An unexpected step in a faith journey

So I went to a church conference for women last weekend.

For those of you who know me well, this is a fairly big deal for me. I have been out of a church environment for a long time, and am only just at the point of dipping a trepidatious little toe back in. I am at a point of having almost completely deconstructed my faith, only just starting to figure it out again in a way that makes sense to me. I have been, as Brene Brown says, in the wilderness, where I have been busy working out how I belonged to myself first, before I could take my place in a community of others.

So, yeah – when my beautiful Minister Ellie (also a dear and trusted friend) encouraged me to attend the Uniting Church Women’s Conference along with her, my initial reaction was – um, I don’t think so! But then I thought on it, and the idea kept nibbling at the edges of my mind, and I ended up saying I would go.

I had set the bar low. As long as no one cast any demons out of me or told me I had to submit to my husband, I’d be OK. (You may laugh – only I have had both these experiences at women’s conferences!) Ellie assured me neither of these things would happen (and I’m happy to report she was quite right).

And I can honestly say I really enjoyed it. I’m still processing my experience, but I thought I’d share some reflections.

I found like-minded people

I hung out with a group of women who discussed things like whether there was too much gendered language in the songs and prayers. I joined a group discussion on how faith can inform a non-fundamentalist view of sexuality. And another one on how complementarian theology intersects with domestic violence. I listened as First Nations women passionately talked about how reconciliation can never be divorced from justice. No topics or views were off limits. No one was rebuked for their opinion. No one felt like they had to control the discussion or the outcome. I felt like I could actually say what I thought. I felt like I could breathe.

I didn’t enjoy every single talk

Some of them I hung on every word, other speakers I didn’t connect with. And what was great about that experience was that it was completely OK to say that not every moment resonated, to vote with your feet, to leave a discussion or talk if it wasn’t for you, or you felt you weren’t contributing or learning.

Everyone’s voices were valued

In the official program, there was a thoughtful emphasis on hearing from a diversity of women, from all cultures, backgrounds and abilities, which I deeply appreciated. But then even in the small group discussions, there was a consciousness of ensuring we were thinking about issues from all perspectives. In one group, it was specifically called out that all of us currently participating in the discussion about a particular issue were white, heterosexual women, and how could we make space for the other voices that are often drowned out by our own.

What I appreciate about the Uniting Church is its commitment to unity in the midst of incredible diversity – from congregations which align themselves a more traditional, conservative theology, to the other end of the spectrum where the LGBTQI community are fully affirmed and embraced. It’s not an easy path, but I admire that these women are trying to walk it, and find strength and connection with each other in the midst of it all.

I’m glad I went, and I’m also looking forward to the next stage of this journey.

Love,

Em

 

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On the AOG abuse allegations…

It was with a multitude of mixed feelings that I read today about the Royal Commission investigating former Assemblies of God Pastor Frank Houston for alleged child sex abuse, and the response of the church – including mega-church Hillsong – to the allegations.

I am no stranger to this scandal. For many years – perhaps 12 all up – I went to a Hillsong “sister” church and I remember sitting in the congregation when it was announced that Frank had had a “moral failing” and would no longer be an AOG pastor. “Moral failing.” It kind of says everything and nothing all at once. A very dear friend was actually in the Hillsong congregation when the “moral failing” was announced by Brian Houston (Frank’s son) himself. It was a judiciously worded announcement, constructed with care. In fact, my friend walked away believing it was about financial mismanagement, and was later shocked to learn it was actually about child sex abuse.

I could have written a blog post about the appalling way churches of all flavours – Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal – handle child sex abuse. But after reading this article: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/abuse-boz-tchividjian – I don’t have anything more to add on that score. Churches are crap at calling out abuse when the culture of that church prioritizes the institution over its people. And that’s what I want to write about – because I know what it’s like to be damaged by a church culture whose primary goal is self-protection.

