When your wound is the gift

When your wound is the gift

You might have seen the recent conversation between Late Show host Stephen Colbert and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. They were discussing how to deal with grief and loss, and Cooper was reflecting on Colbert’s words to him on the death of his mother. Choking back tears, Cooper asked, “You said ‘what punishments of god are not gifts?’ Do you really believe that?” “Yes,” replied Colbert, “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.” Colbert then went on to say that either we’re grateful for all of life, including the difficult parts, or we’re not grateful for any of it. It was a really beautiful exchange between grieving friends. What punishments of God are not gifts?   Who thinks like that? Well, Colbert admitted he got the line from British novelist, J.R.R. Tolkien: “A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 286) In context, Tolkien was suggesting that the elves in his stories, although immortal, envy humans who experience grief and loss because of the precious good these “punishments” bestow. What good? Tolkien says loss and grief, as dreadful

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Look for the campfires of kind and gentle Christian people

Look for the campfires of kind and gentle Christian people

I had just watched the documentary film, The Final Quarter, about the shocking and sustained racist attacks endured by Australian Indigenous football player, Adam Goodes during the last three years of his career, and I was distressed. Initially I wasn’t sure why, but the outspoken displays of ignorance by columnists and broadcasters like Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and Alan Jones, as they attacked Goodes and defended the booing mob, really got to me. Then it occurred to me: I’ve often seen these right-wing commentators being quoted by church people to ‘disprove’ things like gender dysphoria or toxic masculinity. Like their favourite Greek chorus, they’ll retweet Bolt, Devine, Jones and Latham whenever they want to defend religious freedom or slam ‘leftists’ for trying to impose cultural Marxism on society. In fact, in their fight to protect our perceived Christian heritage, some church people take great comfort in the broadcasts and columns of Andrew Bolt and the others. And here they were, that same Greek chorus, baying for the blood of Adam Goodes. In the US it takes the form of Tucker Carlson downplaying white supremacist movements, or Rush Limbaugh slamming Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib as “anti-semites,” or Dave Daubenmire telling Christians to “pay zero attention” to the victims of a mosque shooting. Moral outrage, when it has power, is deaf. And

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Let’s not condemn the victims of the evangelical bubble

Let’s not condemn the victims of the evangelical bubble

I don’t know Joshua Harris and I haven’t read his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, so I really don’t have anything to add to the discussion about his recent decision to end his marriage and abandon his faith. I can only guess how painful the journey must have been for him to move from being the poster boy for evangelical purity culture to a divorced unbeliever. I feel for him. And for his wife and family. It’s too easy to heap scorn on him as a “backslider” or an apostate. Like a whole generation of teens, he was swept up into the all-consuming world of conservative evangelicalism. They were “on fire”. They were “Jesus Freaks.” They were immersed in the world of youth conferences and Amy Grant and True Love Waits. It was intoxicating. And Joshua Harris drank the Kool Aid. More than that, at 21, he wrote the handbook on purity culture. I’d heard he’d disowned the book a while ago, asking for forgiveness for what he wrote and how it had messed with so many kids’ lives. Then came his recent revelation that his own marriage had ended. Then came yet another disclosure that he’d lost his faith altogether. Like I said, I don’t know him. I can’t reflect on his journey specifically. But he’s not the only

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All those God-words don’t return empty

All those God-words don’t return empty

Back in 2007, I was involved in the management of an art gallery called William Street Studios. This was a rather unlikely development for me, since I have never studied art, nor aspired to be an artist. But together with a band of friends, some of whom were artists, we set it up in a beautiful old Baptist Church building in Manly (pictured above) and hosted regular art shows and classes.  As a result we made great connections not only with local artists, but also with local art dealers.  While in some respects we represented competition to these dealers, they realised we weren’t serious art dealers, but a community of Christians committed to supporting the flourishing of local neighborhood.   One of those local dealers was a woman named Teresa. She and her partner Shane had a little art gallery called artsConnect on Manly Corso right above a Royal Copenhagen ice cream franchise, opposite the Steyne Hotel. We saw Teresa and Shane regularly at Artichoke Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant frequented by artists, and they came along to the openings of a few shows at William Street Studios, as we did at artsConnect.  I had the impression Teresa liked our informal faith community and our commitment to fostering creativity, social justice and spirituality.  Then, one day, Teresa made an odd suggestion.  “How would

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When Good Things Happen Through Bad People

