I’ve been dancing tentatively around my inner space, trying to come up with a response to things that have challenged me and caused me to think about my place in the world.

In the photograph, the child stands on her toes, savouring the wind, liveliness and excitement streaming from her fingertips. I love the image. When I saw her statue last year she captured my imagination. The memory of her standing spellbound and free while people around her shuffled along in their own worlds, leaves me with a smile. She is subversive, you see. Every now and then, someone notices her and understands her message.

I don’t suppose anyone would see me as a subversive figure, but we all have to start somewhere.

You may or may not agree with all I write. I can live with that. My aim is to challenge the status quo; to gently and politely point out the contradictions, dishonesties, and the emptiness that attend some of the sacred cows we are required to bow before.

Who knows? You may begin to suspect that these cows produce manure and methane just like any other! At present we let them run free through our institutions, when we should be herding them back into their pens.

Let’s begin with one that prances down the main streets of our lives, head raised and sure of its pedigree, sprouting stuff like this:

“To argue our own values are better than someone else’s is evidence of intolerance or worse.”

This is a sacred cow, and it is a lie. Yes, it’s obvious peoples’ values vary with culture, fashion and maturity. It’s equally obvious we shouldn’t expect everyone to be in lock step with our values. No contest at all! However when we are asked to accept that all values are of equal worth, we should begin to notice the smell wafting up from this sacred cow.

Are all values worthy? Does selfishness contribute to the common good the same way selflessness does? Are monogamy and promiscuity two sides of the same coin? Can greed bring the same peace contentment does? Does violence produce the same fruit as non violence? Does revenge take us to the same place as forgiveness?

If different values lead to different outcomes, some predictably destructive, why have we swallowed the nonsense that all have intrinsic worth? Because its comfortable and affirming to believe such stuff? When we’re told that we must accept and respect everyone else’s values, what is it we are being expected to do, other than grow increasingly confused about our own?

Accepting difference and understanding that people can and do make poor choices is no bad thing. As a principle to shape our moral base and decision making, it is disastrously misguided.

All of which leads us to a second cow, also believing itself to be beyond criticism:

“We shouldn’t judge other people or discriminate.”

Well yes. Humility and charity, not to mention good sense, would lead me to avoid jumping to judgement every time I encounter someone different from me. Neither should I discriminate for unjust reasons such as racism. That is not how this cow behaves however. It is quite aggressive and behaves as a barrier to any sort of censure of any lifestyle choice at all. It pressures us to accept other people’s choices, no matter what they be, as of equal validity to those we ourselves make. Do I really need to point out examples of how this leads to the muddle of public morality in which we find ourselves?

If a person chooses to live an irresponsible, dangerous lifestyle, do I really need to pretend that I shouldn’t judge what they do? Should I admit someone I don’t trust to my home just to satisfy a lofty commitment to non discrimination? When I choose a life partner, should I avoid discrimating and accept the first person I meet regardless of his or her qualities? Apparently so, because judging other people is bad, or at the very least, so out of fashion.

Suspending judgement of other people is a good starting point, but avoiding judgement altogether as an overarching life guiding value is vacuous. How unfortunate that this cow has permeated our consciousness to the extent that it now informs our laws and dilutes our ability to make good choices.

And a third cow swaggers past, just as sure of itself, but no less deluded than its siblings:

“We should be free to do whatever we like as long as we are not hurting anyone else”.

Well, we are free to do whatever we like, more or less. The freedom to be irresponsible doesn’t come without a cost however, even though we don’t always have to pay it ourselves. Often it’s the people around us, and our community, who pays. This cow is talking deceptive nonsense. We do not live in isolation. Everything we do affects someone else in some way.

To pretend we are answerable only to our own desires is as foolish as stepping in a pile of fresh cow manure. Both errors leave us tainted. I can see the attractiveness of such a slogan to adolescents, but as a guide and norm for adult behaviour? Alas, it is widely used in our culture to justify and to silence opposition to self indulgent attitudes.

