When Love, Justice and Hope Reign!

I, like many other football fans and others concerned about human rights have been following the story of Hakeem al-Araibi, the young footballer granted refugee status in Australia in 2014 and who has been living and playing semi-professional football (soccer) in Melbourne.  Hakeem was able to escape from his native Bahrain when selected to play for the national team in Qatar in 2013.  He fled through Iran to Malaysia, Thailand and onto Australia where he was granted asylum.

Hakeem was accused of being part of a violent protest even though he was playing football at the time and the match was televised.  His brother was arrested for his part in this and Hakeem seems to have been implicated by association.  He has since spoken out against the oppression and persecution of those who spoke out for democracy and freedom or who protested against the ruling family.  Persecution is especially against those of different faith from the ruling family of Sunni Islam.

In Australia, Hakeem married and sought advice before travelling to Thailand last year for his honeymoon.  He was given the all clear but Thai authorities received an Interpol ‘Red Notice’ issued by Bahrain and he was detained in prison on arrival in Thailand.  Over the last 2 months Hakeem has been protesting his innocence and has expressed his fears that if returned to Bahrain, he would be tortured or worse.  There has been significant representation and support from international authorities, including Amnesty International, the Australian Government, Football Federation Australia, The Professional Footballers Association of Australia, FIFA (International Football Association), and many, many individuals.  Former Socceroo, Craig Foster has been a very significant voice and has garnered support from football associations, journalists and raised the prominence of Hakeem’s situation.  Other supporters include the joint Australians of the Year, Dr Richard Harris OAM and Dr Craig Challen SC OAM, the two doctors who helped retrieve the Thai soccer team from the flooded cave last year.  This week (Monday), the Thai authorities released Hakeem and he arrived back in Australia on Tuesday.

This was great news and represents a ‘victory’ for freedom and hope.  It was because many ordinary people were motivated by this story of injustice and rallied around a cause for human rights.  People like Craig Foster and others in journalism and sport helped raise the profile of the story. Ordinary people added their voices and someone whose life was in crisis, who was locked away, a captive in prison, oppressed and experiencing the poverty of vulnerability, found freedom.  Those who were ‘blind’ had eyes opened to the real nature of what was happening and chose to act for justice and life.

All of these are the themes that we encounter in Jesus’ opening words in Luke’s Gospel where he says he has come to ‘proclaim Good News to the poor, release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed.’ Jesus adds that he will announce that the good and favourable day of the Lord has come.  This is what we see in Hakeem’s story and it is more poignant because he is a Shia Muslim, and that God’s love and grace are for all people but are realised when humans embrace the values of God’s Reign that is grounded in love and compassion, justice and peace, mercy and forgiveness and inclusive community.  These are the values that Jesus proclaims and lives out and demands his followers and all people embrace!

In this week’s reading (Luke 6:17-26) we hear a report on Jesus’ mission of preaching Good News to the poor, releasing those who are captive, healing blindness and bringing freedom to oppressed peoples.  He teaches people in what is called the ‘Sermon on the Plain’, which is Luke’s equivalent of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, a radical teaching that has influenced such leaders as Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr.  Jesus declares that those who are poor, hungry, mourning and persecuted because they live by his standards will be blessed.  Woe to those who are rich, full, laughing and comfortable for they have received their fill.  These are harsh words and have often been taken as a state of being beyond life in the heavenly realm, the afterlife.  Jesus does not spiritualise the state of human struggle or greed.  He does not revert to some utopian hope in another realm beyond the world we know as the true means of resolution and justice.  Jesus demands that those who ‘see’ and feel and know love live for justice and life now.  He knows in his own being the freedom and joy that comes in sharing and inclusive community where the sick, the suffering, the hungry, the poor and the grieving find others who will share life, hope and the resources they need, now.  Jesus understands the reality that when we hoard and accumulate for purely personal gain and greed, we ultimately find ourselves lost and empty – I think of several of those who have much but keep it for themselves and live mean and fearful lives, protecting what they have and remain suspicious of others.  History is full of such people whose fear results in demented, oppressive, violent and hate-filled lives.  In Jesus’ time King Herod was one example.  We could add a multitude of dictators or super- wealthy people who end up miserable and lonely.  When there is no flow of love, grace and generosity, life stagnates.

Jesus’ teaching and declaration is about the reality of God’s grace that is realised when humans release love and live for justice and peace, expressing hope and joy.  When the rich and full, comfortable and laughing recognise the blessedness of their lives and share that with others, the world changes.  The captives are released, the poor receive resources, the blind eyes are opened and the oppressed find freedom in the life of a community of love.  Jesus is not much concerned about what people believe or whether they believe themselves to ‘be in or outside God’s people’.  Jesus proclaims a reality of life and his followers will express this way of being, whether they understand everything else or not!  The way of Christ is realised when we work for freedom, hope, love, justice, peace and proclaim the Good News of God’s very real and present love for all people in this world, now.  The truth of Jesus’ words find their fulfillment in the present when people respond generously and graciously towards the suffering, poor, captive, grieving, oppressed and live for justice, hope and life – because that is what God is like!!

Hakeem’s story is an example of how God’s Reign of love can be realised in the present when people work together for justice, love and hope.  When people use their resources and care enough to make a difference.  The response to farmers who experience the difficulties of drought and flood, those who are victims of bush fire, those who seek asylum and are received, the poor and marginalised who are given resources to live, those who live with disability or illness who are embraced and cared.  This is God’s Reign realised!  We are invited into the blessedness of sharing love through inclusive, gracious community.

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By geoffstevenson

Called into Richer, Deeper Being…

I heard a story some years ago about a boat, a fishing boat.  A pair of brothers, amateur archaeologists, in northern Israel, around the Sea of Galilee were digging in the mud flats – a consequence of drought and the lowering of the lake’s water level.  They stumbled upon a buried boat in the mud.  The Israel Department of Antiquities were brought in and the boat was painstakingly removed over a 2-week period.  It was carefully handled, and the delicate, ancient wood protected with various chemical treatments.  The boat has been extensively studied and clearly comes from the era of the 1st Century and is an example of the type of boat used in the time of Jesus by several of the disciples who were fishermen.

One of the possible scenarios to this story is that the fishing boat was simply abandoned during the reign of Herod Antipas, who built a new capital city on the shores of the lake and called it Tiberius after the Emperor.  The lake was commercialised, and the state governed who could fish under license and the limits of their catch.  There was exorbitant taxation and all fish belonged to the state.  The local fishermen, usually in family clans seeking to feed their family, were forced to register and hand over their catch to the state.  They were given a little money after taxes were collected and they had to buy back fish for food.  Life became very difficult for such fishermen and some simply walked away from the oppressive requirements of the Roman Empire.  Either way, stay or go, it was a tough situation.  We wondered about the original owners of this boat.  It has evidence of extensive repairs and long use.  Perhaps when everything became too economically difficult, they took what was valuable from it and walked away to another life??!  There had been security and familiarity in the family traditions of fishing on the lake.  It fed villages and sustained the micro-economic structures of the villages, clans…  Oppressive regimes tore this apart.  Life became harder and less secure.

