“So Can God Save Your Life?”

“We run the place yu know” said the gunman, casually revealing his semi-automatic weapon. The midnight air (pregnant with tension and the smell of weed) wrapped darkness around both he and my husband on the deserted road leading down into Majesty Gardens.

David drew a breath, “Actually, God runs the place” he said calmly, his eyes carefully reading every flicker on the gunman’s face. As he spoke two more men emerged from the shadows, one close, one farther off.
“So can God save your life?”, the gunman glared menacingly, drawing closer.
“Yes” David said, meeting his gaze, “He can”.
Did he believe those words in that moment? He said he did, but did I, soon after when he arrived home to tell me what had happened?
As the words left his mouth another car turned into the road further ahead, it’s headlights draping light over the darkness. The bright light seemed to confuse the gunman, he didn’t know where to look, he and his friends grew visibly agitated.
“Squeeze it now man, squeeze it” urged one of his friends referring to the trigger on his gun, but the gunman had already taken a step back from my husband and raised his weapon towards the oncoming car, confused by the lights and the amount of weed he’d been smoking.
My husband, seeing his opportunity calmly put the engine into gear and drove off past the oncoming car. He knew he was still an easy target until he reached the corner. How long it took him to cover that stretch of road he wasn’t sure. He was praying all the way.
It was after he was around the corner and on the main road that he began to shake all over.

When he returned home to our one room flat in Trench town and told me his news calm had almost returned to his body, but in me the storms were just beginning.
I had left my family half a planet away and come here to work alongside my new husband in Trench Town, Jamaica. What if Jesus didn’t have our backs? That night lead me on a long journey with God, trying to find reassurance against a backdrop of violence, crime and fear. Ten years later we are still here and I am still on this journey.

Violence has a long history and a short fuse here in Jamaica, especially in the inner city communities where we work. Despite a population of just 2.9 million people, Jamaica has one of the highest (per capita) homicide rates in the world. In 2015 alone there were 1,205 murders (more than three each day), 1069 shootings, 589 aggravated assaults, 577 rapes, 1,904 robberies and 1,777 break-ins. In 2013 there were ten thousand cases of reported child abuse. My husband David has been caught in crossfire twice (once with an armoured vehicle) held up at gunpoint twice, witnessed a beheading, carried victims of abduction and rape to counsellors, lost friends to violence, spoken at the funerals of the youth he was working with and counselled gunmen against retaliation in heated situations.

‘Can God save your life?’ is a very real question for us as a family and one that I have faced again and again over the last ten years. Recently, as I was preparing to write this piece I asked my husband this question again and without hesitation his emphatic answer was “yes!”. He can say this so confidently because his experience so far has proven God’s faithfulness in this area. God can save his life because He already has. Other missionary friends we work alongside of have reported bullets ‘pinging’ off away from them as they were caught in gun fire, as though an invisible shield was protecting them. After my husband was caught in cross fire between an armoured police vehicle and gunmen one evening a friend overheard some young men in the community saying “Bwoy, ‘dat white man must really a’serve God, because so many bullets a’fly and not even one catch ‘im!”
So, if we work for God does that mean we are invincible to human violence?

I wish I could tell you that I could confidently say that God will always protect us from everything we fear, from all pain and violence. But I can’t. It is true that he has. I and my husband and many other missionaries we know can retell many stories of Gods protection; Bullets missing, gunmen avoided, lives saved. But it doesn’t always end this way.

In April of this year two American missionaries, Randy Wentzel and Harold Nichols, were violently murdered here in Jamaica. Despite the fact that Jamaica is in the top five nations for homicide rates in the world, their deaths shocked Jamaicans. Last year in Haiti another missionary, Roberta Edwards was shot and killed as she sat behind the wheel of her car. July this year, trainee missionaries Jamison and Kathryn Pals and their three very young children were killed in a car accident on their way to language school in preparation for the mission-field.
Does this mean that somehow God let them down? Did Jesus not have their backs just as my deepest fears suspect?

The truth is actually much larger than either of these answers tell us.
God doesn’t promise to save our life. He can save our life. But the Bible does not promise safety, comfort or stressless living. What it does promise is God’s presence with us.
Daniel walked through the lions den, Shadrach, Meshach and Abedneigo went through the furnace. God was with them, walking closely alongside them, strengthening them and encouraging them. In these cases God did save their lives, but yet the prophet Isaiah was cut in two, James was killed while Peter walked miraculously out of Jail. There were many cases of lives miraculously spared among the early Christians, but all but one of the disciples would eventually suffer a violent death. In the first 200 years of Christianity four million christians were killed under the Roman empire. Had God saved just a few miraculously only to neglect four million others?
No. In all these cases God kept his promise, the promise of his presence with us.
Jesus knows what pain and suffering feels like, intimately from inside the frail shell of human existence. He has done it and when each one of us walks through white waters of any kind, he is walking with us, walking in us, walking us through, out into either every day life or eternal life.

Randy Wentzel, Harold Nichols, Roberta Edwards and the Pals family were not alone when they were taken violently from this world, Jesus was with them, there, in their last moments, walking closely alongside them, strengthening them and encouraging them just as he had been throughout every other day of their entire life and ministry. They were never alone.

The gunman’s question ‘Can God Save Your life?’ holds within it an assumption. His question assumes that life is all we have to lose and that he and his gun ultimately have power over this. This gunman and his friends lived in the reality of the darkness of this world, a choice which ultimately led to their demise less than a year after their interaction with my husband. But we live in another reality.
In that moment, when the gunman asked that question, gun in hand, David had to choose which reality he would live in. He had to choose where his eyes fell and what his heart believed. Which was more real in that moment, the barrel of a gun or the face of Jesus?
Where does real power lie? We often live, like the gunman’s words imply, feeling like our lives are the most important thing we have to lose. We feel like suffering is wrong. Like Jesus somehow should prevent us ever experiencing pain or loss. Fear has a power that can easily drown out God’s voice. It is our enemy’s greatest weapon against us.

This year we have seen as never before that we are in a world rocked by violence, a world torn apart by war, pain and fear. An estimated 115-250 people a day have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict, 80 died in France under the wheels of a terrorists truck, 49 shot dead in Orlando. Teenage gunmen, terrorist rampages, racial violence, police shootings; Our world is braced, waiting for the next suicide bomber to blow themselves up for religious extremism, to mow down their victims in the name of prejudice and hate.
Theologian Tom Wright writes,
‘The Christian Vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and the love of God’.

Jesus is no stranger to suffering. What can we say to a suffering world if we flee from suffering ourselves? We are called, like Jesus to give our lives for love. Not in comfortable Christendom, reading books about faith, but in the gritty, messy, sometimes violent battleground of human life, living in the reality where God is King, no matter what the outcome of the battle in front of us may be. The war is already won.

So can God save your life? He has. Jesus is with us; The son of God who laid the foundation of the universe. A gunman with a pistol looks pretty small from that perspective. No bullet will take you without God already having prepared that moment from the beginning of time to be your home-coming to Him, with Him and in Him. Jesus is with us. He can save our life, and he can walk alongside us as we live and as we die (as he did) for love.
If we are brave, We are not brave because we presume we are invincible. We are brave because we live in a reality where God is King and Jesus is walking with us all the way.

‘For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God’.
2 Timothy 1:7-8  (New International Version – UK)

The Light In Our Eyes

sad lonely boy on street

 

Seconds, minutes, hours, days… all wound up in moments of time. Thousands of these moments thread through our lives, entering and leaving, unremarkable, unnoticed, and later unremembered. But not all moments are lost in this way, some moments etch themselves into minds forever, carving themselves into the walls of our consciousness,

returning again and again, reminding us of who we want to be. This day many years ago was one of these, a moment long past yet unforgotten, because it taught me again how to see, not just with human eyes, but with a humanising heart; a heart of compassion.