Each of these sacred cows and others like them sounds deceptively benign, but they legitimise the worship of self that has elbowed its way into the centre of our culture. This is a huge issue and well beyond the scope of one blog post. So much sorrow and brokenness begins when we make ourselves the centres of our own universes. If we continue to bow before these cows and others like them, we will let our sense of good and evil be arbitrated by our preferences and our convenience. That will take us places we do not want to go.

So much for my subversive thoughts. How’s this for a radical idea? Instead of letting them walk roughshod over our traditions and values, we resist these cows actively. We call out their dishonesty. Resistance may indeed be futile, but before we surrender entirely to the spirit of the age, shouldn’t we at least try some?

But, I notice I am drifting into a consciousness where values are not negotiable, electable or disposable. I ask your indulgence.

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Not for the first time, I feel like a bit like a mushroom. Pictured are two wooden ones recently turned on my lathe.

I shared a post yesterday on facebook. It claimed to report the last words of Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, who died in 2011. The message seemed reasonable enough, so I flicked it on.

Apparently it’s nothing of the sort, so I’ve been had. No great issue. I can live with that, but I wondered who actually wrote the post and what they hoped to achieve by misrepresenting themselves. I’ve done some sleuthing, analysing the piece and commented here and there. Since the real author didn’t want to be identified, perhaps they won’t mind if I comment and criticise as I see fit

Here is the post, from our shy author, along with my comments:

“I have come to the pinnacle of success in business.

In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success.

However, apart from work, I have little joy. Finally, my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed.

At this time, lying on the hospital bed and remembering all my life, I realize that all the accolades and riches of which I was once so proud, have become insignificant with my imminent death”.

Well, for starters, you’re not a very good writer. Jerky, barely connected sentences with big words thrown in here and there, do not make engrossing reading. Maybe that’s why you needed to co-opt Steve Jobs’ name? Without that as click bait, your ideas would no doubt have remained wallflowers.

We all get it, by the way. Chasing single mindedly after wealth is no road to inner peace. We’re on the same page, so far.

“In the dark, when I look at green lights, of the equipment for artificial respiration and feel the buzz of their mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of my approaching death looming over me”.

My goodness! A touch overdone, don’t you think? Have you ever been in a hospital? How many people in an intensive care bed on an artificial respirator are able to express their metanarratives so eloquently? If you’re going to misrepresent, at least try and make it realistic.

“Only now do I understand that once you accumulate enough money for the rest of your life, you have to pursue objectives that are not related to wealth.
It should be something more important:
For example, stories of love, art, dreams of my childhood.
No, stop pursuing wealth, it can only make a person into a twisted being, just like me”.

It’s not only pursuing wealth that can make you a twisted being is it? I suspect that passing off your words as someone else’s cannot be too healthy for the soul either. While we’re here, is it just me, or do your examples of the more important things sound just a bit self centred, narcissistic even? Perhaps I’m being a little uncharitable as I think I understand the point you are trying to make. We differ at this point though, my unknown friend. Love, art, and childhood dreams are good, but where my values differ from yours is that I think looking for pleasure inside yourself or for your own ends is a blind alley on the road to fulfillment. It promises much but delivers little.

The best way to avoid becoming a twisted being is to look outside yourself and focus on others. There! That’s free advice and I give it under my own name.

“God has made us one way, we can feel the love in the heart of each of us, and not illusions built by fame or money, like I made in my life, I cannot take them with me.
I can only take with me the memories that were strengthened by love.
This is the true wealth that will follow you; will accompany you, he will give strength and light to go ahead.
Love can travel thousands of miles and so life has no limits. Move to where you want to go. Strive to reach the goals you want to achieve. Everything is in your heart and in your hands”.

I get the God bit, and as a very imperfect Christian I’m a fellow traveller with you there, sort of. However, please learn and use correct grammar! Please! One sentence for one idea. When you are trying to say something important and your thoughts just tumble on to the page without grammatical discipline, your readers will often as not just scratch their heads. For example, what love are you talking about that we can feel in each of our hearts? Where are you taking the memories strengthened by love? You don’t say. To the afterlife? Love has no limits because it can travel thousands of miles? Really, these few sentences are not your finest hour. You have tried to be eloquent and deep and you have failed utterly.

