I remember hearing Simon and Garfunkel singing about ‘the sounds of silence’ back in the 1960s and thinking ‘what a strange line’! However, the contradiction was not to stop as, soon afterwards in 1967 – 50 years ago now, I found the value of ‘the sounds of silence’ in the midst of war.

To me, ‘the sounds of silence’ are where I discovered wholeness and healing and so when I hear of other veterans who have not yet heard ‘the sounds of silence’, I invite them to do so. I have also done this with troubled youth through to high flying executives and it works. Sadly, however, in a world full of noise, it is a very hard sell. I understand this because when I go into ‘the sounds of silence’, I do not straight away hear ‘the sounds’ but rather the noise of my inner self with all its desire for distractions and mulling over issues.

So, how did I find it in war and how do we extrapolate that to a peacetime environment?

Well, first things first; why do it in the first place?

Like most treasures in life, I tripped over ‘the sounds of silence’ by accident. I found myself as a 19 year old forward scout in the Australian SAS Regiment for nearly a year in Vietnam in 1967. There I went on patrol with four others deep in enemy territory and in total silence for a week or so at a time. It was a surreal world where we had to totally identify with our natural environment leaving no tracks, making no noise, not being seen (heavily camouflaged), and not alarming the wild life. Doing this, our enemy gave us the nickname ‘Phantoms of the Jungle’. The two main ingredients were silence and oneness with Nature.

Doing this, I mentally explored the wonders of Nature in the Jungle and I felt amazingly safe even when close to the enemy. I would get up in the morning and sniff the air with my mouth open like a dog to detect the smells of the enemy brushing their teeth or having a morning menthol cigarette which I could detect nearly 100 metres away in the still damp air. We would go through both unoccupied and occupied enemy camps un noticed and then be accepted by the wild life beyond. Once I remember seeing a tiger when I was preparing my evening meal and he just looked at my rations with an air of disgust and moved on! Life was simple but to get into that space was, paradoxically, something that required great bushcraft skill and self discipline. Sleeping was simple; find a good hide, identify a reasonably clear pace. Take off your pack, undo your belt and slip the pouches behind your head as a pillow and lie on the damp ground and, hugging your weapon, go to sleep. When it rained, put a plastic covered map over your ear and remember that it takes about 20 minutes to warm the water you are sleeping in and relax!

It was not all silent and ‘natural’. Human beings had to make a nuisance of themselves and so we did have many encounters that were far from peaceful. A young person complained to me once about being stressed because of cyber bullying and I told her that there is no stress in that unless you create it in your mind. Stress, I said, is landing in the jungle, being shot at, finding your radio does not work, and then being chased for two days with the enemy using tracker dogs until, after running up creeks and operating in heavy rain, the enemy loses your trail. That is stress!

As a young man, I learned to process that stress by immersing myself in the wonders of my natural environment and that led me to a deep spiritual space. When I studied Psychology in University years later I discovered the statistics around youth suicide and my wife and I concluded that it was a lack of exposure to Nature that contributed to this and the other escape behaviours in substance abuse etc.

The Book of Job is the oldest book of all in the Bible even though it appears among later books – the first of the poetical works. Without touting religion, it is interesting to contemplate that the human story is not that old and that Job spoke on the central issue for us all in what meaning lies in pain and loss. We hear that Job came from Uz and that the Chaldeans who stole his cattle came from Ur which were some of the earliest settlements (on or near the river Euphrates in what is now Iraq) in the World at the beginning of the agricultural age going back 10,000years or so. The names of these places reflect a primitive level of speech and yet, 4,000 years ago, Abraham left Ur and the whole Judaic tradition began.

In the Book of Job (12:7-9) it is written: ‘Even the birds and the animals have much they could teach you; ask the creatures of the earth and the sea for their wisdom. All of them know that the Lord’s hand made them’.

And so, the most ancient piece of wisdom from humans that we possess tells us, among other things, that the answers are in Nature. Yet, when my wife and I started Bush Venture in 1985 to develop and empower people through oneness with Nature we got some incredibly negative feedback from onlookers in welfare, education, and the church. We were told that taking people into Nature was brutal and inhumane! It became clear that our world is all obsessed with head trips and the cleverness of modern man! And yet look at the despair that this linear non holistic view produces

If you scale chronological history down to the span of one year, with the Big Bang on January 1, then our species doesn’t appear until 11:59 PM on December 31. That means our written Bible, religion, and then science appeared in the last nanosecond of December 31. Not to contemplate what made up the rest of the year and how it has evolved to what we have today is incredibly arrogant – it denies 99.9999% of our roots and meaning.

Taking people into the bush to enjoy the fulfilment has given me some privileged experiences where, without prior suggestion, many from ‘street kids’ to ‘high flying executives’, claimed to have had some sort of ‘mystical (not religious) experience’.