I was an adolescent and always coming and going, coming and going between countries, cities and understanding of myself. I had returned from somewhere (can’t quite remember where) to spend time with my parents for a weekend. We were in Tasmania and had driven down south, threading our way through towns, countryside and forest, talking, listening, sitting in silence, soaking in the passing scenery.

Eventually we happened upon a small town which in that moment was hosting an alternative arts festival. We stopped to investigate. Weaving through the crowds, stopping at stalls and wandering in tents we spent the afternoon in happy meanderings, my father always lagging behind, my mother and I walking together chatting.

Jesus said that the eye is the lamp of the body. I never fully understood this, it was always like a tune being hummed, without the lyrics to explain it. I heard it, I even liked the sound of it, but I never fully understood it. There are a lot of things in my life that I haven’t fully understood. I haven’t understood them until not understanding them became impossible; When truth like an early morning glare pried my eyelids open to it’s burning rays, fiery-light truth gently clothed as an unassuming moment.

We wandered, my mother and I into one of the tents. One moment. That is all we gave it.
Neither of us were comfortable staying long. The woman in this tent was dressed as a fairy, she was selling small ‘fairy chairs’ that she had made out of sticks and moss. It only took a moment for us to comprehend that she wasn’t just dressed as a fairy, but she actually thought she was one. My mother and I both left the tent moments after we entered it, fleeing from the discomfort, fleeing the strangeness and lostness in her eyes. My father, wandering along afterwards, didn’t flee.

One moment.

Later on as we were driving away we reflected on where we had been and what we had seen. “Wasn’t the fairy lady a little strange” my mother and I had agreed, “Weird”.
Its always nice to be around people who agree with how you see the world. Makes everything easy. Comfortable.

My father took a moment to draw in his breath, then he said quietly, “No. She’s just a struggling spirit trying to find her way”.
Silence fell like a curtain over a cheap cabaret stage show. Funny how silence can be so pregnant with truth, the fiery truth that burns your eyelids open, forcing you to see. Calling you to see yourself in it’s light.
We had all entered the same tent, seen the same woman, heard the same story, and been in the same moment, yet we had not seen with the same eyes.
That was the truth glaring in my eyes now, burning in my heart.

My father, in that moment when he met this lady who was dressed as a child in a make believe world, rather than leaving in discomfort had stayed, many moments. He had looked at each chair she had made with interest, listened to the woman long, listened through her words to her emptiness, he had seen… something. Something my mother and I in our insular fear and discomfort just didn’t see, didn’t take a moment to see. My father didn’t just take a moment, he gave a moment and in that moment made space for something else; Compassion.

Compassion is not a feeling but a way of seeing; And the way we see becomes the way we live.
‘Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness.’ Luke 11:34

Your eye is the lamp of your body because the eyes with which you see not only illuminate but form the path on which you walk.
William Blake once wrote ‘As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers.’

Unhealthy eyes, eyes that only see ourselves and our own discomfort, our own self-absorption cause us to stumble around in the dark, trampling on others, missing moments and fumbling in blindness. These blind eyes also form a path, but not one that leads us to ourselves.

The pain, loneliness or distress of a struggling spirit, another human being, asks us a question, but at the same time it also gives us an answer. It asks us ‘will we care?’ and our answer to this question tells us how our eyes are formed, who we really are and the path we are really on.

If we are lucky we all get a chance to have these moments, moments of light breaking into sight and fire kindling in heart, burning away our apathy, fear and self interest prying our eyelids open to the truth. When Syrian refugee baby Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, the whole world had one of these moments; And the light bore holes into hearts on every continent. We all had a chance to see, for one moment, to see what is precious, to feel again in our numb hearts the fire of compassion that awakens us to ourselves; who we really are underneath the scum, the scum of self interest, comfort and consumption, the scum of busyness rush and distraction, the scum of everything which keeps us from everything that matters. And as we see, we realise that with these eyes, these eyes of compassion, for the first time in a long while we are actually beginning to see ourselves, to be ourselves, to be fully human. As Thomas Mann once wrote ‘No one remains quite what he was when he recognises himself.’

According to an expanding body of scientific evidence, compassion, though not always part of the way we see, is part of who we are as the human race. Research has found in fact that to feel compassion and want to help another is our first impulse as human beings of any age.

Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute in Germany has discovered that babies from a very young age will naturally and spontaneously help others in need, even when they have to overcome barriers in order to extend this help. It was found that the desire to help another came from an intrinsic motivation (not with expectation of external reward). The alleviation of another’s suffering was the reward.

Another experiment conducted by Elizabeth Dunn, of the University of British Columbia,
found that spending money on others makes us happier than spending money on ourselves, and brain imaging research by Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Health has found that the ‘pleasure centres’ of our brains are activated when we observe others giving money to charity.

In recent months the Australian government has been sending several hundred asylum seekers (including over 40 babies) to offshore detention centres on islands such as Nauru. There is a reason for this. They need to be away, away from eyes, away from hearts, out of sight, out of mind. Because for human beings, to see with eyes another in misery is to feel the tug of our deepest core, the core breathed into by life and light, that reaches up through our souls, prying the eyelids of our broken hearts open, forcing us to see, forcing us to care, calling us out to be greater than we thought we could be, to finally fill the skin of our birthright.

Though we may not always live lives of compassion and connection, we breath out in relief and surprise when we find it within ourselves because it is actually a part of who we really are as human beings. It has been hard-wired into us from the beginning.

We care because we are our Father’s children and this Father, when disclosing to Moses on the mountain top His true nature, of all His attributes chooses first to describe himself as Compassionate. Compassion is His first motivation, His first response, His first plan, His first action.

‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.’ Exodus 34:6-8

‘When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate’ Exodus 22:27

‘For the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.’ 2 Chronicles 30:9

We have a ‘compassion instinct’ not just because it was beneficial for evolution, but because we are formed after a compassionate being, a compassionate Father.

During the Nuremberg War trials the evidence presented revealed that the guards in Nazi concentration camps frequently suffered severe levels of stress due to humane feelings breaking in and ‘disrupting’ their peace of mind.
‘To stay detached the guards used tricks of language such as referring to prisoners by numbers than names or repeatedly labelling them as vermin, or subhuman’ (David Hay, ‘Something There’)

When the Nazi death squad Battalion 101 was first sent into Eastern Poland, and ordered to kill thousands of Jewish men, women and children these soldiers were absolutely traumatised, despite the fact that they had been ‘thoroughly indoctrinated’ to see Jewish people not as human beings but as ‘vermin’.

Even in war we cannot escape our birthright, who we really are as human beings, but this birthright means we are constantly at war within ourselves. And not every war is won by goodness, not every eye is open to the light. Although we as the human race have managed to send people to the moon, discover vaccines against ebola and create a mechanism to change TV channels with our minds, we have also managed to create and use the atom bomb, produce the holocaust, the Lords resistance army, the Khmer Rouge, Stalin and ISIS. There are still a lot of things about ourselves and who we really are that we haven’t fully understood. And we won’t fully understand them until not understanding them becomes impossible, when truth like an early morning glare pries our eyelids open to it’s burning rays of light.

If compassion is within us, then why does darkness and self interest still dominate our headlines? The hard glaring truth is that though compassion is wired into our hearts, fear, apathy, distraction and prejudice daily override these instincts.

We all know that even the best of us are not the human beings we were when we were born. At birth (and even before) we were received into the arms of a world laced with prejudice, fear and indifference, a world lined with pressure to look good, to fall in line, to succeed. And we learned the ‘tricks of language’ to survive in this world. We became part of this world and our eyes were re-formed in its image. Slowly our vision of the value and trustworthiness of our fellow human beings began to diminish. Our eyes are slowly taught not to see, not to trust, not to hope, not to love and most of all… simply not to notice. Our hearts closed up, our eyes became blind.

