Building Walls or Building Love??!!

I find myself caught between rules and structures and freedom.  Sometimes it is me who is pushing the ‘rules,’ whether they be traditions, expectations, ‘traditional values’ or the rules, regulations or laws of a society, an organisation or a group.  Sometimes these rules are unwritten, expected and understood implicitly – at least by the long-term members.  Sometimes I am the one who is pushing up against expectations and the expected rules of engagement, whether at a national level or through organisations and groups in which I am part.

I confess that I am continually frustrated the expectation that ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ or ‘that’s just the way it is,’ or ‘that’s what the rules say.’  I am frustrated by myself when I use this rhetoric on others and realise belatedly that I have not understood a person’s life and not acted within relationship but built boundaries and barriers, small and large.  I shared with a congregation last week as story of when I was a youth leader many years ago.  There were a group of street kids, young blokes who wandered the streets of our suburb, harassing shopkeepers and other people, sitting in the parks drinking – if they could get hold of something – and generally bored and lost.  They connected with a couple of us somewhat accidentally and decided the join the youth group – it was something to do and we’d accepted them.

They didn’t really know how to act or what expectations there might be in a youth group or even how to behave in a church building.  They were pretty wild and outrageous and created some very interesting and difficult moments.  They were the centre of much frustration and also important moments of learning and experience.  Amongst the many situations and experiences I had, there is one that stands as a reminder of how my own expectations (think rules, requirements, values…) are not always universally understood nor helpful.

We were in youth group and one of the leaders was trying to give a bit of a talk – I can’t remember the topic.  The groups was large and there was the usual distractions as people settled down for the 10 minutes or so.  One of the young blokes was a little off his tree and somewhat hyperactive.  He was laughing and making inane comments and acting out. I and others gently asked him to stop and ‘behave’.  He didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t.  After a bit I lost it and yelled at him, something about having respect or behaving properly not like an idiot…  I can’t remember but it was probably over the top.  It had the desired effect of shutting him up and allowing the youth group to get on with the talk.

After the words were out of my mouth, I somewhat regretted it.  This guy was one of the street kids we’d built a rapport with but I didn’t really know him as well as others – he was a follower and just egged the leaders on.  I looked over and saw him with his head in his hands, sulking and not so much angry as hurt and shamed.  I didn’t feel very good at that point.

When the talk finished and all the kids moved off to the games or activity, whatever was next, I went up to the young bloke who hadn’t moved and apologised.  He didn’t look up or acknowledge me – just continued to sulk.  I laid it on and expressed my regret for having done the wrong thing and was sorry.  Slowly he moved out of his sulk and we began to talk.  Perhaps he was feeling vulnerable and just went with it.  He told me his story of how he lived in the constant threat of being beaten up by a stepfather who came home drunk, dragged him out of bed and beat him up – especially Friday and Saturday nights.  The stepfather would often hit this young bloke’s mum and he would try to stop it and get hit himself.  Sometimes, if nothing was happening or he was really tired, he and his dog slept in the garage out of the way.

As I listened to this and more, I recognised there was a lot of other stuff happening in the background of this young fellow’s life, stuff I had no clue about.  Whilst his behaviour was not helpful, nor really acceptable in the context of a youth group, in some ways he didn’t know much better, was not attuned to regular behaviours and expectations and had a lot gong on in his mind and being – far too much for a 15 year old.  I realised that rules and structures are important, but they are not an end in themselves.  Expecting this young bloke to sit quietly and act nicely in accordance with the ordinary expectations of a youth group was probably naïve to some degree but more-so not what he really needed. More than that, my frustration at his transgression of expectations and laws boiled over to actions that were not helpful and even harmful.  I learned that rules and structures are important and necessary and most of the young people were able to work within them.  There were occasions when individuals needed something else.  Their lives and their contexts demanded understanding and relationship.  This young man probably needed to be taken out and the deeper conversation had earlier.  He needed to be able to shed his tears, reveal his pain and receive compassionate understanding and care.  I doubt he really needed the youth group talk that night but we tried to fit everyone into the formula and then ‘punish’ them when they didn’t fit.

This week we continue reading through the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus (Matthew 5:21-37).  In an extraordinary passage Jesus breaks the law open and deepens the significance in order to engender relationship above duty or black and white regulation.  He cites murder in a typical formula he uses in these chapters – “You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit murder’ but I tell you…  He goes on to draw us more deeply into what a healthy relationship is about, saying that even holding anger and hatred towards another person is tantamount to ‘murder’.  In other words it isn’t just the act of physically murdering another person that is wrong, but the attitudes, intentions and feelings of hatred that we hold towards each other where the real, enduring damage to people and our relationships occurs.  Through our feelings of hatred and anger towards other people, we erect barriers and boundaries to inclusion, love and compassion.  We nurture conflict and tension and exclusion – and destroy community, unity and relationship. As the passage continues, Jesus raise various relational situations and draws us into an understanding that a break in respect, love and relationship through actions and attitudes is life-denying and lies at the heart of many problems we experience.  Love and relationship is the very heart of Jesus teaching and life.  When rules, regulations and expectations get in the way of relationship, we are invited to pursue relationship.

That’s what I learned with the young bloke in the youth group.  It was more important for me to nurture a relationship of compassion, love and understanding and help the young man to grow into the one he was created to be – not force him to be something else.

By geoffstevenson

Law – Inclusive Grace versus Exclusive Legalism?

I was driving along a road that I had understood would take me from one part of Sydney’s north-west to another area.  I had looked it up and all was good.  I found the road and was happily driving along – until I came a barrier, a fence that blocked my way.  The road, it seemed was incomplete.  A long section at one end and another long section at the other but the middle was incomplete.  I couldn’t find my way around and had to back track and find an alternative route.  I felt frustrated, angry, annoyed and would now be late for a meeting I needed to be at.  This barrier was ultimately just an annoyance and my frustration built upon incomplete maps and information.  Other barriers are not so simple nor fair.  They are not straightforward and are used to divide and separate people.

I am reading the very sobering autobiography of Aboriginal singer/songwriter, Archie Roach.  It is called ‘Tell me why.’  This phrase is a refrain throughout the story so far.  Tell me why all this happened to me and my family.  Please explain why government people came and took me, my brothers and sisters away from our parents, separated us and crushed the spirits of our parents.  Tell me why I was placed with an abusive family and experienced pain before receiving love and kindness from another.  Tell me why I don’t know who I am or where I belong; why people looked at me differently and called me racist names when I was young – and still do now I’m older.  Tell me why the police looked at me differently than they did white boys my age.  Tell me why.