This is not a treatise on Theology or religion. However, not to mention the experience of many of my atheist and agnostic clients and to pretend that people have been able to solve the profound questions of their lives without the help of some ‘power of the Universe’ would be dishonest.

Putting one’s life out on the table in the presence of the Divine (however one wants to define that reality) within and without and dialoguing the process is a profoundly useful and helpful process.

It is in the quiet space of the sub and unconscious mind and in the sacred space of Nature that the Divine speaks – the real sounds of silence!

It is in this space that one can release pain, find real meaning, heal, have a giggle over human stupidity which we take far too seriously, and then come back home to be more loving, joyful, and compassionate.

I love ‘the sounds of silence’!

Why Are We So Violent?

I am continually staggered by our domestic violence and other signs and statistics showing how aggressive we have become in this modern age. Most of the focus goes on men but violence from women is also becoming an issue – Police tell me that female violent crime used to be 15% but is now 50% and it tends to be more ruthless than male violence. This is not a forward growth pattern!

I believe much violence is triggered by what people say to one another and my last blog largely addressed this.

Reading press reports on the Pimpama murder and others, I see little in remedial action plans except band aids.

I say this as someone who was in the Australian Army for over 20 years. I then spent 30 years running camps and working in prisons to address the issue of boys growing up to become men. Obviously, I needed this training myself as a young man and largely got it in my military service when I was 18 through to 25. I served in the SAS (including Vietnam), Papua New Guinea, and on exchange with the British Gurkhas in that time frame and I grew up in a hurry!

We do not train boys to be men and then wonder why we have a violence issue from grown males. Really? Have we not studied human behaviour over the past several thousand years to get some idea? It seems not!

Brain studies show that boys aged 14 to 17 experience a brain growth surge. If they are not given the ‘big picture’ here of being connected to the Universe beyond their own small personal ego based reference point, they lose neurones and become cynical, frustrated, angry, aggressive, violent and into loud sounds and aggressive music. Does this sound familiar?

I went to a Catholic school in the 1950s and early 60s and for all its faults, it did present the ‘big picture’ albeit in very religious terms. They had to build extensions on seminaries and I finished high school in such an establishment. Now all the buildings have been bulldozed for a housing estate as there are not enough seminarians! Ask any volunteer organisation and the same story is forthcoming. We have not taught the young to be of service to others and step beyond the ‘me’ fixation.

There is nothing in the schoolroom and very little if any at home to ‘give teenagers the big picture’ beyond their ego, ‘I am at the centre of the Universe’, attitude. Indeed we see so much evidence of the entitled and self centred attitude in events like the recent USA elections and every day affairs here in Australia that it is embarrassing. But it is not the fault of our young people! Rather the blame lies squarely with us elders (over 25 to 35) in our community.

We think that we are a progressive enlightened generation and yet look at the slaughter of women and the toll in suicide and substance abuse. The most primitive tribes did better than this with Rites of Passage. Obviously, these were far from perfect but at least they were an attempt in the right direction and we with our social sciences have not even begun!

In most Rites of Passage for 14 to 21 year olds, youth learned how to handle growing up. In brief summary, the key lessons seemed to be:

  • Young people need boundaries to feel secure. These can be negotiable within the limitations of the law and safety. But the none negotiables need to be treated with consequences that are immediate, hard, fair, and public. Our justice system does not deliver this and yet this is the only communication ego centred people understand.
  • We are part of a big picture beyond the false ego centred self. Just look at the starry sky at night. This can make us feel small and insignificant especially if we just treat it like a head trip – we need to observe more deeply with our hearts and our guts. In this space we can reflect on the fact that all matter is made up of atoms and molecules that operate like the solar systems (sun and planets) and galaxies (groups of solar systems). We are matter, made up in this way and so what we are looking at is like a huge blow up photograph of each of us! As we are made up from the blue print of atoms and molecules as seen in front of us, so is the breeze that caresses our faces, so is the tree nearby, so are the animals we can hear – in fact, everything comes from this blue print – we are one big family – and we all belong to it! We are 98% the same as all matter in terms of oxygen and carbon etc. and in one year we exchange 98% of our body with that which is around us. We exchange our physical being with Nature all the time in our breathing, eating, sweating etc! Between atomic particles; quantum physics teaches that there is information and energy. Our essence is infinite knowledge and energy with the free will to join in the creation of the Universe. We need to let this infinite knowledge and energy, our true selves, drive our present and future and so keep the self image in the false self and ego out of it. This is far more exciting and challenging than any ego game!
  • Pain not transformed becomes pain transmitted. I see no teaching on transforming pain in our society. When we taught this on our courses, teenagers and adults came alive! All the pain of neglect and abuse (and this was not restricted to any one strata in the socio economic scale) was converted from a toxic state to compost  – it is what you do with manure!
  • Power without principles is destructive.  On our courses we taught courage (from the Latin ‘cor agere’ meaning ‘to come from the heart’ and thus be life centred and life giving to the point of giving your life) and honour (respect for self, others, and the environment) to become a gentle man or gentle woman (‘gentle’ is old English for ennobling or making things better) and thus to live a life of service.
  • We need real life heroes not dysfunctional celebrities as role models and we need to introduce these. As a boy in the wake of WWII I was given many real heroes and none were ‘super man’.
  • Teenagers need to rebel (appropriately with respect) and they need to find their authenticity.  Teenagers are failing in both areas badly in this age of materialism and no discipline or respect for self and others. We must teach teenagers how to find authenticity. Sadly, many teachers and welfare workers have not found authenticity either!

