Maybe the ‘me’ that must die is the ‘I-want-to-be-God me’ and maybe the ‘me’ that Christ saves and breathes life into is the ‘Made-in-God’s-likeness me’ which is totally loved and cherished by Creator, Christ and Comforter.
She carries with her
to fruits of travail
from hard soil
for the testing
that honours pain.
Beauty for the ashes
oils of joy
for the morning
now clothed in
washed and white.
crowned with bounty
while locusts ate
feasting on her
on her mind.
Her Maker was busy
busy at the forge
gold with her spirit
and pure gold
in her spirit.
To escape the pain
became a prayer
and the prayers
turned into hope.
The hope became
a new reality
The days defended
turned to gold.
She carries with her
(by Lyn Beattie)
I recently heard about a survey revealing that over 90% of people in Australia pray. This is an extraordinary finding as I have seen the results of other surveys that suggest that around 30% of Australians consider themselves atheists. So, this would lead us to presume that even people who do not believe in a deity at all, sometimes call out to the God/dess that ‘does not exist’. Such inconsistency is part of our glorious, intricate humanity!
The visionary book of Revelation, contained in the Greek sacred text (found as the last book in the Bible), states,
And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. (Revelation 5:8)
This piece of sacred writing is set in the dwelling place of God (heaven, if you like) and the Lamb is referring to Christ. The four living creatures are described earlier in the vision, ‘The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle’ (Rev 4:7). And, the elders are seated on thrones, wearing white, and have crowns of gold on their heads. When the four living creatures worship God, the elders get off their thrones, lay down their crowns and fall down in worship of God, ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being’ (Rev 4:11).
So, back to our discussion on prayer. Our prayers (probably regardless of whether we think we believe in God/dess or not), are of great significance to ‘the one who sits upon the throne’ and ‘the Lamb’. They are like sweet-smelling incense. They are worthy to be brought into the presence of ‘the one who created all things’. They are worthy of His/Her attention. They are precious to the heart of God/dess. They are extravagant (and sometimes, desperate) offerings of hope and faith. Our prayers are carried into the ‘holy-of-holies’ by the ‘elders’ and are contained in vessels of gold which speak of the honour in which they are held. And, of the honour in which they are received. Yes, even the desperate cries for mercy that come from the lips of ‘sinners’ and ‘atheists’!
That describes how our prayers are received; with honour, gratitude and sacredness. But, how are our prayers given?
Most commonly, I pray by waiting or weeping. I ask myself the question, ‘Could you not tarry one hour?’ When Jesus was in distress in the Garden of Gethsemane and asked his friends to ‘stay here and keep watch with me’, they fell asleep. Christ saw that they were asleep and said to them ‘could you not watch with me one hour?’ So, for me, setting aside time (sometimes an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more) to simply sit and wait and watch for a person, or a situation, is how I pray. I acknowledge the presence of Loving Creator as I watch/wait and feel (or focus on) the companionship of Christ intimately during these times. Sometimes my mind wanders. That’s OK. I have simply committed to being still and waiting on God/dess as a prayer. It is an expression of my faith and trust that the Divine One is compassionate, merciful, kind, just, attentive and loving towards each one of us.
Weeping is my other common style of prayer. It is natural for me to acknowledge grief and disappointment and frustration and anger by using tears. I pray for myself, others and the world this way, almost daily.
There are many ways to pray. Here is just a small list of verbs that describe the way prayer may manifest within us: weep, wait, cry out, walk, kneel, sing, speak, remain silent, march, prostrate, dance, kneel, fast, feast, write, play music, create, speak in different languages, mime, give financially, rest, listen, read poetry/psalms, read sacred texts, laugh, etc etc.
Remember, whoever you are and however you choose to pray, your requests are received with deep reverence by Creator who is clothed in compassion. Amen.
This post is part 2 of Lettuce and Oxalis.