There have been sad and awful barriers across the varied paths of Archie’s life in the story I’ve read so far.  It is heart-wenching and I feel the shame of our society who have treated Aboriginal people with such disdain and broken their spirits.  Much of Archie’s pain was borne on white laws that reached out and condemned people of colour as being lesser than white people.  Archie spent 7 months imprisoned though he was innocent – the fellow he was riding with was guilty but ran from the scene when police showed up.  Archie was asleep and had no clue what was happening.  He was hauled off to the Police station and charged without any legal representation.  He was black and different expectations applied.  The laws could be used however those in power wanted and they could be, and were, used against people of colour.

The law is used to define who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.  Laws and rules are applied to keep people in boxes and are often barriers to people, whether these be the laws of the land or the rules we apply, formally and informally, to groups and organisations and to our ordinary life.  Whether it is the rules of the game in the playground that often exclude specific people who we want don’t like, or the rules of establishments that exclude people they don’t like.  I once worked for a very prominent doctor who contributed much to the well-being of society but he was excluded from elite clubs because he was of a particular religious faith.  We have created and used rules and laws in the past (and often the present) to keep women from particular positions or the young or old.  Different levels of scrutiny are applied to people of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities and we create, in our own minds, rules of inclusion and exclusion.  The law is also used as a harsh tool to deal with people who exhibit social patterns of behaviour that are disturbing, as if we can beat poor behaviour out of people.  Perhaps it is thought that all people have an equal background and ‘act out’ purely due to personal choice?

There is no doubt, that so far in the story, Archie is acting out.  He is a young lost soul who doesn’t know his story, his family, his background.  He and his real family that he finally discovers are lost in a world that is confusing.  Most of the children can’t remember their parents and never saw them again.  They don’t know their clan and can’t connect with their ancestors, their people and they are lost.  But the law treats them as lepers who do not belong and looks with suspicion upon them.  There are barriers created through laws, rules and ideology that restrict Aboriginal people in ways their white cousins never have to contend with.

I have been reading this confronting story with the words of Jesus echoing in my mind – especially the words of the Sermon on the Mount and the passage for this week (Matthew 5:13-20).  In it Jesus speaks of law and of him not coming to abolish but fulfil law.  His mission is to help people to love more deeply and compassionately because that is the essence of what law is and does.  In the passage he speaks of Pharisees and Scribes, religious people who hold the law as sacred and study and live it with zeal and passion, so much so that they build fences around the law restricting and even excluding people.  Anyone who they sense transgresses the law or for whatever reason finds themselves on the other side of law, are excluded from participating in the life of the community, which is a religious community at its heart.

Jesus, in effect, urges that we do not reduce the law to a set of rules that define people and proper behaviour.  He never uses law to beat people over the head but understands that law is grounded in attitudes of love, compassion and justice, whether the 10 Commandments or the laws provided through the prophets or himself or Paul in the New Testament.  In the subsequent passages of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus radicalises the law from a set of definitive behaviours to a way of living and being before God and others.  The provides structures to ensure safety and inclusion of people into society, the proper sharing of resources and the maintenance of justice.  He has a typical formula: ‘You have heard it said…,  but I tell you…’  The first bit states laws the religious people articulate such as ‘Do not kill.’  Jesus takes this and goes deeper – ‘…but I tell you that if you harbour hatred then you have already committed murder in your heart.’  He moves us from final actions back into the attitudes and processes of thought that get us there.  If we harbour anger and hatred towards others, we will act violently towards them, whether that is physical, emotional, relational or spiritual.  Deal with your anger and let it go.  Learn to love people and respond to actions and attitudes that are harmful or hurtful.  Seek to restore or maintain an openness of relationship because this is the demand of love and the pattern of God.

I wonder how the lives of people like Archie Roach and many others may have been different had the laws and belief systems of people been different – loving, understanding, compassionate and gracious rather than judgemental and abusive?  I wonder what it means for us to give up our legalistic ways that exclude and define people and act with love, inclusion, compassion and gracious acceptance, helping people to become all they can be in God’s deep and wondrous grace?

By geoffstevenson

Hanging Upside-Down – The World Looks Better!

A comment by a person who has practiced yoga for some years, suggesting that the world looks so different when you stand on your head, reminded me of days gone by when we hung upside down from swing sets and watched the world go by.  People walking past seemed to glide by held in place by some strange force.  Trees grew downward and eating felt strange – drinking was impossible: brain and hands unable to function together.  Hanging upside down gives you a very different perspective on the world.

As I’ve sat in a variety of different contexts, with people whose lives are so very different from mine, who live in a very different place, life looks very different.  Priorities change for people in different places.  Sitting amidst a group of indigenous people and listening to their stories turned my perspective upside down and inside out.  Likewise, a group of refugees or people whose sexuality or gender or mental health… that differ from mine, offers a confusing and different perspective on life.  I remember having a conversation with a person who experienced schizophrenia and they spoke about how different the world was from their position.  His mind functioned differently, and he saw the same world in different, somewhat strange and complex ways.  A simple ball point pen with a button that loaded the tip, became a laser beam that threatened him.  His mind was able to ‘hyperlink’ from word and concept skipping through a conversation that began at one point and rapidly jumped through history and world events by a series of oddly connecting words.  ‘I saw a cartoon this morning – Donald Duck.  He is the president of USA – Trump. I won 500 last night at home trumping my brother.  He isn’t heavy to carry but this load of books is heavy. The library has a painter today.  Michelangelo painted the Church roof…’ S0 a typical conversation went and I found it hard to follow.  His world looked and felt so different.

It seems to me that I view the world a little differently from many people and find myself getting angry at public figures who appear on the evening news proclaiming their version of truth.  Rhetoric that ‘blesses’ the rich, powerful and famous and paves the way for their well-being over and against the poor and lowly really irks me.  The language of exclusion and rejection based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, status… makes me angry and very sad.  The language of violence that often leads to violent action engenders feelings of deep despair and concern because this is the way of our world.  When I look into myself and identify feelings of fear, a need to secure everything ‘I own’ or sure up life and protect it from the invisible ‘enemy,’ I shake my head and ask what is happening.  As I listen to the privileged and entitled speak so freely about wealth and affluence I feel anxious and dismayed because I know the other side of society and how hard it is for people to make ends meet, no matter how hard they work or try.