So we walk by on the other side of the road, dismissing, ignoring, withdrawing, rationalising…. anything but stopping, anything but listening, anything but making a moment for compassion.

Jesus left us with the perplexing story of the good samaritan. All the ‘professionals’ who were supposed to care rush past the struggling spirit in a whirl of self important rush and self righteous prejudice. Their eyes were noticing the wrong things. The Samaritan saw what really mattered, past all the blinding barriers of appearance, race, history and prejudice, all the way through to the person underneath, the struggling spirit trying to find their way.

Jesus walked this earth as a man at a time in history with little medical knowledge and great need; a time, like now, in need of great compassion. Struggling spirits flocked to him, trying to find their way, broken bodies, broken minds, broken hearts.
He always took a moment, gave a moment, for these, but what I find interesting is that he rarely responds the same way twice. Everything he does is in response to the moment and the person before him. He sees each person, each moment in resonating real time, and in seeing, his heart responds with compassion.

Compassion is within each one of us. It is our inheritance from a loving Father who loves first so we might learn to love. But our eyes can be faulty and our eyes are the lamp of our soul, leading us on the path we will walk. Compassion breaks in when I choose to let my line of sight push through the barriers of distraction, rush and self interest to really see the moment before me.

But how do we do it? How do we have compassion in a world where broken people take advantage, manipulate generosity and use goodwill to evil ends? What can we do when terrorists dress as refugees and confirm the deepest fears of our already cautious hearts?
How do we not live in fear and slowly let that fear turn to hate?

In seeing with eyes of compassion, Jesus didn’t leave his brain at the door. Compassion requires wisdom and creative thought.
In Matthew 10:16 he acknowledges ”I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

I love the story of Jesus when a woman caught in adultery is dragged by the self righteous Pharisees before Jesus in an attempt to use his compassion to bring about his downfall.
The woman was dragged, bruised, outcast, labeled and thrown down before him in shame. They were proud, self righteous, arrogant and strong. She was weak and alone.

Jesus saw. He took a moment. He gave a moment.
‘They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.’

He drew a line in the sand and then he stood beside her on the ‘wrong’ side of that line.
You without sin, pitch first; Hurl your stone, hurl your hate, hurl your prejudice, hurl your rationalisations, hurl your indifference, hurl your religious-motivated pride and your fear-motivated hate.
We’re ready. Eyes wide open. Seeing. Seeing everything.

It’s much easier to hurl stones with everyone else than to stand beside the person receiving them. Its much easier to walk past a person in need than to reach out your hand in love and generosity. Its much easier to withdraw, than to extend the hand of mercy.

Compassion steps over the line of pride, prejudice and pain, reaching across all boundaries, breaking every rule, in order to extend love and help.

You without sin, pitch first. One by one the Pharisees leave. No one is left. Not even one.

You see, there is no them and us. We all of us are in some way at some point on the wrong side of that line. And Jesus, the only person there with the right not to be is by our side, shoulder to shoulder.
The truth is that there was no right side of that line, and Jesus response was actually compassionate love both for the woman caught in adultery and the Pharisees. Love and exhortation for the woman wrapped in sin, love and exhortation for the Pharisees caught in pride.

Compassion is not a licence to say ‘anything goes’, its the strength to call out the strength in all of us. Love is more than a bleeding heart. It is a belief in the best of who we human beings can be, even when all our behaviour is screaming that we’re moral vacuums wrapped in death.
Jesus knew the Pharisees were selling themselves short. His words, though direct, did not write them off, in that moment those words reached deep into their hearts, humbling their wilful pride, giving them an opportunity to repent.

Am I out of touch with reality to believe that some of the young men in ISIS still have human hearts? Maybe. But the light of compassion within our hearts need not flicker because their’s within them fails.

Jesus responses stir something in us that is already there waiting to be awoken.

We draw the lines in the wrong place we human beings. We all of us need to remember that the very act of drawing a line between them and us at all immediately puts us on the wrong side of it. There are no valid lines, no walls. There is no them and us. There is only the struggling spirit of humanity, formed in the image of a loving Father who is reaching, hoping, loving, stretching out in compassion to fan the flickering light within us all, calling us to be who we truly were, who we truly could be, who we truly are.

That day many years ago, the actions of my own very human father challenged my eyes to see, not by his words, but by his life lived out in that moment before my eyes.

Further scientific research has found that observing other people respond compassionately to human suffering inspires and elevates us, calling us out to give and show compassion ourselves.
This has been shown to lead to a possible compassion cascade, where generosity and kindness reproduce themselves in others around us, leading to a flood of generosity and goodwill. (Emma Seppala, ‘The Compassionate Mind’)

This is the secret that Jesus knew, and perhaps part of his strategy in living and breathing the way he did before us.

One moment lived through the eyes of compassion can change the world, indeed, it already has. Compassion multiplies compassion and love multiplies love in a never ending spiral of seeing, eyes wide open, hearts alive in light.

As I write this, the UK is reacting to over immigration, Europe is at breaking point under the refugee crisis, Thailand is arresting and imprisoning refugees, Australia is sending people to off shore detention centres and America is heading towards a major election in which immigration is a hot issue.

We are all being asked a question. And our answer to this question will tell us who we are, or who we have become.

What will our answer be?

 

Peace On Earth

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The ‘No Mans Land’ between the church that was burnt down and the abandoned school  during a more recent Community Festival.

He stood on the edge of East Road, in Trench Town, Kingston, Jamaica, scanning the plot of land before him, his mind was in another place, a place of big plans, high hopes and higher ideals. Barely out of adolescence, he had returned to Jamaica with a vision; Basketball. To use this sport as a way of reaching disenfranchised youth in inner-city Trench Town, strengthening them spiritually, psychological and physically to face the challenges of their everyday existence, preparing them for adulthood; an alternative adulthood… one without guns, crime and violence.
His eyes were scanning the open land opposite; a perfect location for a basketball court. He started across to take a closer look when suddenly he felt an urgent tug on his hand pulling him back. Looking down a small hand was grasping his and small eyes pleaded earnestly, “Sir, don’t go over there. They will have an open shot.”
This was my husbands first introduction to Trench Town. It was 1999, and he was 23. What he had failed to understand, which the small boy knew only too well, was that this land, perfect for his dream of a basketball court, was the borderline between the PNP and JLP strongholds (the two main political parties in Jamaica). On one side of that piece of land was a church that had been burned down in the fighting between politically connected gangs years before, on the other side sat a three story primary school which had sat vacant for twenty years due to the violence. This perfect place for a basketball court was actually the no-mans land of a battle field, the vacuum between two trenches, the fault line between polarised communities, in a decades old war.
Violence has a long history and a short fuse in inner city Jamaica, and this violence rises and falls like passing weather pressure systems bringing the warmth of peace in some seasons or the storms of war in others.
Despite a population of just 2.9 million people, Jamaica has one of the highest (per capita) homicide rates in the world. In 2015 alone there were 1,205 murders (more than three each day), 1069 shootings, 589 aggravated assaults, 577 rapes, 1,904 robberies and 1,777 break-ins. In 2013 there were ten thousand cases of reported child abuse.
Since that tug on his hand many years ago my husband has been caught in crossfire twice (once with an armoured vehicle) held up at gunpoint twice, lost friends to violence, spoken at the funerals of the youth he was working with, carried victims of abduction and rape to counsellors and counselled gunmen against retaliation in heated situations.
Trench Town, where David has worked for the last fifteen years is an inner city community of Kingston with 64.1% unemployment.
What does peace on earth look like? You might be surprised to hear that it is this community, Trench Town that has given both David and I our first real glimpse of this, and the belief that peace is possible, anywhere.

