Thoughts of extinction enhance life

fossil

Life is very old and tenaciously fragile.

On a table that holds my precious things I have a small black ceramic disk I bought in India. Made from a black clay it has the imprint of a spiralled shell. These disks are common at tourist sites and are made by pressing wet clay into fossil beds thus creating a positive image of the creature that became fossilised millions of years ago. The disk has been fired to make it durable and is iconic.

It records a life that ended eons ago. A bit like the rubbings one can do on famous gravestones in English churchyards, it is a proof of existence similar to the forms pensioners complete each year to verify they are alive to receive their monthly payouts.
The original shell creature fossilised in the sediment of India, had no consciousness of its own existence. It simply went about its life absorbing food, transforming it into energy, moving forward and procreating itself until its life ended.

By the time it became a fossil it had probably been dead for millennia. Perhaps its species had already died out completely? Was this creature wiped out in one of the five cataclysmic extinction events that are part of the earth’s evolutionary history?

It’s strange to realise that until the 19th century we didn’t even believe in extinction. So in America, you had President Thomas Jefferson sending Lewis and Clark to explore the Northwest regions in the hope they would find mastodons roaming around. Mastodon bones were fashionable at the time. There was a very famous one unearthed in New York and displayed in Philadelphia so people assumed they must still exist somewhere.

It was the French naturalist Georges Cuvier who around Jefferson’s time came to the realisation that if no one was seeing the animals from which the bones came, they must be extinct. At the same time European colonists were sending all these bones of exotic creatures, that couldn’t be found alive, back to their motherlands . So Cuvier came up with a theory of extinction which preceded Darwin’s theory of evolution by half a century. We knew that some species were extinct before we knew how they originated and there is a significant consolation in that sequence of discovery.

To become aware of the extinction of life before knowing how that life came to be, is to put things in the right order.
It’s why in every spiritual tradition the contemplation of death precedes the experience of what life means.

Ask any person diagnosed with cancer of the truth of this. They will confirm that knowing you have a disease that wants to kill you makes you appreciate every moment you are alive. Being made aware of our mortality enhances our daily living.

So my little black disk is a helpful reminder for me. This imprint of an extinct creature from millions of years ago remembers an extinct life. Gone forever as I will be.

But for me, not today!

The power of the feminine to save. Even from Hell

We all enjoy a love story.

This one from medieval Italy is similar to a million others but is special because it happened to a great poet who recorded it in the most beautiful language. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is famous for writing the “Divine Comedy” which shaped Christianity’s ideas of heaven and hell forever.

He describes how he began to write the epic poem while he was walking along in the afternoon of his life and fell into a deep hole. There is no better description of the midlife crisis than going along with your life when suddenly you fall into a hole. These crises are usually about our unfinished business or unlived life. For Dante it was his incomplete relationship with Beatrice whom he had met when he was only nine. Years later as an adult Dante was standing near the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge that crosses the Arno River in Florence when he saw Beatrice as an adult and fell deeply in love. Dante did not speak to her that day. In fact he saw her very little, and then Beatrice suddenly died, carried off by plague.

Dante was stricken with the loss of his vision. She was the intermediary between his soul and Heaven itself. Dante went on to marry, and he and Signora Alighieri raised three children. Then, suddenly, at the midpoint of his life, he fell into a deep depression. Here his work began.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante is led down through the nine levels of hell by the poet Virgil, symbol of reason and intellect. Dante discovers surprisingly that the lowest level of hell isn’t fire, it is frozen. That arctic wasteland the intellect will bring us to. So he leaves Virgil behind and is led out of hell by none other than his beloved Beatrice. The message is clear. The soul, not the intellect leads out of hell to heaven. The moist, soft feminine soul, not sterile male logic is the way to salvation. Love not reason saves Dante, and us all.

dante out of hell.jpg

Six hundred and fifty years later, during World War II, the Americans were chasing the German army up the Italian “boot.” The Germans were blowing up everything to thwart the progression of the American army, including the bridges across the Arno River. But no one wanted to blow up the Ponte Vecchio because Beatrice had stood on it and Dante had written about her.
So the German army made radio contact with the Americans and, in plain language, said they would leave the Ponte Vecchio intact if the Americans would promise not to use it.