Sometimes I feel like I am hanging upside down and the world seems to be functioning against all sanity and rational, compassionate purpose.  The world is spinning the wrong way – or maybe it is me?  But then, why so much anxiety and sadness?  Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and author (‘The Road Less Travelled’ and other well-known books) suggests that there is a healthiness in some forms of depression, that we need to hear and listen to.  There are people who feel the deep pain and crisis of the world, who live with compassion and are sensitive souls – they feel anxiety and stress at the profound implications of what is happening around them.  They are like the canaries in the coal mine, warning of danger – if only we will listen.

So, as I wonder about myself and the world, as I metaphorically hang upside down wondering what is going on and what is real and true and what is not, I listen to words that rattle down through the ages of time and space and challenge me.  They are words from Jesus in Matthew’s story – Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes.  These 8 (or 9, depending on how you number them) statements are about blessing.  The blessed, says Jesus, are those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the humble, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  The next is either an extension of number 8 or a ninth –‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

These words feel like I am really hanging upside down and inside out looking at a very different world.  Blessed are those who are poor in spirit (in Luke it is the poor!) and humble and merciful and peacemakers…  These people aren’t the ones who are noted and we don’t typically dream of growing up to be like them.  There was a bloke in Parramatta years ago.  He was homeless and lived in the men’s hostel.  He was gentle and humble, lived with schizophrenia and tried to help anyone he could – especially others who were ‘outcasts’ and on the streets.  I don’t remember anyone trying to emulate him nor did he ever receive rewards or recognition, and no-one thought him blessed or honoured.  But…

But I remember him and his name all these years later – and I can’t remember politicians (perhaps 1?) or any of the business leaders and key figures of the City, but I know Jim Carnegie’s name and hold something of his memory.  As I think, I recognise that there are many people who have transcended their station in life, the struggle of their lowly, insignificant place and spoken into a world that disdains them.  They have fought for truth and freedom, life and hope for themselves, family or minority groups threatened and rejected.  They have fought, not with power and might, weapons and so on, but with a passion and love that is vulnerable and humble.  Greta Thunberg has no power, no might, nor has Malala Yousafzai, another young woman (girl really) who stood strong against a world that rejected her and she spoke out for justice, experienced rejection and violence but her passion for justice, her ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ was real.  Greta is a teenager who can see the future and is afraid of what her parent’s generation and older are allowing to happen to the world – she speaks from the purity of heart and sees beyond what is, disbelieving the accepted rhetoric of ignorant leaders.

Jesus set out a set of values that indicated where true honour is found and where true blessing is realised.  He wasn’t so much pointing to what people should do (although that is implied) but to where blessing existed in the real lives of people.  Jesus honoured those the world despised or rejected or looked upon with suspicion or tried to silence and invited all of us into this upside down, wonderfully rich place of life together.  It is found in a community of people who believe in a different way and are willing to take the first tentative steps together.  In this place, God is very, very close; in this way of love!

By geoffstevenson

Light in our Darkness!

One morning this week Nico and I set out for the morning wander, closely followed for a bit by Susan and Nebo (until the variety of smells and warm weather slowed him).  I looked up and realised that for the first time in several weeks, the sun and sky were clear.  I couldn’t look at the sun, even in the early morning – it was too bright: brighter than it had been for weeks.  The sky was blue and clear and even the gentle clouds in the distance stood out clearly and brightly.  I recognised that for so many weeks the sky had been hazy, filled with smoke and everything a little darker.  Some days there were clouds and smoke and the combination made the day darker still.  This day, however, was bright and I found myself squinting through the brightness – it was almost uncomfortable.

We have lived through several weeks of bushfire smoke swallowing the day, darkening the skies and bringing a ‘darkness’ across the land as it has engulfed us in crisis and overwhelming our resources.  We have despaired at the stories, even as those caught in the midst of the catastrophic experiences have been enveloped in ominous darkness.  The darkness became almost ‘normal’ as we endured the unfolding and broadening chaos that engulfed Eastern and Southern Australia.  Story upon story, image upon image drew us into the deepening crisis that, though relieved somewhat through some rain, continues on.

Darkness is a very real metaphor for our days and nights of catastrophic bushfire crisis.  A friend described the apocalyptic experience of being caught in the midst of a community threatened and evacuated.  The days were dark, eerily and threateningly dark, as smoke thoroughly consumed everything.  The only light was the glow of the threatening fire-front and the gloomy glow of a hidden sun that barely broke through.  Darkness was physical and emotional as it clung to people and filled them with fear, confusion and impending dread.  Darkness consumed us all as we watched on helpless or for those who worked on the scenes, fighting flames or holding people in their despair.

In the midst of our darkness we yearned for light, hope, or something to break through with relief and deliverance.  We glimpsed ‘lights’ glowing through in the human spirit expressed in courage, sacrifice, generosity, community, sharing and communities supporting each other and demonstrating resilient determination.  We longed for the brighter lights of leadership to help us find a way forward, but our leaders were as confused and overwhelmed as the rest of us.  The shadow side of humanity deepened the despair as we realised that many of the fires were deliberately lit, as people looted and stole property of those evacuated from home and business, and in the greed of those who impersonated caring charities and stole donations from well-meaning people.

The metaphor of darkness is pervasive, and I feel its cold tentacles seeping into the recesses of human life and experience across our society.  There is the dark side of life that shatters our normality through grief with its long and dark shadow that overwhelms us.  The grief of loss, the shattering of our secure and comfortable lives in various ways that rocks our foundations and blocks out light and hope as we are forced to renegotiate who we are and how we live and be in a world that is suddenly so different.  There is darkness in poverty as people are caught in cycles that are desperate and run out of control.  The powers that be are often part of the problem, imposing restrictions and barriers to people trying to get out of life-denying oppression.  Illness, mental health issues, disability or life in minority groups brings obstacles that can darken the experience of human life and deny freedom and hope.

In two readings this week (Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23), we hear stories of hope, light and a courageous response to the powers and principalities of the world.  Isaiah claims that people living in darkness have seen a great light.  He speaks of one who comes and leads or rules with a different order, a different way, one that is grounded in hope, justice, peace and inclusion.  It is a Reign promised time and again and yearned for in every human heart.  It is a Light that penetrates through the darkness of human despair, of rampant injustice, and of hopeless desperation.  Matthew continues the story of Jesus following his temptations in the wilderness.  These temptations are essentially about conformity to the ways of those who are powerful, wealthy and create the story that is seductive but superficial, a story that draws people in and maintains the world as it is – dark.  It becomes easier to walk in the darkness, our eyes adjust to the dimness and even become comfortable with the way things are.  Sometimes it is just too hard to summon the energy to resist, even if we have the vision and desire.