The origins of the word, ‘Security’ comes from late Middle English: from Old French securite or Latin securitas, from securus ‘free from care.’  It is most commonly understood as freedom from threat or danger and it is prominent in most people’s minds and experience.  We want freedom from danger and threat for ourselves, our family, our community and nation.  We may dream of a hope of freedom from fear and danger for all people, even though it feels like an empty hope, a fantasy.  We seem to have narrowed this meaning down to danger and threat, from its more original meaning of freedom from care (or worry and anxiety).  There remains a pervading sense of anxiety and fear across our society – a pandemic resulting in a variety of levels of symptomology and responses.   We all live with an inner tension and high levels of stress.  We are in a state of unparalleled change and movement, of shifting technologies and expectations, of materialistic growth and focus that is unprecedented.

There is more insecurity, both in terms of internal feelings and stresses and outward threats and dangers, perceived or real.  There is more anxiety and uncertainty and we don’t know how to deal with this.  We feel the pressure to be in control and be on top of everything and have not learned how to negotiate mess, paradox and ambiguity.  The chaos of modern life that requires us to hold many things together and live within paradox and uncertainty, stresses us and causes anxiety because we do not know what we ought to do – and there is intense pressure to ‘know’ what we are supposed to be and do.  The younger generation, especially males, are struggling within the complex array of possibilities that keep growing and changing, to know what they are meant to do and be.

The inability to live with paradox and within mess, also challenges our ability to release ourselves into mystery and wonder, to be drawn into awe-filled moments and experiences.  This is the spiritual dimension of life that is our yearning across Western society but confused and held at arm’s length over and against the materialistic, secure systems of life that feel so much more insistent and immediate.  We feel more secure behind larger bank accounts, more material possessions, then bigger fences, stronger locks, security systems and even gated communities.  We are more secure within certainty even when we are less content, creative and joyful in our lives.  The more material values pressure us, the more we feel internal stress and the barrenness of an empty spiritual capacity.  We also find ourselves defined by these things – how much and what we have accumulated; our education attainments; our career or profession; skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, mental health…  Too often we are defined, and confined, by what we do or what we look like or our particular capacities or what we know.  ‘What do you do?’  ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Where did you study?’  These are the types of defining, comparative questions asked of each other.  They also confine us to categories that are not us.

Luke tells a story of Jesus and would-be disciples in Luke 5:1-11.  A crowd gathered and Jesus got into a fishing boat. and asked Simon to push out a little from shore, where he spoke to the crowds and taught them.  Jesus then told Simon to push out into deeper water and throw his nets over.  Simon was tired from a poor night of fishing where few fish were caught.  He began to protest but relented – something in Jesus convinced him!  The nets came up filled with more fish than they could contain, and he called for the other boat.  Both were overfilled and Simon was amazed.  In this moment he saw beyond what was, a glimpse of another possibility, something bigger, awe-filled and inexplicable.  In this moment he came face to face with deep wonder and things of Spirit.  He knelt before the wonder and Jesus invited him and the others to follow into a different, deeper way where definition broke down.  The story says they left everything and followed Jesus.

This wonderful story speaks into life that is defined and confined by powers and forces beyond us, and by what we do or have or look like or our status…  We are invited into the place where we are.  It is a deeper reality of being that recognises the freedom and joy for which we yearn is not contained in the ways we define and limit ourselves based on the superficial categories of the world around us.  I am not defined by a career or education, or asset register (or lack thereof), what I can/can’t do…  I am not a category and my freedom does not depend upon someone else who wants to express power over me or limit me.  My career or job is a means to an end, but I have a vocation that is deeper and richer and transcends work, leisure, education and everything else.  Jesus welcomed these lowly fishermen into a place where they could find life, love and being within a diverse and inclusive group of people who would journey with Jesus into the grace of God and find themselves in a new, deeper, richer way of physical and spiritual being.

I wonder about the owners of a Galilean Fishing Boat.  Did they hear a story from a 1st century Rabbi and find freedom in the midst of struggle, oppression and defining power?

By geoffstevenson

When Disillusionment Breaks Us Open to Live!

This week I am challenged to reflect on what disillusions me?  What disillusionment do I feel within my being – disillusionment about people, society, the world, religion, faith and even God?  Can I identify and accept disillusionment within myself and, if so, what do I do with it?  Do I avoid it or ignore it, hoping it will pass and all the while cling to whatever it is I want to hold onto?  Do I run with it and feel the despair and confusion as disillusionment rolls through questioning, challenging and confronting?  Such questions and confrontation perhaps lays me bare as I am forced to cast aside the ‘comfortable clothing’ I have worn, the ‘clothing’ of culture, tribe, belief system, dogma and personal perception or opinion.  Giving in to disillusionment and allowing the questions to emerge is a hard game to play because we don’t know how far it will lead or what it will require us to shuck off.  What will stand up at the end of the journey and survive the abandonment of illusions?  For that is what disillusionment is all about – the abandonment of illusions.  Illusions can define us and others.  They can provide false guides and barriers that distort, exclude and help us hide from, ignore, avoid or be blissfully unaware of the reality that lies beyond illusory life and belief.

Part of the process of growing involves necessary disillusionment as we cast aside childhood fantasises and beliefs and move through adolescence and into adulthood.  Leaving the world of childhood is to abandon the illusions of childhood and is symbolised in the story of Adam and Eve leaving the garden, moving out of the fantastical paradise and into the world of reality, joyous and harsh.  Their journey, like that of every journey that every human has to make, requires a new vision, a clear ‘seeing’ in a new way. It ultimately requires a change in heart and mind as we let prejudices and false perceptions about people, the world and life fade away.

All around us there is great disillusionment over a great many things.  There is disillusionment in the political processes as they feel unable to truly engage with and lead us through the confronting and challenging issues Australian society faces.  There is as much disillusionment within the political parties as there is outside.  They chop and change and swap leaders in a cheap response to opinion polls or idealistic notions or personal opinion and ideology.  There is disillusionment in various other institutions from the finance sector, aged care services, churches and community organisations, following the various Royal Commissions and their astounding and horrific findings.  There is disillusionment within the younger generation as they perceive the older generations have let them down by demanding a lifestyle that is highly materialistic and has resulted in greater distance between rich and poor, haves and have-nots and has made ownership of homes very difficult.  They are all too aware of Climate Change even as their elders often reject it as a nonsense despite the ever-growing scientific evidence and the obvious radical changes everywhere present across the earth.  They are disillusioned because the world they will grow into with children and grandchildren will be vastly different and more difficult because of the current trends of greed and abuse of the planet through overpopulation, depletion of resources, poor and indiscriminate use of land, water and air, and their degradation through copious waste – solid, liquid and gas emissions.  The breakdown of community as we become more isolated and insulated within homes and workplaces, cars and private life, leads to increased fear, suspicion and exclusion of those who are different.  Cruel and barbaric policies that give voice to such fears, resulting in exclusion, violence and hatred, permeate the national agenda and our international relations, foreign aid and support of those who live in poverty and oppression.

These are not things we prefer to engage with or hear.  We avoid the confronting and challenging words that ask questions of us and our attitudes.  I often balk when someone has the courage and honesty to tell me things as they are, that something I have done or said is ludicrous, hurtful, foolish or plain wrong.  I hastily build my defences and prepare to deflect or challenge back, anything but stop and hear the words of truth offered in love.  When I stop taking myself so seriously and act with a small dose of humility and allow the words to come to me, I may begin to recognise the uncomfortable truth.  That is the first step to change and growth and life.  The move through disillusionment and squashing of false illusions in order to gain a deeper sense of understanding, awareness and reality.  No growth is without the consequent struggle and challenge or pain.