It was in 2005. I was engaged to David but we would be married a year later.
A hurricane had been raging within Rema (a section of Trench Town) for over seven months. The ‘Don’ or area leader had been killed and the vacuum of his absence left a wake of warring splinter groups.
My husband and a nervous team were about to walk into the eye of this storm, armed only with face paints, bubble wands and hoolah hoops. Was he mad? It does sound crazy but it is a strategy the charity we work with has been using for decades in many places around the world, a strategy to build social capital and bring communities together for connection, healing and hope.
Rema needed hope, everyone knew this. Members of the community had approached my husband asking for help. So a date had been set for the community connection festival. They ran a volunteer training night with forty people from local churches saying they would turn up to help. It was encouraging, being surrounded with willing support, it made it all look possible.
But Goliath’s are never faced by armies, they are faced by the unexpected, by the meek with nothing but a sling and five small stones. In the weeks leading up to the community festival six people in Trench town were gunned down in the violence. After this, most volunteers pulled out. Who wants to get caught in a hurricane after all?
There were just 12 people left. These volunteers were from Rema itself, teachers, church goers or teenagers from the youth club David ran. I guess those who want peace the most will risk the most to create it, standing in the eye of a hurricane.
The site designated for the festival was the border line between the rival gang territories, a small ‘no mans land’ strip of road. When my husband and his team showed up the two gangs were sitting opposite each other glaring across the border line between them, guns visible, fingers on triggers. The air was thick with tension.
My husband spoke to both sides, one and then the other. He was familiar with most of the young men. Then he and the team started setting out the games, the face paints, the bubble wands. Five small stones.
A few curious children wandered over cautiously beginning to engage with the activities.
Suddenly, one of the gunmen who hadn’t been there earlier arrived waving his weapon yelling that he had been fired on earlier, “Mi ready fi deal with this t’ing now”. One of the gunmen from the other side, pistol in hand, waved him down imploring “Let the children have their fun day”. The first gunman glared across the road menacingly but calmed down.
“Alright, Alright” he said, holding his weapon loosely and waving the other young men across the borderline to stand down, “Make di pikney have dem day, we deal with this t’ing later”.
Relief fell cautiously over the little team. They resumed the activities.
One by one little faces started to peak around corners, come out of the shadows and emerge from behind closed doors. Little by little more children ventured out. Laughter called to laughter and soon more children appeared, flocking to the activities, defying the tension in the air and the fear in the pit of their stomachs. Gradually over the hours others came out of their houses, coaxed by the laughter, drawn by curiosity. The atmosphere began to relax and soon parents and older teenagers joined in with the festival, walking on stilts, joining in the hoola-hoop competition and just enjoying the fun together. There were not enough volunteers for all the activities so many of the community members began to help. The festival continued positively and smoothly and as it did, the community ‘breathed out’ a sigh of relief. People connected with people, eyes met in conversation, hearts met in laughter, lives met in life.
As the day drew towards its end the final game was a ‘tug of peace’ where the children challenged the adults on either side of a well worn rope. The tenacity and sheer numbers of the children won against the tiredness and caution of age and shrieks of youthful delight filled the air.
Finally the the sun turned from bright to golden and the volunteers began to pack away the equipment. It was over.

As he was packing things away David turned in surprise to find one of the gunmen from that morning standing beside him, but the look in his eyes was a world away from the glare that had been there that morning.
“Some of de lickle pikney-dem nuh get dem face paint-up yet”. He was concerned that some of the children hadn’t had a chance to have their face painted yet. He was asking if he could borrow some of the paints.
As David left the community that day this gunman who in the morning had had his finger on the trigger of a gun was now sitting on a wall surrounded by little children painting their faces.

 

Before the festival there had been violence in Rema for over seven months with many fatalities, six killed in the week before the festival. In the five months following the festival there was no gang related violence at all.

I wish I could say it finished then and there, but it didn’t. After five months the violence did return. In September 2006, again at the request of the community, we repeated the festival in Rema. Some of the teenage young men who are part of Fusion’s Youth Basketball club in the community volunteered to help (one had a few months previously been shot in the belly in the resumed gang wars). Seeing these young men given the opportunity to take responsibility for making their community a better place, and seeing them carry the responsibility so well, was such a contrast to the label most inner-city youth have thrust upon them. They had glimpsed an alternative and they were beginning to live it.

At the end of this second festival the community came together, held hands in a big circle and prayed for ongoing peace in their community.

Today there is still sporadic violence in Trench town and the surrounding inner city communities, but if you ask anyone in the community they will tell you it is better than it has been for a long time.

Peace after violence does not come to any community by chance. Violence usually begets more violence in the endless cycle of retaliation. Peace comes only with five smooth stones, hard work and the courage to stand outside in the storm.

I can see the irony of using the metaphor of David and Goliath in talking about peace and nonviolence. David faced and killed Goliath in war. But this is not the point of that story. The point is that a small boy faced a battle-hardened warrior and won. Peace is made by the meek with nothing but five small stones, by the courage of a few who are willing to be vulnerable. David and Goliath is not just a story of war. It is a story of courage against all odds. It is the story of the civil rights movement, the Indian revolution, the Filipino people power revolution and the dismantling of the Berlin wall. It is the story of vulnerable human beings doing whatever it takes to stand in the eye of a storm, draw a line and say no to violence retaliation and fear.

Ghandi said ‘The path of true non-violence requires much more courage than violence. Non-violence is a power which can be wielded equally by all– children, young men and women or grown-up people, provided they have a living faith in the God of Love and have therefore equal love for all mankind’
A study by Lederman, Loayza, and Menéndez in 2000 of 39 developed and developing world countries found that the presence of mutual trust within a community significantly reduces the incidence of violent crimes within that community.
This research connects nonviolence with trust, but trust cannot be built in a vacuum; Relationship builds trust. Trust is only born in the intimacy of respectful relationship. That is the real reason why the festival in Rema was effective in contributing to the ensuing peace of the following months. Relationship is the forging fire of peace.

Albert Einstein said ‘Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding’ . Understanding can only be achieved through respectful relationship, listening and human connection.
The closer I am to you, the more difficult it is for me to see you as a category or an enemy. When we laugh together we discover that we are not as different as we thought. When our guards drop down, we discover that essentially we are the same; We are human.
Sometimes the goliath we need to fight first is the goliath of our own prejudices, we need to dismantle our own hostility in order to disarm the hostility of others. Peace begins early, before we face each other across a fault-line, facing each other across a cup of tea, challenging each other to break down our prejudices and see the human being behind the stereotype. In this light, we, everyone of us are called to be peacemakers. To break down the barriers that keep us all isolated from each other, to prevent the fault lines from forming, to prevent the hurricanes from brewing, by listening, hearing, understanding and trusting.

As I write this young men from the West are travelling across the world to join ISIS. I wonder how many of them would not be in the mental place they are if there had been a human moment somewhere in their lives, where someone stopped, made space and listened? I guess we’ll never know

The challenge we all face is that relationship is personal. It requires us to let go of our right answers, our ideological ammunition and be humble, be vulnerable. It challenges us to be open to other ways of seeing.
The reality is that war is also personal, it is not just out there with ‘them’, it is on our own door steps, in our living rooms and even in our beds. There are times when the fault line runs between I and the man I love most in the world, when he just cant see how wrong he is and if only he could understand… the ground beneath us tremors and my unwillingness to listen or bend wrenches the earth wide between us. The wound smarts long, as long as my pride persists.
And the fault line runs between you and me; In the distance across the fault line I am an expert on your faults and you are barely human, and worthy only of the hate I avalanche upon you in your absence. And to you I am as small as an ant and the cause of all your troubles.

This is how we do it, we Homo Sapiens, this is how we do the dance of hate; the dance of war. We know all the steps by heart. But do we know the steps to peace?
That day in 2005 could have ended differently. David and his team were taking a risk. They were gambling on humanity, and lets face it, the odds aren’t always good. They were weak. But as Einstein pointed out, might doesn’t produce peace, peace cannot be achieved by force.