Jesus proclaims that the Reign of God is here and calls us to turn around, reorient life and hope, desire and being towards this Light that shines.  I confess that this Light can be discomforting and hurt our eyes – and being.  It calls forth something new and uncertain from us.  It challenges me to choose a way of giving up in order to find life in a deeper, richer fullness.  This Reign doesn’t mince its words nor deceive through superficial and seductive words.  This is no snake-oil salesman but one who is desperately pointing the way to life – for those who have the courage, the wisdom and/or the desperation to follow.

Jesus invites some fishermen to come and follow this way.  Fishermen were near the bottom of the social order.  They were caught up in a system dominated by the Empire, the powers of Rome, who controlled the waters of the lake in Galilee – all the fish belonged to Rome and high taxes were imposed upon the fishermen.  This was their life, their way and it was hard and desperate, but they conformed to the world order because, well there was no choice!  Jesus’ invitation was to come and follow his way; to leave their fishing and discover a new way on the road.  This is both real and metaphorical – some leave normality of life and ‘go on the road’.  Many others will maintain their lives but understand who and what they live for and where their loyalties lie.  We will not be governed by economics and our own needs.  We will not be seduced by the rhetoric of desperate leaders or marketers who want us to ‘need’ (and purchase) their products.  Climate change/the environment, refugees, Aboriginal Australia, budget surpluses, caring for poor and marginalised, inclusive community that respects people, militarisation and many more are the central issues that define whether we follow the status quo that denies life to so many and holds to unjust and often violent structures, or follow a new and different way that ushers in peace, hope, love and life – for all!

Jesus’ invitation is to fish for people, which in the Biblical tradition is about exposing people to a new way, to bring into an uncomfortable ‘new world’ of Light that is challenging but hopeful and liberating.  I wonder what this means for us on Australia Day?  I wonder what it would mean for us to choose this radically different way for our nation?

By geoffstevenson

Come and See!

My inbox, my letter box and the spaces between sporting moments or documentary/ comedy/drama on television are filled with various forms of marketing and sales gimmicks all promising the world if I venture into their store or to their website and make purchases.  I will be happy, fulfilled and find a depth of meaning obviously missing from my life.  Other sales-type people highlight the shortcomings or that which is lacking from my life and promise the world through their ideologies, products or experiences.

I recently heard a Russel Morris version of his 1969 classic, ‘The Real Thing’.  It was written by Johnny Young and produced by Molly Meldrum and became an Australian rock Classic.  It is a strange, psychedelic song that uses a multiplicity of techniques, forms and vocal and instrumental contributions to create a unique and fascinating song.  It is also one that I have wrestled with at times: What does it mean?

The first verse says:

Come and see the real thing/Come and see the real thing/Come and see

Come and see the real thing/Come and see the real thing/Come and see

There’s a meaning there/But the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing
Come and see the real thing/Come and see the real thing/Come and see

I am the real, thing
Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow

Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, Oo-mow-ma-mow/Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow

What is this real thing?  To what does it point?  An article on ‘The Real Thing’ says: ‘Johnny Young later revealed the inspiration for the lyrics. “The song came from the thought that so many people were thrusting things in your face that were supposedly ‘the real thing’. They said that as long as you’re buying this or doing that, your life will be complete. Ultimately, the only real thing is yourself.”’

A young immigrant musician seems to be wrestling with the plethora of images and superficiality of messages that confronted him claiming to be real.  In another place it says he used the slogan for Coca-Cola, which claims to be the real thing.

So what is the real thing?  What is real – is it me or you or us?  Are my ideas, perspective, understanding of the world or life more real than yours or that of someone else?  Is our nation more truth-filled, right and engaged in reality than others around us or across the world?  Is the West and its system of capitalism and everything that goes with it (greed, materialism, acquisition, security, comfort, wealth…) more real than other systems in other parts of the world or through history?  Am I more real if I have this or that car, wear this or that type of clothes, live in a particular neighbourhood, have particular types and levels of education or career…?  Is there a path of truth that leads to that which is more, most or truly real?

In the song, Morris sings: Come and see…  It is an invitation to come and see that which is real.  But I‘m not sure where he is pointing, what it is that we are invited to ‘come and see’.  There are so many voices that tell me what is true and right and best and what will make me happy but are they real?  Who do I listen to and whose message do I heed?

How do we know that what we are hearing is real or whether the voices are peddling snake oil?  How do we know which amongst the complex melange of voices and ideas and thoughts is real and which is just more superficiality dressed up to look real?

I ponder these questions amidst the great issues that confront our nation and communities in this time: Asylum seekers; Indigenous Rights; Climate Change and the Environment (and especially how this relates to the bush fires); the Depression and suicide pandemic; the deepening levels of anxiety and stress; Sustainability of resources; the widening gap between wealthy and impoverished here and across the world…  I wonder what in the complex arguments, passionate rhetoric and defensive responses is real – where does the reality and truth lie?

One thing I have discovered is that often the medium of the message, the person who embodies the rhetoric, gives a sense of the authentic (or otherwise) to what they say.  Look into one’s life and if the message is reflected in their being, embodied and reflects something that is deep and contains values that are rich and strong, then perhaps the message has some level of trustworthiness.  Trouble is, the media of so many messages does not engender trust and confidence – especially when you look more deeply into their lives.  There are several world leaders, for example, who pontificate on various issues, but their lives are intrinsically superficial, or they are simply abusing power and privilege.  They use that power of position and the authority it gives to convince us of the rightness of their way.  Others use their ‘authority’ to engender fear and uncertainty and keep the proletariat desperate and focussed on common enemies thus maintaining their power.

In the story this week (John 1:29-42), John the Baptist points to Jesus, declaring him to be the One promised by God.  The next day he points to Jesus once more and two of John’s disciples follow after Jesus.  When he notices them, he asks what they are looking for.  They seem taken aback and ask where he is staying – perhaps they are keen to watch and listen to him more closely.  His response: ‘Come and see.’  It is an invitation to come and see for yourself.  Don’t trust John’s words or even what you hear from my mouth but look and see who I am and what I do.  ‘Come and see.’

The disciples do ‘come and see’.  They follow Jesus for a day before declaring that this is the one they’ve been looking.  This is the One who embodies deep truth, justice and hope.  In the life and being of this One, they discover ‘the real thing!’  So much so, they run off and bring friends and relatives claiming that they have found this real thing of God that they have all been hoping for, searching and yearning after.  ‘Come and see!’