This week Jesus returns home to Nazareth (Luke 4:21-30 – the rest of last week’s story).  He preached in the Synagogue and the people liked his words – initially.  They recognised him as Joe’s boy who grown up among them.  There were friends, relatives and towns people who knew him as a boy.  They had heard the growing range of stories around what he’d been doing in other villages – and they felt they deserved even more of the blessing and miracles, healing and anything else.  Jesus began well but then took a sharp turn in his rhetoric.  Understanding their tribal pride, their desire to own and define him and what he would/should do, he challenged them at the very point of their exclusive, ego-driven pride and expectation.  He told them that God rarely acted in ways that people expected or easily defined.  Whenever humans try to limit God’s actions to their tribe, their belief system, their in-group, God moved outside and worked elsewhere.  He quoted a couple of well-known stories from their tradition – a gentile widow who shared the little she had with one of God’s prophets and was blessed for her generous, inclusive love and faith.  Naaman was another Gentile, a leader and he was healed of leprosy.  Both of these were outside the expected groups.  They were outcasts, marginal people and God was expected to work within the in-group of the Jewish faithful, not among these but that was exactly where God was to be found.

Jesus confronted his home-town crowd with this uncomfortable truth – just because you know me and believe you should be God’s favourites, doesn’t make it so.  Whilst ever you want to contain God, faith, love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and justice to your own group and deny others, God will always work outside in other places where love, justice, grace and compassion is inclusive and generous towards all people – whether they are Jewish (or Christian!) or not!

This is the disillusionment that we need to grow through.  God’s blessings are not exclusively ours (whether in the local religious tribe or the national agenda)!  We simply aren’t that good.  We aren’t bad but we aren’t better than everyone else – and that is okay!  A bit of humility and reality is needed and then maybe love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy and justice may emerge more fully – and so will life in joyous abundance, for all!

By geoffstevenson

Australia Day Reflection…

Saturday is/was Australia Day.  It means many different things to different people. Some enjoy another holiday.  Others celebrate the history of this nation. Some remember the struggle of indigenous Australians over the last 215 years and the immense difficulty and struggle that they continue to experience. Some are staunch Monarchists whilst others are strongly Republican.  Some have family histories that go back several generations and others are new arrivals. All of us (unless we descend from Indigenous Australians) are of immigrant origin – truly boat people.  Some Australians live on the land and seek to work with the harsh environment whilst most of us revere the myths of the outback but live in cities full of high-rise buildings or the sprawling suburbia.

I always come to this celebration with mixed thoughts and feelings.  On the one hand this is a good country with many things to celebrate, appreciate and enjoy.  I am not a ‘seasoned traveller’ who has ventured far and wide and has felt the ‘call of home’ from distant places.  I can’t easily compare our nation with others except through what I read and hear across airwaves and internet.  I have ventured to the South Pacific and recognise they have considerably less, materially, than we have but show more gratitude and joy than we do.  Would I, could I, live in one of these ‘idyllic’ Pacific Paradises?  Probably not but they ask questions of me.

The part of me that comes to this day with something other than celebration is that which detests the incessant drive towards patriotism and uncritical acceptance of all things ‘Australian’.  The awful and derisive use of ‘Un-Australian’ is a simple way to end any reflective critique of the land we love and call home.  Like every household and family, there is the good and problematic.  Nothing is perfect and nothing above reflection and growth.  Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates said: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’  Harsh but true.  Open reflection, critique and analysis is important for an individual and a society if we are to grow, mature and become who and what we can be.

It is often difficult in modern Australia to raise issues of important conversation because such conversation is quickly closed down.  When it confronts the political narrative, governments and oppositions quickly silence it.  When it confronts corporate Australia, the business world throw vast sums at silencing debate or any change.

When we peer into the heart of Australian life and look at the reality, few want to venture there.  It is true, however, that only as we venture more deeply into the reality that is our nation, our life, that we appreciate its true and deeper beauty. We will also discover what we can be; who we are becoming.  It is only as we confront the real heart of Australian life in all its diversity that we hear the breadth of the conversation, the voices that are gentle or silenced and see the beauty of people who share this cultural mix-pot and seek the best for themselves and their family.

The reality, as social researcher Hugh Mackay and others describe, is that Australia is both wonderful and hard.  We have the vast, but shrinking, beauty of the natural landscape.  Gorgeous bushland, sunburnt, golden beaches with clear blue water, a diversity of unique and wondrous wildlife, are things we enjoy and love.  We live in a modern nation that has wealth and a high standard of living.  We have been mostly generous in distributing that wealth across its people, although the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ continues to widen at an increasing rate.  Mackay’s research bears this out.

We are wealthy people, by the standards of the world where 80% of the world’s population shares only 20% of the world’s resources! (This same imbalance applies in Australia where 10-20% of the population own most of the wealth) Whilst many Australians are generous when others need a hand, as a nation we give relatively little in overseas aid to poorer and developing nations. Many of the older generation attest to a growing greediness amongst Australians – we are encouraged to consume and accumulate material possessions and keep everything for ourselves. Despite our growing wealth there is clearly not and equal growth in contentment. If anything, Australians are less content, more stressed and less happy than ever before. There is more pressure on significant relationships, families, communities and a breakdown in personal interaction at meaningful levels where people feel they can ‘belong.’  Social research reveals this deeper truth we may know in our being and feel in our bones but is lost in the plethora of decisions, bustling activity and unrelenting demands on time and energy.  We are a people under stress.  As we ‘prosper’ materially and as social, technological and communications changes impose more possibilities on our already full lives, we feel the weight of choice, decisions and keeping up.  We feel this weight in our bodies, minds and spirits. We are tired and rushed and the inevitable consequences of modern stress detract from our well-being and enjoyment of life.  Mackay points to this stress in his book Advance Australia Where?  A summary article suggests the following:  The key effect of all these changes has been to place great stress on countless individual Australians. Inevitably, Mackay explains, other things have had to “give”.

The first is family. Many young adults postpone marriage and children to their thirties or forties or eschew them entirely. The divorce rate is historically high (more than 40 per cent) and the birth rate historically low (1.7 babies a woman).

Our health and wellbeing have suffered. Obesity, depression, anxiety, loneliness, drug use, alcoholism, gambling, porn consumption – their incidence has risen appreciably.

As we have gained more, materially, our lives have become more consumed with the associated consumption and the distraction that having ‘too many toys’ brings.  We don’t have time to sit and ‘be’.  We don’t have time to chat or share long meals unless we can fit them in around busy schedules.  We don’t take time to ponder and reflect and wonder and ask curiosity questions.  We have too little time or energy to pray and that is bad for the spiritual dimension of our being.  Perhaps it is time for Australians to consider those things which are of true value and those which are merely seductive and don’t bring greater contentment, meaning or joy. Relationships and acts that make a difference to other people are clearly more meaningful and satisfying than accumulated wealth.  Beyond providing for necessities and important extras, more significant wealth fails to bring higher levels of satisfaction, joy, meaning or contentment.  This is not the predominant message that I hear through media and society, which champions ever-greater wealth.

The impact of our materialism is felt most deeply on the state of our planet that struggles under the intensity of the pressure due to human demand.  Soaring populations and the plundering of land and resources is causing extreme stress upon the earth.  The resulting changes in climate and the struggle for survival of many animal and plant species is reaching catastrophic levels.  Feeding the human population, especially through resource-consuming meat products, is becoming more difficult and adds excessively to the problems we face.  Climate change and the environmental impacts of human populations is probably the most serious challenge and crisis we face.

