Lovely Mess IV

Lovely Mess (Photo: Ambrose Volkofsky)

Looking for quiet and stillness, I walk along a back street. The sun on my shoulders is warm. Nice: almost as good as the sun on the back step where our dog sleeps. I relax and let my mind and soul wander.

This alleyway is a new one to me. I expected something more desolate. Instead it’s rows of cars, parked not long ago by workers who have all walked through the rear entrances of grey and brown buildings. Exhaust fumes are in the air.

Yes, it’s quiet, but more like the ambience of expectant energy. The air hums. If you were a film director this would be a good place to have a killing scene: lots of metallic energy but not a soul in sight. The bitumen is clean and well used, ready to brutally stop the fall of a human body. This is a place of youth, of energy and of death—young death to my mind.

Lots of workers come here every day—park their cars and walk inside—not having a clue about why they live, why they work or why they have this urge to keep busy. They ‘love to work’ they say and joke about doing it to fund their weekend hobbies. That one sounds hollower every time you hear it, especially from the tribal elders
of Big Business Inc. I wonder if those kids working in there know what their tribal elders are really thinking. They suspect it, I suspect.

I turn a corner, walking past an office for the unemployed. This is where I feel an affinity. These are my people these days. We emerge from our homes later in the day than the rest of the town. If someone is having a heart attack or getting executed, it won’t be one of us. We drink our coffee and enjoy the sunshine while the other half work and keep the bitumen fresh: just right for that film director.

I turn another corner and stroll along the main, past the old man who’s always there in his motorised chair: drinking coffee in the sun, catching up with his mates and keeping a stern eye on the noisy kids that should be at school. I smile at him as I walk past.

Finally, I make it to the appointed coffee shop. They laugh when they see me. They know why I’m here. I tell them I’ve got a publisher. They smile and look at me with excited disbelief.

There’s no way I’m writing a blog in a place like this. Coffee shops deserve something with much more chemistry: a thriller for example. But then, blogs can be like a thriller, especially when you’ve just read someone saying the following …

‘We can try to deal one at a time with the problems of the sanctity of life ethic. But the overall result will be a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which have to be forced into place, until the whole picture is under so much pressure that it buckles and breaks apart. I think there is a better way. There is a larger picture in which all the pieces fit together. Whatever issue of the moment may concern us; in the long run we all need to see this larger picture. It will offer practical solutions to problems we now find insoluble, and allow us to act compassionately and humanely, where our ethic now leads us to outcomes that nobody wants. I want to paint that larger picture.’41

This statement is filled with the language of our age: words like ‘ethic’, ‘a larger picture in which all the pieces fit together’, ‘practical solutions’, ‘paint that larger picture’. It’s the language of pragmatism (making things work) and what is known as ‘reductionism’: ‘the practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.’

In other words, the compassion (and anxiety) that drives such a reductionist’s thinking will mostly be about his or her own beliefs on the origin and meaning of life. Their talk of what is morally right and wrong won’t have much at all to do with intuition or soul, it will mostly be about logic and common sense. Interestingly, Peter Singer describes himself as an altruist, which means ‘someone who has a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.’ It raises the question of what is meant by ‘disinterested’, ‘well-being’ and ‘others’.

Peter Singer, for example, has openly stated (the italics are mine), ‘We have seen that the basic reason for taking this view derives from what it is to be a person, a being with awareness of her or his own existence over time, and the capacity to have wants and plans for the future. There is also a powerful social and political reason for protecting the lives of those who are capable of fearing their own death.

‘Universal acceptance and secure protection of the right to life of every person is the most important good that a society can bestow upon its members. …. Only a being able to see herself as existing over time can fear death and can know that, if people may be killed with impunity, her own life could be in jeopardy.

Neither infants nor those non-human animals incapable of seeing themselves as existing over time can fear their own deaths (although they may be frightened by threatening or unfamiliar circumstances, as a fish in a net may be frightened). This provides another reason for recognising that another person has a right to life, or in other words that it is a greater wrong to take the life of a person than to take the life of any other being…

‘Since neither a newborn infant nor a fish is person, the wrongness of killing such beings is not as great as killing a person. But this does not mean that we should disregard the needs of an infant to be fed, and kept warm and comfortable and free of pain, for as long as it lives.’42

According to Nancy Pearcey, ‘Personhood theory,’ tells us that, “Just being part of the human race is not morally relevant. Individuals must earn the status of personhood by meeting an additional set of criteria: the ability to make decisions, self-awareness and so on … many ethicists have argued that non-persons may be used for utilitarian purposes such as research and harvesting organs. Wesley Smith43 describes this as a proposal for ‘human strip-mining.’”44

So, is Peter Singer some kind of complete ‘bad guy’, period? Not at all. He genuinely cares and wants to help us deal with some of the awful dilemmas being created by advances in medical technology. To his credit, he is actually attempting to make us all think about things that many of us would rather ignore. In ‘Lovely Mess V’ (my next blog) we will wrestle with one of his case studies.

41 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life & Death (The Text Publishing Company Australia, 1994) 6
11

42 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life & Death (The Text Publishing Company Australia, 1994) 218-220

43 Culture of Death, W Smith, referred to in Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey, 58

44 Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey quoting W Smith, 58

The Lovely Mess: Part III

Lovely Mess

‘I couldn’t wait for the end of year footy trips to Hawaii and Bali, as I enjoyed the excitement of picking up girls and rushing back to tell the boys what had happened. I had sex pretty much as often as I liked; for a guy my age I was living the dream.’ Jason Stevens (former NRL player and Australian rep).

Jason goes on to say, ‘Sometimes I would recall that day in class when I had raised my hand like a moral crusader, and I’d think to myself, “What the hell did I say that for?” I had gone in the opposite direction and even argued with a friend of mine that sex is supposed to be fun and saving it for marriage is ridiculous and old-fashioned. I’m not sure why I took that stance. Maybe I was trying to justify my behaviour to him.

‘Sex is fun let’s face it. I enjoyed having sex in short term non-committed relationships, but saying these relationships was hard for me because the sexual excitement would soon fizzle out. My problem was I didn’t know how to develop a deep connection with someone. However, even when a relationship was lifeless and unexciting, it still hurt me whenever break up time came. Sometimes the pain was unbearable, so I would numb it with another sexual encounter.

‘Between the ages of 17 and 21 I had six relationships. It was like being on a merry-go-round, with each relationship taking me to a place of pain and frustration. I had to get off this ride.

‘Eventually I came to a point where I had to think about the way I was living. I started to question whether my “do it cause it feels good” attitude to sex and relationships was working for me. Although I was leading the typical single footballer’s lifestyle, dating great looking girls, getting VIP entry into the best nightclubs, and hanging out with the odd celebrity, it still wasn’t enough.

‘But a part of me had begun to accept that this is the way life is and that I couldn’t really expect much more from relationships that what I had experienced. I had heard of people being soul mates, but realistically I didn’t fancy my chances of finding one.

‘My parents had a troublesome marriage that ended in divorce, and for me this was more proof that that relationships rarely work out. It is harder to make a relationship work when you have never seen one work. Nevertheless, I wanted something different from what I had seen and experienced, so I took a step back and listened to the people who cared for me most and thought about what they had to say. Until this point I did whatever my hormones felt like doing, and found myself emulating my friends’ values and those presented on TV instead of developing my own…

‘Eventually, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life, which was not to have sex until the day I stand at the altar and say, “I do”. The first friend I told about my decision was a high school buddy. I wasn’t sure that he would understand because we had chased girls for as long as I can remember.