I wonder what we are looking for and how we look for it?  I wonder how far we go in looking into that which promises us something – whether person, idea or object to buy or own?  I wonder what we look for, how we look and what we find at the heart of ideology, the crass consumerism and material acquisition we are urged to pursue, or the broad-ranging rhetoric that fills our social media pages, the airwaves or written/print media?  I am often surprised by how easily I am drawn into well-delivered rhetoric, possibly because it agrees with and builds on my assumptions, right or wrong.  When I stand back (often forced) I see the hollowness of the message and the medium.  I have not embraced a ‘come and see’ approach.  When I have accepted this invitation of Jesus to  ‘come and see’ I have found the deepest, richest sense of being, a hope and love that transcends everything else.  In him there is an authenticity that is very real and I want to follow because it is true!

By geoffstevenson

Where Will We Encounter the Divine in Ordinary Life?

Tex Sample, a United Methodist Minister from the US, tells a story of himself as a teenager doing work after high school as he prepared for college.  Tex was employed on a truck, along with an older black man.  They were a team and 18 year-old Tex was the ‘boss’ because he was white (despite knowing very little about the work!).  Their job was to follow along behind a drilling team a few days after their work.  The drilling team were searching for oil and Tex and his ‘offsider’ (Jim) went in and pulled the pipes out of the holes to be re-used.

On one particular day, the water can they used to provide drinking water through the course of a very hot and dry work, was missing from the truck.  Ignorant, arrogant and naïve Tex said they needn’t worry as there would be somewhere on the road to buy water or drink.  Old Jim silently went out the back of the station and found a rusty old tin can, slapped the excess rust and mess from it and filled it with tepid water from a tap.  He got in the truck and carefully placed the tin can between his feet.  Tex inwardly gloated as he cast a glance at the dirty tin can with water and floating flecks of rust and a thin film of oil.  Old Jim just looked straight ahead – this was the time of segregation and before Civil Rights.  Jim knew his place.  He also knew how to be prepared on a hot day.

The first drilling hole came up soon enough and they worked hard to pull the pipes from the hole.  It was tough work and took an hour.  Even thought the morning was still early, there had been little decrease in the heat overnight and they were sweating profusely by the time they finished.  Back in the truck, Tex was thirsty but stoic and confident there would be soon a shop.  Meanwhile, Jim quietly blew the flecks and oil film back and took a deep drink.  He finished and carefully placed the tin back between his feet, always looking straight forward.  This happened another two times and by late-morning, Tex’s stoicism had become sheer stupid stubbornness, exacerbated by the racism of his age.  He was suffering serious effects of dehydration and heat stroke.  He had a worsening headache, his vision began blurring and he no longer sweated, despite the hot sun.  They got back in the truck and Jim carefully pulled up the tin, blew flecks away and drank of the water.  Tex knew he had to have water – he was in desperate trouble.  He didn’t know what to do or how to do it.  He had never drunk from the same cup as a black man and he didn’t know how to ask for help from a black man – it was not in his experience and always the other way round.

In the midst of this crisis, Tex’s racism could not be sustained and his need for water was more vital than maintaining status quo.  In a broken and vulnerable voice, he asked:
‘Uh Jim could I… can I… would you mind if I…uh…had…a drink from your can?’

Jim replied, ‘no, suh, Boss, help yourself.’ He handed the can to Tex who looked into the dirty can where there was more concentrated rust flecks and oil but a couple of inches of water never looked so beautiful!  He drank the most delicious water he had ever had and Jim looked carefully ahead.  There was no gloating, no arrogance only humility.  As he drank, it occurred to Tex that this was Holy Communion.  This dirty, rusty can was the chalice with the wine, symbolic of Christ’s blood and he had just drunk and experienced life.  The warm, rusty water was a gift of life and somehow, mysteriously, God was present in this experience.  Somehow God was present in this strange place where a black man and a white teenager had shared a rusty tin can with water – something that would never happen in real life beyond this place.

Tex thanked Jim and they drove off to find a shop and more water.  They bought food and sat under a shade tree and ate together – they broke bread.  Tex expresses his shame in the way things played out between himself and a black man, the racism inherent in the system of his life that was to change as he grew and began to understand.  Never-the-less, in this moment grace broke in and enabled something that was deeply profound in his world.  Jim’s gift of water saved him from serious health problems that day.

This week we read the story of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17).  It is simple in the telling but profound upon reflection.  Jesus identifies with the ordinary people who have come forward seeking meaning, forgiveness, healing and life.  He enters into the way of people drawn to John and seeks baptism, committing himself into this way John speaks of and invites people into.  John protests that he should be baptised by Jesus but Jesus rejects this and submits to John’s ministry.  As he comes up through the waters of the Jordan River, the heaven part and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove upon him and a voice calls from heaven: ‘This is my own dear Son, my beloved.  With him I am well pleased.’  Jesus is then driven into the wilderness to be tempted and tested for 40 days.

Jesus submits to the way of God and God’s voice affirms that Jesus is beloved and pleasing.  In this God affirms the way of Jesus as the Divine way in the world.  The radical paths that Jesus will take are the identified ways of God – eating with ordinary and lowly people, those with bad reputations and caring for outcasts.  He stands against the powers that oppress and calls for mercy and justice.  He says the wealthy must share with the poor – to give up their money (and greed).  Jesus calls for all people to give themselves into the way of love, justice, peace and hope and to be inclusive and generous to friend and stranger.  He also urges us to pray for and forgive those who hurt us and be people of forgiveness and reconciliation.  The way of humility, vulnerability and service are affirmed as God’s way in the world

In this story we encounter the 3 persons of the Trinity represented in baptised ‘Son,’ descending ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Father’s’ voice of blessing.   We are invited to share in the blessing that is proclaimed and live into the life that God has created in us and for us, a life of inclusive grace where there is enough for everyone.  All creatures – and the earth itself – live within the generous peace and abundance of God.

In this story we encounter God in the simple that becomes profound – water and baptism that cleanses, renews and invites us into something new and bigger, more profound.  We are told of the Spirit’s descent as a dove and a voice from heaven that calls out love and blessing.  Through this season of Epiphany, we will encounter wonder and mystery in the simple things that reveal the Divine in awe-inspiring moments and experiences.  As Tex Sample experienced grace in the midst of deep thirst from an unexpected place, so we may find God lurking in the simple and ordinary and yet unexpected.  In the simplicity of water that quenches thirst, Tex saw revealed the wonders of grace – Holy Communion, the blood of Christ come to him through a black man’s generosity and wisdom.  Where will we experience the mystery and wonder of God?

