Enduring through horror requires clear meaning

I doubt there is a person alive who does not want happiness, fulfilment, and a deep sense of meaning for their lives.  To be human is to desire a life with purpose.  Sadly we look in the wrong places. We imagine a meaningful life is devoid of suffering.  That is a big mistake.
Victor Frankl (1905-1997) the Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and later Dacchau, discovered a unique path to a meaningful life. 
Each morning in the Holocaust camps roll call was held. Numbers tototooed to the prisoners’ wrists were read out. In this bizarre lottery if your number came up, you were taken to the gas chamber for execution.
The holocaust was an extreme form of the same randomness we are living in Covid19.  Some get the virus and show no symptoms, others get Covid and die. It’s a viral lottery.Frankl the psychiatrist-prisoner watched people go insane with fear and grief.  Who would blame them? But he also observed many prisoners who did not break down.In the back of Frankl’s mind as he observed this meaningless hell, was a maxim written decades before by Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) , “He who has a Why? in life can tolerate almost any How?” 
Frankl noticed that those who looked beyond themselves and their suffering even in the hell of the Holocaust, were able to stay sane and find meaning.  He wrote of his experiences and discoveries in the book, “Man’s search for meaning” which outlines the basis for his “logotherapy”. In Greek, logos describes “meaning” or “plan”. Finding meaning heals the mind.
According to Frankl, “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: 1. by creativity or acts of kindness; 2. by experiencing something or encountering someone; and 3. by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” He also believed that “everything can be taken from a person except one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances”. Frankl gives the following example:“Once, an elderly physician consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, “What would have happened if you had died first, and your wife had survived you?:” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have saved her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office.”
In attending to those whose suffering moves us, and in caring for those whose losses break our hearts, we find a transcendence that makes our situation bearable and gives us meaning.

Facing and embracing our Demons

Down the Hatch by Aaron Johnson, 2007, Courtesy of Stux Gallery.

In Tibetan tradition there is a story about the great cave-dwelling yogi Milarepa that illuminates the bumpy road we all travel when we try to make peace with ourselves.
One day Milarepa left his Himalayan cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere!
His first thought was, “I have got to get rid of them!”

In the story, he lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. The more he chases them, the more comfortable and relaxed they seem to be.
Realizing that his efforts are failing miserably, Milarepa tries a new approach and decides to teach them his religion. If chasing them out won’t work, then converting them is the answer. So he takes his seat and begins teaching about existence and non-existence, compassion and kindness, the nature of the spiritual life.

After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are all still there, staring at him with their huge bulging eyes; not a single one is leaving!

At this point Milarepa lets out a sigh of surrender, realising that just maybe, these demons have something to teach him! So he looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, “It looks like we’re going to be here together. so I open myself to whatever you have to show me.”

In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further.
Approaching the final and largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the last demon bows low and dissolves into space.

One of the things I love about this story is how it doesn’t feed our romantic vision of spiritual life.

We sometimes imagine that if we can lead our spiritual life the “right” way, we won’t suffer and struggle. We will be on a direct path to ever-increasing tranquillity and joy.
We are not prepared for all of our unfinished business being exposed, and all our unresolved trauma pushing up from the unconscious depths like a fountain of black sludge.
Milarepa’s story feels much closer to the truth.

Working with all that has been pushed down and ignored in me is pivotal to the spiritual journey. And when those demons appear, it’s impossible to simply relax and let go.

A female Tibetan teacher Machig Labdron (1055-1145 CE) suggested five slogans to deal with our demons:
1) Confess your hidden faults to yourself. 2) Approach what you find repulsive in others. 3) Help those you think you cannot help or those you do not want to help. 4) Let go of anything you are attached to. 5) Go to the places that scare you.

Embracing our deepest fears is often our salvation.

The Seduction of Unconsciousness

Photograph: Fayaz Aziz/Reuters

Living consciously is difficult and requires that we invest time and energy in the practice, and maintenance, of a clear mind.
Because awareness is costly, we all to easily lapse into unconsciousness.