Our most violent clients were always the ones in most pain. Punishing them without the other aspects listed above just pushed them further into pain and then into their ego based behaviour to ‘defend themselves’. Males are particularly good at defending their ego game in their head and were quick to present themselves as victims. A long talk took the facilitator straight into their ego trap and I have seen so many counsellors fall into this. Males need to be approached through their hearts and guts rather than lots of words. Training for transformation to the higher self needs to be experiential, hard, dirty and real in an atmosphere of mateship!

To really do something positive about domestic violence and the rest of it, we need to get real in training boys to become gentlemen. Fiddling with the law or band aid courses etc. simply will not work!

Language Can Mean so Much

When I read some (rather too many!) comments on social media, I am amazed that this is the twenty first century. The foul language, poor punctuation, appalling spelling (despite spell check!), lack of grammar, and the paucity of any logical argument is an insult to any thinking person. Instead of good English, respect, and sound arguments, we have a lot of abuse and emotive nonsense. The scary thing is that we humans are often moved more by emotion than logic.

This worries me as never before have we been able to communicate on such a vast scale and with such ease. This has had its good side as it has shown our media as anything but a source of truth or real news and so alternative sources are a real gift. However, there is, as always, a dark side!

I taught my sons as they grew up that they could always gauge the power in, and worth of, something by the amount of abuse it goes through as seen in sex, religion, politics, money etc. I used to say that it does not mean that these things are evil or bad; just that they are very powerful and people abusing them can perpetrate much evil (damage to people and the Earth).

When we look back at communications over the thousands of years of history, we can see concepts and language of a very high standard and we can also see some abuse of the written word. However, if we approach language without a knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, context, and culture of the writer; we can get into all sorts of bother and sometimes this leads to death and destruction especially if it links into a faith or belief system that rules emotion rather than truth.

As a simple example, I turn to a very ancient piece of literature found in the writings of a number of cultures and I refer to the story of Adam and Eve. Now, I am not about to embark on a religious treatise here but to make a literary point. The story was written down in the time of Moses 3,500 years ago. While writing like that of Egyptian hieroglyphs (characters for whole words) had existed for some time, the Hebrews in Moses’ time were the first to invent the alphabet concept which changed the standard of literature hugely by enriching words beyond the restrictions of hieroglyphs. Their letters, words, and imagery were often packed with meaning. And so ancient stories from the Hebrew past were written in the same way that we do today though their style was very different.

Moses had the story of Adam and Eve from the time of Abraham 500 years before and so it had been handed down in an oral tradition. Abraham got the story, among others, four millennia ago from a man called Melchisedek (melech is Hebrew for king and tsadiq means righteous) who lived in Salem (current Jerusalem). So we can deduce from the language that a king and priest gave Abraham the stories that we read in Genesis which are clearly from a past stretching back beyond our reckoning. We can also look at the Hebrew way of presenting truth with words and imagery thus capturing the attention of both the logical and verbal mind and, simultaneously, the none verbal sub and unconscious mind – pretty clever for 4,000 years ago and more!

To illustrate my point, let me look at two words; the names Adam and Eve. ‘Adam’ comes from the Hebrew אֲדָמָה ‘adamah’ meaning ‘earth’. ‘Eve’ comes from the Hebrew name חַוָּה (Chawwah), which was derived from the Hebrew word חוה (chawah) ‘to breathe’ or the related word חיה (chayah) ‘to live’.The ‘ch’ is pronounced as a guttural ‘h’ so this could be spelled ‘Hava’ which we know as Eve.

So here we have a view from over 4,000 years ago where the man or masculine is portrayed as earth with its huge potential to deliver life. On the other hand, we have woman or the feminine portrayed as the breath of life which allows the potential in the earth to actually live and grow. Just pause and think about that contemplatively for a moment – only two words packed with meaning! Personally, I find this profound and beautiful and so far ahead of many modern ways of looking at gender etc.

