It would be a very brave person to say that grief is desirable. Such thinking is anathema to the “feel good” world in which we live. The idea that suffering is not something that we should avoid at all cost, borders on the absurd in our success/merit-based society. In our thinking, suffering is the symptom of failure, injustice, inequity or weakness; those who suffer deserve our pity, right? Or, if we believe that their suffering is self-created, they should surely receive our derision and pity.

For me, being in suffering has afforded a most wonderful change of perspective.

From even before Ngaire died, I found myself in a world where I became aware of people beginning to make decisions based around my and my family’s well being. Kindness, love, consideration and thoughtfulness towards us, was something that grew to be normal; and I had to learn to receive it, which is not all that easy.

Because of that, I have in many ways discovered greater levels of intimacy than I have really known before: I am experiencing richer and stronger bonds in my relationships with my boys; likewise, in a number of my friendships, I am enjoying a level of loyalty and inter-commitment that I once only theorised about. I have realised the potency and beauty of being a part of a small but vital, loving community.

I am not convinced that I would have had my heart open to receive in quite the same way, if I had not been on the “way of grief.”

Growing up and living in a world that rewards achievement and places value in all kinds of social status, means that we learn what is and isn’t acceptable socially; accordingly, receiving from others is not something that many of us do well.

Yet, for those of us who follow Jesus, it is what we must do. If we don’t, then our beliefs will lead us deeper and deeper into a morass of self-defeating efforts to be good enough, which will eventually destroy us or at best, leave us jaded and bitter.

Grace is not something we can earn; it is a state in which we must simply be.

In spite of the fact that most Christians may say amen to that, over the considerable number of years that I have been a member of this “club”, I have observed a different reality.

I am reminded of something that I read the other day, written by Richard Rohr:

“Switching to an “economy of grace” from our usual “economy of merit” is very hard for humans, very hard indeed. We naturally base almost everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value, appearance, or worthiness of some sort—it can be called “meritocracy” (the rule of merit). Unless we experience a dramatic and personal breaking of the usual and agreed-upon rules of merit, it is almost impossible to disbelieve or operate outside of its rigid logic. This cannot happen theoretically, abstractly, or somehow “out there.” It must happen to me.”

There’s a point – “the usual and agreed-upon rules of merit” – a system that we adhere to and perpetuate.

Go to any party and what’s the first thing that we will say to someone that we’re meeting for the first time?

“So, what do you do?”

It’s a question that helps us identify where this person fits within our cultural context – their worthiness, if you like.

Sadly, in many churches, it’s not all that different. Go to any Sunday service and may well have a similar context for a visitor to our gathering. It may be the same question, using the same value system, or we may frame it differently. We may say, “So where do you fellowship?”

Their response will let us know whether their cultural framework approximates ours, and therefore, whether or not they “fit” with our value system.

If what they think is nothing like how we do things at Happy Town Church, then we’ll probably politely show them where the tea and coffee is, and move on.

It’s quite normal and the same everywhere in society. Our friends and those with whom we like to surround ourselves, generally think like us and are usually in a similar socio-economic group.

We build sanctuaries of like-mindedness and create frameworks of exclusion, which by their very nature don’t allow us to truly receive or give. We may even truly believe that we are “saving the lost”, when all we are really doing (as we did to ourselves) is make people fit into a cultural framework that gives them a sense of value. The more that we “do” to fit into this framework – meetings, small groups, committees, etc – the more value we have. Sadly, those who aren’t prepared to fit this framework are often viewed as fringe-dwellers who are not really “walking with the Lord.”

We shape our beliefs to fit what we want our lives to be. We have made theologies out of how God wants us to be happy, prosperous and comfortable. We shape “mantras” that help us to get handles on God, so that he can fit into our lives and therefore, we can have the lives that we want.

But, in all of this following of our dreams, at the back of our minds is the ache that maybe this isn’t how it was meant to be.

Jesus said things completely contrary to that, things like:

“In this world you will have trouble.”

“Whoever loses his life, will find it.”

“He who would be greatest, must serve.”