Australia has been a wonderful place for many immigrants and difficult for others.  People from across the world have made Australia home and have mostly been welcomed, although there has been a period of ‘getting used to’ new cultures. Many have come seeking refuge and asylum from various wars or forms of persecution.  They have sought this land because of the freedom and openness they have heard that typifies our people.  Australians pride themselves on being egalitarian and fighting for the underdog, and the battler.  We like to believe in a fair go for everyone.  We have, arguably, one of the most successful racial mixes of any nation.  Our multiculturalism has always been part of modern Australia. Accompanying multiculturalism has always been forms of racism – they are still present.  Those of you who have come from foreign lands more recently will attest to the racism that is present in our nation.  Often it comes from fear or uncertainty of unknown people.  It breaks down if, and when, we meet each other and get to know each other – it’s really difficult to hate those we actually like and have come to understand!  Racism tends to be directed towards specific ethnic groups.  Previously it was Italians and Germans and other Southern Europeans, then Asians.  Today it is more towards those of Islamic nations and those of the Middle East.  Racism appears in many forms and guises. It is personal and institutional – some of our significant foreign policies are distinctly racist but hide behind ‘National Security’ or terrorism.

Something changed in our national rhetoric, a decade or so back.  We began to revile those seeking asylum and turned them back.  It was a sudden decision of political will supported on both sides of parliament and carried by strong rhetoric and the conversation changed.  Suddenly people who were previously given an hospitable welcome and support were now looked upon with suspicion and sent packing onto Pacific Islands ill-equipped to deal with the issues of psychology, health and the traumas deep in their human spirit.  We are afraid – afraid of who they might be or what they might want.  We are afraid but we don’t know why; it’s just how it is. We are constantly reminded to be afraid and alert and suspicious and we carry this angst in our being.

As the material well-being of most Australians continues to rise, for others there is growing gap of hopelessness as they are not invited to share in the prosperity.  These are people of various backgrounds and conditions.  Some have poor education, for many reasons, and can’t get work.  There is always someone a bit better and no matter how they try no-one will employ them.  Some live with mental illness, chronic illness or serious disability and find work difficult, if not impossible.  There are pensions and benefits but not enough to enable them to engage in what most of us take for granted.  I remember a story of a single mum who struggled to hold her life together with 3 small children.  She managed her money well and there was always food on the table and clothes for the children.  She paid the rent and they went to school but there was nothing left over at the end of the week for the little extras.  A hot summer’s day found them unable to afford the $15 to get a bus and go to the local swimming pool – it simple wasn’t in the budget.  Welfare agencies know the realities that governments seek to play down.  Life is very difficult for many people in Australia.

Parents of children with serious physical and/or intellectual disabilities find the going incredibly tough and there are few who are willing to take time to understand.  Time out to enjoy some moments of peace and to do things that you and I take for granted are few and very far between.  These are largely invisible people because getting out and about is not easy to manage.  In fact, many people are invisible in our society, hidden from view in neighbourhoods that keep them isolated, shut off from other people and groups.  We all mostly live within our own homes and then drive where we are going.  We shop in large anonymous malls designed to get us in and out efficiently, after spending money on the extras we didn’t intend to buy.

The alienation we experience in our lives drives fear, loneliness and existential angst as we seek a deeper purpose and meaning amidst the affluence and prosperity that brings stress but changes our happiness or joy very little.  This week’s Gospel reading is quite significant for us in this time of national life.  It comes from Luke 4:14-21.  It is the inaugural sermon of Jesus in Luke’s story – his mission statement if you like.  Jesus read some verses from the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

The Jewish conception of poverty, it isn’t only economic.  New Testament commentator, Joel Green defines “poor” in the first-century Mediterranean world:  In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on.  Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as “poor,” but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and “poor” would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honour in the Mediterranean world.

Poverty is material/ economic but also spiritual, psychological and physical.  The poverty for which Jesus promises ‘good news’ is not just economic but also the poverty of oppression where people are held captive.  This could be political, religious, economic, health, psychological, addiction – anything that oppresses people and holds them captive.  For many in the wealthy West it could be affluence and materialism.  Jesus’ message and mission is about an alternative that delivers freedom and life rather than ongoing bondage.  There are captives and prisoners that Jesus refers to and he speaks of release from the social, spiritual and economic factors that bind people and hold them captive.  Jesus’ prophetic mission statement also includes the provision of sight for the blind, a message for the ‘blindness’ that pervades our world.  May we see with eyes of compassion. This is a message for our world and one that we would do well to contemplate on Australia Day.

The promised hope of Jesus challenges our culture and the assumptions of much of our society.  It challenges us with another way of seeing the world and the people around us and draws us into a deeper sense of community that is generous, hospitable and grounded in love not fear.  This way of God is life-giving for all people, providing a radical realignment of life towards the Reign of God in our world.

 

By geoffstevenson

Water into Wine – A New and Ancient Way into Life

I read a brief review of the most recent book by social researcher, Hugh Mackay, called: “Australia Reimagined – Towards a compassionate, less anxious society” It describes things we mostly know innately, that there is radical change that causes us to feel somewhat adrift, inducing a state of anxious uncertainty and even fear.  Mackay describes a fragmented society where important connections are breaking down.  The four major faultlines, as he calls them, are politics, religion, gender and education.  There are challenges and threats through massive change, along with the stalling in other parts of the revolution, such as gender equality.  We have decreased trust in major institutions and many of our leaders.  We are in increasing indebted and addicted – to devices, drugs, shopping, materialism…  He speaks about depression, anxiety and suicide, which are pandemic and symptomatic of deeper problems such as the massive degree of change and instability we all face.  Increasing diversity, emotional breakdown (echoing breakdown in community), social isolation and fear all contribute to deeper anxiety, uncertainty and depression in a cycle that spirals downward.

It is clear that life in Australia in the early decades of the 21st century is not as easy as we might expect, given the relative growth in affluence and economic prosperity.  It is clear that the ways of yesteryear, with their stable, predictable and comfortable expectations and cycles of life, are no longer relevant or significant.  What we did a few decades ago no longer seems to work in ways we may want to expect.  Careers are changing and most people will have multiple careers across their lives, some of which for future generations have not even been thought of or created yet.  Artificial Intelligence is changing the way people work and the jobs that humans will be employed in.  There are so many functions that computers and machines can do more effectively than people.  There are functions that only humans will be able to do – things that involve emotional responses and relationships in particular.  Amidst the technological advances, and revolutions in communications and transportation that we all take for granted, there are the associated changes driven by these advances.  New knowledge and experiences open our minds to new ideas and ways that transcend what was and we cannot return.

Never-the-less, the future remains unsure and uncertain, fuelling fear and anxiety as we are unclear where we are heading and there may be unfolding recognition that what once worked or once seemed real and important is no longer sustainable.  Some of the values, beliefs, priorities and things we trusted are less firm and certain.  We need a new program, a new approach to living and being, one that, as Mackay suggests, is more compassionate and respectful of one another despite differences in culture, ethnicity, belief, gender, sexual orientation and capacity.  We need a new, perhaps ancient, way that will lead us into life that is more inclusive, communal, gracious and compassionate.

