A miracle happened to me last week

Photo of a pohutukawa flower

Miracles happen every day, change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you.  [Jon Bon Jovi]

Miracles do happen – they really do. Let me tell you about mine. Last Friday, in an act of sheer rock-bottom desperation, I got on my knees and literally begged whoever was listening for help – God, Jesus, my deceased parents, my ancestors, the universe, the angels – everything and everyone I could think of. “Please help me!  I don’t know what to do. Please keep her safe.” Over and over again. To be honest, the silence that followed was expected, but the agonising noise of aloneness at that moment, I think, will stay with me forever.

Afterwards, for want of something to do, I sat at my computer and keyed in the words ‘help for homeless kiwi women living in Australia’. Hoping for anything that could take me to my next step of doing … well just doing ‘something’. For those who don’t know ‘Kiwi’ is the nickname used for people from New Zealand. The name derives from the kiwi, a native flightless bird, which is a national symbol of New Zealand.

Google search results gave me nothing to smile about. Numerous articles and stories about the more than 3000 homeless New Zealanders in Australia filled the search results. Sadly, this figure also includes my Melbourne based thirty-nine-year-old daughter.  Here in New Zealand we often refer to Australia as our Trans-Tasman relations (relations across the Tasman Sea). We are geographically and culturally close, both countries share a British colonial heritage, and our bond made even more special by the ANZAC’s who fought side-by-side on the battlefields of WW1 and WW2. Australia is also one of the first place New Zealanders head to for a ‘change of scenery’, whether it be to work, live, or holiday. My daughter has been living there for 15-20 years.

As I scrolled aimlessly down the depressing search results, I intermittently clicked on charities I felt could offer help.  I clicked links and sent messages telling my story.  I wrote about my daughter who has been living on the streets, on and off for years. Of how she was mentally unwell, a consequence of addiction issues, and certainly not well enough, mentally or physically, to hold down a job. She was not eligible for any assistance in Australia and she had finally reached out and said “I want to come home. I want to heal.” A charity paid her fare back to New Zealand, but because of unpaid child support, and several reneged plans to pay it back, she had been denied permission to leave the country. So last Friday she returned back to the city from the airport, and continued her life wandering around the city, begging, and sleeping on park benches.

“I don’t know what to do, and I am desperate”, I wrote.

And then the miracle. The following morning, from across the Tasman, 2693km away, a message in my inbox. One single response to my previous night’s pleas. A group called Tautoko Whanau Help Australia, offers to assist in finding accommodation for my daughter and help navigate the processes and systems that would enable her to get back to New Zealand. I cannot begin to describe what it meant to see the words ‘we can help’.  From hopelessness to hope – that loving arm around my shoulder I spoke about in a previous blog, Perceptions of God. Someone listened, someone heard my prayer, and someone felt the pain of an anguished mother battling for the life of her daughter. My prayer was heard. That was my miracle.

I learned a valuable lesson about miracles last Friday.  Miracles don’t happen by waving a magic wand. They are not a sprinkling of foo-foo dust, nor a spell or a potion for an instant fix. In my daughters’ case, we are only at the beginning of a long winding road with several twists and turns.

No, miracles are the doors that open. People selflessly working together. Communities reaching out to those in need, time and time again. Taking the hand of someone and saying, ‘I am listening.’ ‘I care.’ ‘I can help you.’ Miracles occur when people love and care for one another.  It’s as simple as that. Read more

Consequences

Flowers with background butterfly

Experience can be an excellent teacher if we reflect on our actions and their consequences. [MC]

There are always consequences. Every action, and every choice we make in life, has a consequence. Some of those consequences are minor, some are major.  Inaction also has consequences. And somewhere in the middle I live with them all. Even after leaving your abuser, the hidden consequences of domestic violence and abuse can linger for decades. Especially for children.  In my case, the consequences have lingered longer than they should, due to my cavalier attitude of denial about this very dark period of our life. Read more

Religion and God – making sense of the nonsense

Like a woven cobweb, God and religion are difficult to untangle. [MC]

Religion and God. Oh, my goodness! This is one of those articles that will not go away.  As I sat browsing through one of my journal writings from the eighties, I noticed my first words, “My pen is the mouthpiece for my unspoken thoughts”.  It’s a quote that remains true for me today. Until my unspoken thoughts appear on paper, I’m stuck.  At a standstill, neither moving forward or backwards.