When Good Things Happen Through Bad People

Remember Rabbi Harold Kushner’s bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People? In that book, he was trying to explain the great conundrum of why God allows seemingly good people to suffer. Well, this week I felt I was confronted by a similarly vexing question: why does God allow good things to happen through bad people? Two disturbing articles got my attention. Both were about historically revered Christian leaders who turned out to be pretty depraved. So depraved in fact, it’s hard to understand how God could have used them so profoundly to enhance the lives of others. George Whitefield – slavery advocate George Whitefield isn’t exactly a household name these days, but he was probably the most famous American religious figure of the eighteenth century. In the mid-1700s, he was one of the primary evangelists of the Great Awakening. A flamboyant preacher capable of commanding audiences of thousands through the sheer power of his oratory, he is said to have preached at least 18,000 times to perhaps 10 million hearers. And yet, in a powerful article, Was George Whitefield a Christian?, Jared C. Wilson recently outlined the great evangelist’s dark history with slavery. According to Wilson, while Whitefield initially spoke out against slave-holding, his views changed as his fame grew. He had established an orphanage in the Georgia colony

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Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so

For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr   Albert Einstein has been credited with decreeing that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so. Sadly, we live in a time when the “more so” is too prevalent. Everything, it seems, has to be oversimplified beyond all sense and purpose. The President mocks the idea of climate change on snowy days, because climate science has been abridged to some nonspecific belief about things getting warmer. Black Lives Matter, whose guiding principles include advocating on behalf of black victims who died at the hands of white police officers, as well as being concerned with black-on-black crime, is met with the dismissive and oversimplified “All lives matter!” Ethical questions regarding reproductive health, indigenous people’s rights, racial reconciliation or social welfare, are reduced to slogans and catch-cries. People demand that we answer complex questions with a simple yes or no.  Radio announcers and news commentators mock those who want to describe the complexity of an issue and offer multifaceted solutions to tough issues. They decry such answers as convoluted and disingenuous. As Rev Byron Williams says, “Whether it’s Black

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In Praise of Elderhood

In Praise of Elderhood

Getting older is inevitable, becoming an elder is a skill. – Stephen Jenkinson   I’ve been reading Stephen Jenkinson’s clarion call for elderhood, Come of Age. It’s a compelling plea for us to embrace the training and preparation needed to become elders.  And I’m feeling the call myself. It’s Jenkinson’s contention that years on the planet alone don’t constitute the basis for elderhood. It takes intention and focus to become an elder. He writes, “It used to be that age was held in some esteem, considerable esteem even, as the concentration of life experience. Life experience and its many lessons were once the fundament of personal and cultural wisdom…You’d think that this is an inevitable result of an aging population in a civilized place. We should be smarter, deeper, wiser. Especially wiser…” If that was true the world would be awash with elders. We’re living longer than ever. Our retirement villages are full. The aged are all around us. But I am regularly being told by younger people that they can’t find elders they look up to, women and men who can pass on their wisdom and insight. Stephen Jenkinson agrees, “They aren’t out there, waiting on our invitation. They just aren’t out there.” I posted a Jenkinson quote on social media and confessed my desire to grow into elderhood

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You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats dead bodies

You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats dead bodies

You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats dead bodies. Some cultures revere them. One of my favorite films Departures is the story of a young man who returns to his small hometown after a failed career and takes a job as an assistant to a nōkanshi — a traditional Japanese ritual mortician. The respect shown to the departed by the nōkanshi as he prepares them for burial — washing, oiling, dressing, honoring — is truly beautiful. In Jewish societies, burial takes place as quickly as possible after death, with a chevra kadisha (a team of volunteers) preparing the body, by showing it proper respect, ritually cleansing and shrouding it. When their work is done, a shomayr or watcher is appointed to sit with the body so that the deceased should not be left alone or unwatched until burial. We’ve all heard about Norwegian water-borne funeral pyres and South Indian cremation ceremonies and the ancient South Pacific practice of excarnation. The manner of dealing with the dead is rich and varied throughout the world. In America, bodies are embalmed and displayed in open caskets at the funeral home, prior to and during the funeral. I’ve read it owes its popularity to a combination of the effect of the national grief felt at Abraham Lincoln’s death

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Is autographing a bible an act of desecration?

Is autographing a bible an act of desecration?