I am drawn into this topic by reflecting on the well-known and somewhat strange story about Jesus turning water into wine that is the Gospel reading for the week – John 2:1-11.  This story is filled with various symbols that point to God’s lavish, over-abundant generosity that turns the world and our cultural expectations on their head! In a shameful oversight they ran out of wine at the wedding.  Coaxed by his mother, Jesus told them to fill 6 stone jars used for the water of purification, which contained around 900 litres between them. In Jewish tradition one glass of water was enough to purify 100 people for worship. Therefore, this picture of 6 large jars holding 900 litres symbolically holds enough water to cleanse the whole world!  The abundant new wine of God’s Reign replaces the old ways of purification and offers blessing for the whole world.. The new wine is a symbol of God’s new age arriving, the age of shalom. The sign of good wine stands alongside the feeding of the 5000 in John’s Gospel. Both point to God’s embracing all people and feeding us – body, mind and spirit. The wonder of the steward when he tries the new wine also symbolises God’s abundant grace that gives us the very best. God’s love is abundantly present to all of us and reaches out to the world with lavish, generous grace that releases and realises the true potential within each person.

All too often this story is lost in the ‘miracle’ or the confusion as to what it actually means and why it is there.  We miss the bigger picture that John’s story of Jesus points us to a new way in the world.  The old way isn’t working.  It has become narrowed, and lost in religiosity and political power struggles, the dualistic thinking of right-wrong, in-out, black-white.  People have been diminished and relationship with each other, God and the earth broken.  Belief systems have taken over grace and generous love that is the heart of God and needs to be reflected within humanity.  When we recognise the full humanity of Jesus (along with divinity) we understand that we are invited into a deeper understanding of what it means to be more fully human and how the Divine is reflected within us, in our being and creation as people in whom the Spirit is present (God breathes God’s Spirit into people – Genesis 1).

The old ways are decayed and abusive as power, might and wealth are used to separate people from others and define who is right or wrong, good or bad, strong or weak, deserving or not.  Jesus revealed that old ways had died and needed to be laid to rest as we embrace a new-ancient way in the world – the way of God.  This is as true now as 2000 years ago.  When we look at how we deal with various issues in our lives and the world, we might recognise how we often continue to try the same approach and we continue to be drawn into more chaos and confusion.  Our fear and strong arm approach to asylum seekers continues to create myriad difficulties, not least for some of the world’s more vulnerable people.  The economic cost of keeping people in detention centres on Pacific Islands is astronomical and the emotional/psychological health of these people is seriously compromised.  Our defensive stance towards the Aboriginal people and the practices of European Australians over 200 years has not brought peace and relationship but only delivered more pain and struggle for many of our indigenous people.  The constant response to conflict and difference that is to drawn arms and fight hasn’t worked for a long, long time but we still do it.  We still invest in armaments and get bigger and bigger weapons to combat other nation’s even bigger weapons and the only ones who really gain are owners and investors of armaments manufacturers.

We need to approach life in new-ancient ways that build relationship, open ourselves to mystery and wonder, become humble and vulnerable before each other and seek reconciliation and peace, respect and grace, mercy and compassion – the way of Jesus!

By geoffstevenson

Flying Like an Eagle – Becoming Who You Can Be!

A college Professor stood before his classroom of young students, mostly in their early 20’s.  He asked a broad, general question: ‘How long have you lived?’

The students looked somewhat puzzled: what did this have to do with their sociology class?  The professor saw their quizzical looks and approached a young man sitting in the front row.  He looked at the young man and said: ‘Son how long have you been alive?  How long have you lived?’

The young man looked like a deer caught in headlights and fumbled with his words saying, ‘Well I’m soon to turn 21 so I guess nearly 21 years.’

The professor shook his head, ‘No, no.  I didn’t ask how long your heart has pumped blood of your lungs drawn air.  I asked how long have you been alive?  How long have you lived, really lived?’  In response to the even more curious, confused expressions the professor told them a story:

‘When I was in the 6th grade, about 12 years old. Our class went on an excursion to the Empire State Building in New York City.  12 year old boys are more interested in fooling around and chasing girls than big buildings and learning.  So, we chased girls and fooled around, much to our teacher’s displeasure and frustration.  At one point I ran close to the side of the Observation Deck and looked out.  I was stopped in my tracks and caught my breath.  In that one instant I saw the whole of New York City laid out before me and I beheld a great wonder.  I stood transfixed, just staring into the wondrous sight.  Time stood still and everything else dimmed before this moment, this wondrous experience that consumed me and I felt my whole being alive as rarely before.  Nerve fibres tingled, and I felt one with everything.  I have had that same experience at several other times as well.  So, let me ask you once again, how long have you been alive?’

The young man pondered a moment and then looked up: ‘When you put it like that, Doc, I’ve probably lived fully for a few minutes.’

I wonder how much living most people actually achieve, and how often people find themselves fully alive?  The late priest, author and spiritual director, Anthony de Mello, says that most people spend their lives asleep – they are born asleep, grow asleep, marry asleep, work in their sleep, and die asleep.  They never come truly alive to who they are and can be.  They live within themselves and give in to the restrictions of society, peer pressure, fear…  He tells a story of a farmer on his morning walk.  He stumbled across a large egg lying in the grass.  Curious he picked it up and it was still warm in his hands.  There appeared to be a nest in the tree but no sign of birds.  The farmer took the egg home and placed it under one of his brooding hens.  Finally, the egg hatched and out came an eaglet.  The hen took charge of this chick along with the other chickens and raised it like the others.  The baby eagle learned to peck for food in the barnyard.  It learned to fly short distances to escape the cat or a fox and never took to the sky.

One day the eagle who thinks it is a chook looked up and saw a large and striking bird.  This bird soared on the air currents and glided through the skies.  The eagle-chook was transfixed by the wonderous sight.  It was completely in awe of this magnificent bird and commented to his neighbour.  The neighbour looked up and said, ‘Ah, that is the eagle, a regal bird and King/Queen of the skies!’

‘Wow, I wonder what it would be like to soar like that and be so grand?’ said the eagle-chook.

His neighbour scoffed and told him to stop dreaming – we are only chooks.  So, they went back to pecking in the barnyard for grain and seed and the eagle never really became what it could and should have been.  Again, I wonder how often this story is lived out in the lives of people who never discover their full potential and true calling.

This week we read the story of Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:15-22).  It comes around every year from the perspective of a different Gospel writer.  The scene is set when people come out of the city to hear John the Baptist, a raw, honest prophetic voice calling people to come and have minds, being and hearts turned upside down and inside out, to become the people God created them to be.  He invites people into a repentance, a turning around and opening of mind, heart and spirit and to live in a new, hope-filled, compassionate way.  They came in droves, expectantly and hopefully.

John’s preaching is against the backdrop of struggle, harsh life and people yearn for something more, something hopeful and real.  John is, in effect, waking the people up and calling forth their ‘inner eagle’.  His words are sometimes harsh, strong, pointed and always grounded in love, compassion, generosity, justice and peace.  John offers a baptism, a ritual cleansing that symbolises their turning around and embracing a new way in God.  The people respond to John and believe he is the Messiah, sent by God to lead the people back to where they need to be.  John recoils from this expectation, pointing to one who will come, who is greater and will baptise in cleansing, renewing fire and life-giving Holy Spirit.