The promise was held. The bridge was not blown up, and not one American solider or piece of equipment went across it. Crazy, isn’t it? Completely illogical. But life isn’t a rational story, it is a love story. Hardened warrior men were turned by creative feminine emotion. In a modern, ruthless war, the bridge was spared, because beautiful Beatrice had stood upon it.

(Many thanks to Robert A Johnson for the bulk of this from his Inner Gold)

IMAGINE IMAGINATION IMAGINING

dl-portrait-npg-samuel-taylor-coleridge

There’s more to imagination that you imagine. In “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream”, Shakespeare wrote, “And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing, a local habitation and a name.” The passage illustrates how the idea of imagining something into reality already intrigued artists in late sixteenth century Europe. But despite the fascination with imagination no-one in the Elizabethan Age came up with a definition or explanation.

More than a century later it was Samuel Coleridge (1 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) who suggested there are three types of imagination. Well versed in philosophy, Coleridge had studied first Plotinus (3rd Century), then Locke’s (1632-1704) theory of sensory knowledge and finally Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) , even travelling to Germany to read Kant in the original. He wrote that Kant’s philosophy had grabbed him like a giant hand.

Coleridge came to understand the real meaning of our mental abilities namely
reason, understanding, and imagination using Kant’s philosophy. Reason is rational thinking and the way we think about things. Understanding is how we come to grips with the data received and exercise our judgement and decision making on that which reason has produced. That seems simple enough. But it is imagination that we really want to understand because imagination is the fairy dust of creativity. Imagination sparks all creativity.

One of the best modern books outlining the creative process must be “Art & Fear:observations on the perils (and rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. In a section on the topic they say, “Imagination is in control when you begin making (or writing) an object. The artwork’s potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brush-stroke is applied, the first chord struck. But as the piece grows, technique and craft take over and imagination becomes a less useful tool.”

Coleridge called that first creative impulse, “Primary Imagination” and believed it is bound up with the Exodus story where Yahweh (Jehovah) declares his name to Moses as “I am that I am”. What we see in the divine name is a dynamic image and imagination of God’s being. God has a circular name, a spiral, a dance, “I am what I am”.
These very words titled the final song in the 1983 Broadway hit “La Cage aux follies” about a gay couple. In the same year Gloria Gaynor made the song a pop hit and it is now something of an anthem for the Gay Pride movement.

How sad then that the religions of the Book who reverence this God named “I am who I am” do not honour the myriad forms of creativity, sexuality, and expression in which God takes form in human lives? We are all made in the image of “I am who I am”, yet we constantly live in fear of being judged for being who we really are. Imagine that powerful creative moment when God imagined you

Traffic Calming Cookies?