‘I felt nervous and awkward as I spoke to him on the phone, and when I told him about my decision he was disgusted. I will never forget his reply: “Jay, you’ve lost the plot. It’s unreasonable. You can’t expect that from anybody. As if we are expected to save sex for marriage when sex is so good!” It was hard to hear but I knew deep down I was right.

‘Funnily enough, three years later, my friend, who all but hung up on me that night, decided to save sex for marriage too. He changed his mind after he listened to me explain why it is better to wait. We now laugh about his initial reaction to my decision, but believe me, he didn’t think it was funny at the time.’32

How could it be that a society supposedly as advanced as ours could fail its young so miserably when it comes to something as sweet as romance, home and family and sex? Firstly, it doesn’t actually see itself as failing them. It has gone out of its way to teach them that (as the Russians say) ‘the lawyer is your conscience.’

The very idea that a young NRL player would refrain from sex because of his conscience (or his faith), is held up as ludicrous. We all know don’t we that lifestyle choice is an untouchable golden cow? How dare anyone teach a young man that certain lifestyle choices are wrong: not just for him but for everyone!

Jason was daring to challenge the idea that we are actually free to choose whatever lifestyle choice we like. He began to realise that we are broken people, that a part of us wants to actually choose what is evil and what will damage us and our family. That things are sinful because they are harmful, not because they have been randomly deemed to be wrong. Yes, it is true that ‘a man’s first duty is not to follow his conscience but to enlighten it’, but we must approach that ‘enlightening’ with the greatest respect and care.

Secondly, when a nation is having a crisis of meaning and has no foundation for making moral choices other than the majority vote, or vague feelings, you have a recipe for an outpouring of fundamentalist extremism on the part of whoever has enough money to hire the lawyers. The whole vision of the law being an ass and being a curse (both thoughts abounding in the bible by the way) is forgotten.

What shape might such extremism take? Bombs and flames? That’s highly unlikely in a society like ours, which prides itself on being ‘nice’, meticulously nice. It was recently said of a famous inquisitor, for example, that, ‘He was in possession of a brilliant intellect, he was a religious fundamentalist and you could not hope to meet a nicer bloke.’33 Niceness is a favoured quality of all the best dictators whether they talk of Jesus, PC Democracy or the Third Reich.

So, with all the pc courtesy in the world, and without the complications of inner meaning in the heart of the ‘young man’, we can do our work unhindered by any gods or sacred texts. Our dilemma of course is that in our efforts to create meaning inside ‘the young man’ through politically correct pronouncements, we have come full circle to law as the only means: politically correct law. All we now have are shame and coercion, rather than wisdom and grace, as our weapons of choice. Government administrators—not friends, not parents, not the young man’s soul (he’s not even allowed to have one)—make the calls on what family, marriage, home and family life will look like.

Not that all pc is bad. The original thought behind courtesy and duty of care etc. was love. Where it all begins to go wrong is when we lose the heart and soul of it and begin doing it for no other reason than the fact that it is ‘the done thing’. As TS Elliot said, ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’

Another way it can go awry is when an entire nation loses its spiritual core and pc becomes the only moral compass left. Suddenly everything must be legislated and we find ourselves living in an absurd world where freedom of speech, freedom to camp somewhere, freedom to walk somewhere, freedom of expression and all kinds of other freedoms are seen as threats. Classroom Moralists who were once politely tolerated, are now heroes, even Prime Ministers.

Art is one of the first things to begin to wilt in such a poorly fertilised garden. A brilliant song will be written but all the audience will think about is the fact that it used a stereotype, wasn’t inclusive, was done by someone of the wrong racial grouping or didn’t fit the funding criteria. How did this disease of thinking like a responsible social scientist creep into so many souls, even (God-forbid) artistic souls? How the mighty have fallen! I once came away from a writers’ festival with the distinct impression that every writer there had been tamed, de-clawed and de-fanged.

When a society (that idolises lifestyle choice) invites people of faith to agree with its opinions about what is right and wrong in sex and marriage, it’s asking ancient mythical music to sit down at table with bureaucrats and lawyers and endorse the majority vote. Since when was God the puppet of the government? Lots of times unfortunately, thanks to compliant priests and ministers of the Royal Order, as the bible (and recent history) shows us.

The real question is, as Ravi Zacharias says, ‘How does anyone ever know if anything is right or wrong?’ The only solid ground the prosecutors found—at Nuremberg—for prosecuting the Nazis, was to invoke the moral law of God. In the heat and the dust of legal debate, this point of view was almost lost.

Not that legal debate is a bad thing. Everyone should be allowed to have their say. For example, a ‘magazine for homosexuals explains that people today “Don’t want to fit into any boxes—not gay, straight, lesbian or bisexual ones.” Instead “they want to be free to change their minds.” The article was addressed to people who had come out of the closet as homosexuals, but later found themselves attracted to heterosexual relationships again. So ‘What am I?’ they wondered. Not to worry the author reassured them. The idea that one is born with a certain gender that cannot be changed is so modernist. Society is moving to postmodern view in which you can choose any gender you want, at any time.” It’s being called the ‘PoMosexual view.’ 33 (a)

Steve Gershom (a gay Catholic), has another perspective: ‘I have heard a lot about how mean the Church is, and how bigoted, because she opposes gay marriage. How badly she misunderstands gay people, and how hostile she is towards us. My gut reaction to such things is: Are you freaking kidding me? Are we even talking about the same Church?

‘When I go to Confession, I sometimes mention the fact that I’m gay, to give the priest some context. I’ve always gotten one of two responses: either compassion, encouragement, and admiration, because the celibate life is difficult and profoundly counter-cultural; or nothing at all, not even a ripple, as if I had confessed eating too much on Thanksgiving.

‘Of the two responses, my ego prefers the first—who doesn’t like thinking of themselves as some kind of hero? — but the second might make more sense. Being gay doesn’t mean I’m special or extraordinary. It just means that my life is not always easy. (Surprise!) And as my friend J. said when I told him recently about my homosexuality, “I guess if it wasn’t that, it would have been something else.” Meaning that nobody lives without a burden of one kind or another. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said: “The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?”

‘Where are all these bigoted Catholics I keep hearing about? When I told my family a year ago, not one of them responded with anything but love and understanding. Nobody acted like I had a disease. Nobody started treating me differently or looking at me funny. The same is true of every one of the Catholic friends that I’ve told. They love me for who I am.

‘Actually, the only time I get shock or disgust or disbelief, the only time I’ve noticed people treating me differently after I tell them, is when I tell someone who supports the gay lifestyle: “Celibacy?! You must be some kind of freak.”

‘Hooray for tolerance of different viewpoints. I’m grateful to gay activists for some things—making people more aware of the prevalence of homosexuality, making homophobia less socially acceptable—but they also make it more difficult for me to be understood, to be accepted for who I am and what I believe. If I want open-mindedness, acceptance, and understanding, I look to Catholics.’ 33 (b)

The Royal Order ‘god’ of the West. doesn’t want to know about the above point of view. It always insists that its way of doing things—’acquiring enough power and knowledge to tame the terror and eliminate the darkness’ and make it easier for us to indulge our appetites—is making ‘everything better and better’. It must insist on this, and it must silence the voices raised in alarm—especially those voices in non-western countries. Hence it’s indignation, its strident affirmation, its determination to keep it’s perspective on the issues on the front page and to never, ever talk about what is being assumed behind these issues. In our case, what is being assumed is that ‘we all know what is right and what is wrong’ when it comes to sex and marriage: ‘we all’ being that wealthy minority group (in the global village) known as ‘the west’.