This fits our modern word, ‘human being’ where the first part comes from the Latin ‘humus’ meaning ‘earth’ and ‘being’ meaning life. However, we miss the masculine and feminine in union concepts.

Sadly, taking the Adam and Eve story literally where Eve disobeys God and takes the forbidden fruit has been the excuse to subjugate women ever since which, frankly, I believe misses the point. Male and female are complementary and make, as the Adam and Eve story says, one flesh. Another culture presents this as ‘yin and yang’.

In Greek, ‘symbolos’ means to move towards oneness while ‘diabolos’ means to divide in two and from this we get our word ‘diabolic’. The Adam and Eve story begins with ‘symbolos’ and one of Jesus’ prayers was ‘let them be one as you and I are one that they may know it was you who sent me’. Symbolos not diabolos. What is clear from observing Nature is that ‘symbolos’ does not mean uniformity but does mean unity in diversity and balance.

I find it interesting too that in these ancient writings, the first time God is supposed to have given a name, it is a feminine one in ‘El Shadai’. There are a number of meanings but mainly it refers to nourishing and blessings and one translation is ‘god with breasts’. Giving this name to a patriarchal society of Abraham 4,000 years ago has a lovely twist to it! Of course, we have translated it as ‘God Almighty’ which we blokes can understand! Then we paint him as an angry old white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud condemning rather than nourishing human beings.

Women, according to the story, are as much made in God’s image as men are and so there is a feminine aspect in the Divine – somewhere. However, in interpretations of all of this, the feminie face of God is nowhere to be found! The process of ‘diabolos’ begins in the name of religion!

What this tells me is that there is some profound wisdom in human literature going back millennia. However, there is also abuse of this as shown in the subjugation of women and the current put down of men – the ‘diabolos’ process slips in too easily.

What we do not need is foul language and insulting illiterate utterings clouding all of this and pushing a ‘diabolos’ (divisive) agenda. Respectful, logical, and objective use of language is the key and the English language is so well suited to do this.

Evolution means growing and improving rather than going backwards. Let us grow towards ‘symbolos’ (unity in diversity) where we become whole as one (genders, races, the land, and all of Nature) – the real meaning of ‘holy’!

Who or What is the Enemy?

In viewing social media and the media generally, I see some disturbing patterns. I say ‘disturbing’ because I see so much fear instead of the true blue Aussie Anzac spirit of courage respect and mateship. As we approach Australia Day, I wish to review what I see because fear is the root of all evil and totally against what it means to be Australian in the Anzac spirit.

When I was an Australian soldier, I was taught, among other things, to know my enemy and never to underestimate him. This is useful beyond the battlefield.

So who or what is the enemy of Australia?

Some would point at our politicians and, if the North Vietnamese General Giap, was to be believed, that view is a bit too close to the truth; he called our politicians and our media his allies giving him victory in South Vietnam. However, the truth is that we voted our politicians into power in the first place and so the pointed finger starts to lose its potency and the three pointing back at us assumes more power though we desperately try to dodge this.

Some will point to Islam. Here we have a complicated problem. There is a group who have decided to make a claim for world domination by ‘the Caliphate’ through terrorism and cultural infiltration. The plan is on record and the results are regularly in the news and yet our politicians do little if anything about it. Meanwhile a bit of hysteria is taking hold where any Muslim is reviled and a cute picture on a billboard of two girls celebrating Australia day wearing hijabs has to be taken down. Really? This is as silly as accusations of racism levelled at those who genuinely want to discuss and then do something about this threat to our land.

I believe that the push for a worldwide Caliphate is one of the biggest external threats that we have and we are handling it appallingly.

I am a migrant and I became an Australian citizen. To do this, I had to swear to obey Australian law and, if called on to do so, to defend this land. Clearly, I have had no problem with this but other migrants do stating they want a different culture or law and will not defend this land. Meanwhile they make claims on our welfare system while making no contribution to the nation. Migrants in breach of their citizen oath should lose their citizenship and or visa and be deported. Freedom does not come freely as I know being a war veteran. However, our politicians and law enforcement pay no heed and so the oath of citizenship etc become meaningless.

However, the migrants who fail to uphold our law are not alone. There are citizens who were born here who kill more Australians than any terrorist in domestic violence and in facilitating the despair that leads to record rates of suicide not least among war veterans.

And then we also have great numbers of very un Australian ‘bludgers’ born in this land who use and abuse the welfare system putting it at risk for the genuinely disadvantaged. Some even abuse the flag and all Australia stands for while reaching out for their ‘right’ in welfare cheques which they call ‘pay’. These people refuse to work and make it more viable to import labour!

You cannot point fingers at Islamists in our country if all this is tolerated. Meanwhile our leaders in Canberra are part of this problem giving an example of rorting tax payers money and allowing others to do so.