As I reached in to weed out the oxalis from amongst the lettuce seedlings, I was mindful of the history of how both of these plant species came to be together in this particular patch of dirt. Oxalis comes up every year (about this time) from a tuber-like structure that remains persistent in the soil for years, it seems. In contrast, the lettuce seedlings are there because I spread their seeds into that place about eight weeks ago. I very intentionally harvested the seed heads from the parental plant (which had grown successfully over the summer, adapted to the soil and yielded food and seed) and planted them in the well-prepared earth. The seeds were covered with the right amount of soil and watered whenever they needed more moisture. We had a dry, warm Autumn in Melbourne this year so these lettuce seedlings needed lots of attentive oversight to prevent them from withering after germination.
While carefully weeding out the oxalis, I became aware of the parable we were acting out in this mundane domestic activity. If oxalis is not weeded out with care, some of the tubers break off and remain in the soil ensuring greater numbers of the weed the following year. And, because the lettuce crop and the weeds were so entwined, intricacy was needed to ensure that the lettuce was not weeded out with the oxalis. Thank God (and evolution) for our opposing digit, the humble thumb!
What can this allegory teach us? Well, firstly, if the lettuce seedlings symbolize true beliefs about who God/dess is, sometimes they are quite fragile. In their infancy, they can be damaged or ‘pulled-up’ before reaching maturity. Understandings about the character of Creator, such as, ‘God is love’, ‘God is good’, ‘God is merciful’, ‘God is just’, ‘God is tender’, ‘God is faithful’, can fail to take root in our lives. If these truths are not protected by ourselves, others, life, and/or the world around us, they can be lost to us before they become bedrock in us. They can be smothered or starved by the competing ‘weeds’ and wither from our experience and understanding if we cannot find groups/churches that nourish these truths in us.
Oxalis can be used to symbolize the lies (or untruths) we believe about the nature of the Divine being. Some of these beliefs are rooted back in our childhood and have persisted for a very long time, like tubers lying dormant in the soil. We may think we have weeded them out but they keep returning into our psyche each year or every other year. These beliefs may include ‘God is male’, ‘God is mean’, ‘God doesn’t listen to our prayers’, ‘God is a superhero’, ‘God wants to punish me’, ‘God doesn’t care about human/animal suffering’, etc etc. The list could go on and on, sadly enough. But, we are onto these lies. We can become aware of the beliefs we have about God/dess (and about ourselves/each other) that are simply not true. These ‘weeds’ can be removed from our lives (roots, tubers and all) and, when they are, correct beliefs about the Divine being and how S/He relates to us can begin to flourish.
Sacred writings, theological books, healthy churches, spiritual friends, meditation, being in nature, and loving ourselves will all help us with this journey.
Who knows, God/dess may also give us a hand!?!
This week we were in the garden trying to encourage some lettuce seedlings to grow. The recent rain had given them a head start but had also allowed some oxalis weeds to sprout as well. The problem was that we wanted the lettuce to flourish without the weeds strangling it. We decided that some judicious weeding could be the answer. There were two problems. Firstly, the two plants are remarkably similar in colour, making them tricky to discern. Secondly the oxalis was woven throughout the lettuce seedlings requiring great dexterity and control to extract them. What to do?
Well any good biblical scholar will tell you about the parable of the tares, where the farmer is encouraged to pull up the weeds that have been sown amongst his wheat. The farmer replies that he won’t pull up the tares, lest the wheat also be pulled up.
This seemed like poor advice to we gardeners, even if it was good spiritual advice to help souls get to heaven. This was the chosen moment when the battle for growing space was at its most critical, so we decided to weed anyway.
It was slow going and it taught us about how carefully you need to select the weed from around the seedling before plucking it out. And how easily the lettuce could be bruised by rough handling.
If you want to draw the parallel between gardening and helping souls, there is much to be said for carefully choosing words and actions when speaking to others about the Divine. Gone are the days, it seems, when you could plough through the crowd and give out spiritual direction to the multitudes. Today it seems to be a slow and individualised process. When it comes to souls, the Divine considers the needs of each individual (lettuce seedling) and takes time to remove the blockages (oxalis) from their path.
Well that is how it seemed to us on that cold Saturday morning, anyway.