Seriously, how can we—the western, secular enlightenment world, which is lousy with ‘free sex’, drugs and broken families—even begin to talk to the non-western world about what is right and wrong with marriage and sex? Our social workers tell us that we are facing a virtual tsunami of abused children right here in Australia. The rumour is that—in order not to cause too much alarm—childhood trauma categories are being re-written.

Words come to mind, words like, ‘self-importance, sense of superiority; high-handedness, condescension, contempt, sneering, scoffing; presumption.’ According to the thesaurus, these words relate to one single word: ‘arrogance.’ Perhaps even embarrassment. The world of horse racing might use the metaphor of a ‘nerve-blocking operation’ being carried out in order to hide the truth of the embarrassing social train-wreck called ‘Australian family life’.

It’s the kind of thing that provoked Jesus to say, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ (Matt 23:27)

‘If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything,’ John Mellencamp used to sing. But what if the thing you’re standing for has been made to look ridiculous? “Do not give dogs what is holy,’ Jesus said. ‘And do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.’34 It’s no surprise that there’s so much anger directed at God. We sense that our Maker has concluded we won’t be told, has walked away from us and is allowing an ‘unmaking’ of what we have made so well.

A few years ago I was reading a book on Spinoza (a philosopher from the 17th Century) where the author/editor, in his preface, had this to say: ‘For to-day in marriage, if anywhere, it is glaringly evident that the legal or religious or social ceremonial law can at best secure man or woman wealth and social position.’35

The writer (Joseph Ratner) had a point but in making it he betrayed something about himself. What he failed to see was the fact that many couples will tell you they took the marriage vows not primarily to secure their happiness—or because they thought their love was so great it would never fail—but because they loved each other and God so much, they wanted to give themselves to creating a mysterious thing called a home and a family. They wanted to grow a garden where children would be safe and blessed and where friends (and even the lost and hurting and broken) could come and enjoy the warmth and grace of a lovely fountain of faith, hope and love.

What an ambition! What a high hope. Of course they know their love will waver, it’s why they take the vows. And it’s during those times they will need something as sober and as public as a vow (supported by a God who is a forgiver, and a community of family and friends) to hold them to what they promised each other. And this promise is not just a matter of ‘staying married’, it’s a commitment to cultivating a beautiful garden where things like kindness, forgiveness, honesty, reconciliation and communion can grow.

Even so, if it were to stop there it would merely be another ‘lifestyle choice’ thing: ‘what floats your boat’ as they say. What really makes this other way of living and of seeing life so shocking and so dangerous as far as our secular world is concerned is that first and foremost it’s a commitment to another world, and another King. In this world the very idea of putting any form of ‘life style choice’ first is laughable. Those who live this way are following Jesus the Messiah, who said, ‘Anyone who would come after me must deny all right to themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.’36

Yes, of course this is open to dangerous abuse but what a fear-breaking (individual elevating) force it has proven be against all the ruthless might of Pharisaic misogyny, stonings, Roman cruelty, English Monarchy, African Warfare, Protestant and Catholic Inquisitions, Soviet terror and now—perhaps—it might be just what is needed to give people courage to stand up to a democratic society so obsessed with democracy that it’s creating a coercive PC Dictatorship.

In his intro to Spinoza, Ratner goes on to say, ‘Happiness or blessedness lie altogether beyond its (lawful marriage’s) powerful reach. Marriage is sanctified or made blessed not by the ceremonial law or priest or city clerk but by the divine law of love. Natural love or free love, free from all ceremonial coercions, is not merely not a questionable source of marital happiness: it is the only source. The ceremonial law, the legal or religious marriage custom, has nothing whatsoever to do with human happiness. If by free “love” is meant love free from all legal, social and religious ceremonial restraints, then free love is, according to Spinoza, the only basis of rational marriage.’37

There are things to admire in Ratner’s words, his point that laws will never give us happiness for example. But what does he mean by the ‘divine law of love’? And what about ‘natural love’? In the end ‘what is natural’ is defined by the nature of the individual. A predator will tell you that their behaviour is perfectly natural, and so also will a paedophile. Who decides?

One minute we are nodding our heads in agreement about the banality of it all. ‘The law is an ass’ we say, but then (on the basis of that) we are expected to take a great leap of logic and say that ‘free love’ is the only basis for rational marriage. This is a high and optimistic view of human nature. ‘Viva the revolution’—or maybe not.

Ratner wrote before the era of atheist empires where ‘60million people were killed by the Soviet Communists, 35 million by the Chinese communists and 21 million by the Nazis –not to mention one quarter of the population of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.’38

Jesus had a much more realistic approach when he warned us, ‘For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.’ (Matt 5:19). Does this have to be a formula for hating ourselves? Of course not. Jesus directs us to love ourselves in Mark 12:31 and especially to learn how to confess and forgive.

But isn’t this outlook an impetus for harsh laws? It could be, and it has been by those who take the bible the wrong way. One major point of the bible’s library of thousands of years of history is that ‘living just by the law brings a curse’. Our only hope is something new on the inside: people who live with courage, grace and humility because of what they have become on the inside, of what they are, not because they have to.

“You search the Scriptures,’ Jesus said, ‘because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!’39 In another place, the Apostle Paul says, ‘The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives!40

The fact is that we need grace and we need each other, which means we need laws to help us and even to hold us back when the ‘beast within’ threatens to destroy us and our loved ones. But without that mysterious grace within, we have nothing but pc laws, shame and coercion.

History itself gives us plenty of examples. Whoever said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something’, hadn’t thought about Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler. Sooner or later, experience forces us to realise that a person’s soul is far too beautiful and dangerous for their beliefs to be a matter of their own private business. We fail to care, to pray, and fail to challenge, debate and disagree at our peril. Like it or not, we are forced to be our brother’s keeper. And who better than Jesus to be our guiding light for that impossible task?

On the one hand, there’s much fun to be had in this great ‘lovely mess’ and then there are these awful consequences—when we don’t give a #@*!—that few want to speak of, and if they do, they are howled down. ‘You’ve lost the plot!’ Jason’s friend said. But that friend would now say he is so thankful Jason spoke up. Both men realised that there is such a thing as becoming lost like sheep. But if there’s no meaning (or only pc coerced ‘classroom meaning’) ‘being lost’ is not a concept. We realise why CS Lewis calls nature a ‘dumb witch’, she beguiles us with her magic but she’s unable to teach us anything.

Eva Cassidy sings a song that says it all …

‘Tall trees in Georgia
They grow so high
They shade me so
And sadly walking
Through the thicket I go

The sweetest love
I ever had I left aside
Because I did not
Want to be any man’s bride

But now I’m older
And married I would be
I found my sweetheart
But he would not marry me.

When I was younger
The boys all came around
But now I’m older
And they’ve all settled down.

“Control your mind, my girl
And give your heart to one
For if you love all men
You’ll be surely left with none”.