There is so much more to being and Australian than a BBQ with lamb chops and a cold beer, as nice as those things are. Perhaps we should relate to the Anzacs and eat bully beef and hard biscuit swallowed with warm rancid water!

On most Anzac memorials, the words ‘courage’ and or ‘sacrifice’ are prominent. The men and women who demonstrated these values came from the most rural of western societies in the World; we are now the most urbanised. We are out of touch with our land, the ‘sounds of silence’ in the bush (for reflection and perspective), and the need to put your mate first and yourself second. The ‘me’ society has no idea what I am talking about but instead will look for problems outside of themselves to justify their victim status. ‘Victims’ are people of fear rather than courage and our country is full of them with the legal profession making a fortune proving victimhood! The Anzacs were never in a victim state of mind even when, by any normal standards, they were entitled to take on this mantle. Instead, they were victors and role models for modern Aussies.

Before we look at terrorists et al, we need to take a close look at ourselves or else what happened in Germany in the 1930s could happen here. There one group was made the scapegoat to allow a nation to play victim and not to look at themselves and do something about their own shortcomings. This led to a string of appalling decisions and atrocities. This can happen here particularly with a citizenry believing itself to be in the victim state. Instead, if we wish to prevent the Caliphate in Australia, we have a lot of work to do on ourselves first. Sentimentality, or bigotry, or heads in the sand, or political correctness will not cut it.

Culture and behaviour change starts with values and our traditional values are the best in the World. Our education facilities and our work places need to be imbued Anzac values while we elect leaders who will take citizenship responsibilities seriously for both themselves and those they serve.

At the moment, the national threat to Australia is ourselves and this needs to change urgently!

The Central Issue of Compassion

I was watching a short video by George Lucas this morning where he described the issue of the Dark Side and the Light Side in Star Wars as being based on the issues of selfishness on the one hand and compassion on the other. He showed how happiness was to be found in the latter and not in the former.

I smiled as Lucas was really summarising his Jewish heritage rather beautifully. The Christian message of love came from the Hebrew tradition of the importance of compassion and yet Christian and non Christian alike seem to have little or, at best, a shallow understanding of this great concept.

Our English word ‘compassion’ comes from two Latin (Roman) words meaning ‘to suffer with’ which is pretty good as far as it goes. On my ‘street kid’ camps, I went into the bush with the intent to suffer with in listening to their pain and empathising with their home lives (or lack thereof) etc. But then what?

Being a Christian, I am fascinated by the Jewishness of Jesus. His culture and ways of thinking and teaching were really quite different to our Anglo Saxon 21st Century ways. One small insight is in this word ‘compassion’.

In Hebrew, the word for compassion is ‘rahamim’ and remember that this concept was the foundation of all the teachings on loving others. The Hebrew word for womb is ‘rehem’ and the plural form of this word is ‘rahamim’. The Jews, like Lucas with his Star Wars, express truths in pictures and stories. The notion of ‘wombs’ goes so much further than ‘suffer with’. Think about that in your heart!

This speaks of a non ego based mother approach. It speaks of bringing about and then nurturing life in another. It speaks of pain, dirty nappies (and or equivalent), sleepless nights, hugs, and unconditional love to the point of indescribable joy. This, of course, is a process from conception to pregnancy to childhood to adulthood and beyond. And there is quite a bit of ‘to suffer with’ in all of this but so much more. This about true relationships.

Last night I shared a drink with my 43 year old son and spoke of his children and how one aged nearly 5 had asked him ‘how do I make friends?’. What a fabulous question! Our discussion totally revolved around, and was centred on, ‘rahamim’ – a good space for two Aussie men!

It Is Not The Critic Who Counts

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt (1858 –1919) was the President of the USA from 1901 to 1909. The youngest man to be given this role, he is cited as being one of the greatest presidents to occupy the White House. I must say, he has fascinated me.

Roosevelt wrestled with ill health and tragedy but always fought back believing in the health giving properties of the great outdoors. He was an historian, famous soldier and war hero, a cowboy (in the literal sense), a biographer, a statesman, a hunter, a naturalist, and an orator. His prodigious literary output includes twenty-six books, over a thousand magazine articles, thousands of speeches and letters. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering peace between Russia and Japan. In 1919, at the age of sixty, he died in his sleep.