“What is the world’s most expensive bed? The hospital bed.
You, if you have money, you can hire someone to drive your car, but you cannot hire someone to take your illness that is killing you.
Material things lost can be found. But one thing you can never find when you lose: life.
Whatever stage of life where we are right now, at the end we will have to face the day when the curtain falls”.

Six sentences that are not really very well connected to each other. In fact they seem to be random thoughts you thought you might throw in. I suppose you were getting tired of all that structure and argument stuff by this stage.

“Please treasure your family love, love for your spouse, love for your friends…
Treat everyone well and stay friendly with your neighbours”.

I will, to the best of my ability. I will also fall short in these things from time to time. Good inspirational thoughts from you at the close.

Can I suggest one further piece of advice, very useful in living a well balanced fulfilling life?

In as far as it is possible, try to be honest in all your dealings. Misrepresenting your words as those of someone more influential or famous is not a good idea if you aim for the higher moral ground. Some of your ideas are worthy. Rework them with corrected grammar, developed arguments, and under your own name and who knows: You might feel you’ve done some good and made a difference.

(Relics of a bygone age. Colourful but stuffed?)

I began to write this to vent frustration at Christian churches that are failing their followers and their societies, and it felt good to get some of it off my chest. After all, churches have brought many of their current woes on themselves. As I wrote though, my focus changed, and I began to turn the arc lamp more towards myself.

The Christian church in the west has long chased power and respectability, and having sidelined the Gospel in the process, now finds itself with little of either. It has allowed its moral authority to be compromised, and in the space of two generations, has presided over the departure of the bulk of its flock. There is no way to sugar coat this ugly truth, although some continue to try. What remains resembles a hollowed out shell, where the rearranging of deck chairs is preferred to the facing of hard questions.

Moral leadership by churches is almost nonexistent, and ineffective where remnants exist. Few people are listening. Church leaders have squandered their moral authority as a result of a long tradition of chasing respectability and power in preference to living the Gospel of Jesus. The child sexual abuse scandal is the latest and most devestating blow; brought about by church leaders who chose to try to preserve the good name of the church over Gospel authenticity and caring for their flock. Why would anyone listen to leaders who failed their mission so obviously? If our anti-religious brethren have jumped on the bandwagon to grasp such a perfect opportunity to bash the church, should we be surprised?

Christians looking for leadership from their church are likely to be disappointed. Church leaders typically are too timid to call out error or to respond to the increasing attacks of secularists, while their followers find it easier to keep their heads down and go along with the zeitgeist than to risk ridicule and ostracism in defending their faith. If we are honest with ourselves, we might conclude our collective spiritual resolve is on a par with partly set jelly.

The church has no reason to exist except as the body of believers who give witness to the Christian Gospel. Somewhere along the line we forgot that. We imagined our aims to be ‘church growth’ (as if we were answering to shareholders), and the shaping of society to reflect our prejudices and reinforce our privileges (as if that were what the Gospel was about). Chasing ‘relevance’, we allowed the Gospel, the best news anyone could ever hear, to be sanitised and neutered so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities, including our own. We were left with a bland facsimile that few saw a reason to value.

Sadly, disciples of Jesus in the western world can not expect much from their churches apart from platitudes and worn out thinking. Continuing to chart our course with comfortable clichés will see us absorbed totally into the surrounding secular culture.

We need a radical rethink of what it means to be Christian.

I suggest that we should begin by facing reality. The churches of Christendom have become comfortable and complacent. They are decaying. People are not listening to the good news we have for them. Is it reasonable then to conclude that there is something awry? Does that something have to do with society (in which case we can sit comfortably and tut tut) or does it have something to do with how we are doing the Christian bit? Is it all the fault of churches?

A Rethink

I’ve been scathing of our churches but should I be looking closer to home? After all, the only person I have any authority to change is myself.