Jesus of Nazareth said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’        He doesn’t say blessed are the peace keepers, the peaceful, the peace lovers. Peace must be made before it can be kept, and the making of peace needs to come early, before violence and the retaliation cycle get a foot in the door. Peace on earth will not come through clever negotiations and well written treaties, through threatening armouries promising the threat of retaliation.
Peace will come though relationship and human connection which produces understanding and trust.
Peace will come through a very human moment over a cup of tea and a game of chess. Peace will come through human beings face to face meeting eyes and meeting hearts. Peace will come through the dramatic realisation that despite our differences we are all God’s children, and in being God’s children we must look to him for answers. Not with prayers saying… ‘how can we win this war?’, ‘how can we beat the enemy?’, ‘how can we show them how right we are and how wrong they are?’…
… but with listening prayers; Prayers like ‘Father of us all… what next?’.

These prayers have already been answered; Answered with the opposite of human answers, answered with the five small stones of ‘love your enemy. Do good to those who hurt you. Turn the other cheek’. Throughout human history when men and women have stopped to listen to the voice of God (beyond prejudice, rhetoric, idealism and religious jargon) peace has come; Not without sacrifice, not without struggle, but in meekness and strength it has come to stay.
Peace on earth is possible, but only with five smooth stones. That is all it takes;  That and the courage to stand outside in the storm…

…And those five small stones are in your pocket as well as mine.

Imperfectly, Beautiful, Messy, Wonderful

There is a castle in my daughters bedroom towering over her toys. This castle began as a modest cardboard soy milk crate when my daughter was four years old and over the next four years was added to, and added to until it became a palatial expanse with cream painted walls and gold topped turrets; It is the perfect castle.

Zoe and I finished painting this castle last year, four years after we started it, when she was eight years old. It should have been a wonderful moment, but the truth is, what began as a mother-daughter moment had become a mother-driven monument, and the more driven I became about creating the perfect castle for my child, the less fun the whole experience became for my child; And the hilarious thing is, by the time we finished it she’d grown out of playing with the dolls that fitted in it anyway!

I can laugh at it now, but the reality is that this castle reflects back an uncomfortable truth to my soul that part of me would rather not see, and I need to see it because this is not the only castle in my life. I have found myself in burnout at least three times in my adult life, striving to build castle after castle, striving to ‘perfect’ a life that was never made to be perfect in the first place. The only reason that I am brave enough to say this out loud is that I suspect I am not the only person with a castle in their cupboard in some form or another.

The strange thing with building perfect castles is that it is never about the castle, not really.  Drivenness is never just about the success or failure of a particular project, accomplishment, event or relationship, it is about the payoff my soul gets from that success. But the very fact that my soul is searching for that pay off means that I somehow feel inadequate without it. Perfectionism and drivenness is about proving our own significance, revealing that underneath this need to prove ourselves lurks the underlying fear of our own insignificance. Subconsciously perhaps we hope that if we can prove it to everyone else, maybe we’ll start to believe it ourselves.

“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.”
Michael Law, Author

The funny thing with castle building though, is that it never actually assuages these fears. It only ever propagates them. The castles only ever get bigger, looming over us, shadowing our joy, and life does not thrive in these shadows. We live on our treadmills, getting nowhere but always feeling urgently the need to deliver, to run, to please, to achieve.

No matter what I do in my life, no matter how many or how large the castles I build, as long as they are built from a place of fear, anxiety or a need to be loved they will never fulfil the longing underneath these drivers. Castle building always strangles the life out of life, never breathing it in. The drivers of my ego will only ever suffocate me, sucking away the moments that would strengthen me from the inside out.

Somebody recently told me ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly’. I was quite affronted at the time. I don’t like the idea of doing anything badly. But as I think about it, some things are worth doing badly so other more important things can flourish.
Building a cardboard castle is worth doing badly if it means I actually do it with my daughter instead of for her, and enjoy the journey of creating a beautiful, messy wonderful cardboard world together.  When my children are all grown up and I am towards the end of my life what will I judge success by then? I’m discovering (often the hard way) that real life is not actually about what I achieve, but how I achieve it. And the real achievement is actually a life well lived, a life full of flourishing life, not a successful career in castle-building. I appreciate the words of author George Leonard:

“Perhaps we’ll never know how far the path can go, how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward is not a gold medal but the path itself.  (George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term)

Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists. I love the colour and vibrancy of his work. It doesn’t resemble reality very much at all, and yet it brims with life. I often compare Van Goghs work with another artist I am familiar with, John Glover, a Tasmanian artist from the 1800s. John Glover was English, but had immigrated to Tasmania later in life.
His paintings of the Australian bush are absolutely perfect, by this I mean, not a leaf is out of place, not a twig is misshapen. His depiction of Australian landscape and flora is so perfect it doesn’t look like the Australian bush at all. There is no life in it, no truth, and yet it is so precise, so perfect.

Our natural world is absolutely beautiful, but it isn’t perfect. The form of a tree is misshapen, messy and chaotic… and yet so full of beauty. A sunset sprawls across the sky in uneven waves of colour and light, the stars speckle the heavens in unruly luminescent splatters. How perfectly imperfect it all is, how messy… much more like a Van Gogh than a John Glover.

Human life, like nature is messy. And in this messiness of life there is phenomenal beauty, beauty that cannot be contrived or replicated. The beauty is not despite the messiness and brokenness, but often because of it. There is no beauty without messiness, no life without brokenness.

There is one thing alone that is perfect and that one thing is the one thing that makes all other things perfectly as they should be, perfectly complete, perfectly whole, perfectly  beautiful, perfectly wonderful. And the most wonderful thing is that this perfection is not possible from us, but it is only possible for us, that is:

‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out all fear’ 1 John 4:18

The releasing love of our Father who doesn’t ask us to build castles, doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but whose perfect love casts out all our fears, the fears that would otherwise drive us onto our treadmills. As Poet Leonard Cohen wrote…                                                                                                                                         “Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

‘Forget our perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. We are supposed to be jars of clay, cracked and imperfect, thats how the light gets in, and also how the light radiates out.

‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.’  2 Corinthians 4:6-7 

Because there are no perfect castles. No perfect people. Only perfect love.

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Human Eyes

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A single moment passes so quickly, yet can change a life forever.

I was in the back seat of our family car. I watched the world from here a lot in my early years. I used to love long car rides, the passing scenery mingling with my day-dreams, the open Australian sky, presiding over cities, towns, fields and mountains.

I saw so much from this seat. Day-dreamed so much. I was both a spectator and a player, removed from all I saw yet full of thoughts and judgements about it all. Oh how clever my thoughts were when I was young. As an adolescent I was a poet, philosopher, judge and jury. I had so many right answers. It is only now that I am old that I have grown stupider… and wiser.

This day we were in Canberra. I don’t remember why.
We were on our way somewhere, passing by, passing through. That is when I saw him.
That is when I didn’t see him.

His head was tilted to one side with a strange twitch, his un-kept facial hair covered much of his face and had almost as many ‘locks’ as the long matted hair on his head. His clothes were dirty, life-dirty. If not for the car window I am certain his stench would have repelled me as much as in that moment his appearance did.

One moment.

Life is made up of moments. A moment is all it takes for one soul to size up another, one moment to see, one moment to not see. My father in the driver’s seat of the car had seen the man too. Strange how we can share the same moment and yet be miles away from each other within it.

“Man, there are a lot of weirdo’s in this world!” I said. I spoke jokingly, inviting others to join in my wit, my scorn, my moment of keen insight.

My father slowed the car and pulled over to the side of the road. Quietly he stopped, turned around and…

“NO!”
His shout was loud but at the same time measured, his eyes burning with passion and

sadness all at once.
An earnest calm returned to his ordinarily gentle voice. “…There are only frail lambs without a shepherd.”