If parenting has taught me anything it is never to make a rule that you cannot police. When a parent prohibits their child from taking cookies from the jar, that parent has created a lot of extra responsibility for themselves.PoliceCookies Firstly, the parent will  have to set up surveillance on the cookie jar to see if any are taken without being offered. This will mean video cameras and reviewing the recordings, or at least a regular stock check of the cookies.
Secondly, the rule regarding cookies has now criminalised the act of cookie taking because it has been prohibited. So the law now creates criminal activity where there was none. The Americans discovered this when they enacted the Prohibition Laws of 1920 making the production and sale of alcohol illegal. Prohibition did not reduce alcoholism but served to create a dark smuggling underworld of bootleggers and gangsters which created more problems than the legislation attempted to solve.
This negative impact of legislation is the argument being put forward in debates surrounding the legalisation of marijuana. Dagga users, who include an amazing number of professionals in this city, argue that decriminalising the production, distribution and use of dagga will remove criminals from the supply chain and ensure a safer and more regulated product. An added spin off would be the release of hundreds of law enforcement officials to address more serious crimes.
They argue that having tobacco and alcohol as legitimate drugs on the open market whilst prosecuting people for using “weed” is downright hypocritical. I am sure if alcohol was invented today it would be a scheduled and controlled pharmacological product!
The question I have though is what drugs should be decriminalised? Should Tik, Crack Cocaine and Heroin be freely and legally available as they are in some progressive European countries? I am not convinced.
All this discussion about laws and the need to police them is given further focus by considering a seemingly unrelated popular topic, the reckless driving of minibus taxis on our roads. Once again the reality of having rules that are not policed is the point. The growing impunity and arrogance of our taxi operators is driven by the reality that no one will stop and penalise them for their anarchistic disregard for the road code.
Assuming all taxi drivers are licensed, it means they have successfully completed the rigorous K53 drivers examination and despite all that training, flagrantly drive the way they do. Why? Because they can.
With the shortage of national policing resources and the hiccoughing implementation of the metro police, perhaps the decriminalising of marijuana is more pressing than ever?
If our traffic police cannot bring law and order to our roads, maybe a puff on a legal joint could bring calm to stressed drivers, taxi drivers and their hollering “guardjies” alike. Even the stressed out members of the police services might enjoy a bong?
Jokes aside, something needs to be done about the lawless anarchy, chaos and carnage on our roads.

African Myth saves lives scientifically.

It is unfortunate that myths are no longer are understood as “true stories”, but have instead been assigned the value of fantasy and unreality. Ancient cultures told stories to explain the mystery of the world they experienced. These myths explained natural phenomena and were also practical prohibitions to protect people from harm.

For Africa’s own Khoisan peoples, the sun and the moon were gods. Faces of a supreme deity. The cycle of religious observance was, therefore, carefully adjusted according to the cycles of the moon. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century observers in the Cape Colony noted the importance of ritual dances and prayers during the full moon each month. Khoisan legends and myths also refer to a “trickster” god, who could transform himself into animal or human forms, and who could die and be reborn many times over. The praying mantis, a predatory insect with large eyes and other features characteristic of animal predators, figures in San myths and folktales in a role similar to the clever fox in European folktales. Khoisan herdboys still use mantises to “divine” the location of lost animals, and in Afrikaans, the mantis is referred to as “the Hottentot’s god.”tokoloshe bed

Another trickster in Bantu folklore is Tokoloshe or Tikoloshe as his name appears in various forms in Sub-Saharan Africa. Originally a fertility figure (he carries his large manhood slung over his shoulder) this mischievous dwarf has been blamed for all kinds of malevolence.
He is most famous for stealing the souls of sleeping people and to this day many African people will not sleep on the floor. As further insurance they elevate their beds on bricks so that the short Tokoloshe will not see them sleeping above his eye level.

In an interesting nexus of science and mythology, this bed raising ritual coincides with the migration of people from rural huts and homesteads to cities like Johannesburg for industrial work. These newcomers encountered coal for the first time, replacing the wood as fuel for cooking and heating. No one knew at the time that coal fires can produce 20% more deadly carbon monoxide than burning wood. Carbon monoxide is heavier than oxygen and an open coal fire indoors creates a deadly layer of floor level gas that will kill anyone sleeping there. And so enters Tokoloshe, the soul stealer who superstitiously was blamed for these floor deaths. Ironically the word superstition derives from Latin which means to “stand over”, which Tokoloshe did as he stole the souls asleep on the floor.
When city dwelling traditional Africans elevated their beds however, they took themselves out of harms way by sleeping above the carbon monoxide zone on the floor. A scientific solution implemented through mythology.

Imitating the television series Mythbusters it seems that the myth of elevating one’s bed to avoid the soul reaping Tokoloshe is a true story.
The same is true for many of our religious narratives. They are absolutely true. They may just not have happened in the way we narrate them.