The highlight of this time, in my opinion, was when his staff invited my grandmother to speak at a lunch to an almost all male audience. Gerda Sebbelov was a young Danish woman in the first decade of 1900. She was a suffragette and had been a teacher with Eskimos in Greenland until one of her pupils was eaten by a polar bear. She then moved to the USA where she got a job to photograph Red Indian lifestyle before it disappeared. To do this she went alone in a covered wagon to Red Indian territory! She gave a speech on Eskimos while dressed in their full ceremonial. A quiet Yorkshire man in the back of the room decided to marry her and so she became, in time my grandmother. Like Teddy, she was bigger than life as an adventurer with stories of warriors and hunters from Vikings to Eskimos to American Indians. She was adopted by an Indian Chief and only left because the bride price was getting to the point where it would not be refused. This last offer she could recite in detail from white buffalo hide to horses to beads and then she told me that this modern stuff about ‘self esteem’ was a load of nonsense as she knew exactly what she was worth!

When, as a boy, I was worried by a big scar on my leg, she taught me that Indian warriors were proud of their scars as it proved that they had been active on the hunt and war parties and so were not armchair experts on life but they were the real thing. She always encouraged me to overcome fear, to be adventurous, to risk, and to be involved with life as well as literature and art.

Roosevelt was very similar when he said: “It is not the critic who counts. … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

In the wake of recent elections and other events, I see and read about far too many critics who have never risked life, limb, reputation, getting hurt and dirty, or anything but feel secure in criticizing everything. I just wish they would shut up and get a life!

Here is to being out there as one of those ‘in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly’.

What were the Three Wise Men About?

Ancient writing is so rich at times with story and symbolism that say so much more than a string of words. Sadly, since the invention of the printing machine 500 years ago, we Westerners have become obsessed with strings of words and have become quite illiterate of the right brain material.

At Christmas time, for example, we have a very short story or vignette in a wider tapestry about three wise men or three kings. One gets the feeling that these men are important to the theme of the tale but what was the deeper import if any?

While talking about a Bible story, I am not expecting that my reader will be Christian but rather that it is interesting to unravel a little of what the story teller was trying to say pictorially or symbolically as well as in words.

The import of this came to me when I was sitting with forty Grade 9 boys in the bush who came from a Christian school but had some behavioural problems (show me a 14 year old that does not!). They were to spend 24 hours with me to do some man to man and spiritual reflection for 24 hours. The time frame was ridiculous but all that the school could give.

After a night of camping, I called the boys to a bora ring style of space and asked them to respect it by the removal of shoes and being quiet unless asked to speak.

In Aboriginal style, I planned to smoke the bora ring to bring the sacred into our awareness but given the Christian origin of the group, I decided to use frankincense and myrrh to give that smoke rather than gum leaves.

And so I asked the question ‘what did Jesus get for his birthday from the three wise men?’ There was a deadly silence and then one said ‘Frankenstein’. Clearly nine years of exposure to Christianity and the Bible were paying off!

Then, after the camp, some parents on hearing about the use of incense were incensed as they thought that their boys were exposed to Papism.

Sometimes, I ache for some wise men to permeate our society!

The facts are that the event is not something that belongs only to the Roman Catholics but the story and the use of gold, frankincense and myrrh are there to underline some important points or aspects in the story. However, in our preoccupation with the literal and our illiteracy of the symbolic, we miss the point.

Who or What were the Three Wise Men?

It is not important whether or not the three wise men really existed but rather what they represented – what were the story tellers brush strokes saying here?

To start with, how are they introduced? Known as kings and Magi, their titles make them important characters in the tale. ‘Magi’ is probably the most useful title though one we do not understand any more.

According to Herodotus (the oldest Greek historian, and for this reason usually styled the ‘Father of History’, was born in Halicarnassus, in Caria, in what is now Turkey in 484 B.C), the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes. They organized Persian society after the fall of Assyria and Babylon. They were Zoroastrian astrologer-priests.

Founded by the Persian (Iranian today) prophet and reformer Zoroaster in the 6th century BC, Zoroastrianism contains both monotheistic and dualistic features. Its concepts of one God, judgment, heaven and hell likely influenced the major Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

During the Classical era (555 BC – 300 AD), some Magi migrated westward, settling in Greece, and then Italy.

The Book of Jeremiah (39:3, 39:13) gives a title rab mag ‘chief magus’ to the head of the Magi. It is also believed by Christians that the Jewish prophet Daniel was ‘rab mag’ and entrusted a Messianic vision (to be announced in due time by a ‘star’) to a secret sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfilment (Daniel 4:9; 5: 11).

Thus, Magus (plural Magi, from Latin, from Old Persian magu; Old English: Mage) was a Zoroastrian astrologer-priest from ancient Persia. The best known Magi are the ‘Wise Men from the East’ in the Bible.

In English, the term may refer to a shaman, sorcerer, or wizard; it is the origin of the English words magic and magician.

And so, the scene is set in the nativity story by some Zoroastrian astrologer-priests from ancient Persia having an authority recognised in that time and in that culture and fulfilling ancient prophesies and wisdom.

Gift of Gold.

The gift of gold was considered worthy of a king. While gold can be a gift for anyone, gold was a gift especially for kings and so the story is emphasising that the new born is recognised as a king by Eastern wisdom authority.