From my not-too-distant past, I can tell you how we Christians spin interpretations on those very confronting words of Jesus’, so that we become “faith-filled overcomers” of our situations, thinking that it is the outcome of success for us that is the proof of what we believe. It becomes a lifestyle of denial that doesn’t allow that pain and suffering is anything but bad, never allowing us the freedom simply to be, to feel, to love, and to be loved. It is a theology that equates “successful” faith as that which fulfills my dreams – one that is no longer centred around God’s purpose of oneness and unity, but around the needs of my ego – which is the opposite. Somehow we have written theologies that pretty well say, “God wants me to be happy”, when maybe God really just wants me to be real – that in the Universe there is everything from the budding of a flower to the catastrophic destruction caused by a supernova, vaporising millions of worlds in an instant; my dreams need to be understood in that context.

Of course, the God-wants-me-to-be-happy theology can never work, so our lives become more and more a search for which speaker might approximate the truth more closely to how we feel at any given time; which “teaching” dangles the carrot that is a little sweeter from our point of view. We may tarry for a while at those places which call us up to a “higher place”, then move on to another conference, a deeper understanding – all the while feeling inside that there must be a magical ring, the key that will unlock the secret – never realising that God is in all life, not just the good bits.

He is in that which we deny, as much as that which we pursue, the prayers that are unanswered as much as those that are, the people with whom we disagree, as much as those whom we worship….

So now I find myself in a place that is one of rest, where it is possible to hold the good and the bad in balance, only attempting to change that which is naturally altered by love, though I confess to being far from competent in that. My litmus test is my behaviour when in traffic and so far I’m not doing all that well!

What I have learned is what I may have touched on before; that most of our attempts at theology are about us trying to get a handle on the God who refuses a handle. Life will always throw something up to break our perfect mould.

Maybe these are the ravings of someone who has been hurt and is reacting negatively; or maybe God is infinitely bigger than the tiny box in which I had him; or maybe this is what the mystics call the second half of life. As Richard Rohr says of the spiritual journey of the second half of life:

“Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have—right now. This is a monumental change from the first half of life…holding life’s sadness and joy is its own reward, its own satisfaction, and your best and truest gift to the world.

“Strangely, all of life’s problems, dilemmas, and difficulties are now resolved…by falling into the good, the true, and the beautiful—by falling into God.” *

2014-05-10 18.42.59 - Version 2

* From Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life – Richard Rohr

Us and Them

This month sees the last three anniversaries in our family in the year since Ngaire died. One, of course, is Mothers’ Day, and this year that Sunday was also the birthday of my eldest son, Jordan. At the end of the month my youngest son, Eddy, turns eighteen.

I decided that it might be nice to celebrate all three of these events with a long weekend away in Far North Queensland; some sun and fishing was just what the doctor ordered. With Remy still away in California, exploring and building his own future, the trip included three of us.

Looking back at the anniversaries this year and the effect that each had on my family and me, as detached as it may sound, this grieving process is exactly that, a process; each celebration, generally, was a little easier than the one before.

However, when you are in the midst of it, the thought of it being a natural progression is almost sacrilegious; something so deeply personal, challenging and “other-worldly” in its stark contrast to the nuts-and-bolts days of life on this planet, surely can’t be referred to in such an impassive way: a process.

Maybe that’s part of the problem: In our individual understanding of our own uniqueness, we forget that we are part of a much larger community on this planet, that has been dealing with, pain, loss and grief for multiplied millennia. Our Western culture, to a large extent, and quite ironically, insulates us from death; we load our entertainment media with death and carnage, yet when it comes to the reality of death in our lives, we are often kept from even seeing a dead body. I know many adults in their thirties and forties who still haven’t experienced that.

Yet many cultures that we might consider overly modest in their entertainment options, embrace the experience of a loved one’s death passionately in a virtual spree of commemoration, often for extended periods of time. Perhaps this is why such cultures are loathe to see death as much a part of their entertainment and why we tend to grieve so badly – we don’t embrace its stark reality.

In any case, I am glad to be in this place now, where I have embraced the loss of so much life and love, to come through into a place of grace, peace and blessing – a new place that is at once both fresh and ancient. I wish that I could explain that last statement, but it is a feeling – an awareness – that I have no other way of expressing yet.

