by Marcos’s henchmen, and the final corrupted election (1986) where Ninoy’s wife, Corazon, was overwhelmingly swept into power. Ferdinand, Imelda and their children were forced to flee Malacañang Palace and the Philippines under allegations of immense corruption and scandal. They took with them an estimated $5-$10 billion that rightfully belonged to the Philippine people. Corruption that occurred during the Marcos’s era of dictatorship is still evident in the nation and will continue to have a ripple effect in the region for years to come.

Whether a position of power is ‘earned’ or ‘granted,’ we must be very cautious in using it. It can just as easily turn into abuse and manipulation, a distrust of everyone as a possible usurper of our rightful authority, and a beast that will end up destroying our soul. And the question we must always remember is this: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and  lose his own soul?”