Eventually I started blinking again, eventually my breath returned and my heart rate settled down. I had no reply. There was none.

My father turned around and started the car again. There was complete silence. Even the car engine seemed to be holding it’s breath.

The few minutes it took to reach our destination felt like a millennia. I needed that long to think.

~~~

The first time I went to a 3D movie I found the glasses extremely uncomfortable to wear. Eventually I grew accustomed to them as the only alternative is to watch a very blurred film. My son Oliver is four. He refuses to wear the glasses, so every time we go to a 3D movie as a family he watches a much fuzzier version of the film than we do. He doesn’t seem to mind.

That moment in the car with my dad was like putting on a pair of 3D glasses for the first time. In an egocentric blur my youthful arrogance had been seeing, but not seeing. That day I had the uncomfortable realisation that it wasn’t just that I had made a nasty comment about a person more vulnerable than myself, but that when the words left my mouth, I had believed them. My comment only expressed the repulsion I had felt in my heart and therefore seen with my eyes.

My father and I had seen the same thing, sat in the same car, passed by the same man, but our vision of the reality we were looking out at was poles apart. I had seen a weirdo. He’d seen a struggling human being.

French author Anaïs Nin wrote “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”.

My eyes. They are green with a hint of hazel but do they really see? What if the very eyes I look out from are tinted, skewed in some way? What if I don’t see the world as it is at all, but as my eyes are…or as my heart is.

My husband is colourblind. When we were first married I found it amusing the number of times I was sent on wild goose chases looking for green power cords or blue jackets only to find them to be brown or red or some other colour. When he was a teenager at boarding school he had taken himself off to buy a new pair of blue shorts for P.E., only to find in horror when he wore them to class that he was wearing bright purple shorts (not a good look for a teenager in British Public School!). There are some large trees here in Jamaica where we live that have bright red flowers floating in a sea of vivid green leaves. They happen to be the same hue. My husband cannot distinguish the flowers at all. He simply doesn’t see them.

There are some women who are tetra chromatic. That is, when the rest of us see the world with three colour rods in our eyes, they have four. Normal people with their three rods can see around a million hues of colour. Tetra chromatic women see over 100,000,000 hues. They see many shades and variations within each hue that most of us never see. Even though each of us looks out at the same reality, we can only see the colour our eyes allow us to see. We think we see reality, but the reality we see is filtered and influenced by our eyes.

Could it be that our emotional eyes work in similar ways? Are there whole worlds of feeling and awareness I am blind to? Are there whole ways of seeing I am closed to? Where do my ‘emotional eyes’ come from?

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said ‘Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world’ . Our field of vision not only limits the world we see, it is also the world we live in, affecting our awarenesses, choices and actions.

When I was in South Africa fourteen years ago I was taken by a Black South African friend to a national monument which had been built by the Afrikaners people. All around the walls in grand white stone was carved the narrative of the Afrikaner. I found it fascinating to note that the pictures of the pioneering Afrikaner people were larger, showing more emotion and human facial distinction. In the distant background the black South African peoples (the Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana etc) were depicted with neither distinguishing features nor human emotion. To the general population of the Afrikaners people back then, to be human meant to be white.

We see the world as we are, not as it is.

As we humans wrestle with the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ we have to come to terms with the reality that just like a dirty windshield on a car, the vision we have of our fellow human beings can be coloured and scarred by our own history, culture and experiences. A significant challenge we have in finding an adequate answer to this question is that we already have an inadequate answer. Consciously and or subconsciously our past has given us a narrative describing what it means to be human; who we are, who they are (the other seven billion people we share this planet with). This internal story influences our behaviour, emotions and relationships. It precedes all we see with our physical eyes, creating the framework we use to make sense of the information our eyes transmit back to us.

When I look at you, what do I see? A threat? A friend? A business opportunity? A person? And how many filters, archaic lenses and attitudes does your vision pass through before it lights upon my face? The ‘eyes’ with which we view people unless examined will determine how we treat them. He is not just black, he is a thief. She’s not just a Muslim, she’s an extremist, He’s not just a policeman he’s corrupt. He’s not just mentally disabled on the street, he’s a weirdo.

The only commonality between all these labels is that none of them see and name a human being. This bumper sticker version of a person they label is a far cry from the complex, strange unreachable phenomenon that is us… we humans.

When we look out at the world we think we see reality as it is, but really we are looking through a story, a story constructed by our history, experience, education and culture. Through this story our beliefs become belief systems, an arrangement of attitudes that project a skewed reality onto the canvas of what is real.

“But once you have a belief system everything that comes in either gets ignored if it doesn’t fit the belief system or get distorted enough so that it can fit into the belief system…
…If one can only see things according to one’s own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind.’   Robert Anton Wilson, American Author and playwright

Our belief systems are contagious, passed on through family, history, gossip, media, through subtle praises or punishments, looks of delight or disdain. In these systems cultures form around us like a slow rising fog revealing what is allowed to be seen and making invisible what is not. Culture becomes the air we breathe, we neither see it or question it. It becomes our nervous system normal, our comfortable collective view of reality that subconsciously dictates everything that is permissible or possible within our culture.

‘One way of thinking of cultures is to see them as rather like valves that either open up or close our contact with aspects of reality’
David Hay, English Zoologist and Author 1

When a society believes a unifying narrative strongly enough it shapes it’s culture and becomes a powerful force for good… or for evil.

I currently live in Kingston, Jamaica. For over 300 years Jamaica was under colonial rule first by the Spanish, then by the British. Many British gentlemen owned lucrative sugar plantations throughout the West Indies. Demand for sugar was high, but so was the cost of manual labour to produce the sugar… unless of course you didn’t have to pay your workers. Human trafficking and slavery became a normal part of respectable business practice. A narrative of the African people being somehow less than human was convenient and necessary to make these ventures possible. If I see you as a ‘thing’ and a thing that is my ‘property’ I can treat you as a beast of burden with a clear conscience.

‘Europe created a society that was totally immoral. Legislation made the African slave, male or female, property, a chattel, no longer a person.    …The natural father was downgraded to progenitor and the woman from mother to breeder.’
Philip Sherlock, Hazel Bennet, ‘The Story of the Jamaican People’

Bishop Desmond Tutu said ‘Racism, xenophobia and unfair discrimination have spawned slavery, when human beings have bought and sold and owned and branded fellow human beings as if they were so many beasts of burden’.

During the 350 years between 1500 and 1850 over twelve and a half million African people were shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas and the Caribbean to work in brutal conditions on sugar plantations. 20% of these men, women and children didn’t even survive the ocean voyage. 2  Due to harsh treatment and working conditions, the average life expectation of a slave on arrival in Jamaica was seven years. 3

“But It wasn’t personal, it was business, they were just beasts of burden after all…not humans like us”.

We see the world not as it is, but as we are.

Ideas build one on another, theories shape thoughts and words create worlds. Living in these worlds that have slowly formed themselves around us we humans rarely question the blinkers they place on us, the lenses they filter our reality through.

‘History teaches us that every age is blind, and, being blind, does not know to what it is blind. Future ages will admonish us for what we do not see. Even Darwin, one of the most empathetic of humans, could not entirely escape the prejudices of his own age. No one can. To understand the past is partly to unlearn what we know of the present.’                                                              Christopher Potter, ‘How to make a Human Being’. 4

In 1859 Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ was published marking an epoch in human thought. Biologist and Philosopher Herbert Spencer inspired by Darwin’s theory of natural selection coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Though probably never intended by Darwin to apply to the human race in such a way ‘social Darwinism’ crept into streams of Victorian thought whispering new ideas such as ‘the poor will always be with us’, ‘healthy societies must eliminate the unfit’ and ‘selective human breeding is the way to build a better society’.

‘If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent on measures for the improvement of the human race as is spent on the improvement of breeds of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!’                                                                                                                                                    Sir Francis Galton, (Cousin of Charles Darwin) ‘Hereditary Character and Talent’

These ideas captured the minds of Victorian society. Leading universities offered courses in Eugenics, and a Eugenics Society was formed whose members included prominent leaders, politicians and academics.5                                                                                                      Many countries (including America, Canada, Sweden and Belgium) introduced compulsory sterilisation of the mentally ill.

Fostered by these threads of thought, a narrative of white racial supremacy emerged in Europe. Books and papers began to be circulated and soon the term ‘racial hygiene’ was introduced alongside discussions on selective breeding and Eugenics.

In Germany this narrative gained particular traction, forming the basis for Nazi Germany’s racially biased social policies. ‘Scientific research’ was used to ‘demonstrate’ the ‘supremacy’ of the Aryan race over other ‘inferior’ people groups. Lectures were organised, textbooks were written and German children in schools were taught the ‘truth’ of their supremacy over other racial groups.

The purifying of the Aryan race became the heart of Nazi Germany’s ideology and practice. Humans who under this ideology were a threat to Aryan supremacy were viewed as ‘life unworthy of life’. These included the Roma people, Jehovahs witnesses, criminals, the insane, the weak, the disabled and homosexuals. Polish, Russian and Ukrainian people were also incarcerated or exterminated, but it was the Jewish people who attracted the full brunt of Nazi Germany’s hatred. In the years between 1933 and 1945 nine out of every ten Jews in Europe were murdered by Nazi Germany, amounting to more than six million men, women and children.6

Ideas build one on another, theories shape thoughts and words create worlds.

“But It wasn’t personal, it was policy, they were just beasts of poor breeding after all…not humans like us”.

We see the world not as it is, but as we are.

The late social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his book ‘The Sane Society’ writes “The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” 7

 

The lens through which the majority see is not necessarily a measure of what is real, just or good. But that presents us with a challenge. How then do we know what is real, what is just and what is good? How do we discern the meaning and value of what it means to be human? Can we really trust the majority view? Can we trust what is projected daily into our living rooms on the TV and internet? Can they be trusted to tell us who we are? Do they care? Are we persons or just business, are we just beasts of burden after all? Beasts of poor breeding? Beasts of consumerism?

And what if we discover in our quest to discern what it means to be human something which doesn’t agree with what we have been told, something which offends our culture, our education, our ego, our pride, our religion… or lack of it? Will I be able to let my eyes see what is there to be seen, even if I don’t like it? Even if it doesn’t slot in nicely with what I already believe? What I want to believe?

French Novelist Marcel Proust said ‘The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’

Perhaps this strange journey to discover what it means to be human begins not with looking out at them (the seven billion people we share this planet with) but as the ancient philosophers suggest, with looking inwards to ‘know thyself’* ; To have new eyes with which to see, to know the shape of our own souls that affects our view of the world, of people, of ourselves. If we could see in through our own eyes, down into our own hearts perhaps we could see more, see through ourselves into reality more; reality as it really is, not just as we are.

Maybe then I would see you, not as a weirdo, but as a human being. And perhaps that would be the beginning of me becoming one myself.

 