I realise I need to be open to repentance, and there is plenty of material for me to work on. What I don’t know though is what I don’t know. This is where I need God and my fellow believers to guide me, and where necessary, accuse me. Repentance is a cleansing process and opens the door to renewal, but I struggle to do it by myself.

What follows repentance is the desire and conviction to do things differently. For me, this may be looking at myself honestly and examining some of my attitudes. It is likely to demand some changes in the way I do the Christian life.

If, in the process, I can grow to be the person my creator intends me to be, and to be the Gospel for my sisters and brothers, rather than just seeking ways to share it, that will be an outcome as satisfying as it is welcome.

Christians face daunting challenges in a culture increasingly indifferent and even hostile to them, but alloting the blame solely to inept and corrupt churches blinds us to the need to look inside ourselves and to God for the renewal we must have to become Christ’s disciples. Blending in with secular society and becoming indistinguishable from it is not the way forward.

I began this post by pointing out the failures of the established church, but as I wrote, came to realise that the failures of the church were not so different from my own failures. Its compromises were not unlike mine; its timidity exceeded only by my own. Neither the church as an institution, nor I as an individual, can fulfill our purpose when we chase goals other than those God has set for us.

Maybe it is only then that we can move beyond the dismissal of Christians as curiosities to be left on the shelf as society moves on.

I have about 10000 photos stored from the last few years. I sometimes browse through them for inspiration or to make sense of whatever is on my mind. Sometimes words fall short you see.

These seven below say things from within me that I suspect I would struggle to express in a truckload of words.

In different ways they speak of humanity, human failings, feelings of loss and of love. As I sit here and think about it, they also pretty much distill my values.

While some are self explanatory (I hope), the child’s tricycle was one taken from the ruins of Hiroshima and it leaves me indescribably sad; and the final three are of (most of) my grandchildren, every one of whom fills me with indescribable joy.

(Hill of Crosses, Lithuania. August 2017)

If you ever find yourself driving in north west Lithuania, you may stumble upon a very unusual site a couple of kilometres off the main road north of Siauliai. Sadly, it is poorly signposted and unless you were looking for it you would probably drive straight past.

It is a low hill, no higher than a three storey building and a few house blocks in area, and covered by hundreds of thousands of wooden crosses. Tourist buses and private cars jam into an adjacent carpark, bringing thousands of visitors and pilgrims, many of whom leave crosses (as we did) to add to the collection already there.

The practice of leaving crosses there began in the nineteenth century after a peasants’ revolt. Last century soviet authorities bulldozed the place three times, only to see more crosses appear after their machinery was gone. Today it’s a place of pilgrimage, commemorating among other things non violent resistance to the years of soviet rule.

I had almost forgotten about the Hill of Crosses until I wrote my most recent blog post. You might recall I was asking myself some questions about how I should respond to a culture increasingly hostile to my values and unsympathetic to expressions of faith. (Well, that was, more or less, what I was saying).

Since then I’ve been reminded that I have no right to expect the world to conform to my values or give me an easy ride, although for as long as I remember that’s been more or less the case. Until recently, there has been a broad public consensus on values and belief. Governments and their laws reflected this consensus. Not any more. There has been a tectonic shift in recent years. I accept that. I also understand that I can no longer rely on having my values reinforced by government. The result of the national survey on homosexual marriage confirmed this and it shook me. But if I’m honest, I will concede that this survey was simply the latest in a long series of steps western society has taken away from the umbrella of Christendom that has existed since the time of the Roman empire. The shift has been gathering pace for years, is now unstoppable, and may not be wholly a bad thing.

Now that I’m over the shock, I can stand back and begin to see things in perspective. I am sensing a way forward: Not to start building a hill of crosses, but to be inspired by the people who did.

Some observations that occur to me, in no particular order:

Followers of all religions, but most definitely Christians, are going to have to get used to living in the midst of a society at best ambivalent towards them, and at worst openly hostile. So get used to it, I tell myself. In a way, I think it will be a good thing for Christians to be on the outer. It is exactly where the early church found itself. Early Christians coped and the church thrived under oppression, and so, I suspect, will we.