Unfortunately, I’m also a bit of a coward. It’s easy to write about the outside-in stuff. Regale you with stories of my interests – running, yoga, friends, family, memoirs, or even a work of fiction. However, I am drawn longingly to write about life from the inside-out. But religion and God? I’ve read enough bitterly scathing, caustic, vitriolic criticism from others to scare me from writing about the subject for a lifetime. But I need to move forward. As my outward life unravelled so too did my inner life.  I make no apologies about the fact that a central spiritual theme decorates my Fiftypluskiwi writings –– God, religion, love – all have woven a well-trodden path of bittersweet moments in my life. And all were littered with myth, perception and misconception. So I began the process of unpicking and discarding. Questioning everything about my spiritual life.  And part of this process was trying to make sense of the nonsense that surrounds God and religion. Here goes…

Like a woven cobweb, God and religion are difficult to untangle. In a previous blog, Love in three minutes, I mentioned how, we use the words love and commitment as though both words have the same or similar meaning when, in fact, they are quite different. We do the same with religion and God. Mention religion and people start talking about God.  Discuss God and people start talking about religion. Seeking God and identifying with a religion are totally different experiences.  Throughout history, God has suffered a great injustice at the hands of those who claim to be the closest to God.

Religion has done a huge disservice to God. Not long ago I received a curt email from an acquaintance. The one sentence email read, “This is why I don’t believe.” Underneath was a link to a YouTube clip featuring Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) lecturing from his bestselling book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens was a controversial, thought-provoking British-American writer. He was a serious atheist.  In the YouTube clip he was witty, funny, riveting, confident and clever.  And I had to agree with most of what he said. I did not believe in the God he was talking about either. But the problem I had, and have, with the atheist argument is how they mix God with religion as though they were one and the same, when in fact, the two are very different. And it wasn’t until I explored the question, ‘what if everything I perceived God to be was lie?’, that I realised I had been doing the same thing.

Jeff Goldwasser, a rabbi at the Temple Sinai in Cranston, says our society, it seems, has become so confused about religion that we don’t really seem to understand what a religion is. Because of that, we don’t really seem to understand what it means to experience God, either.

“Seeking God and identifying with a religion are different experiences. Yet, many people seem to think that a person who does not identify with any particular religion must, therefore, be an atheist. That is an insult both to God and, I suppose, to true atheism. Religions are human institutions that, at their best, help people to experience and be close to God. At their worst they can give people an excuse to hate, control and be greedy. However, the relationship between a religion and God is like the relationship between a radio and music. Just because you don’t have one does not mean that you can’t experience the other.”

Goldwasser says seeking God and identifying with a religion are different experiences. He is right. Religion is an ‘outside-in’ experience, between you and other people; it’s full of interpretation, theories and opinions. But God, experiencing God, is an ‘inside-out’ experience just between you and God. A feeling in your chest – it’s a matter of the heart.  No one else is involved. God happens when you allow yourself to wander through the chasms, abysses and crevasses of your own heart and pay attention to what you feel. Religion is not necessary for this. Someone once told me ‘going to church makes you no more a Christian than going into a cowshed makes you a cow’. So true! There is nothing, you need to achieve, belong to, or go to, to know God.

Can religion be found in God? No! Absolutely not. Can God be found in religion?  Yes. But as a stepping stone, not a stopping place. Religion can one of the many, many ways we use when we are seeking that something or responding to matters of the heart.  But religions don’t work for everyone. They are not necessarily the ideal way for everyone to experience God. No religion, and no human institution has a monopoly on the truth. Because that’s what this is about. It is not about having the best argument or winning the debate. It’s about truth. You do not have to have a religion to find that truth. These days I tend to tell people, ‘If the by-product of what you believe is love, then go for it’.

Freeing God from the shackles of religion has been a liberating experience for me. When I began the process of untangling the web that ensnared religion and God, I noticed how my attitudes towards others changed. The people I met, their stories, became incredibly precious. Everyone’s life mattered. Love, peace and tolerance take on new dimensions when you separate God from religion and religion from God. Especially love, because we are all searching for that place where love has hidden itself away.

Love in 3 minutes? Crikey!