During the years of struggle against Apartheid one of the biggest challenges was to get our most oppressed citizens to believe that they actually were oppressed.
One constantly heard the protest from poor people of colour that the White Nationalist government was good, and looking after them, better than they could do so themselves.
Conscientization, was an important step in energising the majority of South Africans to say No to Apartheid.

The sudden resurgence of Taliban dominance in Afghanistan in recent weeks has shocked us all. How could this movement with its dreadful history of human-rights abuses, particularly against women, have surged into the power-void created by the withdrawal of American troops?
I don’t pretend to know the whole dynamic of this complicated region of the world, and I distrust anyone who claims to. Single-factor explanations are at best simplistic and at worst just arrogant.

I do wonder however, if part of the problem is that we in the West, while correctly addressing the suffering of the poor and vulnerable, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that our values and lifestyle are the generic panacea for all human ills?

Afghanistan’s flip suggests that at least some part of the population agrees with the Taliban, or is the memory of the Red Toyota bakkies and the public beatings so strong that like a battered woman in an abusive marriage, Afghanis are acquiescing to power simply because to oppose it would bring more abuse and suffering? I don’t know.

Could it even be possible that not everyone on the planet wants to live in a free-market democracy where gender equality, human and gay rights are the norm?
Listening last week, to some Americans interviewed at a Trump rally inside the US, it seems that even in the land of the brave and the free, libertarian values are not embraced by everyone. One person actually warned the Biden administration that as quickly as the Taliban resurged in Afghanistan, so the American Right could overthrow the US Government!

Conscious living, understanding more than one’s own point of view, embracing and championing those not of your “in group” or echo chamber; are all challenges demanding careful thought and skilful action.
Rational and free thinking is exhausting.
Perhaps, more demanding than our overworked, locked down, narcissistic self-interest can afford?

Why not give in to fundamentalism and let others tell us what to think and how to live?
Do we, like the numbed and exhausted Afhanis, allow the anti-intellectual “Talibans” in our own church communities, clubs and social media platforms to overrun our free thinking and return us to the oppression of that unquestioning hive-mind where free thought and free speech are treated with the same hostility as an educated, young, Afghani woman?

The future of civilization hangs by the slender thread of those willing to keep thinking even when their brains hurt!

Radical Christ 28 – Good Friday Recipe: Roast leg of Scapegoat

I love pourquoi stories.  They are tales we have told through the ages to explain certain phenomena.  Pourquoi (pronounced pork-wha) is French for “why?”, any pre-schooler’s favourite word!

You know the story of the family that always cut the end off the lamb roast, before cooking. No one knew why.  On consulting great granny they discovered that in her day she had a small roaster and had to cut the joint to make it fit!

Pourquoi stories are the way cultures, religions and families pass on their rituals and sadly, their biases too.

The Crucifixion of Jesus is a multi-layer pourquoi story which like the mythical Urobouros swallowing its own tail, circles around and challenges our comfort zones.

The most common level of the story tries to explain why a peaceful prophet from Galilee was cruelly killed at the hands of Rome and the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  This orthodox answer is an extremely unhelpful one, “God planned it to be this way.” 

What! That’s a disgusting image of God! What father would kill his own son? How the church came to this brutal understanding of the horror, requires some questioning.

The Church was trying to make sense of Jesus’ unfair death and rationalised it back to animal sacrifice which was the religious forgiveness ritual then.

But why animal sacrifice in the first place?  Pourquoi?

Well, it’s preferable to sacrificing humans!  The Bible story of Abraham wanting to sacrifice Isaac, but God substituting a ram, is another pourquoi explaining the transition from human to animal sacrifice.

The pre-schooler in me continues – Why human sacrifice?  The answer to this one lies in our collective unconscious, and long before the bible was written.