I have a bad reputation around home for unexpectedly bringing home animals that need somewhere to live and be loved. Several years ago, while dropping off baby guinea pigs to be sold at our local stock and grain supply, I spontaneously brought home two pilgrim geese goslings. And there are many such stories I could tell you. But Tequila was an animal that needed a home less than I needed to share a home with her.
Two years ago, my youngest daughter and I decided we wanted a cat. After looking at the cat shelter website, we agreed that ‘Smokey’ was the one for us. He was beautiful, mature, well-behaved and needed a good home. On arrival at the cat shelter, we were told that Smokey had already found a good home but that there were ten other cats that we could look at. This presented a problem. Some family members were not especially keen to share their living space with a feline friend so, we had agreed that if Smokey wasn’t available, we would not get a cat. It was a sort of Gideon’s fleece; a sign, if you like.
So, we would not bring home another cat, or kitten, but would just look at the other cats and then return home to a cat-deficient living space. Good in theory. But then we met Tequila. She was ten months old and had the coloring of a panda bear. Caught wandering the streets ‘on heat’, she had arrived at the shelter only three days previously. When we approached her cage, she leant backwards, lost her balance and fell clumsily to the bottom level of the cage. ‘Eeow’, she said to us angrily, as if it was our fault. Not easily put off, my daughter opened Tequila’s cage to give her a pat. The panda-cat creature swiped at her with a paw full of claws. ‘Moving on,’ said my daughter, as she quickly shut the cage door and we went to meet the other cats. But we knew. We knew that we would be back. We knew that we would take home the crazy panda-cat with the intelligent, sparkly eyes. And we did.
The rest of the family were not thrilled to see Tequila instead of Smokey or No-cat. However, I was besotted! From the beginning, I knew that Tequila was my mirror, teacher and guru.
At first, we made excuses for her unsocial behaviors saying that we needed to be patient with her. She was a ‘street cat’ and required time (and love) to heal from her wild and neglected past-life. We focused on feeding her and giving her a warm place to live (the laundry) and avoided touching her beautiful panda-like fur as this usually ended in bloodshed. Our blood was shed, not cat blood.
As the days turned into weeks, Tequila settled in and accepted that we were a part of her reality; her tribe. She hid in bushes, jumped out unexpectedly and grabbed hold of human legs with her teeth and claws. Her sleeping place changed daily and it became a mystery to discover where Tequila was sleeping so that we didn’t disturb her and risk punishment. It was like living with a tigress that had shrunk and was dressing as a panda bear for identity reasons. We were confused. But I, at least, was watching.
At this point in the story, it is important that I inform you that I am a woman towards the end of my menopausal transition. Now 53, I have almost completed this fierce and informative journey that we call ‘menopause’ or ‘change-of-life’. (Change-of-life, it is and, change our lives, we must.) And, in some strange way, Tequila was helping me to understand myself and who I was to become in this new season of life. She was reminding me of the wildness, the importance of being truthful, the necessity of acknowledging emotions and respecting the wisdom of the body. She was teaching me to shed, to moult, to leave unhelpful things behind. She was showing me that I did not have to be overly nice; did not have to withhold wisdom or opinions.
While I was learning from my feisty guru, Tequila was also changing. In the mornings, she started quietly sneaking into my bedroom. After checking the bed was safe (no dog presiding over the space), she jumped up and let me pat her. This ritual became a daily safe practice. Unless, of course, the patting went on too long or was administered incorrectly or … or … or …
The weeks turned into months and Tequila began to show us all her softer nature. She remained an ambush predator at night and continued to punish us for inappropriate pride behavior however, pats and cuddles and even lap-sitting, became acceptable interactions. Her purring became a common sound in the house as it reverberated around the room like the rumbling of a suppressed volcano. Tequila found other parts of her catness. And we came to love her as she was.
One very sad day, about a month ago, Tequila was hit by a car and died instantly. (Writing this horrible sentence has released more sadness in my heart and tears from my eyes.) After burying her, I was comforted by a friend who said, ‘I believe our pets wait for us at the rainbow bridge to pass over with us into the afterlife.’ What a beautiful belief! I hope it’s true. Tequila was my teacher and my friend.