At the end of the passage Jesus appears but we aren’t clear about whether his baptism is by John or others because John is said to have been arrested by the King, whom his words have upset and caused anger.  Jesus was baptised, cleansed, renewed and offering himself into this way of deep life, love and grace.  After rising through the waters, Jesus prayed.  He prays often in Luke’s Gospel and his prayers are efficacious in bringing new awareness and understanding, new directions and they change everything.  Whilst praying there is the mysterious mystical experience whereby he receives Divine blessing and the pronouncement that ‘You are my Son the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

After baptism and blessing, Jesus is driven into the wilderness, the place of testing, temptation, seduction/temptation to let go of this way, this journey, this ideology and expectation of God.  The voice says: ‘Let go and be like everyone else’ – asleep. Jesus resists as he does throughout his life and mission and follows the way of God; a way of compassionate, engaged, just life that is lived in blinding technicolour.

It is into this spiritual journey we are invited to follow.  We are invited into the reality of relationship in God.  We are children of God and find our being, our calling and our life in God where all things find their balance and we discover whom we are created to be.  We no longer have to prove ourselves or live in fear.  We don’t have to fight and judge or define but are free to be and live in relationship with God, others and all creation! We are free to soar like the eagle we are created to be, to awaken and live in the bright, wondrous moment that is a gift and joy.

By geoffstevenson

The Journey into Enlightenment…

There’s a story of a woman sitting by the hospital bedside of her very sick husband.  Time ticks very slowly by and nothing seems to change.  She feels the despair well up within her and looks out of the window into the midnight darkness.  The woman needs to move, to walk, to get out of the room for a bit and wanders off through the eerily silent corridors of the hospital wards.  As she walks the deep reality of her grief hits her and though it is quiet and she alone, she heads for the lifts.  Riding up and down, the tears flow in the silent privacy that enfolds her.  Suddenly there is the telling ping of the lift signalling it stopping at a floor.  In this dark and desperate place, where peace and pain comingle, an elderly gentleman enters the lift.  He presses the button for his floor and then silently stands to the side. There has only been the gentle nod of acknowledgement and she hopes her tears have been quickly hidden as she wiped them with the back of her hand.  She continues to look down.  After a moment he gently removes a neatly folded handkerchief and, with a kind and knowing smile, passes it to her.  She looks up into his understanding eyes, the kindness and compassion radiating from there and offers a nod and sad smile back.

When the lift pings for a second time, he looks up then nods to her and quietly walks from the lift. There was something in his manner, his calm embrace of her pain in his gentle mannerisms, kind smile and a compassionate, understanding act that touched her and gave her a sense of peace in the midst of her pain.  As she rode the lift back up and emerged onto her husband’s floor, she felt calmly embraced by the presence of God and knew that whatever happened over the next hours, she would be okay.  She would be okay!

She sat back by her husband’s side and felt the peace and grace of the moment.  In her darkness, in this place of despair and pain, this woman encountered God!  In the darkness of night there was a gentle light that radiated through her and lit her world with a renewed hope, love and life – even in the midst of her sadness and the precarious nature of her husband’s health.

Sometimes the journey into ‘light’ comes unexpectedly such as in this story.  Sometimes the light shines before us and leads us into the unfolding experience of wonder, awe and life.  This is much as we experienced last year in our visit to Uluru and Kata Tjuta (of which I’ve written before).  It was a journey in which we were drawn, finally, into this place of deep spiritual wonder and significance, a place where God’s presence is very real.  I discovered some of this feeling in my first visit to Ebenezer Church, out past Wilberforce.  It is the oldest continually used Church in Australia – 210 years this year.  I wandered from the simple car park and saw the church, a simple sandstone structure.  I walked through past it and the old ‘Schoolmaster’s Cottage’ and the whole site opened up.  It slopes gently down to the Hawkesbury River and the wonder of the whole place struck me in an instant!  It is impossible to really convey the sense of awe and spiritual presence that exists at Ebenezer Church.  Pilgrims come from far and wide to sit and ponder, to experience and feel the Presence.  Some have a name and understanding, and others only know that it is real, and they feel renewed and alive in this place.  It is what the Celtic Christians would call a ‘Thin Place’, a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin and we feel the very Presence of the Divine, of Love, of grace.  For some who venture to Ebenezer Church, it is a pilgrimage where they are drawn and are expectant.  Others stumble onto the site and discover its wonder.

Sometimes we find our journey into enlightenment and wonder one in which we are drawn by a ‘seductive light’, something that lures us, promises something or demands our attention.  Other times we stumble through darkness and are surprised by wonder.  Often enlightenment and grace are found in very ordinary places that are imbued with Divine Presence and wonder.  Other times we find ourselves before true beauty or magnificence and it fills our being to overflowing with delight and awe.  I have had breathtaking and wondrous moments of awe walking along a simple track and seeing a tree, a simple but profound tree – or a flower or even the black snake I saw off the track the other day slithering with grace and delicacy.  The call of the birds – shrill of cockatoos, screech of parrots or the distinctive call of bellbirds.  The cuddle of the dog and his gentle lick as he looks into your eyes and seeks reassurance he is loved and safe.  A simple meal shared in love and grace or a conversation in which we are real and open.  The delight of music and a special song or piece that cuts through my being and moves me.  A story of courage and love, life and hope, justice and peace.  All these things and more are moments in which to behold the Presence of the Divine in, around and through me and the world – the gracious Presence of God!

This week we conclude the season of Christmas on Sunday, with its story of Magi (aka ‘Wise men’) who visit the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12).  They are astrologers and read into the stars the birth of a new king and following a particular star end up off course in the Holy City of Jerusalem.  Foreign wise people may well expect a king to be born in a Holy City, a big city but they were wrong.  In a conversation with the local king, who consults his Jewish wise leaders, they are directed towards the insignificant, lowly village of Bethlehem.  King Herod was a local tyrant, jealous and vicious.  He asked them to come and report back after they found the king – he had evil intentions to murder his new rival!  They go and arrive at a house in the town where an infant lives with his parents and they bow before him, acknowledging that they are in the Presence of Divine wonder and awe.  They present gifts.  They then leave by another route, warned in a dream not to return to Herod.  Herod goes onto threaten all the male children in the region and the Holy Family flee as refugees into Egypt (as their ancestors did centuries earlier under another Joseph).

In this story the Magi discover wonder, awe and Divine Presence in an ordinary, lowly place.  It is an unanticipated place because it has little worth in the world’s eyes.  The humble family who become refugees are the antithesis of what we expect in a ‘royal family,’ or where we expect to find the Presence of God.  The Magi’s quest takes them away from power, privilege and into the lowly places where the presence of God takes form in the unrecognisable, the unimaginable and the vulnerable – a baby of poor parents in a backward place. Whatever it is they were seeking, they find what they want and need in this One in whom the Presence of God is revealed most deeply – and in vulnerable powerlessness.

May we seek wisdom, life and enlightenment in the simple and profound places of our world, expecting the unexpected God to be revealed in surprising and wondrous ways and forms – even when we least expect it.  For those who have eyes to see there will be light!