By geoffstevenson

What Will I Worship?

The dog and I were walking this morning along one of the bush tracks, creek on one side and scrub, trees lining our way.  I was daydreaming, wondering at the smoke laying low and the places it came from.  I was taken aback by the beauty of some of the trees that seemed to glow against the grey, hazy sky.  In a moment the lead yanked hard and pulled me in another direction.  Nico had smelled something and was captivated, sniffing, circling and fully engaged and me dragging along in his wake.  A few moments and his curiosity, his obsessive desire seemed to be satisfied, assuaged and he was willing to return to the gentle stroll.

There were other moments when he was drawn into another place, a curiosity, a need, a smell, a sound, another dog or the scurrying of a lizard and he was obsessed.  It was as if something deep within him triggered him to life and he was off.  Everything was focussed on the distraction or inner desire that drove him – and by implication, me on the other end of the lead.  I wondered quietly to myself what it was that captivated him.  I wondered what caught his full attention, what it was within him that caused everything to be focussed on this one thing and then how it could be switched off and turned somewhere else.  I wondered…

I wondered how much like me, us, humanity this simple 3-year old dog is.  Except, he is much more connected with his passion, his being.  There doesn’t seem to be any other complicating psychology to him – he sees something, feels something, wants something and goes for it, revealing to all the world what it is.  I am rarely left in doubt that he wants, needs, yearns for something – including his morning walk or a game in the afternoon.  The old Labrador only wants a pat and lots of food and he never leaves us in doubt.  Yet, within myself I am often confused or even mistaken over what I want or need or am feeling.  I have a sense of something deeper, a deep yearning and hope but it flashes through my being, my consciousness and I don’t sit long enough with it or am distracted by the many mixed messages and miss the point.  I hear the wisdom of the world around – power, money/wealth, prestige/position, aspiration, education, success and so on.  There are so many possibilities, so many distractions, so many ways and yet, I wonder…

As I venture down various paths, try new ideas or experiences, follow other wisdom or even accept the common beliefs, I am often left with the sense that there is something I’ve missed, something important that has slipped through my distorted vision.  Other times I have the sense in my gut that there is something richer, deeper and more significant at the heart of everything and it is really this for which I yearn.  There are the sacred and holy moments where the glimpse is a richer experience of that which lies at the heart of everything.  I feel it, ‘know it’ in my being and reach out to grasp and hold onto it only for it to slip beyond me.  I want to define and control and own the experience that is so real – put a name upon it and speak of it in a knowing way – but cannot grasp it with words nor rational thought processes.  It is there but it isn’t.  I look up and the sunbeams through a tree overwhelm me with beauty.  The red-bellied black snakes writhing in a contest for dominance just off the bush track fills me with wonder.  The Squawk of the cockatoo or Bellbird song is rich in the morning air.  The reflections off the creek or the smell of eucalypts. The taste and texture of food in my mouth and the stories of a world in crisis stirring on the radio, filled with courage and pain, hope and despair.  All these things call out to me and that inner yearning, the longing at the heart of my being cries out in silent hope.  Will I be still enough to hear?  What will I do in response?  Will I move into passionate action like Nico on his walk, or the distracted apathy I sometimes feel?

Next Monday concludes the Christmas Season, the 12 days of festival celebrating the incarnation, the birth of the Christ-child into human and material existence, the revelation of infinite, eternal God in the finite, material and world of flesh and blood, time and space.  The day is Epiphany, which speaks of revelation and mainfestation, of seeing light in the darkness and being exposed to this Divine Light in all things.  It is an invitation to have open eyes, ears, hearts and minds to that which lies beyond all things and calls out to us in vulnerable invitation – from a baby born and laid in manger and chaff; from a dog sniffing through local bush; from a tree glowing in the early morning light or a bird darting down to protect its young or cockatoos squawking high in the tree-tops.  The call comes from beyond us and in us, deep down in the depths of being, where the deep yearning of the human heart quietly bubbles up and through conscious being as glimpses of light, hope and wonder draw us on and down and deep – if we are willing to attend to this call.

The story told on Epiphany comes to us from Matthew’s story, the well-known story of Wise Ones (were they men?  Probably but maybe not) who were called Magi (magicians, astrologers) from the exotic East.  We are filled with fascination and wonder at these strange visitors and their even stranger gifts.  They come, following a star to the place where the child (probably 1-2 years old) lived with his parents.  They were alerted to this event through their own ‘sciences’ of astrology.  They read the stars in the heavens and interpreted these events.  As the story is told, they understood a special ‘King of the Jews’ would be born, and they followed these heavenly directions.  It led to Jerusalem, the obvious place for a king to be born.  There a king, a horrid, vicious, jealous king who portrays innocent interest.  It was his Jewish advisors who searched their Scriptures and were able to ascribe a town of birth to a Promised new king and off the wise ones went.

These pagan, gentile astrologers were grasped by their passionate yearning; touched by an inner conviction to go!  To go and worship, to behold the sacred and holy in this One – a light to the gentiles, the whole world, and drawing people into its embrace through their own wise pursuits, honestly seeking and yearning and ultimately willing to give themselves into the worship and offering of the Divine, the Sacred that holds everything in love and wonder, mystery and hope.

What happens when I listen to that which arises from deep within?  When I stop and listen undistractedly to the inner voice of love that calls ever so gently into my life and being, what do I hear?  When everything else is set aside, or when the bushfire rages through, destroys all, what is left?  When I face my ultimate fear or pain. or desperate need or desire, where do I turn?  What do I look for?  Who/what do I listen to?

Am I willing to come in vulnerable hope, powerless and lacking control, naked, as it were, before the Christ-child, the eternal Christ who bids me come and embrace the dying-rising life where letting go opens the possibility of finding the very Light my heart has glimpsed in the darkness and has yearned for.  Will I come and worship, giving my all?

By geoffstevenson

Seeking Asylum from Powers of Violence!!