Evil in our world is as widespread and pervasive as it has ever been. It permeates every corner of society including, of course, the established Christian church. Notwithstanding the evil of the sexual predators, the church compromised its moral authority completely in the eyes of the wider society when it completely mishandled the issue of sexual abuse in its institutions. People are no longer listening to moral pronouncements from the church, and why, I ask myself, would they?

Evil is having a field day. It stretches its arms to infect our society at all levels and in all places. It takes many forms and it is absolutely real. I’m not going to try and prove that. If you don’t believe me, there is no point in a conversation and you are unlikely to be still reading this anyway.

Christians have a role and a duty to confront evil however and wherever they find it; not with violence or any of the methods evil itself uses to oppress people. Christians are called to follow the example of Jesus who confronted evil at every turn by reminding its victims they counted, by refusing to follow dictates that oppressed people, and most importantly of all, by standing up to evil and staring it in the face, without offering violence in return.

Confronting evil calls attention to it and leaves it nowhere to hide. Offering violence is simply returning evil for evil and increases rather than decreases it. Choosing not to return the violence that evil does is the way of Jesus and is the only way it can be defeated. Confronting evil is not an easy thing to do. It does not come without a price, often a heavy one, and a Christian should ask themselves what price they are willing to pay. I am beginning to understand this. I have been a slow learner.

In this sense I think organisations like the Australian Christian Lobby, although their intentions are noble, do themselves and their cause a disservice by trading insults with political enemies. Abusing or denigrating your political opponents is repaying evil with evil. Seeking to oppress your enemies through legislation favouring Christians is counterproductive and misguided.

I rather like the example of people like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi in this regard. Both understood that responding to violence and oppression with violence is self defeating; it simply escalates the violence. Both also understood that evil needs to be confronted, not condoned, accepted or ignored.

I realise of course that non violent confrontation and protest have a chequered history too. It is a very difficult thing to do to counter violence and oppression (evil) by not resorting to the very same methods. Few manage to do it well. Nevertheless the way of nonviolent confrontation seems to me to be the way a Christian might most effectively and (to their faith) authentically respond to evil in all its forms. A few examples off the top of my head. They range from the general to the specific:

Confronting selfishness by being unselfish.

Confronting greed by turning away from materialism.

Confronting bullying in all its many forms by summoning the courage to intervene.

Confronting alienation by listening more to people and talking less.

Confronting loneliness by saying hello to strangers and smiling at them.

Confronting tribalism by listening to and giving the time of day to those with different beliefs.

Confronting secular propaganda in schools by assertive approaches to governing bodies.

Confronting addictions of all kinds by holding a mirror up to society.

Confronting bad laws by picketing a government office peacefully and quietly.

To sum up, living the Christian life authentically by being true to my calling, confronting evil and oppression, and being difficult to ignore.

Little steps. It’s worth a try I think.

How then should I live?

And does it matter anyhow?

(Photo taken in a public park in Tallin, Estonia)

Not for the first time in my life I realise I’m a bit different . . . in a nice way of course. Some would no doubt describe me in less complimentary terms, but I’ll just concede that I don’t run with the herd and never really have.

In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that if there is a fashion trend or a mass movement, widely held opinion or whatever, I will be out of step with it. And so it is now. Except that I feel different this time, and I want to explain (perhaps to myself?) why.

The need to write this piece has welled up in me for some time, and I’ve been fighting it. Finally, I’ve given in. Having a rant holds no attraction though. Raging against the zeitgeist is not a good use of time. I’ve seen what it does to people. Demonising opponents and not conceding any shortcomings in your own position is quite properly the territory of those whose arrogance is matched only by their ignorance. I want no part of it.

So I’ll do my best to avoid a rant, but I will be saying it like I see it so buckle up if you’re interested.

My issue is this:

How do I continue to live authentically while surrounded by a society that does not share my beliefs and values, and is hostile to them?

“This is the 21st century!” I hear you say . . . and so it is. Living in the past is not an option, and although no doubt I have been and will be accused of trying to do so, such is not my dream.