Stress will kill you

South Africa is stressful. The Centre for Health Journalism reports the country has a high suicide rate, psychiatric illnesses are on the rise and stress has become normal.
Every day, an estimated 21 South Africans commit suicide and, according to experts, stress could be a significant contributing factor. Studies done by University of KwaZulu-Natal researcher Lourens Schlebusch, show an estimated 7 582 South Africans die by their own hand every year and 20 times that number attempt but fail to take their own lives. Marthé Viljoen from the South African Federation for Mental Health says new data suggests this is because South Africans have unusually high stress levels.
A recent study, conducted by international research company Bloomberg, ranked South Africa as the second “most stressed out” nation in the world, following Nigeria. El Salvador was ranked third.
Another study, conducted in 2014 by Ipsos Global and Reuters, showed that up to 53% of South Africa’s workforce do not take their allotted annual leave. “High stress levels have been linked to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and can also lead to substance abuse. In severe cases, these problems can lead to a person becoming suicidal,” says Viljoen.
Reflecting on the challenges of stress I have come up with six simple steps that can significantly reduce it. The steps can be remembered by using the word STRESS as a mnemonic.
STOP. There is no need for the frenetic pace at which we live. Marathon running taught me that it’s never the distance but always the pace that breaks you. If you are experiencing high stress levels it is important to structure stops in your day, your week, your year. Times when you cease and desist from business and do nothing for a while.
TIME. I remember as a child having a book called “Pastimes for Boys”. It showed simple crafts like carving soap figures and how to make cotton reel tractors. Ironically, now there is no time to pass! To destress requires an appreciation of time. Take time. Sit and watch the second hand of a clock sweep its face for five minutes. It will give you a sense of just how spacious time can be.
REFLECT. Once you have stopped and taken time, practice reflecting on your life. I find journaling is invaluable. Others sketch or doodle. Step back from the canvas of life and look at the whole journey. I call it the helicopter view.
EXERCISE. Walk, run, gym, stretch it doesn’t matter, but time off the chair is great to reduce stress. Remember sitting is the new smoking.
SLEEP. Shakespeare summed it up in Macbeth, “ Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast”. Every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after.
SENSE. Allow yourself to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear what brings joy and peace.
Stress isn’t worth dying for.

The Evil underpinning Easter

Approaching the pivotal Christian feast of Easter with its themes of death and redemption, I am aware of how much violence is a feature of our daily news. Whether it be in domestic and child abuse, street violence, or brutal murder, violence stalks us like a hungry wolf.
With these high levels of destructive behaviour one begins to wonder at the mental mechanics of those who carry out these dastardly acts. Are they unfortunate, disturbed, maladjusted or dare we dig out our “old fashioned” vocabulary and call such people “evil”?
The idea that human evil exists is difficult for many people to believe. Most consider evil too superstitious a concept to apply in our scientific society. We want to reduce it to a medical diagnosis, or some personality disorder, or something that can be managed with a pill.
But there’s no pill that can cure evil, and that is the opinion of psychiatrist M. Scott Peck who penned one of the most disturbing books I have ever read, “People of the Lie: the hope for healing human evil.”
Peck wrote the book to describe a category of human behaviour currently not catalogued by psychology in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently DSM 5).
Scott Peck accepts the described psychiatric disorders, including those that can cause people to behave in an evil way, but still sees evil as a distinct problem that straddles the line between a personality disorder, and a spiritual disorder, perhaps leaning towards the latter.
He sketches evil people as being aware of their conscience, but actively choosing to ignore it, as opposed to a sociopathic person who appears to be devoid of conscience altogether. In other words, an evil person knows that they are doing evil, while a sociopath does not, even though their actions may be very similar.
Peck explains evil as “militant ignorance”. Evil people are obsessed with maintaining their self-image of perfection through self-deception. In addition, evil people will be very selective about who they inflict their evil upon, while going to great lengths to maintain an image of respectability and normality with everyone else. As a result, evil people are often well liked by the majority, and their victims come across as being overly sensitive, having a persecution complex, or even being crazy.
This selectivity in choosing victims explains why children are often targeted and how afterwards the supervising adults cannot believe that such a nice “Uncle” was actually a paedophile or pornographer.
All of this points to the sinister truth that religious communities are obvious places for People of the Lie to lurk. Hiding in plain sight, they manipulate the honest and trusting believers in these communities, all the while feeding their self-absorbed narcissism and maintaining the glittering masks which conceal their evil behaviour.
For Christians, Good Friday is a reminder that it was the holy religious leaders of Jerusalem who, in an evil plot, tried to kill God’s love manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.

