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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.

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(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.

 

 

 

 

The decades have passed almost without my noticing. I’ve mellowed. Those powerful youthful certainties, towering passions and cruel emotions have ebbed away with the hormones that stirred them. I’m comfortable in my own skin now, more or less. I’ve learned to recognise the battles worth fighting, and ditches worth dying in.

 

While there are certainly still battles worth fighting, there are now fewer ditches I would choose to die in. Those that remain seem so clear to me, so fundamental, so bleeding obvious. If only people would listen! But they don’t.

 

They wont, any more than the younger me did when truths were simpler, possibilities were many, and freedom was a word that resonated through my soul.

 

I ask different questions now. I value different answers.

 

Which is the bigger delusion then? The brittle arrogance of youth or the patronising wisdom of age? Is it possible they are flip sides of the same thing? Who would have wanted to miss out on the power and the impetuousness of their youth? Who at the time would have swapped it for sensible, safe and cautious?

 

Some of us don’t survive our youth. A few of us never outgrow it. For the rest of us, caution and wisdom grow from the seeds of mistakes that went with the territory. I speak only for myself here, but I don’t want my youth back. I grieve for it, but like a butterfly in the wind, it’s gone. Wisdom is the compensation. Wisdom, and acceptance, starting with acceptance of myself and extending it to others.

 

I should clarify something. Acceptance is not the same thing as approval. Far from it. This is where wisdom begins for me. Accepting other people as they are does not mean that I need to approve of them or things they do. They do not need my approval, any more than I need theirs. It’s nice of course, but unnecessary, and counterproductive if we make it an overarching aim to be approved of by others. For me, approval is a personal thing, a testament to who I am down deep. I’ll award or withhold it as I see fit.

 

Now, where was I?

 

Lost in my delusions, that’s where. In my more expansive moments, I concede the arrogance of youth is no more a delusion than my thinking I have now tamed wisdom. We grasp at certainties, and having caught some, cling to them at all costs, even at the expense of discounting the humanity of those who see things differently.

 

In so many ways I see us divided into camps, dismissing those holding opposing views as stupid or perfidious (one commonly applied cliche is ‘hateful’ I believe). We deny the personhood of those in the opposing camp. Politics has descended to this. Look around you and say it’s not so. We have done this to ourselves, at least partly because we crave certainty and are uncomfortable with ambiguity.

 

I sit comfortably with ambiguity. I do not and never will have enough insight to be able to judge other people with authority (although I admit I haven’t always remembered that). I don’t approve of everything I see around me, but I don’t believe I hold all the answers either. Nevertheless I hold some beliefs deeply and without compromise.

 

This does not of itself make me a bigot. My certainties do not imprison me; they free me to accept and make allowances for those who are so certain of themselves they would deny me my humanity.

 

So, which ditches would I die in now? As I said earlier, not too many, but I’m wise enough to keep my powder dry and not list them here. If and when they come for me, I’ll be waiting in one of my choosing.

Baltic Gallery

I’m sitting in Stockholm airport with a few hours to kill. What better way to spend them than putting together a few thoughts from the past ten days spent in the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia?

The top photo was taken in a ruined former soviet submarine base in Estonia. The second one was taken on the Curonian Spit, near Klaipeda, Lithuania.

Each one of these countries deserves more time than we were able to give them. Beautiful, engaging, stirring, struggling, memorable, quircky, intriguing, interesting, inexpensive and friendly; all three should be at the top of your list if you’re looking to experience cultures at once similar to and very different from those in the mainstream.

Growing in understanding the evolution of languages, witnessing national determination to overcome recent soviet occupation, and gaining an insight into cultural traditions of the West are added bonuses if you want them. The food is phenomenal too, but someone else will have to write about that.

Expect to be surprised when you visit the Baltic. For a start, it’s quite inexpensive if you are prepared to explore outside international hotels, major department stores, and tourist trap old town centres. Large beers for one euro and a tasty, filling salad from a supermarket for 2 euros might give you an idea. In any case we came away having spent much less than we planned for!

Anyway, enough of the travel advice. I’m more interested in sharing the impressions that will stay in my heart and call me to return to this less visited region.

These are personal impressions gained over visits of about four days to each country. A longer visit would of course yield a fuller picture.

In brief:

Lithuania is a diamond in the rough. It struggles with infrastructure such as roads signage and public transport, but excels in convincing the traveller that what they are experiencing is the genuine deal. People are friendly, and the food is phenomenal, but there is not as much money here as in the other two countries. Tons of natural beauty but few signs to point the way to sites. This can be frustrating and be prepared to ask, ask, and ask again to find places like the Hill of Crosses.

In order: Hill of Crosses, Curonian Spit (2 and 3), Old Vilnius.

Latvia is a beauty, shy of too much attention but full of forests, astoundingly beautiful wooden architecture and like Lithuania, good food. Latvians seem very proud of their country. I’m not sure why I say that but it is a strong impression. The infrastructure seems a little better here, and prices are correspondingly a little higher than in Lithuania. Signage was no better though!

Top: Jurmala beach resort, near Riga. Bottom: City park, Riga.

Estonia was my favourite, but maybe that is because it was the most recent place visited. The Estonian economy seems to me to be stronger than in its two southern neighbours and the prices are noticeably higher, although not as high as in other european countries. As a rough guide, prices were double those in Lithuania, but I realise that is just my estimation. The national parks in Estonia are to be savoured, as are those in the two other countries. It is very much worth taking the time to visit them, maybe on an organised tour.

All above photos are from Lahemaa National Park, east of Tallinn, Estonia.

As to politics, they each seem to be stable democracies, even if they are at different stages on the road to economic development. We spoke to one guide about the perception of threat from their Russian neighbour. Her response was that while the people were generally concerned about Russian influence, a re-occupation would be, in her words, a “mistake”.

English is widely spoken in all three countries, especially by younger people in tourist areas. We found the languages themselves to be quite challenge to master even a few phrases and we gave up, unfortunately. Sign language helped a lot. A longer visit might have seen us try harder.

Do yourself a favour. Visit these small yet impressive countries. Take your appetite and your camera.

What truth will raise you
above bigots, beyond hate;
apart and superior
to all with a different take?

Might you find it in a sacred book,
or some mystic’s secret locker;
your own personal dragon slayer
and conversation stopper?

Or

imagine rights and justice,
deliverence for the poor,
and imagine others never stood
on a pedestal as sure?

Or

join the righteous and enlightened,
freed from superstition.
Deify science, misrepresent it
and fight all opposition?

And

blind to your arrogance;
oblivious to your prejudice;
jump to condemn
the truth quest in others.

Start a truth collection.
Grasp and shape your prize.
Gaze at its reflection;
watch the ugliness rise.