~~~

*’Know Thyself’ is an inscription written on the ancient Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi and has become a strong theme in Greek and later Western philosophy and culture.
1 David Hay, ‘Something There’ 2006 Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. page 235
2 The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Data Base http://www.slavevoyages.org
3‘The Story of the Jamaican People’ Philip Sherlock, Hazel Bennet, 1998, page 31
4 Christopher Potter ‘How to Make a Human Being’ 2014, Fourth Estate, HarperCollins Publishers page 227
5 ‘From Francis Galton to George W. Hunter: Breaking Dogmatic Barriers and the Rise of the Eugenics Movement’ Douglas O. Linder (2005) http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/eugenics.html
6 ‘The Holocaust’ Susanna Davidson Usborne Publishing Ltd.2008
7 Erich Fromm, ‘The Sane Society’ Rinehart & Company Inc., New York, 1955

A Small Corner in the Sun

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One of the places I love most in all the world is here in Jamaica, in the small corner in the sun where the river meets the sea at Frenchman’s Cove. This is a place awash with  memories of family moments. It is also the place where my four year old son first learned to swim.
When he was three he had slipped off a step into the depths of a swimming pool and flailed in panic until strong arms pulled him out into the air. The arms came quickly, but felt like they took forever. From that time on, haunted by the depths, we saw him re-live the panic every time he was in or near a pool.

Depths that haunt and replay fears are not reserved only for four year olds. Many of us have slipped..or sometimes been pushed, into deep waters above our head; waters we either didn’t choose, or if we did choose regretted later on. Frantic we flailed and no one pulled us out. Part of us drowned that day and our suffocated self is still there…hidden in the watery depths of our heart; waiting to be resuscitated. Waiting for the breath of life to return, to revive in us the story of our souls; The story we know is there but fear is dead, drowned in the watery void.

It takes an act of will to choose life. To choose life over death. We can live in death, asleep to part of ourselves, hiding from life. numb. When death becomes our normal life it can be comfortable and comforting, familiar and safe. We build comfortable coffins for ourselves and decorate them with our coping mechanisms. We rationalise our fears, our fetishes, the walls we build around ourselves, the walls of our coffins. In the end it will always be a coffin and we will always be only half alive; dead to our deepest self…
…until we choose life.

When a child is first born psychologists tell us it has no will to live, but when it is drawn in to its mothers embrace it begins to find its will to live. Breathing oxygen for the first time burns its tiny lungs. Choosing to live is painful. Much more painful than death. But the sound of a mothers heart beat, the warm strong arms enfolding, banish the fear and consciousness of pain the child feels. Safe and connected it can now be free to thrive.
We need each other to find our will to live. We need others to help us be free to thrive. We were never made to live alone.

My son did not overcome his fear of water in isolation. It was actually his grandmother (my beautiful gentle hearted mother) who, on a family beach holiday in that corner in the sun where the river meets the sea, spent a week with him in shallow waters doing what he called proudly his ‘swim training’. All it amounted to was him lunging thirty centimetres towards her in the water (water no deeper than his waste) and her catching him in her arms. Safe Arms, patient arms, arms that never faltered. By Oliver’s decree they did their ‘swim training’ repeatedly for our entire week at the beach, always in the shallow water, always just thirty centimetres apart, always at Oliver’s choice. Within that week he had grown to trust himself in water again. In two weeks he was swimming unaided underwater more than a metre.

It was not the voice in his head telling him to overcome his fear, it was not his determined will and gritted teeth, neither was it simply the mechanical practice of swimming that did it; It was the relationship of trust that gently waited and coaxed and encouraged his will, not just to cope, not just to avoid, not just to survive, but to live, to thrive.

E.E. Cummings said “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”  It is much more comfortable to stay the way we have always been. Comfortable in our coffins of the past. But coffins are confining, they cloister and clamp, they limit our future with the shackles of our past. If we are to live the life we are born to live we have to find within our core the courage to wade into the waters of our aversions, the depths of our negative attitudes, the fathoms of our fears.

Actions change attitudes, not thoughts. We cannot think our way to wholeness, we must act in whole ways and soon we will fit into our actions, like a new pair of shoes that take a while to wear in.
Henri Nouwen said ‘You don’t think your way into a new way of living, you live your way into a new way of thinking.’
But it takes courage to act in the direction of our fears. Courage. Where do we find courage if the air we breath is fear and our nervous system normal is avoidance? Where do we even find the strength to tell ourselves the truth about all we fear?

A wise man once observed…
‘Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour:
if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up… 
…A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.’*

Alone we are quickly broken, but a friend can put courage back into our hearts where fear has torn it out. We were created to need each other on every level of our humanity… physically, emotionally and spiritually. There is no shame in needing help. The only negative thing in all creation was for mankind to be alone.