I will start by giving some context. I am a Christian; certainly not a good one, hardly a very devout one, and certainly not a bible bashing one. But a faithful Christian nonetheless. I think I know truth, but I don’t fool myself that I know all the truth there is to know, still less that I own the truth. The truth I do know is precious to me. I will not retreat from it, but neither do I want to use it as a weapon to belittle or control anyone else. I don’t believe I am a bigot, a dinosaur, or any one of the many labels used as insults or to intimidate or shut people up. It’s not that I think I’m perfect, but for every pointing finger there’s another one pointing right back.

I’d much rather have respectful conversations than megaphones at 10 paces, and I’m more than happy to accept people as they are. I’ve long since abandoned any attempts to change what anyone else believes or thinks.

I’m not saying that one truth is as good as another, or that it doesn’t matter what truth we hold as long as we play nicely. Not at all. I’m just saying I’ve no enthusiasm for getting involved in the rants, ridicule and name calling that passes for contemporary public debate.

The catalyst for me to start to write this has been the release of survey results in Australia this week on changing the law on marriage to include same sex couples. A catalyst, but not the main purpose. For the record I wish them well; the couples who will take advantage of the law change to marry. Their marital status does not concern me. I listened to the arguments in favour of the law change and was not convinced by them, but I accept that a majority of other voters were. So be it. I’m not interested in arguing against what is now a fait accompli.

What does concern me is that I find myself in a position where I am swimming against the tide of popular opinion on this issue at present, but more generally also. It might be convenient to dismiss me as a dinosaur, an aging white male unable to adapt to a changing world, who in any case is one of a class responsible for creating the inequality and injustice in the world. Should I just take my medicine and slink off to the corner assigned to me, according to the new rules?

Well, I could do that. It would be the easiest course. But then there are deeper questions that remain and they tug at me, demanding my engagement. The temptation to stay silent is strong when the risk of ostracism is real. To say nothing however, and retreat to my private corner would be a betrayal of what makes me me.

So, what questions would they be? Would you mind if I pick out only a couple from the many? Would you mind also if I don’t make any attempt to answer them? That’s not my aim in writing this. No doubt you will have much better answers than I do anyway. My aim is to explain (to myself?) how it might be best to live authentically with my beliefs and values in a world that no longer shares them, if in fact it ever did.

Is morality a changeable commodity, at the mercy of popular vote or whim?

Must my faith bow to the dictates of secular law?

I’ll allow the first one to hang there, unanswered and unsupported. It might be important only to me, after all.

It’s the second that I find myself increasingly challenged by. Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but I wonder how long I can continue to accept secular laws that conflict with my beliefs and values. The Same Sex Marriage thing in itself is not a big challenge to me, but it begs the question. What will I do when/if the secular state legislates on other issues using values that seek to override mine?

What should I do if they force me to choose?

Do I close my eyes and ears and retreat to my bubble, pretending the status quo has not changed? (Do I run away, in other words).

Do I enter political debate? (Do I attempt to talk to people who aren’t interested in listening, in other words?).

Do I adjust my beliefs to make them palatible to secular sensibilities? (Do I surrender, in other words).

Do I engage in nonviolent resistance? (Do I take my beliefs and my faith seriously, in other words?).

How far would I be prepared to go? When the time comes for me to choose, which path will I follow?

There is one inescapable role model for me in the person, Jesus Christ. I know what he has already done and I am afraid I know what he would have me do when facing challenges like those above. I would rather be left alone to zip myself up inside my bubble, but I wonder if I will be allowed that luxury.

After the Funeral

Samurai or butterfly?

Razor edged, transient,

enduring, fleeting.

Impermanent.

Stuttering fingers of flame;

flashes of colour over grey.

Shopping Centre orchids to bloom once and only;

delicate, temporary, wonder patterns

always, we’ll be;

tomorrow, yesterday’s love.

Bedouins happenchancing on puddles don’t ask why.

Should you?

Should I?

. . . Maybe.