Tall trees in Georgia
They grow so high
They shade me so
And sadly walking
Through the thicket I go.’41

32 Jason Stevens, Worth The Wait—True love and why the sex is better… (Griffin Press, 2002) 15,16

33 James Hannam, God’s Philosopher’s—How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Icon Books, 2009), 309

33( a) Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel, eds., PoMosexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality—Quoted by Nancy Pearcey in Saving Leonardo, (B&H Publishing, 2010), 65

33 (b) Steve Gershom) http://www.strangenotions.com/catholic-gay/

34 Matt 7:6

35 Joseph Ratner (editor/author) in his preface to The Philosophy of Spinoza, (General Books LLC, 2010 reprint from the work of 1927), 22

36 Luke 9:23
37 Joseph Ratner (editor/author) in his preface to The Philosophy of Spinoza, (General Books LLC, 2010 reprint from the work of 1927), 22
38 Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey, 238

39 John 5:39

40 2Cor 3:6

41 http://lyrics.wikia.com/Eva_Cassidy:Tall_Trees_In_Georgia

The Lovely Mess: Part II

Lovely Mess – Part II

I’m sitting on floorboards with an eager-eyed group of children around me. We’re in the middle of the story of Samson (from the Old Testament7). Some of the boys in the audience are rapt, other children look incredulous, and others a bit wary. What on earth is Mister Vol telling us this story for? they seem to be thinking. The story concludes.

‘Why is this story in the bible?’ someone says.
‘Good question,’ I say. ‘Why do you think it’s in the bible?’
There’s a long silence and we leave it there for the moment.
‘Where did he go wrong?’ I ask them.
‘He played up,’ someone says.
‘And he broke his promise,’ another says.
‘But he didn’t cut his hair and he didn’t get on the grog,’ I say.
‘What’s “grog?”’ another voice says.
‘Alcohol,’ someone explains.
‘So,’ I ask again. ‘How come it all went pear-shaped?’

We talk for about the fact that there were actually three parts to Samson’s vow: to guard his soul, to not cut his hair and to stay off the grog. Samson failed on the inside I explain to them. We conclude the session by singing a little song …

‘Keeping the rules is a start.
But what’s in the heart?’

To be fair on Samson—in his efforts to defend an oppressed minority tribe—he did some pretty heroic stuff: tearing a door off a city and walking away with it, killing a lot of Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass and (at the last) caving in the roof of a palace on his enemies. The story is worthy of inclusion in any Home And Away episode.

But you can’t read it without feeling for Samson’s mum and dad. The baby boy was marked out to be a great ruler according to prophesy and it leaves you wondering about many other part successful/ big-part failed rulers. Did Mao Zedong’s parents, for example, secretly pray for him? What if he had made some different choices and hadn’t given in to the urge to liquidate millions?

Books on leadership tell us that there is process and there is task. History is littered with leaders who failed on one side or the other. Historians and historical commentators keep these two aspects in mind whenever they evaluate leaders. But there are some who don’t.

In his book Atheist Manifesto8, Michael Onfray certainly doesn’t when he attempts to critique monotheism. He describes the monotheistic religions as being ‘religions of the book’9, suggesting that they are all on about the same kind of stuff: keeping rules and regulations to keep God happy. What he doesn’t tell us is that it was Islam that coined the phrase, ‘People of the Book’.

Jesus, on the other hand, would never have used such language. “You search the Scriptures,’ Jesus said, ‘because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!’10 In another place, the Apostle Paul says, ‘The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives!11

Onfray’s misrepresentation of Christianity and the bible goes on and on … He talks of the prohibition against eating from the ‘Tree of Knowledge’12 to suggest that Christianity has a bias against science. The fact is that Genesis says it is the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil’13. Science has never been about the study of good and evil. And anyone who reads James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers’ can see that this is unfounded. Hannam makes an overwhelming case for medieval Christianity laying a deep foundation for modern science.

Onfray goes on to say, ‘Genesis says that God created the world in a week.’ It doesn’t actually. Onfray has reached this conclusion by refusing to recognise the literary genre, which is clearly poetic, mythic language. Genesis has no problem—for example—in telling us that the sun was created on the fourth day. The majority of Christian teachers agree that the word ‘day’ being used here is to be interpreted as a ‘period of time’. One commentator even suggests that the author/s of Genesis recorded a series of visions whereby the words, ‘there was evening and there was morning’ represented a kind of curtain call.

We will miss the point of these early chapters of Genesis if we don’t appreciate the genre. What we have here is a remarkable example of ‘inspired myth’ and as such it is laden with phenomenological language (describing things as they appear), drama and poetry. We use phenomenological language every day when we say things like, ‘the sun rose’. How much more lovely than saying ‘the earth turned on it’s axis’.

But Onfray won’t be told. He says, ‘Genesis teaches that there cannot be multiple worlds.’ Where exactly it teaches that he fails to explain. He goes on to to say, ‘Christians insist the world is 4000 years old.’ What he doesn’t tell us is that this statement is not to be found anywhere in the bible. Onfray has simply chosen to substitute orthodox ‘Christian’ teaching with that of a minority group who read this entire  library of 66/73 books the same way he does: without any recognition of genre. What would it be like hearing Onfray’s interpretations of Shakespeare?

Not satisfied with this, he tells us the bible teaches it ‘Was all Eve’s fault.’14 No wonder some people are up in arms about Christianity. Unfortunately they are misled—happily misled—because anger is impatient with process, with facts, it prefers convenient untruths.

When this lens of bigotry and prejudice is put away, it’s not hard to see a delicate process of God becoming incarnate and joining the sister/brotherhood of humankind. These early chapters of Genesis give us an unfolding drama which—rather than being some literalist/science text attempting to explain Carbon atoms and the Big Bang—is a telling account of the deep sense of broken-ness and wonder we humans live and wrestle with each day. It’s why many of our greatest artists and composers have painted it and composed symphonies about it. It’s why it fills art galleries and theatres all over the world.

As a case in point, we find a brilliant artist’s interpretation of another kind of ‘Genesis fall’ in the novel Phantastes.

“I looked around over my shoulder and there on the ground lay a black shadow, the size of a man. It was so dark that I could see it in the dim light of the lamp, which shone full upon it, apparently without thinning at all the intensity of its hue.”

“‘I told you,’ said the woman, ‘you had better not look into that closet.’
“‘What is it?’ I said, with a growing sense of horror.
“‘It is only your shadow that has found you,’ she replied. ‘Everybody’s shadow is ranging up and down looking for him. I believe you call it by a different name in your world: yours has found you as every person’s is almost certain to do who looks into that closet….’”28

In this story, the awful moment of shadow attachment is followed by a long quest, which in-part answers the question our society has put to Western Christendom:

“Is your collapse proof that you guys have been wrong all along?”
“No,” the voice of the ancient muse seems to say. “It is as it always has been: the blood of gods courses in the veins of men and there will be no apologies, great joy and great trouble.”

There was a time when I feared that the cold, dark churches were right: God was the stern cook and cop of civilization, the gate crasher on all flesh and fun. But the more I looked into it, the more it seemed that this idea came not from God but from a bent vision of spirituality. At one point, having finished reading the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, I was relieved to find myself reading an Old Testament psalm29 in which a man and his God were celebrating loudly with wine and oil and bread.

“Yes!” God seemed to shout back at me “This world is a mess, but I love it!”30
“This is my kind of God,” I thought. “The true mother-father of us all.”

This picture of a God who delights in human flesh makes so much sense when you read the words of John 1:14: “The word became flesh.”31 The very idea of God joining the human race feels so theatrical, so romantic and so right. No wonder it has inspired a never-ending fountain of music, paintings and wars.