By geoffstevenson

Lost, Found, and Seeking in the Darkness…

Have you ever been lost?  How do you feel when lost or you lose something or someone?  Several years ago, in our first Christmas in a new home, we returned home on Christmas night – to a very quiet house!  The problem was that there should have been friendly faces at the gate, barking and jumping with delight to see us home.  Normally our two dogs, Naomi (x Collie) and Nehemiah (Golden Retriever), would hear the car and run around to the gate.  Perhaps they had fallen asleep on the other side of the house or ventured underneath the house out of the heat?  We quickly took the tired children inside and unloaded the car.  My grandmother was with us and as we looked around the yard and called the dog’s names, she put the kids to bed.  We discovered a gate open and no sign of the wild beasts we were expecting to greet us.

We quickly told Nan of the situation and for her to keep the fort whilst we went looking.  One drove, the other walked the neighbourhood looking for roaming dogs.  After an hour or so we had found Naomi, and she seemed relieved to be taken home and fed.  We plodded the streets for a while longer but could not find the missing Golden Retriever.  He could be anywhere!

We went home and went to bed, concerned, worried about the beloved, young dog.  Sleep was not easy to come by but eventually we slid into exhausted slumber.  We arose in the morning, wondering where Nehemiah was now.  Was he been completely lost and wandering aimlessly?  Had he ventured onto a main road and been hit by a car?  Did someone find him and lock him up to take to the dog pound?  As we were pondering his where-abouts, Susan opened the front door and there he was sleeping on the door mat.  We let him inside and he drank a large quantity of water then went back to sleep.  We have no idea where he was or what he got up to – except there must have been food associated with it because he was not hungry!

To us, the dogs were lost.  They were not where they should be and we, the owners, didn’t know where they were.  I’m not sure how you read the minds of dogs, but I can’t help wondering if they experienced a sense of being lost?  Did they always know where they were and where home was?  Did they experience their freedom as something natural and an adventure that would finally return them home?

I don’t know the answers to these kinds of questions, but I do know that the sense of being lost can be disorienting, confusing, scary and can engender deep concern.  I know that losing something or someone can be an experience causing deep worry, anxiety and even fear.  If the person/object stays lost, then sadness and grief prevail.

Being lost feels strange.  I have had the experience of not knowing where I am and having no landmarks to help me.  I remember one night returning home from a meeting in a place that was unfamiliar.  I set off home on the reverse route to that which I’d taken to get to the place.  All was good for the first 10-15 minutes and then I was confronted by an intersection that looked different from this direction and in the dark of night.  I chose one path and after several kilometres realised I wasn’t where I thought I should be.  In fact I didn’t know where I should be – nor where I was.  Should I turn around and try to retrace my ‘steps’?  Should I just keep driving until I recognised something – surely there would eventually be a familiar sign or landmark?  It was the days before mobile phones and Google maps and voice telling you where to go.  I thought about the street directory but I was on a main road and couldn’t stop – should I turn off, stop and read?  As the minutes went by, I felt deepening desperation and anxiety, such that I didn’t think very clearly.

Finally, I took a deep breath, calmed down and recognised that I needed to head to the left because that was the direction I should be going.  I found a major kind of road, turned left and found somewhere to pull over and tried to look at the directory.  It was dark and hard to read but I got a sense of the neighbourhood I was in and the direction I needed to take.  I found a main road to follow that would get me to somewhere I knew and I could go from there.  Eventually I found familiar territory and made my way home.  I was lost before I realised I was lost and when I realised it I began to panic and feel overwhelmed and confused, concerned and anxious.  When I calmed down, I realised I was heading in the wrong direction and needed some guidance.  Eventually I recognised familiar places and was able to get home.

This week’s gospel (Luke 2:41-52) comes after the stories of Jesus’ birth and the wonder and joy of this news.  His parents have gone through the religious traditions of dedication in the Temple and cleansing rituals.  This story ends the cycle of Luke’s introductory section and is situated in Jerusalem and the Temple.  Jesus’ family and relatives have been in Jerusalem for the religious festival of Passover.  Following the festival, they are part of the large caravan of travellers returning home to the region of Galilee.  After a day’s journey Jesus’ parents realise Jesus is not with them.  They search the caravan but to no avail – he is missing, lost!  They were filled with fear and anxiety and returned to Jerusalem to search for their lost son.  After the third day (do you get the reference?) they found him in the Temple and his mother gave it to him!!  Every parent of an independent teenager knows how this goes – ‘Why did you do this to us?  We’ve been looking for you everywhere!’ Jesus is perplexed because, for him, it seemed obvious he would be in ‘his father’s house.’  The story tells of how he is listening and asking questions, making observations and decisions and everyone in the Temple is amazed.

The story seems simple enough until you realise that the theme of being lost reverberates through the narrative.  Who is lost?  Is it Jesus in the Temple?  At first, this is the obvious indication – he is lost from his parent’s perspective.  But as the story evolves, the roles seem to reverse and perhaps it is his parents, religious and devout but lost, whilst Jesus finds himself in the space of God’s Reign.

Throughout the Gospel, Luke will tell stories of being lost – a lost coin, a lost sheep and a lost son (aka The Prodigal Son).  He will indicate that the adult Jesus has come to seek and save the lost.  This story invites us, in the midst of Christmas hubris, to ponder whether we have found ourselves in the Christmas story or do we remain among the lost of the world, seeking, always seeking but not always realising we are lost.

As the world turns and yearns, zigs and zags and seeks its way, Christmas lingers for a few more days yet, inviting us into a place of life and joy, peace and hope, love and grace.  The Christ-child born into the darkness of the world radiates light for all who will look, see and respond.  Jesus grew in wisdom and favour with people and God, as he gave himself more fully into God’s grace – the way for you and me as we seek life and hope.

By geoffstevenson

It Is Christmas!

And Christmas comes in the unexpected, strangeness of Divine mystery.  There are the stories of Matthew and Luke that tell of virgin and baby, backwater Bethlehem, fluffy animals and distant visitors, insignificant people amidst power and might.  There is also a profound story in John (John 1:1-18) that takes us back farther into the time beyond time, the Realm beyond space the before that was before anything.  John says that there was the Word, a form, a blueprint at the heart of everything that could and would ever be.  This Word was with God and was God (but what is God? – another word that betrays a mystery that is deeper and more profound than we can comprehend?).  This Word embraced flesh, the physical, material world that emanated from the Word in the beginning when time first became and 3-dimensional space was.  This creative Word, a blueprint of God imbuing all being, embraced flesh and moved into our neighbourhood – pitched tent and lived among us!  The Word that is God so blessed the material that the Word became us and lived with, in and through us as flesh and Spirit, as enchanted, sacred mystery that fills life with wonder, awe and rich beautiful meaning!

This Christmas story is not replete with the symbols we so dearly hold and know, as familiar – the tree, the baby, the simple parents in a cattle stall, kings bearing gifts, the star and angels…  This Christmas story has a raw power to tear through our desire to control, define and know.  When we want to hold everything in stunning simple clarity, this story declares paradox, mystery and invites us to let go and gaze in wonder at the love that is at the very heart of everything that is.

Christmas comes to us in profound moments of enlightenment, when our eyes open, our ears hear and our spirits encounter the mystery of wonder we call God.  This may be in the very simple beauty that inhabits our world, that which we take for granted, the daily miracles of life and living.  Christmas may come in the momentous occasions that change us through a deep grief, a profound love or an awe-inspiring wonder that hold sus transfixed.  Christmas is an inner transformation, an experience that transcends the ordinary and connects us into the deeper power of Love in which we live and move and have our being.  This Love is the relational reality of God, the flow that holds Father, Son and Spirit (Creator, Christ and Spirit) in creative community and emanates out into everything that is.