As I mentioned before, I was part of a Pentecostal church for my formative teenage years and half my twenties. Sometimes, I think I’m still recovering. There were many things I enjoyed about being part of such a powerfully inclusive subculture. The sense of belonging is unlike anything else; you feel as though your life has a grand and meaningful purpose, you are swept along in something that is dynamic and wonderful and at times transcendent. Any nagging doubts you have are swept under the rug because something that feels this good must be right.

Until you realise that it’s not anymore. Until the doubts get too loud and you begin to verbalize them. This threatens the institution – then you are quickly reminded that belonging to this subculture comes with a hefty price of obedience and conformity.

And when a culture is built around obedience and conformity, dissent is silenced in increasingly destructive ways. At first it’s quite low-key. Virtually non-existent. Like something you catch out of the corner of your eye, and when you turn to look at it directly, it’s gone. “Things will go best for you if you obey authority,” you are told kindly when you question something one of the leaders has said. “She really has a rebellious spirit,” you hear one pastor say in a worried tone about a member of the congregation who has dared to query the status quo. Then it becomes more malignant. You’re called into a leader’s office and told that you are the problem, your faith is in jeopardy because you are not conforming. Or someone has the misfortune to witness clearly inappropriate behaviour in one of the leaders – and they’re the one whisked into an office and threatened that they’d better keep their mouth shut. When the thing you’re creating is more important than the people who sustain it, this kind of behaviour gets easier and easier to justify.

I experienced the full force of this when I spoke up against the relationship between the AOG and the Family First political party in the 2004 election. My issues were not just ideological – there were things happening in the volatile church/politics mix that were blatantly wrong. I spoke up – and I paid the price. I was ostracized and ignored. I lost friendships that I’d had for years – decades even. I had committed the ultimate sin – I didn’t protect the institution. I ended up leaving the church and moving suburbs, the only way I felt could actually move on from the whole ordeal.

Now, ten years on, I’m done with anger and hurt. When I think about my experiences, I mostly just feel – sorry. Sorry that I spent many years subjugating myself to an institution that was so morally lacking.

I‘m sorry that so many young people I saw coming to faith left jaded and burned out and psychologically damaged. Some were really, terribly damaged. And I’m sorry that for many years I was a blind but willing participant in all of this; incredibly sorry for my part in it. I’ve since tried to apologise to many of the young people in my sphere of influence who I failed by being part of an institution that did not have their welfare as its primary concern.

I think this particular church has changed a lot since then; I hope so. I go to a different church now, although I doubt I’ll ever be a member of another church ever again. After many years I have reconciled myself to the fact that the messy, difficult, ever-changing faith that I have is OK. And I see clearly that no church – no institution – is truly representative of faith anyway. After all, prioritising the institution over its people was exactly what Jesus railed against when He saw what Israel had become.

And, despite the media reports, I do hope – I really do hope – that the AOG church leaders did not attempt to bribe Houston’s alleged victim in an attempt to hush up the child abuse allegations. However, as I’ve seen, a church that must protect itself at all costs is capable of justifying some pretty terrible behaviour. I do have faith though that there is power in truth, that truth really does set people free. Because this really is a chance for the church to show that people do matter more than anything else.

And so the journey continues…

Hi there. It’s been a while 🙂

Actually, I can’t believe it’s been about 5 months since my last post.

I’m not really sure what happened at the end of last year – there I was, really excited about our trip to Hamilton Island and busy busy busy as usual – and then, I kind of just fell into a heap when I actually stopped to relax. Bizarrely, I spent the first few days of my holidays bursting into tears at odd moments, and I just couldn’t bring myself to write at all. I think I had literally reached the end of myself, and I had absolutely nothing left to give.