 


7 Judges 14 – 16

8 Michael Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, Arcade Publishing 2005,

9 ibid. p.95

10 John 5:39

11 2Cor 3:6

12 ibid p.68

13 Gen 2:17 NIV

14  Michael Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, Arcade Publishing 2005,   pp:90-91

28 Phantastes, George MacDonald, 1971, Pan Books/Ballantine, 63

29 Psa 104:15

30 A thought inspired and provoked by a Reinhold Niebuhr comment in Neibuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role and Legacy by Charles C. Brown. Reflecting on the gloomy prospects of the world, Niebuhr said, ‘It’s a mess … but I like it!’ which apparently brought the house down.

31 Joh 1:14

The Lovely Mess: Part 1

The Lovely Mess

When faced with criticism, we must weigh both the critic and the criticism. CS Lewis reminds us, “The most dangerous ideas in a society are not the ones being argued, but the ones being assumed.” Unfortunately, the author of the following article—http://www.rawstory.com/2015/06/captive-virgins-polygamy-and-sex-slaves- what-marriage-would-look-like-if-we-actually-followed-the bible/#.VZLXfwt3fcw.facebook—makes numerous assumptions. Here are a few…

#1 ‘The Bible is one book.’ It’s actually a library of books (sixty-six or seventy- three depending on whether you go with the Protestants or Catholics) collected over a few thousand years and comprised of a number of genres: myth, poetry, drama and history: all needing to be interpreted appropriately.

#2: ‘Believers are those with a narrow, fundamentalist outlook.’ The fact is that most who love, read and live by the bible, do not hold to this outlook.

#3: ‘There is only one God being advocated in the Bible.’ There are at least two versions of ‘God’ to be found in this library we refer to as the ‘Bible’: the God of the Royal Order1 and the God of the Prophets.

The God of the Royal Order is always assumed to be on the side of those in power, inspiring and justifying the priests and kings in their stonings, conquests, enslavements, keeping of temple prostitutes, harems and mountains of gold. The God of the Prophets is normally the minority report and says things like, “I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.”2

One of the fascinating things about the bible is this ongoing wrestle between those advocating a supposed God who gives us, ‘Enough knowledge and power to control the terror and eliminate the darkness’3 and a God who is on about ‘another Kingdom’, an invisible realm of justice, mercy and grace. Those who advocate this other mysterious God—who is called by various nicknames—say that he carries with him a deep experience of dread but also of loving-kindness. So it’s not always easy to tell which ‘God-voice’ we are hearing. When we read, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ we need to ask ourselves which God is being represented. The Chronicles of Narnia tell us that ‘Aslan is not a tame lion’ and it was this mantra that was used to great effect by the pretender (Shift) against the kind hearted little donkey (Puzzle).

Individuals in various books & letters of this bible-library, are empowered to speak directly to God and to even challenge God. As one of the psalm writers says…

‘I’m a black hole in oblivion.
You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit,
Sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.
I’m battered senseless by your rage,
Relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
You turned my friends against me,
Made me horrible to them.
I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out,
Blinded by tears of pain and frustration.’4

Jesus, for example, confronted the voice of the Royal Order when he said things like, ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’5

Many who read the bible and love and live by it, see it as an amazing world of ‘testimony à dispute à advocacy’, which enables them to understand the ‘cosmic static’ of their own personal experience of what some refer to as a Higher Power or possibly their own delusions. But to stop there would be tragic and would leave the Ghandis and Martin Luther Kings of the world powerless before the Royal Order: both of these men drawing heavily on the teachings of Jesus.

And so it is that the bible—by gifting us with the voices of the prophets and of Jesus—prepares us to wrestle with the intimidation and brutality of the Royal Order and, interestingly, it teaches us to wrestle with God aka Jacob’s Wrestle (Gen 32: 22-32).

We see this dramatically in Franco Zeferelli’s version of Jesus of Nazareth where Barabbas is depicted as a freedom fighter attempting to recruit Jesus. Having heard Barabbas out, Jesus tells him to ‘love his enemies’: the freedom fighters now hate him as a coward. In another scene, Jesus opposes those who want to stone a woman for committing adultery. He saves the woman’s life and the Pharisees (representing the Royal Order) are furious: the misogynists now hate him as a liberal. Again, Jesus heals the servant of a Roman soldier: the racists now hate him as Rome-lover.

Displaying their ignorance of all this, the author of the above article says, ‘Furthermore, none of the norms that are endorsed and regulated in the (so-called) Old Testament law – polygamy, sexual slavery, coerced marriage of young girls—are revised, reversed, or condemned by Jesus.’

Not content to leave it at that, another great leap is made where the author says,
‘It (the bible) gives them the divine thumbs up.’ Exactly where it does this we are not told. There’s quite a lot the author doesn’t tell us: it’s called being ‘economical with the truth’.

What they don’t tell us, for example, is that the Old Testament laws were actually improvements on the laws of surrounding nations, which were far more brutal. Having to marry the girl you raped, or pay her father fifty shekels if he opposed the marriage, and never being allowed to divorce her (5a)—in an era where the raped girl might possibly be left unable to marry—was actually a powerful deterrent. You now had to take responsibility for her and you could never leave her. Interestingly there is no recorded instance of a girl being forced to marry a rapist in the Old Testament.

Of course, this ‘progressive revelation’ (6) was not going to stop there, one day (God hopes) society might reach the stage where the justice system would be so influenced by the bible that the offender could be jailed and the girl could go on her way. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ and anyone who has ever had to work for reform knows the foolhardiness of the idealist who blindly wants everything changed at once and in the end only serves to keep everything the same.

A case in point is those who worked to abolish slavery in the US: the purists arguing most vehemently in congress for an immediate and complete abolition were actually playing into the hands of those advocating slavery. It wasn’t until they could be persuaded to adopt a moderate position that Abraham Lincoln and co. were able to succeed. In another example, Michael Collins (of IRA fame) faced the same problem when he was a negotiating with the English. Back home, Michael’s old enemy—De Valera—constantly agitated for no compromise while Michael was arguing for a step- by-step process. Valera would have none of it and in so doing threatened to destroy both Collins (which is what he wanted) and the whole process of negotiation for Irish autonomy.

In Jesus’ case, in the thirty years preceding his birth, an average of five thousand Jews were killed (by the Romans) every year in messianic uprisings. It’s highly likely that—as Zeffirelli suggests in his film—Jesus was courted by freedom fighters (possibly even the Romans) and the Pharisees. Under the watchful eye of the Royal Order, Jesus refused to be intimidated and risked imprisonment and execution by standing up to both friends and enemies. Thanks to his courage, his teachings paved the way for the elevation of the rights of women, children and all oppressed peoples. No reading of history is able to contest this.

1 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002. Brueggemann writes about this in detail in Prophetic Imagination

2 Amos 5:21 -24

3. Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002

4. Psalm 88:8,9 MSG

5 Matt 5:43 RSV c.f. Ex 21:24
5a Duet 22:28-29 & Ex 22:16 – 27
6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_revelation_(Christianity)

Living The Passion

‘Does not every movement in the passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish, not granted. Then he turns to his friends. They are asleep as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then he faces the Church, the very Church that he brought into existence. It condemns him. This is also characteristic. In every Church, in every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. But there seems to be another chance. There is the state, in this case the Roman state. Its pretensions are far lower than those of the Jewish church, but for that very reason it may be free from local fanaticisms. It claims to be just on a rough worldly level. Yes, but only in so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’état.* One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom he had blessed, whom he had healed and fed and taught, to whom he himself belongs. But they have become overnight (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for his blood. There is then nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed as you reach it. To be like the fox at the end of the run; the earths all staked.’