We are in the midst of the 12 days of Christmas, the Christmas Season.  Whilst the world around us will quickly move on, rushing relentlessly forward to the next party or celebration or distraction, there will also be the unbearable struggle that characterises the lives of so many people for diverse and varied reasons.  Within Australia there will be the ongoing pain and implications of bushfire and drought that continue to ravage so many communities.  We have been confronted with this grim reality but unless you are in the midst, the true extent of the task before these many communities, families and individuals remains bewilderingly difficult and uncertain.  The apocalyptic conditions that have beset our state has drawn our attention more deeply into this dreadful crisis.  At the same time, life in all of its diverse expressions of joy and pain continues with relentless abandon across the world.  The extreme crises that hold people in unending struggle are unrelenting and intense.  The crises facing our world are all compounded through war and oppressive regimes that use violence against people.  Climate change is another factor in displacing many people as fragile habitats and communities experience extremes in weather patterns and life becomes unsustainable where they live.  This factor will only grow in influence until the dominant nations listen and take real action, rather than play economic games and hide their heads in the sand of apathy, ignorance and entitlement.

A major crisis that continues to impact the lives of far too many people is displacement from their home.  There is estimated to be over 70 million people who are displaced from home and community across the world!  Around 40 million are internally displaced through many causes.  Within our own local communities, the impact of bushfires has caused some degree of internal displacement.  For others across the world the displacement is deeper and more serious for the long-term.  People driven from homes through ethnic cleansing, warfare and other dangerous and violent causes has a serious impact upon their physical, psychological/emotional and spiritual well-being.  There are around 30 million Refugees, driven from their homeland and seeking refuge in other, unfamiliar places.  Many are Syrian refugees, suffering the impact of war and violence.  Many have found temporary refuge in Lebanon and other surrounding nations.  Finally, there are around 3.5 million asylum seekers, people who are in imminent danger within their homeland because of political, cultural, religious and other repression and rejection.  They are subject to threats of violence, imprisonment… and seek asylum in safe places for their families.

Two stories:

Shafaq fled her home in Dera’a, Syria and is currently living with her family in Bekaa, Lebanon. She shared her story through the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which provides emergency support to newly arrived refugees in Lebanon. Shafaq is 14 years old.

“I used to have a peaceful life and live in my amazing home in Dera’a. I enjoyed the nature around my house and the food coming from the land. I woke up every morning to the sound of birds singing. The brutality of the civil war forced my family to leave this house and to start the journey to be refugees.

“Since the start of our journey, we moved a lot in Lebanon and I attended different schools. In the end my family decided to go close to the border with Syria. We came to this area because just we want to survive. My father is working as an electrician and this is the only income for our family. All of my family we are living in a tiny house with one bedroom, a small kitchen and a bathroom. We are considered illegal because we don’t have official documents.

“I am behind two years in school because of moving from one school to another. I am still doing very good in my school and I will continue to do that. I want to finish my education, to help my family, and to help other people they want to learn. I consider myself lucky to have Al Jalil Center. I got a lot of educational, emotional, and psychological support. I am also really sad because of the unknown future waiting for me. Every day I wonder where I will be tomorrow. Yes, it’s an unknown future.”

 

Alia fled her home in Aleppo, Syria and is currently living in Damour, Lebanon. She shared her story through Gruppo Aleimar, an Italian NGO which provides free nutritious meals to refugees in the Damour area. Alia is 7 years old.

“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. To calm me down, my grandfather told me they were mean people, but I still prayed for them, because even if some considered them mean, they were still dead human beings. Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before.”

Perhaps you are wondering why all this talk on refugees and displaced people in this reflection during the Christmas season?  Surely there are more uplifting and ‘nice’ messages and stories to tell – and there probably are, except…

Except that this week’s Gospel story (Matthew 2:13-23) speaks of the holy family encountering the evil violence of a jealous, malevolent king!  In this story King Herod realises he has been outwitted by the Magi (‘wise men’) and he doesn’t know where the young king whom he believes may be a threat to his reign, resides.  Herod has a reputation for readily disposing of anyone who threatens his power – friend, family or foe.  Herod, in the image of the Pharaoh of the earlier story of Moses, has all the young males 2 years and under killed.   Joseph receives a warning in a dream and takes Mary and the young Jesus (between 1-2 years old by now) off the Egypt for their safety.  They are displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, running for their lives to remain safe from an evil, petulant, abusive power-broker.  This is an ancient story that is very current for many people in our world.  Power, violence and fear are the tools of powers and principalities now and through history.  God’s vulnerable love revealed in Christ is the hope and peace we yearn for before such violence and hatred.  Love is the only way to transform our world and bring peace!

I wonder what such love and grace means for those who seek asylum in our country?

 

By geoffstevenson

Christmas Poem 2019

Blood-red sun filtered through smoky skies…

The horizon glows and embers flash – ‘Christmas Lights 2019’.

Apocalyptic days, overwhelmed by smoke laying thick..

Ash floats down, eyes and lungs struggle – Christmas 2019.

Firies, SES and other voluntary groups abound, working long,
fighting the blaze that never dies.

Scorched earth and ashes, lives broken and lost…
communities ravaged, blackened, ash-drenched, grieving…

Christmas 2019!

 

Christmas is coming – LED’s light the night-sky
tinsel covers the world and parties abound…

Full of food and too much drink, forward- rushing into hope we go.

We sing with gusto and chat nonchalantly through the carols and the hapless speaker turning a spin on a story old and simple.

Letter box filled with papers and potential gifts for those who have everything, and it gets harder each year.

Harder to choose and understand how Christmas fails to meet the expectations of a world hell-bent on…

On pain and destruction, feeling the heat of change
the heat that rises from an earth under stress and human weight.

We hear the stories of violence of humans towards each other…
violence, physical, emotional and in words…
Violence that hurts and breaks and kills
Violence is the answer and end to everything…

… it seems…

 

In the quiet places of struggle and simplicity bubbles another force…

A force more powerful but one more gentle.

A force that nurtures, comforts and includes.

It is a force that arises from the heart of the Divine Community…

This Community of gracious love at the centre of all things,
that we call ‘God’.

As we wrestle, grieve, live with confusion or anger or yearning;
as the world bakes and boils; a battlefield for human egos

that struggle for dominance and power

Searching for answers that do not come
because we won’t let go, won’t collaborate and love…

As we decorate the world and fill it with sugar-coated or saccharine stories, cute and cuddly and like fairy floss in the mouth,

We miss the point and the profound reality at the heart of CHRISTMAS!

The Christ-child revealed in a baby small amongst poor and impoverished,
entering the mess and chaos of human existence to say:

God is with us!  God Loves us!

In the mess of our lives, when all falls apart
in the chaos of a world struggling in despair
in the midst of life, God comes!