 

While commitment has everything to do with togetherness, love, on the other hand, is about letting one another go. (MC)

Not long ago I came upon an article about English couple, Bill and Dorothy, who had just celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary.  When asked the secret to their happy sixty years of marriage Bill said they were as much in love today, as they were on their honeymoon.

“As long as you agree with a woman, you’ll be all right. I know the best answer is always, ‘Yes, dear’,” quips Bill.

Dorothy replied with, “Bill makes me laugh and we definitely enjoy each other’s company.”

Really! A funny and compliant husband is the secret to a happy marriage?  Is it that easy? I’m sure when Bill and Dorothy made those comments it was tongue in cheek, but their story did remind me of a wedding I was invited to a few years ago.

My relationship to the soon-to-be married couple was through the mother of the bride. We were running buddies. Weeks before the big day we would meet for our daily jog and discuss the wedding preparation trials and tribulations.

One day she asked if I would say a few words to the bride and groom during the church service. Not knowing her daughter or her soon-to-be husband very well, I assumed I would be sharing a few prosperous wishes to cheer them on their future journey.

“I want you to talk about love,” she said in a tone that suggested this was as simple as filling a glass of water.

I was both gobsmacked and horrified. Me, talk about love? Crikey! Last year I published a series of articles about my ‘curveball’ moments in life. Writing these memoirs provided me with the opportunity to think, ask questions, to make sense of life and my relationships with others. And, let me tell you, none has been more challenging for me than the issue of love or one of love’s many threads, marriage.

Thinking about my past failures on the love scene, I enquired as to how long she would like this ‘few words’ to be. I was allotted three minutes. Three piddly minutes, 180 seconds to talk about one of the most sought-after emotions in the world.

Added to my own feelings of inadequacy, were the young couple about to be married. Radiantly in love, they sizzled with energy and anticipation. In their youth, and because of their youth, they knew everything, and displayed a confidence untainted by hindsight. On paper, they did everything the ‘right way’. They were both well educated, had a new home to move into, great careers and were well supported by family.

And that was my dilemma. My conundrum. What could I tell this couple about love that might break through that glorious fizz-pop mix of youth, success, lust and of being in-love? What a heady mix! I thought it’s just as well I didn’t feel as though I had anything to say because they wouldn’t be listening anyway.

Weeks of worry preceded my putting pen to paper.  I did some research and found  8,001 couples were granted divorces in New Zealand in 2017. There were 8.4 divorces for every 1,000 estimated existing marriages and civil unions. But in the context of this article it doesn’t matter whether this figure is high or low, but it does suggest promises of love and commitment made on the wedding day, are a lot harder to put into practice as the years go on.

During my moments of reflecting I was struck by how, when we talk about marriage, we use the words love and commitment as though both words have the same or similar meaning. Little or no thought is given to the paradox that occurs between the two.

Love and commitment are surely one of life’s greatest contradictions. The marriage ceremony is a public statement of commitment to each other. When you are deeply in-love, commitment seems remarkably easy. Whether it’s a civil union, a de facto relationship, or marriage, everything about commitment suggests togetherness – a partnership binding two people who are committed to working together. Commitment is where plans, hopes and dreams are born. It’s the doing part of the relationship; the ‘outside in’ framework.

Now here’s the paradox. While commitment has everything to do with togetherness, love, on the other hand, is about letting one another go. to be true to who they are meant to be.

Twentieth century psychologist/philosopher Erich Fromm explained the ‘love’ part of relationships as love is union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self.

“In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one yet remain two,” he says.

Love scoffs at rules. Love is not a role to be played by either partner. It does not come bedecked with rights and expectations. Love cannot be earned nor can it be measured by success or achievement. It is not the role or responsibility of one partner to ensure the other’s emotional and physical needs are met. We can be concerned, but we are not responsible. Love lets go.

Real love does not always follow our natural inclinations; it is not an impulse from feelings.  It is not about doing something for the other, but about being. Love just is – and that itself is a life-long journey for all of us. Thank goodness, there is the odd moment of exquisite joy, because most of the time love is just plain hard work learned over a lifetime of experience.

Yes, marriage, and its counterparts, is the union of two partners in a relationship. Committed to being together, but as Eric Fromm suggests, retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self.