The word encouragement has its etymology in the french word ‘Encoragier’. This word is built from ‘en’ meaning to ‘make or put in’ and ‘corage’ which means both courage and heart. Encouragement literally means to restore courage or heart within another; To strengthen a persons heart within them.

It is not just a warm sentimental, permissive relationship that strengthens us to soar, but the kind of relationship that gently strengthens our own heart within us, sometimes with a loving hug, sometimes with a loving push, sometimes with a loving truth, but always with a loving commitment.

Relationships that give us permission to hide in our coffins and avoid our challenges never produce life. They stunt us. Relationships that gently strengthen us to grow and act upon our fears are relationships of real love. This love produces the courage to live, to thrive and to face our fears. And these actions eventually produce growth and life. Healing comes when we take a step in courage, with the support of a companion, in the direction of what we fear most. Fears flee in the light of courage just as darkness flees with the dawn of light.

And now-days in the small corner in the sun where the river meets the sea at Frenchman’s Cove there is a small boy who charges through the waves, kung-fuing them with courage, power and giggles of glee. Unafraid. Living. Thriving. Because perfect love, gently, patiently and over time casts out all fear.

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‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.’  1 John 4:18  

*Ecclesiastes 4:9-11

The Human Moment

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I looked out my kitchen window. My daughter was in the front drive perched in an unsteady lean on her bicycle, one foot planted on the ground, the other on the peddle. She was talking with Alex, the young man who sometimes worked in our yard. He stooped down as he listened to her soft eight year old voice. My daughter doesn’t like big crowds, but in her own quiet way she loves people. I could see him smile and say something in reply. I had no idea what they spoke of but I could see his gentleness bend low to meet hers as they talked.

“Ah” I breathed wordlessly to myself. “She’s humanising him”. I didn’t really know what I meant by that thought at the time, but it has stuck with me ever since. I was observing something precious; A human moment.
The evergreen Jamaican trees moved in a slow dance with the breeze around them as they talked, the sun fell warm and golden at their feet. My daughter eventually climbed the tree nearby and Alex again raked leaves. The moment passed, but remains with me now forever.

Life is full of moments. but not always humanising ones. Alex’s life had had very few humanising moments. He had been born into a broken family and the war between his parents eventually left him living with his mother, estranged from his father. They were very poor and Alex was often hungry, starved of human warmth as well as food. We had known Alex for several years. He had moved into our community in the foothills of the Jamaican Blue Mountains overlooking Kingston to help care for his ageing grandfather. Actually he had moved in with his grandfather because he had no where else to go. His mother had a new boyfriend who didn’t like Alex, so Alex had to leave home.

The community we live it is quite a close knit one, there is a Don who keeps the peace. When we first moved in here one of the men proudly told my husband ‘There’s no thieving in this community. If anybody tries to steal from you they’re not going to be able to hold a nigh-night* or a funeral because they will never find their body’. My husband raised his eye brows but he was familiar with this way of things, its how things run here in Jamaica in many places, on both sides of the law; Defending against violence with violence.
When Alex had moved into the community, it was clear he was an outsider. He was very timid and socially awkward and quickly became as isolated as he felt. The community saw him as a stranger and treated him with suspicion. Their inhospitableness reinforced his timidity and social awkwardness. After his grandfather passed away Alex struggled to find work. We gave him food and garden work whenever we could, but it wasn’t enough. In desperation Alex turned to petty theft to fill his belly.
One moment, one human moment. That day my daughter spoke to him as a friend, as a person, as a big brother, as a human being. That day.
That day before that night.

That human moment with my eight year old daughter was most likely the last of such moments Alex ever experienced. That very same night gunmen kicked down the door of his corrugated iron shack and shot Alex, ripping him violently from this world leaving a gaping wound in the fabric of reality. No more moments. Only empty spaces where the moments used to be, where the moments should have been.

My garden is full of plants that Alex planted for me, trees that he watered and moments I will miss. On the day Alex died my daughter didn’t miss the human moment. Her eight year old heart gave him space, gave him a smile, gave him a human moment. And he had given it back to her, because you cannot humanise another without humanising yourself.

Alex’s death has given me the will to see the moments and to take not a single one for granted. After all, perhaps these human moments are all we have in the end. Moments in time. Moments of eternity.

My eight year old daughter taught me that day the importance of eyes that listen and hearts that make space. In the blur and busyness of life human moments usually need to be chosen, grasped and fought for against the tumultuous flow of life. They are born in stillness, not in rush, in presence, not in preoccupation, in real-time, not in prejudice. Seeing and choosing a human moment is a choice to see, eyes wide open. A choice against apathy, fear, and preoccupation. A choice to listen with eyes and see with hearts the thread of light within every human being. To trust it is there, even if physical eyes struggle to see it.
If I am honest with myself, so often I have lived a life more full of missed moments than lived ones; Rushing ,driving, labelling, withdrawing. In my ‘crucially important’ busyness, my overwhelming stress or my spiralling self absorption there are thousands of moments that have washed past my blind eyes, unseen, untouched, undone. Moments with my children, moments with my husband, moments with strangers, moments with struggling people like Alex. Moments of eternity lost in the vacuum of my self absorption. Rushing through my world I have no time to see (even if for a moment I catch my breathe long enough to want to). Urgency produces only an adrenaline blur. You pass in the whirl, like scenery unseen from the side window of a speeding car; Gone in the moment-less motion sickness of my self important rush.

And then there is another kind of blindness. The blindness of my fear, my past experience re-played.

Here in Jamaica our roads are racked with beggars, they meet us at the stoplights… begging, selling, washing windscreens, pushing, asking, imploring, grabbing, offending… and I recoil before the car stands still, before they open their mouth. Experience with a few has given me a label to wield on the many, to blot out their faces and withdraw;  “They’re all so…, they just want…, They’re so pushy… they, they, they…”. They become a them, across the no-mans land from my us. I stand on the other side of my prejudice hurling rationalisations at the moment, at the human beings I am choosing not to see, not to wind down my window for, not to smile at and ask their name. People have no names when seen through the lenses of prejudice, only categories.

If I keep you at the other end of my arms length and see you only through the designer shades of my prejudices I will never see you, or the flickering thread of light within you struggling for air. Our human moment will pass un-lived, the breath of life unbreathed. These designer shades of prejudice I wear do not just colour, but blinker; blinding the present with the past. When I put a label on your head and speak at that label rather than looking into your eyes (the eyes of a human being) I don’t just miss the human moment, I destroy it; The moment in time, moment of eternity.

I could have all the right religious answers in the world, and yet in self righteous rant miss every human moment that washes passed my eyes, blinded by my right answers, my righteous arguments, my rationalised attitudes.

Every choice we make or fail to make either breathes life or destroys it. Failing to see you and meet you in that human moment doesn’t simply leave you as you are, but somehow makes you less than you are. When I don’t recognise and reach for the human moment I silently acquiesce to the system that destroys it. The system that destroys the breath of life, the thread of light within us all.

You are not a bumpersticker, you are a life breathed into by Life. You are a child of God, no matter what your circumstances have been, are or will be. You are worthy of this moment. Alex was worthy of that moment. He was worthy of many more of them.

So in Kingston Traffic as the light turns red and I slow my car, I wind down my window and I breathe out, and I choose against my fear to look you in the eyes. And sometimes you offend me, and sometimes you push too far, but mostly you look back at me with relief, and our human moment becomes an island for us both in the whirling chaos of the streets, the whirling chaos of a world with too few moments.  And when (by the grace of God) this happens, eternity enters time and breathes life back into both of us. For we cannot humanise another without also humanising ourselves. Life produces life, hope produces hope and a human being reaching out to another produces a human moment . A moment of Eternity.

‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’    Ecclesiastes 3:11

(Quoting from the NIVUK Bible)

* Jamaica wake/celebration to recognise the passing of someone.