Fortunately, the holiday was exactly what I needed – we had a wonderful time eating, swimming, snorkelling and reading – because little did I know that some pretty stressful months lay ahead. Just before Christmas, one of my dearest friends suffered a severe brain hemorrhage and lay in a coma – we weren’t sure whether she would live or die. Then Little Miss was hit by a ute as we walked across the road to see Christmas lights. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare – there she was, holding her brother’s hand, when she just pulled out of his grasp and ran – not seeing the Toyota Hilux that was heading her way. It hit her on the head – Bookworm says he’ll never forget the sound of that as long as he lives – and she flipped over and hit the road. Unbelievably, miraculously, she didn’t even lose consciousness. She sustained a small fracture to the skull that probably is healed by now – and actually she was more upset by her cuts and scratches than anything else. There she lay on the side of the road, crying hysterically, telling the ambulance driver that all she needed was a bandaid for her toe.

That was the same week that two other children were hit by cars and died. Souljourneyboy and I sat by her bed in the hospital and just cried together. I don’t understand why she was so lucky. If she’d ran out half a second earlier she would have gone under the wheel and we’d have lost her. I don’t know if God intervened or it was just fate or coincidence, or…I don’t know.

I’ve wondered a lot about this lately – not only for Little Miss, but my beautiful friend who I mentioned earlier. She made it out of the coma – her physical healing has been startling – and she can now walk and talk and eat and hold a conversation. She’s still very confused – almost like she exists in moments, but the moments aren’t joined together for her yet. Sometimes seeing her makes me sad – I wish there was more I could do to help her brain heal. Other times I am just so thankful she is alive, and so grateful for her healing thus far. And I know her  journey isn’t done yet; she has a wonderful husband and three gorgeous kids who love her, friends and family who are believing for the best.

And so…the journey continues for all of us. Up and down and roundabout. After Christmas we had a wonderful holiday with friends at the beach (although Little Miss got stung by a blue bottle- an amazed Life Guard couldn’t believe it as there had been NO blue bottles around AT ALL) where I really just soaked up the sun and refreshed my soul with a bunch of absolutely wonderful people.

We never really know what the journey holds, do we? No one ever really knows when a Toyota Hilux will come barreling out of nowhere and knock us for a six. So let’s make sure we grasp hold of joy wherever we find it.

Peace and blessings to you all – I am looking forward to our journey together this year xxx

Election Day blues…

I was trying – really trying – to avoid posting about the election.

But I find myself so distressed over all the political shenanigans over the past few weeks that I just can’t help myself.

I think elections are difficult for people like me, who care deeply about politics in the sense that we are passionate about what makes society just, fair, compassionate and stable – and also have a faith that we are still working out.

This means the intersection of faith and politics at times like these is just – quite horrible.

From a political perspective, I will never be able to join the ranks of the right-wing conservative Christians who could never vote for a party that supports gay marriage, for example. I can in all good conscience vote for gay marriage, mostly because I believe fundamentally that Christians are not here to impose their own moral views upon the rest of society. And also this issue certainly isn’t the litmus test for my faith – I think many Christians have a range of views on the issue, and I don’t think any view is a faith deal breaker. Not all Christians think the same way, and I like that. I know and respect many people with a wide range of views and I am happy to engage in dialogue about it – I think that’s right and healthy. But the issues that are important to me as a believer are asylum seekers, indigenous rights, caring for the poor and the environment, corporate greed, and eradicating global poverty.

However, I seem to be in the minority, which is why elections are often difficult from a faith perspective. When churches or organisations start telling people how they should vote based on faith, I think they’ve completely overstepped the mark. When faith leaders start issuing proclamations on what Christians should think about issues, they’re in tricky territory. By all means encourage Christians to think prayerfully and with consideration over whom to vote for – but be aware that once you make a particular view a prerequisite for faith – well, then be prepared for people who don’t share those views to walk away.

I hate what has happened in this election. I hate that the issue of asylum seekers is being used in such an abominable way. I hate that my vote will be based on who I like least, rather than being inspired by a party or person. I am the classic disenfranchised lefty – I could never bring myself for a party that is proud of the fact it will save $25 million a year by denying asylum seekers the basic right of free legal help. But I am sick of how the current government has treated its supporters with such disdain.  

So election day will be a bit depressing, I think.

But oddly, even though having faith makes times like this tricky, it gives comfort also – governments will come and go, but other things – the real, true, important, eternal things – remain. And I guess it’s those things I hold onto.