Gift of Frankincense.

Frankincense and myrrh come from tree resins. Frankincense was once greatly valued throughout the Middle East, from Rome to India. It was very expensive and a gift having a wonderful fragrance. It was used for a variety of purposes such as incense (Ex. 30:34), medical treatment, and perfume (Song of Solomon 3:6; 4:14). We discover from the Bible that frankincense was used in worship. Frankincense speaks of the worship of God. The Magi worshipped the new born and so signified that he was God by act and gift. Thus the story teller is underpinning his belief and pronouncement of the divinity of Jesus in his story. In the early church, pure frankincense was placed on the loaves of bread used in communion to symbolize the purity and fragrance of Christ, the true bread of God and so continued the Magi statement.

Gift of Myrrh.

Myrrh was less expensive than frankincense, but was still highly valued. It is first mentioned in the Bible in Gen. 37:25, where it was being carried by camels on a caravan. Myrrh was used for a variety of purposes, such as: a perfume (Song of Solomon 3:6; 4:14), an anaesthetic, burial embalming (John 19:39), as an ingredient in anointing oil, and to deodorize clothes. According to Esther 2:12, it was also a cosmetic used by women. John 19:39 records that myrrh was used in Jesus’ burial. In the New Testament, myrrh is primarily associated with death. Thus the story teller is underpinning that the death of this child will be of some great import.


Since gold, frankincense and myrrh were highly prized by kings and emperors, these magi gave Jesus three very expensive gifts. They were thus men of importance and their act emphasised the status of the newborn child according to the story teller.

In sum, the story teller wants us to read that gold says he was born a king; frankincense speaks of the fragrance and divinity of his life; and myrrh speaks of his death.

It does not matter whether or not the reader believes the story. What is important for the reader to appreciate and enjoy the story is to understand the language of the teller beyond his words.

It is ridiculous to consign any of this to a particular group or religion – if one wants to read this story in context, one needs to understand what the ‘brush strokes’ are about.

How rich is the old and Jewish form of storytelling!

Have a profoundly great Christmas!

Christmas Spirit and Who is Santa?

In November and even October, the shops begin to push the whole Christmas thing onto us.  The commercialisation of Christmas has been going on for over a century but it is getting worse in an age that really does not care what the day is all about.

Last year, in the middle of November, I saw Santa Clause in a Department store assisting customers find things to buy.  This is an image that is perpetrated everywhere but it came from USA in a Coca Cola advertisement and has very little to do with the real thing.

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century on the southern coast of Turkey in what was then Greek territory. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop (a word from the Greek for shepherd) while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.  In short, he was a true shepherd of his flock (people) and a real Christian.

Bishops wore (and sometimes still wear) red and so we have the beginning of the ‘Santa suit’ though Coca Cola replaced the Bishop’s mitre with the pixie hat his image is now given.  However, in many European cultures Santa Clause or Saint Nicholas is still represented in Bishop’s vestments.  While a thin man, Nicholas is represented as fat and jovial which tells us that symbolically we are being told that he was a complete and well rounded human being who was full of joy – no wonder that he was so attractive!  To this day, Nicholas remains a highly favoured name in Greek culture.

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD (from which we got the Nicene Creed still in use today). He died on 6 December in 343 AD in his home town and was buried in his cathedral church. He was soon recognised by both Eastern and Western Churches as a saint. The anniversary of his death became Saint Nicholas Day.

Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of Saint Nicholas’ life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands a dowry and the amount dictated the quality of husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented with oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. For this story and many others Saint Nicholas is remembered as a gift-giver.

Stories of his generosity and compassion spread around the world especially in the Middle Ages and many miracles were accorded to him. Nicholas became so widely revered that thousands of churches were named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England.

Through the centuries Saint Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Catholics and Orthodox and honoured by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, Saint Nicholas continues to be a model for the joyful and compassionate life.

Widely celebrated in Europe, Saint Nicholas’ feast day, 6th December, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor. The 6th of December is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. For example, in the Netherlands Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint’s horse, hoping Saint Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. Simple gift-giving in early December helps preserve a Christmas Day for a focus on the Christ Child.

Celebrating the true Saint Nicholas has so much more meaning as it focuses on the dignity of every human, the need to be compassionate and caring, to lift the poor and those in despair to a meaningful life, to be humble but generous, and to share joy.

Do not let anybody insist on a thin Santa who is not allowed to say ‘Ho Ho’ – it is bad enough that he has to wear a pixie hat and deny his priestly origins where he taught by word and example the ideals of peace, joy, and love.

Whatever our belief systems or cultures, Saint Nicholas is a true inspiration and so belongs to all of us – do not let the commercial world kidnap him!