Paleo-Anthropology studies these ancient myths and Rene Girard was one of its great scholars.  Studying ancient pourquois, Girard discovered that as humans began living in groups, they had to deal with troublesome people who didn’t fit in and disrupted the status quo.  The easiest, primitive solution was to demonise these characters, which then justified killing them.  

Individuals and groups were treated this way in times of stress. Medieval Jews were blamed for Bubonic plague just as recently, some blamed the Chinese for COVID19!  Ironically, right now the Christian church itself is being scapegoated for all the troubles in the world from paedophilia to colonisation. 

Yet in a strange anomaly within our mental processing, a residue of remorse lingers toward those we have scapegoated and destroyed.  

So the Greeks took Oedipus who killed his parents and they made him a god. Many of the Greek gods were rebels who achieved divine status.  We scapegoat our suspicious ones then remorsefully deify them.

Preachers proclaim that God killed Jesus, but if that’s true, we’ve been exonerated from our collective culpability in the greatest scapegoating crime ever committed!

Humans, not God, kill and destroy those who challenge and threaten us.

Jesus broke no taboos. He taught only an inclusive path of love, yet we killed him for it.  

Why in God’s name do that?

The Radical Christ 27 – The Decolonial King

Colonization has been a hot topic for a while now.  

Traditionally understood, colonization was the process whereby European powers, mainly in the 16th and 17 centuries, expanded their reach into newly “discovered” continents, subjugating the indigenous populations and replacing their cultures and religions.  

Colonization had happened before during the Greek, Roman and Crusading eras, but not on the scale of the European waves. 

The human rights atrocities and destruction of human lives, communities and environment that accompanied this process are well documented.

It would be erroneous however, to assume that colonization has ended.  

Slavery, as well as religious and cultural hegemony, may not be as blatant as those dark days, but a mutant form of colonial expansionism is currently in full swing.

No longer territorial, this colonising does not redraw the world map, but its impact is every bit as life changing and oppressive.

Continents like Africa and South America and the subcontinents of India and China, have been colonised in this process, and this time the colonists are Americans.

The USA has been amazingly successful in propagating its culture globally. 

One example is that South Africans born after 1985 now speak American English and not UK English as my generation does.  

Not only our language, but our eating habits, portion sizes, and fast food culture is decimating populations with diabetes, obesity and sedentary lifestyles as we sit slumped in front of the Americans’ most powerful vehicle of colonisation, our television sets.

Coupled with a rabid global consumerism of chasing the American dream by those unable to afford that dream, and we understand how families and communities have been captured in debt bondage every bit as vicious as the shackles of the old slave traders.

And if that weren’t enough, the American fundamentalism of certain churches, has added yet another a layer of unthinking anti-intellectual  brainwashing to the spirits of colonised people. We are so brainwashed we don’t even realise we have been colonised!

And none of this is new.  

When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which the church commemorates this weekend, he was entering a completely colonised city.

Read the scriptures here: John 12: 12-19 Zechariah 9:9

At all the levels described above, including religious power mongering, Jerusalem had been colonised by Rome.

So Jesus arriving as a humble king on a donkey and not on a Roman war horse or chariot reenacted ancient Jewish tradition and made a rebellious statement. 

He was protesting the physical and mental colonisation of Rome. His parade was one that recalled the servant kingship of David the shepherd, and the estimated 600000 citizens of Jerusalem loved it. “Hosanna” they cried, seeing Jesus as a new David, a liberator from the Roman tyranny that so controlled and consumed their lives.

But by the end of that same week, in fact by the Thursday night, that same crowd had been flipped by those in power. The colonists had won the battle for hearts and minds. 

Jesus had been called out and cancelled, skilfully scapegoated to be crucified on the Friday morning.