I, the bird

It was my Dad’s 70th birthday party today.

It was a wonderful day, and he gave an amazing speech about his life – I’ll share more another time.

But for now I will share the poem I wrote him. It’s about the two of us.

I, the bird

I, the bird

And you, the sky

A quivering wing. A seeking eye

An arc of light in burnished blue

A boundless circle. The bird flies true.

 

I, the bud

And you, the tree

Serene in ageless canopy

Here green. Here gold. Here sacred earth

The hushed prayer stills. The bud bursts forth.

 

I, the moon

And you, the lake

Oh feeble moon. A magician’s fate

For tethered in that black glass gaze.

Is moon’s true self. Bold, unafraid.

 

You, the shore

And I, the sea

The shore’s hold slips. The wave breaks free

Horizon bound, the sea must roam

Night falls. Tide turns. And the wave seeks home.

Love stories

I have to say, I’m a total sucker for a love story.

I always enjoy a book that little bit more if there’s romance in it – and while I love novels like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch and North and South for their social commentary and brilliant writing – let’s face it, I also love them because they’re romance narratives.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately, nothing heavy, mostly just dystopian young adult fiction with a bit of fantasy thrown in. There’s way too many writers in this genre, and they’re not all great. But there were a few I did really like.  Frost by Kate Avery Ellison was quite good, although the romance moved a little quickly. I really enjoyed The Scourge by A.G Henley, an original concept and a killer love story, and all written from the perspective of someone who’s blind, which was fascinating. I would definitely recommend this one. The Divergent Trilogy by Virginia Roth is also excellent. She’s only written two so far, and I am hanging for the sequel, which is due out in October. This was a classic slow-build love narrative, and they’re always the best.

So why am I thinking about all of this today? Because it’s Easter Sunday, and I am reflecting on love. Love and sacrifice. There is much I could say about Easter, but I am going to quote the underquoted (in my opinion) Dave Lister from Red Dwarf. In the episode “Holoship” he is arguing with Rimmer about the life of Jesus when he says,

“I mean, whether you believe that stuff or not, it’s about a dude who sacrifices his life for love”.

It’s that simple. No matter what your faith or theology, I hope we can all think about love and sacrifice today, and the greatest love story ever told.

Here’s a link to one of my favourite songs about Easter called “Just to be With You”.

Enjoy.

Friendship is good for the soul

This afternoon I got the chance for a much-needed catch-up with Soul Sister; my best friend since I was five year’s old. I thought I would share some of the things I really love about this wonderful friend, who truly is a sister to my soul…

  • The fact we can spend an entire day in each others’ company just reading, and both feel like it’s been the best day ever. And if there’s a cup of tea and some chocolate involved, well…we’re perfectly happy.
  • Her continual quest for self-improvement. This has taken various forms over the years –  goals regarding the proper pronunciation of certain words, taking up ballet for ex-student ballet “has-beens”, and most recently, sewing. After deciding sewing would be a good skill to have, Soul Sister learned how to do it. Impressive and inspiring, and also very useful for me, as I can barely sew a button back onto a shirt.
  • The fact she maintains that Anne of Green Gables actually changed her life.
  • Her passion for children, and their education.
  • Her deep commitment to her faith.
  • Her generosity in opening up her home to other people’s kids, whenever she can. It’s not uncommon for her to say to me, “Oh, I have six kids here today…”
  • How she is constantly on the lookout for “teaching opportunities” with not only her own kids, but other people’s’ as well.
  • Her “five-second volunteering” policy. This means that if there’s a call for volunteers, and no one puts their hand up, she’ll wait five seconds and then volunteer herself. This has led to her taking on rather more than she can chew over the years.
  • The fact that she always knows what I mean, even if I don’t myself.
  • The fact she made the best speech ever at my wedding. We laughed, we cried, and everyone was talking about it for ages.

I don’t know what I’d do without her. I hope you have someone in your life like this too.