One of my favourite lines in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series is:
Aslan isn’t a tame lion!
Tequila wasn’t a tame cat!
I clearly remember the day when I realised that we all see the same moon. This may come as a surprise to you – not that we see the same moon but that it took me so long to realise the fact. I was away from home, travelling with work, and I rang home to talk with Lyn and happened to mention the beautiful moon that night. As I spoke the words I had the simple epiphany that she would have seen the same moon that night, even though we were separated by many miles! Of course, local conditions like cloud or surrounding features could have altered her perception of it, but it was the same moon, showing the same amount of light! And that it would be the same moon for anyone looking up at the sky, anywhere in the world. For me, that moment was memorable.
Up until then I had been more than aware of the differences that we have between the northern and southern hemispheres. Our summer is their winter, our night is their day. And I had kind of assumed that it would extend to all things cosmological. Yet here was something that could bind us together in some small way. As the moon and the earth carry out their timeless, interwoven dance in their shared orbit around the sun, the moon presents a common face to all on planet earth.
It reminds me of another realisation that came later in life than I care to admit, that, on the spring equinox and the autumn equinox, all of the earth experiences 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. (For the pedantic amongst us, there are subtleties of course, but I think we can rise above them to celebrate this moment). Even the polar caps that go through months of darkness followed by months of daylight have a brief period, in common with the rest of the world, where the sun goes down after dinner and comes up before breakfast – when the sun is over the equator and shining evenly on all.
These two phenomena remind me of those things that we have in common as humans, rather than those things that divide us.
So today I celebrate the beauty of the moon and the beauty of all of the universe.
You may remember a visit to a summit a year or so ago. On that trip we arrived at the summit of the appropriately named Mt Disappointment and had no idea we had arrived. There was no view and only a simple sign telling about some famous Australian explorers who had made the trip in our past. I wrote about how some mountain-top experiences only reveal themselves as such in hindsight and not because of any sense of achievement at the time.
Yesterday I went travelling with a friend to the top of a mountain that I have long admired from a distance but never visited. This mountain presents itself to the city of Melbourne as a moderately large hill with well defined and steep sides. However when approached from another angle it is just the last in a range of hills with the final peak of no great significance.
Well, we had decided to approach from the north as it was the more scenic drive for us. Throughout the morning we had the sense of gradually climbing all the time that we were driving. The disconcerting thing was that from this angle the mountain top was no longer terribly significant compared with other hills in the region (and when compared with the profile seen from the south) and so I was wondering continually if we were going in the wrong direction. It was only with the prompting of the road signs and the presence of other travellers that we were sure that we were heading to the summit.
Had we climbed from the south we may have a had a greater sense of “arrival” having come up a clear final “ascent”, whereas we arrived having had a continuous and uninspiring “slog” the whole way from home.
I wondered at the parallels with my previous mountain top experience. This time there was no doubt we had reached a significant mountain top – the view attested to that. And yet the journey from the north was one of continuous toil towards an unknown and possibly disappointing objective. The alternative route from the south would have been shorter and you would have known constantly that you were heading for a significant summit.
So when we have our mountain top experiences there will be some who have arrived knowing they have toiled mightily and with a known end in sight, and there will be others who arrive just as tired but quite surprised at the magnificent view before them.
Following a talk entitled ‘Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology’ that was presented in one of the southern suburbs of Melbourne last month, a person of Indian descent spoke to me about animals and spirituality. He was concerned about the lack of understanding of the roles and importance of animals in our spiritual learning and, unlike Hinduism, he felt that modern Christianity does not know how to effectively extract wisdom from our fellow species. This conversation has prompted me to watch and consider my goat, Holly, more carefully in recent weeks and seek an understanding of the concept of ‘scapegoats’
So, Holly is a middle-aged, anglo-nubian she-goat. She has been with us since kidhood and is tame, quite verbal, friendly, cranky at times and very-much a part of our mixed-species tribe. When we first met Holly, someone informed me that goats were more like dogs than sheep; they like human companionship. Although Holly does not get a lot of human interaction, over the years she has shared her paddock with other pasture-dwelling species including kangaroos, horses, sheep and an alpaca (called Rory) who seems to be a bit of a favourite.