Commitment and love – intrinsically woven, yet individually apart. To walk together and walk alone. One a journey of togetherness the other a journey of self. How would you explain this to a young couple in just three minutes?

Unraveling the past

Understanding the past is liberating. Dwelling on the past is debilitating. (MC)

When you live a lie, you live other people’s dreams, views and expectations.  My issues with love and relationships, my longing for a God that seemed not to exist, had to be dealt with.    How the heck did I get to live over half a century and not see what was so blindingly obvious?

I have always been a tad cynical, a bit of an eye roller, about delving into the past to solve problems. To delve backwards seemed rather pointless and it never occurred to me I would need to fossick back into my past to uncover any answers. But my burden of God, and love issues, had been with me for over fifty years. Troubled and troubling relationships sprinkle my timeline. Thinking my past didn’t matter, or telling myself my past isn’t who I am now, set the scene for decades of ignorance towards my own journey of self. Our past, even though no longer real, does influence who we are today.  Our beliefs, reactions and emotions, our relationships with others and, more importantly, the relationship we have with our self, all of them, are crafted from the tendrils of our past.

Wikipedia describes the “journey of self-discovery” as ‘a travel, pilgrimage, or series of events whereby a person attempts to determine how they feel, personally, about spiritual issues or priorities, rather than following the opinions of family, friends, neighbourhood or peer pressure.’  From the womb to the world our lives are shaped by others. Our first experiences of life are provided by parents or caregivers. Adult decisions, opinions, customs, actions, and perceptions shape what we believe and how we feel.  As children, we unconsciously accept the beliefs of those around us to be the truth. No questions asked. My parent’s love-lacking authoritarian parenting, common in the 50’s, and the churches’, guilt laden Catholicism, was my first introduction to love and God.  Together they crafted my understanding of the world I lived in. From childhood to adulthood I constructed my own set of values and spiritual beliefs based on past, and then later, future life experiences. And I believed that whatever my worldview was at the time, was the ultimate source of the truth.

As I meandered through the process of unraveling, I discovered that understanding the past and dwelling on the past have two different outcomes. Understanding is liberating. Dwelling is debilitating. If we deny or ignore the importance the past has on the present we will always dwell in the past, especially in the inside-out areas of self-esteem, communication and conflict.       When you dwell in the past you fail to see the many wonderful opportunities that are out there for you right now.

Understanding is truly liberating. In understanding there is no blame, no excuses and no regrets. It’s accepting and acknowledging that certain positive or negative events in the past did occur, and have contributed to who you are today. Once you connect your past with the present, the intensity and control that dwelling in the past has on your life, drops away. It is much easier to change the negative aspects of your behaviour when you understand them.

The shackles of past guilt, discontentment, resentment, confusion and low self-esteem no longer govern my present and future.  This doesn’t mean those feelings don’t crop up from time to time because they do. But because I understand why I feel them, I can deal to them. They are now relics from my past instead of having power over my present. But the past is as much my story, as is my story of today. I love my parents, and the events that have shaped me, more than ever. And I am beginning to love me, the journey of self, the being part, of which I think I shall always be a perpetual student.

William P Young, author of the bestselling novel, The Shack, says, “the world has no meaning apart from relationships. Some are messier, some are seasonal, others different, a few are easy, but every one of them is important.” We alone are responsible for having the relationship we want. And I believe the relationship you have with yourself to be the most important of all. Understand the experiences that have shaped you, the good and bad.

Joy and fulfillment can only be experienced in the present – don’t let the past deny you this.

 

 

Perceptions of God

Photo of Margaret Cunningham and 'Dixie' on Papamoa Beach

Question: What if everything you perceive God to be is a lie?

When the truth hits, it hits hard.  In her book, The Real Boy, Author Anne Ursu describes this moment of truth beautifully. She says, “There is a way the truth hits you, both hard and gentle at the same time. It punches you in the stomach as it puts its loving arm around your shoulder …”

For most of my life I have blindly loved God without really understanding why or questioning whether God was real.  Discovering everything I had ever believed God to be was a lie, felt like I had been sucker punched a deadly blow from behind, – yet at the same time, the moment, exquisite and freeing. The truth a loving arm around my shoulder.