On 6th December, lift a glass to the man who really gave us the spirit of Christmas.

Second Sunday of Advent – The Iconic Value of the Christmas Tree

The Christmas Season can be a strange beast with political correctness and other issues surfacing in odd ways and in odd moments. Much anti traditional comment seems to come from ignorance more than anything else. Please do not miss understand me; tradition can and should be critically examined. For example, the traditional hot British lunch on Christmas Day in Queensland has given way to a Christmas Eve dinner in the cool in my household in the manner of my Danish relatives.

However, the other day, I went into a public space and saw a Christmas tree made up with dead branches and sporting some tired baubles. What a nonsense!

My atheist Grandmother was the one who introduced me to Christmas during the long cold bleak winters in Denmark when I was very young.  She pointed out that during long dark winters (the days were very very short and the nights very very long and cold over there) people for over several thousand years have paused in the midst of darkness and cold to celebrate light, life, love and togetherness. To do this, they cut down the only green living object outside, a fir tree, set it in the middle of the room, adorned it with candles for light and small colourful baskets of tasty sweets etc.. They then celebrated love by joining hands in a circle and dancing around the tree while singing old songs and hymns. I used to love it – it really spoke to my child mind and now in my sixties it still does – a great gift from my Grandmother! Christian missionaries in Viking times saw this and could see what Jesus Christ stood for in the symbol of the Christmas tree and so it is now central to a Christian Christmas. People who simply want to categorise this as Pagan or something else put things in boxes which they fail to unpack!

A dead tree stuck in a corner sporting tired baubles says nothing about celebrating light, life, love and togetherness.

I know that in Australia we are in the height of summer and instead of cold and snow, we have dryness, brown grass, and heat – we too can celebrate the need to look at the positives of light, life, love and togetherness through an evergreen or a gumtree branch covered in leaves set among loving family and friends looking at party lights and meaningful decorations.

This celebration of light, life, love and togetherness belongs to all humans irrespective of creed or race or place.

All hail to the Christmas tree!

First Sunday in Advent – Why say “Merry Christmas”.

A number of people this Christmas Season have addressed me using the phrase “Happy Holiday”. By the way, the reason for two months off in summer was to collect the harvest in pre Industrial Eropean times – it was hard work not ‘happy holiday’ – but we miss the point as we so often do these days!

I then think to myself ‘what is this person really saying in “happy holiday”‘– are we denying the special theme of this season – we have plenty of holidays that are totally unconnected with Christmas – so are we diminishing the season and its meaning?’

I believe in the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ because it has great meaning and it has been used for centuries. It has ‘gravitas’, dignity, and tradition of the right sort.

Not only that, but it can belong to everyone – not just believing Christians.

As I see it, there are three parts in the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’:

  • The word ‘merry’ denotes full of cheerfulness, joyousness in disposition or spirit, and laughingly happy. This is the ‘ho ho’ we get from ‘Santa’. Joy and celebration of joy is at the centre of this festival or season. Given our statistics of despair in Australia, this is a great start!
  • ‘Christ ‘comes from the Greek ‘Christos’ meaning ‘the anointed one’. This was the Greek translation for the Hebrew ‘Messiah’. Thus it is a title not a name. – Jesus was given the title ‘Christ’ as people then and now believed that he was what Saint John named as the ‘Word’ through whom all things came into being. Distilling all this means that ‘Christos’ is the essence of being in all things. And so the essence of life and living is what we have in that first syllable in ‘Christmas’. You do not have to be a Christian or a theist to appreciate the concept of being inherent in this ancient Greek word.
  • The term ‘mas’ in ‘Christmas’ comes from the slang term ‘Mass’ which has evolved from the Latin ‘Missa’ to the official word often replacing the original Greek ‘Eucharist’ meaning thanksgiving. The thanksgiving was for communion of bread and wine remembering the Christos. In reading some Scottish history I discovered that in Gaelic the words to love and forgive were ‘Gb ceile’ or evened off to ‘Gra eiile’.  Hence the Roman Briton King Arthur in the fifth century had knights who set off for the ‘Holy Grail’.  Some movies see this as the cup of the Last Supper (the Mass or Eucharist) but perhaps it was what that cup represented – the pursuit of love and forgiveness. Here it is again – Love, forgiveness, togetherness, and joy!

So when people want to ban the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ they are coming from ignorance – it is relevant to all creeds and races – again!

Many say that they do not believe in God and then they sometimes lead lives of selfless love which really means that they do not believe in the god of some denominations and religions but they know that love is at the centre of meaning of the Universe and of being. And then there are believers who practice no love, life givingness or forgiveness and then miss the point of it all.

It is the essence of being fully and truly alive with joy, love, and forgiveness that we celebrate in this Festive Season.

Merry Christmas!

A Gentleman's journey…