I’m no celebrity – not even close – but I have been asked to autograph someone’s bible before. On a few occasions. In certain church circles it’s actually a thing to get people to sign your bible. I recoiled the first time it happened. It seemed like desecration to add my pathetic signature to the pages of the Holy Bible. And when I demurred, the person looked genuinely hurt. They couldn’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t do it. I guess they figured it was a weird cultural thing that Australians have with not autographing the Good Book. But actually, Australians have their own version of Good Book signing in the so-called Fleet Bible, which was brought to Sydney Cove on the first fleet of colonizers to arrive on our shores in 1788. Rather strangely, it has been signed by every monarch to visit Australia in the past century, including Charles and Diana, Will and Kate, Queen Elizabeth and her uncle, the short-lived Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. I just don’t get it. I really don’t. Why is it considered appropriate to have celebrities scrawl their names on an ancient holy book? I mean, isn’t it kinda, um, desecration? This question was reignited last week when President Donald Trump signed a bunch of bibles at

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How do I vote pro-life, AND pro-planet, pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-refugee?

How do I vote pro-life, AND pro-planet, pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-refugee?

There’s a national election due in Australia soon, and the options for a pro-life, pro-peace, pro-planet, pro-religious freedom, pro-refugee, pro-Aboriginal reconciliation, pro-poor, kind of Christian voter like me are extremely limited. The conservative government has continually disappointed people like me with their draconian approach toward asylum seekers, their rejection of the Uluru Statement, their enthusiastic support for the coal industry, and their consistent cuts to foreign aid. But the Greens continue to alienate a lot of Christians by campaigning to decriminalize abortion and prostitution in all states, to end chaplaincy in public high schools, and to threaten religious freedoms for churches not willing to provide same-sex marriages. Then this week, the Australian Labor Party pledged to build an abortion clinic in Tasmania and to push for the decriminalization of abortion in South Australia and New South Wales. Even if a Christian could live with these pledges, hoping for a world where terminations are “safe, legal and rare”, as the saying goes, the ALP went even further. They enshrined a new policy of requiring public hospitals to provide termination services through commonwealth funding agreements. In other words, no abortions, no commonwealth money. What’s a voter like me to do?   Is it too much to ask for a truly pro-life political party that supports the poor and takes meaningful steps toward

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To the Dones and the Almost Dones, I hear you

To the Dones and the Almost Dones, I hear you

My friends know what’s in store. I won’t be here anymore. I’ve packed my bags I’ve cleaned the floor. Watch me walkin’ Walkin’ out the door.   We’ve become used to the term, “nones” to describe those who have no religious affiliation or faith, but Josh Packard, the author of a University of Northern Colorado study, recently coined the term “dones” to describe former churchgoers who nevertheless maintain their faith in God and their Christian identity. And according to his research, this describes an estimated 30 million Americans. Not only that, Packard says there are another 7 million “almost dones” coming up behind them. In 2007 the Pew Research Center conducted its Religious Landscape Study with a massive survey of 35,000 individuals and found that about 16 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. By 2015, that same study reported the number had climbed to 23 percent. Way back in 1980 only eight percent of those under age 30 were “nones.” The Pew Center says that number has risen to 32 percent. People are leaving the church in droves, especially so-called millennials. But the picture that seems to be emerging isn’t a simple one of wholesale church decline. Part of what is happening is that many committed Christians are continuing to pursue their faith outside institutional church membership. Indeed, Packard’s

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Let’s talk about virginity shaming

Let’s talk about virginity shaming

You don’t actually have to be watching the sixth season of Australia’s version of Married At First Sight (MAFS) to know that one of the participants has a very dark secret. His confession has been heavily featured in the show’s endless promos. This week, 29-year-old Matt Bennett was “married” to a woman he’d never previously met, but not before making his embarrassing confession to all the other male contestants at the bucks’ night, and in on-camera interviews with the show’s producers. Even on his wedding night, he was quick to reveal the ugly truth to his new “wife”, Lauren. And it sure was awkward. “For me, honesty is very important. I feel like there’s something I want to tell you and something you should know about me,” Matt stammered, “I’ve sort of been on the fence about whether or not I should tell you because you know it’s been weighing on me a bit, it’s a big thing.” Pause for effect… And then… “I’m actually still a virgin.” Lauren’s response to this news summed up the mood of everyone on the show. “Shit!” she gawped. The idea that a young man could nearly make it to 30 without ever having had sex is a matter of genuine surprise to all. In an earlier episode he revealed his chastity had nothing to

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