What have I noticed about our goat? She is strong, tenacious, wiry, versatile, adaptable, good-natured, guileless, simple-minded, willing to please and carnal. She’s a goat! I once heard a quote: ‘If you want to know what it means to be a human, meet a goat’. This wisdom probably only makes sense if you know a goat, and, it is almost impossible to put into words the meaning of this quote (so I will not attempt this).
Why then, do we have scapegoats, rather than scapesheep, scapedogs or even scapealpacas? The original idea of a scapegoat goes back to a very old Hebrew ritual. We have a detailed record of this ancient atonement ritual in the book of Leviticus (which is easily found in any self-respecting bible). In the days when animal sacrifice was practiced by most peoples of the earth, it was usually done in the context of religious ritual and/or worship, or appeasement, of a deity. It is hard for we pet-loving moderns to understand what ‘they’ were thinking in this archaic and cruel treatment of animals however, since we were not there, let us withhold moral judgement and focus on the symbolism.
We are told in Leviticus 16 that two unblemished, young, male goats were chosen and, by lot, it was determined which goat would be a sin offering (involving certain death and blood-letting for the alter) and which would be the ‘scapegoat’. The scapegoat was brought alive to the priest who was to lay both hands on the head of the goat and confess over it all the sins of the people. The goat was then driven away from camp (away from it’s herd and secure food supply) into the desert. Scripture tells us that ‘The goat will carry on itself all the people’s sins to a solitary place’. So, a man was given the task of driving the goat away deep into the desert so it would not return to camp. This ritual was conducted with intricate attention to the details once a year to ensure the cleansing and ‘acceptability’ of the Israelites.
The Christian understanding of this ancient ritual is that it preempted (or prophesied) God humbling Him/Herself and entering into humanity in the person of Christ to become the ‘scapegoat’; to take the blame and punishment for the sins of human beings. Christ was to become both the sacrificial goat and the scapegoat to ensure our acceptability and holiness to live in an eternal relationship with a guileless loving God.
Other ancient peoples had similar practices involving goats. In Ancient Syria, a she-goat with a silver bracelet around her neck was driven out into the wasteland to remove evil from the community. This ‘elimination rite’ was connected with ritual purification on the occasion of the king’s wedding. Ancient Greeks practiced scapegoating rituals using humans (instead of goats) based on the belief that the repudiation of one or two individuals would save the whole community. A poor person of low-status would be chosen, treated with great dignity through feasting and adorning with expensive clothing to establish ‘worth’ (and/or purity), and then driven out of the city with stones. This ceremony was expected to appease the gods and bring relief from drought, famine or plague.
The practice of scapegoating has survived the passage of time. It may be observed all over the globe in families, classrooms, work-places, churches, clubs, communities. Psychologists would define it using terms like projection; where we avoid our own shadow, darkness, shame and guilt, instead placing it onto another person. This behaviour is often unconscious but sometimes it is quite intentional. The chosen ‘scapegoat’ may have incited our jealousy; they may be free-spirited, beautiful, successful, strong. Alternatively, if we are behaving with much cowardice, we may choose someone who is weak and undervalued to project our anger and inadequacies onto. It can be cruel and often results in the ‘scapegoat’ becoming isolated and traumatized, struggling with poor self-esteem and paranoia. Even in Christian families/churches scapegoating is common, especially when there is no understanding that Christ has removed our mental torture of guilt and shame along with the inpurities of human lovelessness (or ‘sin’ if you prefer that word).
Most people have experienced both sides of the equation; they have been the scapegoat and they have skapegoated others. We can do better. We can recognize when we are being treated as a scapegoat and refuse to play that role. We can realize that ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ and face up to our imperfections, bad attitudes/behaviours. ignorance and darkness. There is no need to be judgmental as ‘there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’. There is no need to pass the blame or guilt or shame onto another as we do not need to be perfect. When I acknowledge the truth of my lovelessness, forgiveness flows and freedom grows. My mind clears of the aggressive clatter of guilt and denial, and I have more time to spend with my goat!! Shalom.