God breaks in and promises an alternate way of being and living.

God breaks in and holds us in grace, a party of being and belonging.

God breaks in and dwells amongst us, valuing who we are
and believing in who we can be!

We don’t need to accumulate more things – money, education, achievement, knowledge, houses, power, status…

We don’t need to pretend nor prove but only ‘be’.

To be who we are and can be.  To become the one unique being that is you and me and us – together in a Realm that is love and justice,
peaceful and joyful.

Christmas is the story of Love embodied in a Christ-child born in vulnerable anonymity to rise up and flood us with effusive, generous
love and grace.

This is who we can be and for what we yearn – receive it, own it, be it!

 

 

May God’s grace be with you through Christmas and the year ahead.

Much Love and Peace

Geoff and Susan Stevenson

By geoffstevenson

The Simple, Profound Story We Tell…

As I write, I am surrounded by apocalyptic skies and radio warnings of imminent and present destruction.  Fires, terrifying communities and people, described in tones of Armageddon; a destructive force that seems unstoppable.  A State of Emergency with catastrophic conditions exacerbated by extreme heat and wind.  Sydney and NSW burn as Christmas comes.  The only light, it seems, is red hot in brutal flames.

The pain and intense struggle is impossible to comprehend when we are not in the midst of the conflagration.  Images on screens and the countless stories of loss and intensity of experience overwhelm us and we feel helpless.  In the midst, there are the obvious stories of courage and sacrifice, of people demonstrating the very best in humanity – even as we hear that the very worst of humanity is behind many of these fires.

Christmas is the bitter-sweet time of the year when joy and hope mingle with pain, mild or intense, as the hard edges of life become stark against the celebrations.  Grief, broken relationships and the struggles we engage in touch us deeply in this time of festivity.  Gaps at the Christmas table are real and obvious, memories stir, wondrous and sad.  Christmas highlights the extreme edges of life, even as the world covers everything in tinsel and decorations and lights distract our attention.  Sometimes there is a manger and the story, made cute and charming, is told – almost like a fairy story for children.  Lovely, nice and a simple truth for the young, but more sophisticated people, well…

Christmas comes in a head-long rush towards the end, driving anticipation and hope in a world where hope is needed.  There is a ‘hush of expectation’ that imbues many elements of our Christmas celebrations and the quiet moments when, in touch with our vulnerable feelings, questions and doubts, we wonder.  I see it in the faces of people, their assured responses that are tinged with question and uncertainty, and the pursuit of something more.  Our world oscillates around the search for more that takes myriad forms in the lives of individuals, communities and nations.  More knowledge; more possessions and wealth; more success; more education; more meaning; more power; more control; more competition and victory over others; more…

Behind the search for something more is the universal journey we are all part of.  It is the journey through life, much like the outward and back-home journey of the ‘Prodigal Son’ in Jesus’ parable.  The journey of all people is from our creation ‘in God’ (eg Psalm 139) and birth out into a world of possibility, distraction, seduction and choice.  The journey is around hearing the inner voice of love that draws us back into the Life at the heart of all things – the Trinity of Love, the One in whom we live and move and have our being (whether we understand this or not).

I see something in people’s eyes, in their interest in carols by candlelight and the religious symbolism and language that emerges even amidst the more atheistic or agnostic minds.  There is a glimmer of something, a curiosity or wonder that lights the world a little – it is often covered over and distracted by all the décor and food that floods our little worlds in this season.  There is an expectation that emerges but is finally quenched as it fades into insignificance by Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve.  New Year’s resolutions, a personal resolve to do something more or better to improve who we are or the world around, replaces some potential transcendent hope in a Divine Love that may have just been real but sadly seems not to be there at all, for many people.

It is into this holy mess, this human chaos of meaning, hope, control, certitude and competing interests that the story lies in vulnerable being, awaiting the vulnerable heart and mind to embrace it and ponder in wonder.  The story emerges in hearts and minds that are gripped by despair and pain.  The story emerges in crisis and wonder, in struggle or love, in life lived and relationships nurtured through compassion, mercy and grace.  Where justice flourishes, the story glows and Christ is revealed in the little places, the hidden places and the vulnerable places of the world.

The story is simple and profound.  It is simple, lowly people in a world of power and violence, wealth and oppression.  Mary and Joseph represent the lowly ones who are anonymous but who represent the great reversal in God’s economy where the little ones are lifted up and the great ones are brought low; where rich and poor are brought into a place of sharing resources equally and everyone has enough and we are in relationship.

It is also a challenging political story in the context of the Roman world with its Roman Imperial Religion that gave credence to Caesar Augustus as Divine-like and ‘Son of God’.  The much-trumpeted Pax Romana (‘Peace of Rome’) came at the end of a spear or sword and was delivered by the Imperial Roman Army.  Caesar was the self-proclaimed one who brought peace to the world and held everything together.  These titles and descriptors were exclusive to Caesar and ‘good news’ applied only to him – until the Christians told their story and transferred these titles to Jesus, the Christ.

Good News, for Christians, was contained in this story of incarnation, God embracing human flesh and dwelling amongst us in vulnerable, humble love.  Christ revealed in Jesus brings peace through his life, death and resurrection as a path back into the life and being of God.  ‘Jesus is Lord,’ became the political cry of Christians who therefore denied the Roman expectation that ‘Caesar is Lord.’  It is a story that defies the ways and paths of secular wisdom, that power, wealth, might or birth-rite are the signifiers of privilege and entitlement.  It is a story where a young, innocent and poor woman takes centre-stage, a reversal of culture and expectation.  In our own world we have been blessed and challenged by two very young women (girls) who have spoken out and raised critical issues of justice before the world.  Greta Thunberg (Time Person of the Year, 2019) and Malala Yousafzai (the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) have given us challenging and courageous messages of hope for the world and its poor.  These young women are modern versions of Mary, singing the song of justice, love, peace and hope for the world.

This simple story has depths of possibility for the curious and questioning and those who search for deeper being and a better world.  In the light of fires burning out of control and a world where there is pain and suffering, alongside joyous wonder, this little story leads us beneath the tinsel, lights, parties, gifts, and carols into a place where we can encounter the Christ-child in innocence and wonder, in vulnerable, powerful love that transforms and grows and forms us as more deeply, truly human beings.

Christmas comes to us at any time, and whenever we open ourselves to love, compassion, justice, peace and joy, we encounter God who is all of this and more.  Christ is in all things and we are ultimately held in this grace – and this is Christmas!

By geoffstevenson