Have you ever had one of those flashes when, unexpectedly, moments of extraordinary clarity, insight, or understanding explode into your mind? When the solution to a problem which you have struggled with for years suddenly becomes clear when you least expect it. They are rare, but life changing moments when they happen. That ‘Eureka moment’.  I now call these my ‘moments of God’, not that I understood this at the time. I talk about ‘moments of God’ in a later post.

A few years ago, I had a significant crisis of the soul. It was dark, dark, dark and I was helpless to help myself.  I decided to dump God for good.  Enough was enough. The ‘yearning’ was exhausting, and my personal life was an utter mess.  God was not behaving in the manner I believed God should. God was NOT answering my prayers. Not who I wanted and expected God to be.  And then there were those questions. Why did God not feed the starving? Why did God allow injustice, wars, greed, power, rape, poverty and disease? Why were some babies born just to die?  Six million Jews and minority groups massacred during the holocaust. Couldn’t you have stepped in, God?  Why? Why? Why?

So there I was, drowning in my own darkness, my life unravelling, walking away from God. Then that moment of truth. ‘What if everything you perceive me to be is a lie?’  The question, answer and understanding tumbled through me in one trillionth of a totally unexpected second. And it was. Everything I had perceived God to be was a lie. And in that moment, I let God go. No more bother. I stacked away my journals, bible and any other God paraphernalia, and left my God.

But life doesn’t work like that. You can’t keep running from the endless wandering of your soul without understanding what you are running from, why you are running and where you are running to.  To begin with I felt utterly bereft, bewildered, and to be honest, I felt stupid.  As though I had wasted fifty years of my life believing in a God who, at the very worst, was not real or, if God was real, my perception of God was a lie. At the same time, I felt rejuvenated.  Free. Like I was about to embark on a thrilling adventure. Tinges of excitement fluttered alongside my bewilderment.

It’s been approximately ten years since my ‘moment of God’. The jolt of the unanticipated moment, and the words, so inordinately profound and insightful, has taken time to process. Before I could even consider sharing this experience, there was a huge amount of work to be done on me.  For most of this time I’ve been shedding the shackles of religion and exploring answers to my questions about God.

It’s a provoking question: What if everything I perceive God to be, or not to be, is a lie?  It nudges, irks and challenges our spiritual ego. It’s a question that excludes no-one – a God question that includes the atheist to the most ‘devout’.  A question daring us to let go of our perceptions of God. A question worth going back to time and time again because of the potential to discover new and greater possibilities of God every time we ask it.

It is only now, in hindsight, I can see my journey away from God, was in fact, leading me to God.

About Fiftypluskiwi

If I gain wisdom or knowledge out of my  failures, then failure, is well worth experiencing. [Margaret Cunningham]

Fiftypluskiwi is a collection of stories documenting my life from the ‘inside out’  – my journey of self-discovery. Part insight and part hindsight they are stories of my unraveling and of being put back together from the inside out. I dismantle the myths, perceptions and misconceptions that have littered my life.

I have always felt intense feelings of, what I identify as, a yearning or longing. I can dull these feelings at times, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot get rid of them. They are my silent noise.  For years I have skirted the peripheries of these emotions, conjecturing at what they might or might not mean, and only assigning attention to them if it suited my ego.

About ten years ago my personal unhappiness threatened to annihilate me. None of my normal efforts of soothing my unhappiness worked. When I tried to ignore or run from my unhappiness, I ran smack bang into myself. As Confucius once said,  ‘No matter where you go, there you are.’  That was me.

A mid-life crisis? A break-down? Yes, probably both of those. But there was more to it. For the first time in my life I began asking myself questions: Who am I? Why am I? And I had only one answer, ‘I don’t know’. I had invested significant time and energy into creating me from the ‘outside in’, but had given absolutely no thought, time or energy to my ‘inside out’, or even recognised my mind, heart and spirit needed attention.

I make no apologies about the fact that a central theme decorates my Fiftypluskiwi writings – God and love – for both have woven a well-trodden path of bittersweet moments in my life, and both, as I have come to understand, are connected.

In one of his famous quotes, 13th century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, Rumi, said, ‘Yesterday I was so clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.’

We all have a story to tell. It’s not the size of the story that counts. Our day to day experiences, our fragility, our success and failures are our stories.  In Fiftypluskiwi I draw upon my personal experiences that I hope will provoke deep thought, conversations, and inspire positive change from the inside out.

 

 

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