* a purely political reason for action on the part of a ruler or government, especially where a departure from openness, justice, or honesty is involved.

(Lewis CS. Letters to Malcolm Ch. 8 – also in The Business of Heaven April 6)

Motivational Ecosystems

The Byrock Flash

Two words I’ve found helpful in the coaching process are ‘enable’ and ‘galvanize’. To ‘enable’ means to make something possible and to ‘galvanize’ means to ‘shock or excite someone into action’. Interestingly, the word galvanize comes from an old French word meaning to ‘stimulate via electricity’. It’s to do with that mysterious ambience (or presence), which a particular ‘something’ brings to your day, causing you to be energized and to take effective action.

This ‘something’ can be a number of things: it might be your partner, your family, your boss or your team for example. It might also be a symbol, ritual or even your worldview. And yes, of course, it might be your coach.

Unfortunately, our society is obsessed with this aspect of coaching and, as a result, tends to neglect the enabling part. ‘Live your passion’ it says. But what if the ideas in your head, not the passions in your heart, are what will make you or break you? And what if one of those ideas is that we live in a universe that uncannily draws our attention to what is significant about us? Trying hard to do what everyone else is doing could be a great distraction. And complaining that ‘they wouldn’t let you get your Harvard degree and your nice house’ and that ‘life hurts and is unfair’, starts to look positively embarrassing.

What if a monster called ‘education’ has almost completely killed off the joy of learning in you? What if your parents taught you it was all about putting your head down and working harder? You can’t see where your going when your head is down all the time.

What if you’re the most talented young spin bowler in town but you can’t afford the ticket to a coaching clinic? A team that complains they can’t do without you for that weekend is about as useful as a hole in the head. And so also is a life coach who sits in an office somewhere and wants this young cricketer to pay him $100 (which he can’t afford) to tell him that.

Imagine this. You’re a young boy and your mother has spent hard earned cash on getting you piano lessons in a music conservatorium in Ireland. But piano is not you. One day your mother says, ‘Enough is enough’ and goes down there to terminate your lessons. On the way out of your ‘last ever piano lesson’, and possibly your ‘last ever music lesson’, you hear an old man playing drums.

‘What’s going on in there?’ you say to your mother.
‘Let’s have a look,’ she says.
Your name is Laurence Mullen. Forty-five years have passed since that day at the conservatorium. You are, and have been for a long time, the drummer (Larry Mullen) in the band U2.

A lot happened in that moment at the door. Larry’s mother could have simply kept walking. But like a good coach, she was observant, she noticed something that had caught her son’s attention. And like a good coach she acted as a catalyst. There was no way she was planning to be his personal energy force. She already appreciated ‘enabling’, which is why she had put him in an environment where something like that could happen.

A coach can play a crucial role in assisting individuals or teams to participate in such ‘enabling events’ and thus help them to identify the sweet spots and dead spots in their motivational ecosystem. But we don’t need a coach for this; all we need is a thoughtful (and hopefully prayerful) family, community or tribe of some kind, which knows that ordinary old enabling is one of the secret weapons of life.

Why put prayer in the mix? It’s in there because when it comes to creativity and motivation, there’s strong evidence that prayer journeys can play a powerful role in our experience of learning. Anyone who has ever had to teach a class or train a team knows that if an individual has an unresolved spiritual crisis in their life it’s that much harder for them to learn. It affects everything, all the time.

Such crises could be anything from a bent idea of God to a bitter feud with a family member to something as broad as a ‘crisis of meaning’. Sometimes it’s not even a crisis; it’s simply a nagging question. What if it’s true, for example, that there’s a Higher Power out there who loves you deeply and is hoping to come to a place where you will be happy to be ‘found’ by it? Add to that the supposedly preposterous idea of asking that Higher Power for help with your journey into the universe of creativity.

Enabling is not just about providing opportunities by the way; sometimes it’s about restraint. Too much enabling can ironically disable, putting the brain and the mind to sleep. NRL coaches complain that their players are becoming over-enabled and lacking in the backbone and creativity that thrives when a player faces the pain of deprivation, even repression and criticism, which is of course where galvanizing and enabling overlap.

What if—Especially In Situations Like Ours—The ‘Darkness’ Is Actually The Only Way Ahead?

Captivating Mystery

A link on the net announced, ‘Atheist Stephen Fry delivers incredible answer when asked what he would say if he met God!’ The report goes on to say that Fry delivered a ‘stunning rebuke’. I know grandmothers who would be laughing at this. Steven Fry’s outrage is nothing new and is directed at a God who doesn’t exist—not even for Christians. It’s actually directed at something else.

I can’t believe that the interviewer would see Fry’s answer as a shock or a ‘stunning rebuke’. Whatever worldview they held, anyone who has lived for a while on this planet will have had days or even years of their life where they said things like that to (or about) whatever Higher Power they understood to be responsible for the pain. As the psalmist says …

‘I’m a black hole in oblivion.
You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit,
Sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.
I’m battered senseless by your rage,
Relentlessly pounded by your waves of anger.
You turned my friends against me,
Made me horrible to them.
I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out,
Blinded by tears of pain and frustration.’1

Fry’s answer would actually make a good start to one of those ‘psalms of disorientation’ as Walter Brueggemann calls them. This ‘shaking of the fist at God’ has its place in all spiritual journeys but to stay there is dangerous. Josef Stalin, for example, died shaking his fist at God. Only a wealthy and comfortable society like ours, which has made lifestyle preference it’s golden cow, would have the nerve to make suffering and pain the single defining issue when it comes to the way it thinks about itself and everyone else. National health is defined primarily in terms of money, a sense of wellbeing, education and economy—and we pat ourselves on the back if it’s going well. ‘The darkness, that “deep dread” crap ain’t gonna get us,’ we might as well be singing.

But what if—especially in situations like ours—the ‘darkness’ is actually the only way ahead? What if Steven Fry’s definition of God has ironically been handed to him warped and broken by the church? A churched world that’s living in denial, that likes to imagine God to be a nice little guy who’s doing his best to make everything nice for us, as in the Secular Enlightenment crowd. But what if things are much more complicated than that?

Brueggemann points out that Christendom is implicated in this denial when he says, ‘It is my judgement that this action of the church is less a defiance guided by faith and founded on the good news, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate bible users, given the large number of psalms that are psalms of lament, protest and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the bible itself does.’2

I would suggest that Fry’s rage is actually more to do with our human frustration and terror at what has been called the ‘deep darkness’. Also known as the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: a dreadful, beautiful and captivating mystery you would spend your life running away from and also chasing after. It’s where one of the earliest words used in primitive language (‘taboo’) comes from.