Let’s get back to Far North Queensland.

I had only been so far north in Australia once as a teenager but having lived in Hawaii for a couple of years, the memories of the tropics came flooding back; there is a strange corollary between the two that doesn’t relate to the weather.

We had hardly driven any distance in our hire car, when I saw the first example: an indigenous teenager crossing the road, in no hurry – in fact, somewhat aimlessly, it seemed to me. I took note and probably wouldn’t have paid any attention at all had he not been indigenous.

When I lived in Hawaii, the local Polynesian population had likewise been disenfranchised by the influx of Westerners and Japanese and the surge of development that saw so many sacred places destroyed or, at best, cheapened by business or tourism. Racial prejudice and violence was common, particularly on the outer islands.

There is something that I have noticed of all people who have been, for whatever reason, disenfranchised, be they an indigenous people, a man who is suddenly unemployed after decades with one company, a homeless person, or even someone who has just found out that their lover has been unfaithful. It is grief, with all its unrequited emotions: anger, frustration, sadness, hopelessness – from being powerless – and depression. You see it, even through smiles.

From where we stayed in Port Douglas, it is only a twenty-minute drive to Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest. The local indigenous community – the Kuku Yalanji people, I believe – operates the Gorge entrance, transport and administration. While all were pleasant and helpful, I wondered if I saw behind the eyes, that same grief, that deep sense of loss, which has been the lot of our indigenous people for centuries.

Of course, I am paddling in the shallows here; it is no arcane secret that injustice and trauma though individuals’ lives, family lines – even through nations – shapes psyches at every level; and it is no secret that this has been the case for our original Australians. But where I live, on the Northern Beaches of Sydney is relatively insulated (there’s that word again) from indigenous culture and contact. I know a few, but that’s about it.

Maybe it’s that I have been on this journey of grief and now find it easier to recognise in others; but I wasn’t expecting it on a holiday weekend away.

So, what does it tell me and what should my response be? It may seem simplistic, but the thing that I have found invaluable from others through this time of grief, is friendship – love – not offering answers, sometimes offering help, but always offering love and another’s desire to “be” – with me.

While we treat our indigenous people as separate, and not our brothers, sisters and friends, their path to healing will remain arduous. While those of us who come from non-indigenous backgrounds have in our hearts and minds that they are separate, we are to some extent guilty of the same racism that caused the pain in the first place.

It is always a danger to talk about any group of people as if it is a collective that functions uniformly; one of the basic characteristics of racism is just that: to see a race or people group as a unit, not as a collection of individuals.

It is at the heart of our government’s treatment of asylum seekers, who are no longer seen as a collection of individuals fleeing the torment of persecution with all the associated grief and anguish, but are seen as a dangerous bloc that we must fear. So our response is to rob them of all freedom without any hope of a future, inflicting grief upon grief. I wonder what we would see were we to look into those eyes.

We live on a very small planet. It is too small for us to be drawing lines between us. As a friend said the other day, “we are all made of the same stuff”, so why do we have this need to make others separate? Is it to reinforce our own sense of belonging? Governments and tyrants have for a very long time used the principle that the most effective way to unify a group of people and make them do what you want, is to make them afraid of another group, to make them think that those people are different in an undesirable or threatening way. Hitler did it with the Jews, and look how that ended up.

We say that such a thing could never happen again, but I wonder if we don’t see smaller examples of it every day. Any form of patriotism has the seeds of such a possibility. Interestingly, the word patriotism comes from the Greek patris which means fatherland, use by Germans of their own country during the reign of Hitler.

We see it in football violence, church movements, intolerance of different religions or sexuality, pretending not to notice a disabled person, even demographic differences between people in the same city. The danger lies in anything that creates a dividing line, and makes us feel exclusive, because exclusive means that we exclude others.

Paul the apostle said it well: “Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilised and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ; everyone is included in Christ. (Colossians 3:11 –The Message – italics mine).

All of the great global problems through the centuries have arisen because we don’t get this basic principle: There is no us and them; there is only us.