Radical Christ 26 – Dying to find Paradise

Lets face it, we all want to go back to paradise.
That idyllic, virus, tax and crime free place, where we can walk with God in the cool of the day. Where a heavenly being caters to our every need and all we have to do in return is not think for ourselves and blindly follow the rules. If you study the Judeao-Christian story, living in paradise meant living forever too. What a bonus!
Philosophers, psychologists and all students of human consciousness have speculated on this universal human desire for paradise. Perhaps it’s a primal memory of the carefree nine months we all spent in our mother’s wombs, when all had to do was feed and grow. Until that terrifying moment of contraction and constriction when were thrust headlong into the life we are living now!
The tipping point for our mythological proto-parents Adam and Eve, was when they chose consciousness and independence over unconscious dependence on God. By eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they set themselves up to go it alone against the harsh and life-threatening environment outside the gates of paradise.
In the story it is only after their expulsion, that human life is bounded from an eternal to a fixed term deal. Yet despite it seeming a curse, our limited lifespan is actually a gift for those who still choose consciousness over an unthinking life. Sages throughout the ages have realised that our mortality is a blessing and inspiration, not not a curse.
Pema Chodron a Tibetan Buddhist uses a simple three phrase statement as her ethical measure for skillful action, “Death is certain. The time of my death is uncertain. Knowing this, how should I live now?” A simple focus on reality.
Jesus knew this secret too. He said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Medieval thinkers used the phrase, “Memento Mori – Remember your death” as similar inspiration.
Life coaches recommend we develop our “Future Self”, and I understand the intention. Goal setting and visioning are critical life disciplines.
But I would offer one essential condition. Please bear in mind that your ultimate Future Self is a corpse!
Our present self is that grain of wheat Jesus spoke about. Filled with life and generative potential, we thwart our destiny if we cling to self preservation above sacrifice.
We are designed to die with all other seeds so that our species, our children and their children’s children may continue the cycle of life, death, germination, fruitfulness and harvest.
Paradise is forever lost and we cannot go back. Life in this present is all we have.
It is our greatest legacy, well worth living for, and then, worth dying from when our time is complete.
Ultimate fruitfulness is to live sacrificially for the future, but in this moment.
That’s the true, accessible paradise.

Radical Christ 25 – Nicodemus and the Great Reset

The Great Reset, was the theme of the World Economic Forum in January 2020.
At this meeting IMF director Kristalina Georgieva, listed three key aspects of a sustainable response to the current global crisis: green growth, smarter growth, and fairer growth. With the gap between rich and poor continuing to widen everywhere, the world could do with a reset.

Anne Lamott – an American novelist, Christian, recovering alcoholic, single parent and political activist known as “The People’s Author”, has said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
Nicodemus would have agreed with the Great Reset, and with Anne Lamott.

Nicodemus who? You ask…
An interesting bible character, Nicodemus only appears in John’s gospel where he is introduced as a Pharisee and Jewish ruler. Nicodemus makes three appearances, all of them at night.
He comes to ask Jesus about a new way of living in John 3.

He advocates for Jesus with his fellow Pharisees, asking he be given a fair trial in chapter 7,

and finally appears in John 19 when he joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial and donating 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes for the process. The usual amount of spice required was 5 pounds, so the excessively generous gesture of twenty times the norm, demonstrates the love of Nicodemus, and echoes the extravagant love of Mary who “wasted” a pound of rare perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus in John 12.

Nicodemus’ Greek name means “victory to the common people” from nike = victory and demos = common people. In New Testament Greek usage demos is associated with the rabble. As in “democracy”?
So Nick, the representative of the victorious rabble, is recorded by John’s gospel, consulting Jesus about the Greatest Reset ever, the switching off and on of our very identities.

John 3
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You* must be born from above.”* 8The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.* 16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

In a discussion completely misunderstood by many Christians, Nicodemus, whose nighttime appearances symbolise the shadowy internal nature of The Greatest Reset; is informed by Jesus that no one can see the reign of God unless that person is “born from above”.

Jesus makes clear the imperative. A complete transformation of the way we look at the world, and behave in it, is required. Our natural survival drives and selfish interests, our power plays and perpetual domination of those weaker or poorer than ourselves, have to be reset in a radical transformation that is every bit as dramatic as being born afresh.