The freeing truth about anger. Mt 21:33-46

Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

It was Martin Luther King Jnr who concurred that the truth will set you free.  But he added, “…but first it will make you very angry.
There is something in this encounter between the Chief Priests, the Pharisees and Jesus which reflects just how the truth which Jesus had proclaimed to them in the metaphor of the rebellious tenants, made them very angry.
Matthew however, throws out another important detail that hints at the cause of their anger, namely their fear.
The Priests and Pharisees want to destroy Jesus, but he has the adulation of the people who think he is a prophet.
So the Priests and Pharisees, who are threatened by Jesus, are also afraid of the crowds.  The fear is palpable, don’t you think?
I know what it is to get angry.  I can literally seethe and seize up with rage!  If I consider my anger rationally though, most times I am not angry for the reason I think.
I am enraged because a subconscious fear or insecurity is surfacing and my anger is a way to avoid dealing with my fear.
I have spent my life in South Africa, dealing with racism.  By the way, not only white people can be racist.  But having lived with racism in this milieux I recognise that the angry violence of racism is fuelled by the fear of those distinctively different from ourselves.
Witness if you will the Islamophobia sweeping the church at present and you will see what fear can do.
So let’s not deny our anger for politeness sake.  But let us be clear from whence our anger is fuelled.

Matthew 18:21-35 -Ordinary 24A Forget about not forgiving

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Forgiveness is a difficult thing if it weren’t Jesus would not have said so much about it.  His whole life seemed to be a chain of forgiveness events.  If one looks at the opposition to Jesus in the gospel narratives there were ample opportunities for him to develop a victim mentality.
The oppression of his mother, the difficulty of his birth in a foreign town and as a homeless person, the genocide of his peers due to Herod’s obsession with him, the life of exile in Egypt, the obscurity of life in Nazareth, the misunderstanding of his disciples, the crowds, his home-people.  Even his own mother seems not to have understood him at times.  There were ample chances for Jesus to become an embittered victim.
Yet his life is not one of victimhood but of sacrificial victim-being.  Victim being is different from victimhood because in victim-being Jesus allowed himself to be sacrificed for the sake of those who didn’t even get him.
How did he do it?
He lived forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t some band-aid brush off for those who have wronged us, whilst all the while seething at the injustice, it is rather as Jesus says, a process “from the heart”
That means it is deep and transforming and if I understand the numbers of the gospel lesson correctly, it is repetitive.
Again and again we are called to do what Jesus did as he hung on the cross.  The victim of extreme injustice, he found the capacity to pray, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”
I would like to think that he was able to forgive in that extreme moment because he has praticed at least seventy times seven times before, forgiving others.

 

Do you want to be right, or be in a relationship? Matthew 5:21-37 Epiphany 6/ Ordinary 6

rulesMatthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

It was the present Dalai Lama who said““Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”  I also came across this Zen maxim, “First you learn the rules. Then you keep the rules. Then you break the rules. Then you are wise.”

This seems to be the gist of Jesus’ comments about the law in the gospel for this week. Those who have walked the path of Christ following for some time will know that the religion of the heart is not so much about the rules as it is about the relationship which the rules are intended to enhance anyway.

The problem with human nature though is we tend to swap the priorities around then that is where the hypocrisy begins.
We have all met people who prefer to be right and keep the rules, than be in relationship. They are usually shining saints, brightly burning but usually without a flicker of compassion.

If I read Jesus correctly, he is saying relationships are more important than rules.
Rules will lead you into and hell of minutiae and detail, but they will not deepen your humanity or your heart.

Rules will make you righteous, but relationships will make you real.
There’s no doubt that Jesus lived this truth.
Perhaps we could too?