Brueggemann says that instead of just getting angry at this mysterious darkness, we need to recognise that the it holds a clue to the puzzle. He suggests that the problem with us is that it’s not just that we are afraid of evil, we are afraid of all that is mysterious, awe-inspiring or numinous. And that our society (and even at times our so-called ‘Christianity’) has a vested interest in the elimination of wonder and “abiding astonishment,” because ‘In our modern experience but probably also in every affluent culture it is believed that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and eliminate the darkness … The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise. It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life. Indeed, Israel seems to know that new life is rooted nowhere else.’3

When you look at who we are: the first ever society in history to completely excise a Higher Power from our way of life and our meaning and purpose, it’s no wonder we are filling up with angry people who—suspecting that their secular dream is over—are venting their spleen (without seeing any irony) at God. ‘How dare God allow this mess!’ we say. But the fact is, we made our bed, now we must lie in it until we are ready to listen: not to the church, not to that bloody-minded preacher who ruined our family, but to that dreadful and captivating mystery.

Walter Brueggemann speaks to this when he says, ‘It is worth considering a “sociology of wonder,” and asking who is open to abiding astonishment,” and who might be compelled to overcome, banish, or deny such astonishment? I submit that “abiding astonishment,” the celebration of enduring miracle, tends not to occur among those who manage writing, who control the state, who create and transmit proper “facts,” who monopolise control, and who explain by cause and effect. The experience and articulation of wonder tends to occur in the midst of oral expression, in simpler social units, among those who yearn for and receive miracle, who live by gift since they have little else by which to live, and who are sustained only by slippage (mystery) and gaps in the dominant system of power. The elimination of wonder from historical reconstruction is (therefore) a drastic decision to read historical memory in the presence and service of one sociological interest, at the great expense of a contrasting social interest.’4

1 Psalm 88:8,9 RSV
2 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.26 Augsburg Fortress 2002
3 Brueggemann W. Spirituality of the Psalms p.29 Augsburg Fortress 2002

4 Brueggemann W. Abiding Astonishment p. 42 1991 John Knox

Loving Deceit

Then there’s Ziggy, who always seems to be out of step with the bigger picture, whose cares and reflections revolve around their point of view and who is not in the habit of thinking about the wider lens of the ‘us’. For the purposes of this reflection, ‘us’= Zaggy, which might be Ziggy’s work team, their partner, their family or their friends who have allowed them to be the ‘designated victim’ of this so-called wretched team, marriage or social club. Hence Ziggy now occupies the real throne whilst appearing to be the overlooked martyr of the universe.

Ziggy’s conversation stabs will henceforth always be untouchable ‘lest we speak against the one who is always on the side of the angels’. In reality Zaggy is in collective sigh mode because Ziggy is having their day in court again and just can’t seem to ever work with the longer untidy processes of grey and of change and transitions where secret sacrifices are being made by Zaggy but never mentioned, not because Zaggy is a martyr but just because they see it as kind of childish to mention this stuff.

But Ziggy won’t be told, as far as they are concerned Zaggy is a joke and to make that perfectly clear Ziggy has mastered the art of waiting until Zaggy indicates a level of contentment with things. Contentment is Ziggy’s cue to pounce and launch into this great long list of unhappinesses, implying that Zaggy doesn’t love them and that Zaggy must be some kind of imbecile to have not noticed all the ‘great troubles’

Sometimes of course Ziggy is right and Zaggy is being irresponsible. But we are not talking about that today, we are talking about a Zaggy whose wider life indicates that in fact they are quite switched on, focussed and aware. So of course this Zaggy will have probably noticed everything that Ziggy is talking about but knows these things are not going to be able to be changed anyway, and maybe shouldn’t be.

Usually, because Zaggy doesn’t want to hurt Ziggy’s feelings, they will even play dumb and apologise for not seeing Ziggy’s great revelatory list of grievances, fears and martyrdoms. This is a survival tactic learned from the painful experience of sulking and punishing stunts pulled by Ziggy at some time in the past when Zaggy assumed a more honest and transparent relationship, or, it may have been learned from a parent or grandparent.

The scary thing about this tactic is that no human being can endure this kind of double-carrying of loads and ‘loving-deceit’ for too long and Zaggy may soon begin to lose their confidence, stammer, become accident-prone or forgetful and actually become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for Ziggy.

It’s much more apparent when Zaggy is a child in a family. This is where the darkness shows its hand—perhaps even in suicide or self-harming—because this lose-win strategy is a suicidal form of conflict management, which has concluded that there is no such thing as conflict resolution. It’s a kind of constricting alexythymia1 where Zaggy becomes incapable of expressing deep psychological pain.

In their efforts to love Ziggy, they build a concrete wall between their thoughts and their feelings and live inside an illusion of control. Unfortunately they are in the throes of a constricting vision, which will be telling them that the only way ahead is to keep going in this. Finally the pain will become both unbearable and unspeakable.

The logic of this tunnel vision is that speaking out is the only way to be free of the pain but their indulgent love for Ziggy has robbed them of their ability to speak. Therefore, if they can’t speak, the pain will only get worse, therefore the ‘only way’ out is suicide. At this moment we can almost feel the whole of creation sobbing at such a deep, deep wrong.

The ‘only way’ is a common mantra of the suicidal mind, which Shneidemann says can be countered by assisting the person to make a list of what he calls, ‘lousy other options’. Change is going to be hard for Zaggy—who loves Ziggy so much—and it may be too late to do anything but it is worth a try every now and then for Zaggy to simply say, ‘I don’t agree with you and neither do a lot of others around here.’ Having said that, if Zaggy is an individual, they should postpone any discussion of the reasons behind their statement because Ziggy has the advantage of being loved by them and is thus more likely to win a debate.

This will be an awkward moment for Ziggy because they will be thinking, ‘Poor Zaggy, either their facts are wrong or they are deluded.’ By saying they don’t agree with Ziggy, Zaggy has suggested that Ziggy’s loud statement was only an opinion. This is awkward for Ziggy who is adamant that they were reciting a list of objective facts, which it may have been—but that’s not the point.

Fact or fiction is beside the point here. Something exciting is happening. For the first time in their life Zaggy has learned how to mess with the mind of a bully—how to love a bully actually. Zaggy still hasn’t conquered their alexythymia but they have at least found an alternative to self-harming! When Zaggy said, ‘I disagree’—Zaggy didn’t care about whether the facts were true or not, Zaggy was smoking Ziggy out and got the sub-conversation onto the table. Basically telling Ziggy, ‘I can play games too.’

1 Shneidman Edwin S. – The Suicidal Mind – Oxford University Press 1996 p.28 Loving Deceit Blog plv 17.11.14 1

Having To Be The Smartest Person In The Room—Or Not

strategy’s elegance

In his book The Gamble (the story of phase-two of the Iraq War counterinsurgency1), Thomas Ricks reminds us of the importance of carefully building a strategically planned launching pad for our soldiers and leaders. Ricks writes about the delicate process of growing an organisational culture of curiosity and learning. He shows that if leaders are to be approachable and to truly build a team of team-players they need to invite those under them into a decision-making process where robust argumentation and dispute are welcome, even if it does seem to be bordering on rebellion. He also points out the essential stepping stones of good training and an excellent education, especially in human relations and society; anthropology, sociology, history and leadership.

As examples, Ricks points out that General David Petraeus hired Emma Skye (a British peace activist) to be a key adviser with access to confidential briefings. Emma accepted the appointment and was skeptical at first but late in the war she said, ‘The US does not deserve to have an army like this.’ On another occasion Petraeus had a random conversation about the war with a Palestinian man: they were on their way out of a public toilet in a US city, Petraeus was in civilian clothes and the man had no idea who he was. The general later hired him as his number one interpreter in Iraq.