This is not some arrogant rank of spiritual superiority that “Born Again” has come to mean for some fundamentalists. It is rather a deep inner change process that happens in the depth of our beings, most often in the dark despairing nights of our souls.
We are ready for this rebirth when we know the taste of defeat and failure, and can advocate and attend to the crucified and broken ones as Nicodemus did for Jesus.

So don’t tell me you’re Born Again, show us all by the sacrificial service of your life.

Radical Christ 24 – Wrecking his Father’s House (John 2:13-25)

They say, there’s no place like home. If only we knew what our home, Port Elizabeth was called! Once the Mayor and the Ministers have agreed, maybe the Mlungu’s will learn to pronounce Gqeberha?

It’s clearly karma for making second language English speakers struggle for decades with Fort Beaufort!
Yet, despite the name, there’s no place like home, as young lockdowners from all over the planet discovered as they returned to their parental nests.

If you are a Christian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, this Sunday you will hear the gospel reading of how Jesus went to his Father’s House and wrecked the place!
John 2:12-22 records that Jesus went to the temple to celebrate the passover, but found a lucrative business in operation. Jews from all over the known world dreamt of Passover, “next year in Jerusalem”, and like Muslims to the Haj, or Christians to the Camino de Santiago, they pilgrimaged to Jerusalem.

The business of the temple had two profit centres – foreign exchange, to convert the pilgrims’ currency into Tyrian shekels (the only currency permitted in the temple, because it had no engraved image on it), and the second business arm – the sale of bulls, sheep and pigeons (for worshippers on a tight budget).
It is estimated that in Jesus’ day the entire economy of Jerusalem was based on the sacrificial throughput of the temple.

Finding forex stalls set up in the only space where non-Jews (Gentiles) were allowed to stand during rituals so enraged the inclusive Jesus, he chased the livestock out of the court and upended the workstations of the money changers.
“Do not make my fathers house a place of business”, he shouted. “Father’s house” is the conventional translation of “Oikon tou Patros” and “place of business” translates “emporiou” (the English emporium), so “shopping mall”, would a be a fair translation.

Jesus had clearly lost faith in the temple, which is why when interrogated by the Jews about his permit to do what he did, he said “Tear down this temple and I will build it up in three days”. John records how the disciples later realised Jesus meant his body and not the building, which suggests the home of God is no longer a building. The temple is wherever our heart is.
There’s no way to make money from that, Jesus’ priority was people not profits, so religious businessmen killed him.

Interestingly the next time Jesus speaks about his parent’s house it’s in John 14, where he says “In my Father’s house there are many rooms”. Again a little digging reveals that the phrase “many rooms or monai pollai” in Greek can also read “multiple abidings”.
So it’s not a building, and not a business, neither an exclusive, mono-cultural, single room; but a diverse, multiversal home of tolerance and hospitality.
Jesus also says in the very next chapter 15, “meinate en emoi”, Greek for, “Stay here with me.”

That’s ultimate hospitality. Welcome home everyone!
No exclusive identity, nor tongue testing language skills required!

Radical Christ 23 – The Transfiguration Pivot Point

The Transfiguration of Jesus is the turning point of Jesus’ ministry.
From preaching, teaching and healing in Galilee, after the Transfiguration he heads south to Jerusalem to confront the oppressive and exploitative religious establishment there.
The transfiguring light of Mt Tabor will progressively dim to the darkness of a cold tomb where Jesus’ dead body will be sealed after the crucifixion.
The disciples want to stay on the mountain in the glow. Who wouldn’t? But Jesus insists they must go and confront the darkness.

Radical Christ 22- Integration Practice for Raising Lazarus – What are Miracles?

There is so much information around us, and we who live in the information age can easily mistake information for transformation.
For this reason, the Radical Christ series, from time to time, inserts Integration Practice sessions to allow the information about Jesus, the Map for each of our lives, to become an integrated transformation of our inner life.
I trust this will be of help to your journey and practice.