Ricks points to the necessity for two types of courage. ‘“Courage takes two forms in war,” observes Hew Strachan, the British military historian and interpreter of Clausewitz. “Courage in the face of personal danger where the effects are felt in the tactical sphere, and courage to take responsibility, a requirement of strategic success.” This second, more elusive form of bravery, (courage in dealing with strategic blindness) asks us to lay our career on the line—bosses will be offended.

The book also makes clear that—having been educated and trained—the soldiers were really only at the same place as everyone else and it’s what happens next that matters most, especially when they’re being pressured for ‘results now’ with superiors telling them the same old war stories from Europe and Vietnam and telling them to ‘hurry up’. More often than not, this kind of pressure will just get strategically dysfunctional light and sound shows, not patiently thought through and strategically intelligent action.

Ricks makes the following observations. ‘The Bush administration’s tendency was to paper over differences, substituting loyalty for analysis, so the war continued to stand on a strategic foundation of sand. Nor had the president been well served by his generals, who, with few exceptions didn’t seem to pose the necessary questions. “Strategy is about choices,” said one of the exceptions, Maj. Gen. David Fastabend. “Yet,” he lamented, one day in Baghdad two years later, “We don’t teach it, we don’t recognise it. The army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy, you get aspirations.”

Such incompetence can be dangerous. As Eliot Cohen, an academic who would surface repeatedly in the Iraq war as an influential behind-the-scenes figure, commented later in a different context, “Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war it gets people killed.” He quotes Maj. Gen. Fastabend as saying: ‘The army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy you get aspirations.’

Many times in the book, Ricks shows how some of the senior leaders were inspiring fear instead of trust: one of them did this by always leading mysteriously from behind, always correcting but never making clear what they really wanted, another did this by always having to be the smartest person in the room.

The epidemic of hate, bad morale and casualties had commanders—from the President down— urging loyalty, courage and sacrifice like a cracked record, and even accusing faithful commanders of disloyalty when all that was being done was the citing of factual statistics. The leadership was looking and talking in the wrong places and as a result losing the respect of their soldiers and losing the war. Finally, a small group of men persuaded the President to consider the fact that strategy may be the problem and after years of argument and outrage, the strategy was changed to, ‘Protect the local population.’

Remember, in the long run, strategy by definition is the easiest and the best option but in the short term it frequently looks like the hardest or the mad-est. One of the first consequences of the ‘protect the locals’ strategy was that US casualties rose, as the leaders had anticipated—but the casualty rate of the local population fell and soon large numbers of Arab sheiks were joining the US in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

The problem for leaders (everywhere) is to actually figure out exactly what the problem is and then what the right strategy is, and stick to it. For the senior leaders going into Iraq it was staring them in the face in old military books on counterinsurgency2. If the problem is counterinsurgency then ‘protect the local population’ the old books said. In the end strategy that’s taken everything into consideration is elegant.

 

1 US Army Document on Counterinsurgency 2009 http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fmi3-24-2.pdf ‘At its heart, a counterinsurgency is an armed struggle for the support of the population. This support can be achieved or lost through information engagement, strong representative government, access to goods and services, fear, or violence.

2 US Army Document on Counterinsurgency 2009 http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fmi3-24-2.pdf ‘At its heart, a counterinsurgency is an armed struggle for the support of the population. This support can be achieved or lost through information engagement, strong representative government, access to goods and services, fear, or violence. This armed struggle also involves eliminating insurgents who threaten the safety and security of the population. However, military units alone cannot defeat an insurgency. Most of the work involves discovering and solving the population’s underlying issues, that is, the root causes of their dissatisfaction with the current arrangement of political power. Dealing with diverse issues such as land reform, unemployment, oppressive leadership, or ethical tensions places a premium on tactical leaders who can not only close with the enemy, but also negotiate agreements, operate with nonmilitary agencies and other nations, restore basic services, speak the native (a foreign) language, orchestrate political deals, and get “the word” on the street.

Hurt Good

Woiczech (our great uncle in every way)

It’s one of those late night chill-out times in our lounge room, a candle burns on the table and the glass of port feels good in the hand and on the throat. #3 son has just gotten home from work and we’re talking over the day. He tells me about a dumb job they gave him cause he’s new. He explains how he was fully aware that he was being taken advantage of and that they were probably laughing at him but he did it anyway because, as he explained—in their defence—’they were desperate to impress the owners and wanted to make their shop look good, I suppose, an inspection was coming up after all’.

According to one way of thinking he should have quit. ‘No one should put up with being treated like that’ our world says. If it’s unfair, it’s bad; if it hurts, it’s wrong. Call the ‘whoever it is’ and they will fix it for you.

But what if this story isn’t about that? What if the real world is much more like a mysterious mythology in which heroes are not winners, survivors and celebrities but warriors who are learning to master their pride and see themselves as on a quest in which everything that comes their way has some significance. And rather than asking ‘Is it fair?’ ‘Does it hurt?’ we should be asking, ‘Is this a temptation or a gift? An opportunity to serve or to grow in grace?’

Thanks to such mythologies entering our imaginations, life becomes much more than a quest for survival, and instead inspires us to expect a thing we might call a ‘River of Life’ or even a great holy spirit called the Paraclete*: a helper and friend who enables us to become givers of hope and life and grace.

Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward says that in all the mythologies a deep(and mysterious) wounding is a necessary part of becoming what we are created to be and our refusal to ever allow for anything good in that wounding imperils the possibility of us ‘falling down’ into the deep and healing magic that was there before time began and which enables us to truly become as Jesus said, ‘like gods’.

We are crippled in this journey when we adopt our society’s one dimensional posture of being outraged at anything that is unfair or hurts. But that posture is all that a materialist/secular culture has to offer because of its vested interest in ‘proving that God is stupid’—witness the string of dummy-spitting obscenities that flow on FB when something hurtful or unfair happens to someone. Imagine the main characters doing that in the Odyssey or the Aeneid or Genesis.

Yes, they hedge, they try to outwit the gods and the monsters and they make excuses but they also face the battle like men, as it tells us in the Odyssey when Odysseus tries to win sympathy from Polyphemos, the Cyclops: ‘We are Achaians coming from Troy, beaten off our true course by winds from every direction across the great gulf of the open sea, making for home, by the wrong way, on the wrong courses. So we have come. So it has pleased Zeus to arrange it.’1 Having failed to get sympathy, they plan to fix the problem: ‘ … I told the rest of the men to cast lots, to find out which of them must endure with me to take up the great beam and spin it in the Cyclops’ eye when sweet sleep had come over him.’2 Rather than sit around and feel sorry for himself, Odysseus got on with the business at hand.

The big spiritual secret is that we don’t have to ‘maintain the rage’ at pain. Yes, let the hurt out, face the monsters, face our sin, make our confessions but then open our hand and our heart and let go: put our sense of ‘being shafted’ to the sword and quietly allow these inspired myths to go to work in our imagination—for now our friends are Adam and Eve, Abraham, Odysseus and all the others.

If we refuse we will live our entire life with our hand (and our heart) fiercely closed, like Lilith3, and like Lilith, have no idea of the families, oceans, cities and even nations we might be locking up inside that closed hand all because of our demand that things be fair and non-painful.

* John’s Gospel Chapter 16

1 Odysseus in the Odyssey 9.259-262

2. Odysseus in the Odyssey 9.331-335
3. MacDonald G. Lilith (a mythopoeic fantasy novel)