Christmas is not in the symbols or even the story but to the experience to which these point – the experience of grace in which we are face to face with God and glimpse the profound love in which we are truly held.  Christmas is the experience of hope and joy in which we know profoundly that whatever happens nothing can separate us from this Love that holds us.  Christmas is the opening of our eyes and hearts and hands to embrace others into our care and compassion with generosity and freedom.  We are delivered from fear and exclusion, the desire for conflict or hatred and judgement of others as we live and move and find life in this Christmas reality and the presence of God breaking in again and again and again!

May you encounter the profound life and Love at the heart of everything as you contemplate the coming of the Christ in the special celebrations of Christmas and in every day beyond.

A Christmas Poem

A Eucalypt blossom signals summer’s arrival.

It floods the tree with bright orange-red and stops me each day.

I pass it and wonder at its simple beauty; it is profound.

There are the abundant Jacarandas decorated in mauve beauty,

A carpet of plush purple flowers lines my path along the creek.

Parrots swarm and screech, singing of summer’s arrival with lusty joy.

The creek flows steadily downstream through bushland beauty.

The sun filters through the trees that glimmer in early light.

This is a rich place, filled with enchanted wonder and awe,

…with the Divine.

In the beginning before there was anything, there was – a mystery,

… a Word, a force or power or non-being Being

– a relational community of Love, we call ‘God’

From this Divine Community, a Mystery of life burst out in a Big Bang explosion of Loving creativity

And all became; order, life, everything we know, became.

This Word embraced flesh and moved into the neighbourhood

To live with and in and through us – Divine love and mystery

 

We celebrate the imprinting of human life with Divine blessing

We celebrate Divine enfleshment in a baby’s birth

A simple, young woman blessed above the powerful

A backwater town in meagre surroundings

So the story goes, Word and flesh kissed, a Divine mystery

Lowly shepherds celebrated

Pagan Magi worshipped and a despot ruler murdered

A star lit the sky as the Light of the World radiated our darkness

An angel chorus sang and the world was blessed

 

Now lights fill the night, displaying sleighs, a red-dressed man

Snow, reindeers, tinsel and trees.

Parties and gifts, feasts with family

Cards and greetings, and hopeful expectation

As we await – Christmas.

Beyond this excitement the Christ gently arrives

To touch each life with blessed, sacred, Divine life,

A gift to renew and lift and reorient, to inspire and enlighten

A love that arrives from the heart of everything to hold us in grace.

 

 

By geoffstevenson

A Christmas Song that Turns Everything Upside Down!

Well I’ve now sung/played carols a couple of times (less than most years I must say) and wandered through shopping centres with stores decorated from respectable and nice to garish and gaudy.  One pop-up shop in the local mall has the widest range of Christmas decorations possible and they are mostly way-out awful.  I have tasted the Christmas muzak, a painfully nondescript, sentimentalised range of ordinary music aimed to not offend anyone and yet supposedly lighten one’s mood – it doesn’t help me!

It’s a funny time of the year.  There are more conversations and well-wishing, questions and hope, but also more stress and rush, tiredness – and storms.  It was in the middle of this diverse, sometimes confusing plethora of images, emotions and expectations, that I picked up a novel I’d read some years ago.  It is by Susan Howatch and one of a series on prominent features and people of the Church of England in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The current novel is called ‘Glamorous Powers’.  It deals with an Anglican Priest who has been an Anglo-Catholic Monk for 17 years following his wife’s death and his children having left home to pursue their own lives.  He receives a vision and believes he is called by God to leave the monastic life and re-enter the world to engage in a new and different ministry.  After a very deep and searching process with his spiritual director and the Abbott-General of the Order, he is released from his vows and leaves with the order’s blessing.

I was struck by the observations the priest made on re-entering the world after 17 years in a very disciplined life, somewhat isolated from the world and focussed on deep and significant issues, including offering counselling to many people who were struggling in life.  He spends his first week with his married daughter, who is a busy house-wife raising their two children and keeping the home. His son-in-law is an executive on the rise, and also very busy.  Their life revolves around the home, work and ensuring they are keeping up appearances with their friends and neighbours.  In the background is WWII and the increasing difficulties faced in London with bombings and the war-effort.

When Jon, the priest, is picked up by his daughter from the station, he is surprised by the lavishness of their car (he calls it a ‘motor’) and on the ride home, his daughter talks incessantly – about very little in Jon’s opinion.  She says: ‘…and how excited you must be to return to the world at last after being cut off for so many years.’  After he protests that he wasn’t cut off, she goes on: ‘But you couldn’t do any of the real things, could you, like going to the shops or listening to the wireless or chatting with the neighbours about the weather.’  Jon cuts in saying, ‘That’s reality?’  He reflects that she is like so many people who talk about everything but say nothing.

The strangest thing for him is her excitement about their new refrigerator.  She speaks of it in such glowing terms that he is confused and astonished.  It is only a refrigerator!  She talks about everything but most of it feels superficial to one who has spent 17 years wrestling with the deepest questions of meaning and life, whose limited conversations have revolved around topics of profound significance, both for individuals engaged in counselling and with brother monks seeking to be the very best they can be before God.  Their lives embrace the profound spiritual reality that they see in everything – their garden, their work, their engagement with people in need, their prayer and worship, their reading, their prayers for the world and its struggles…  From their perspective of engaging deeply with the inner, spiritual life and engaging in the Life and Being of God, there is a different way of viewing life and the world, one that challenges conventional wisdom and common experience.  It is a way that seeks compassion, mercy, community, and equality in God.

As I read these reflections of a priest re-entering the world of common life, I was challenged by my own daily expectations, concerns and even hopes.  I realised how easy it is for me to be caught up in trivia, engaging in debate or ‘serious’ conversation about things that may not be of ultimate importance or even necessary.  It is easy to have my expectations and priorities formed by the public discourse and media ‘reporting’ or social media and anything that makes an appearance on the screen I am holding in any particular moment.  How many of these priorities, issues and expectations are really important?

In the back of my mind, as I read and write, I have the particular song that makes its appearance every year at this time.  It is called Mary’s Song (or the Magnificat) and is found in Luke’s story of Jesus (Luke 1:37-56).  In this story, Mary receives word from an angel that she will give birth to a son and he shall be of God.  Mary, young, single (but engaged), insignificant Mary, visits her cousin, Elizabeth who is also pregnant with another great leader – John the Baptist.  When they embrace it is Elizabeth’s child who ‘jumps in the womb’ and Elizabeth exclaims that she is blessed because the Lord’s mother has visited her!  Mary, simple Mary launches into a song of praise.  In it she praises God who would deign to choose her, a simple, innocent, insignificant young girl, to bear the Christ-child.  Of all the people in this world who are more significant and worthier of such a grace, she is chosen!

The profound nature of this story is that Luke names, through his first 2 chapters, the important, powerful and significant people of his world – and the places they inhabit.  There are kings, rulers, priests and of course the Emperor!  They live in palaces, large cities and they are surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power.  These are important, powerful and significant people.  Alongside these, Luke names a host of insignificant, powerless people who rise to the top of Luke’s world and understanding.  In the 9th decade of the 1st century when Luke was writing, it was these lowly people who were remembered with reverence and awe, for they were the ones through whom God worked!

Mary sings about God’s upside-down values and world-changing ways.  The rich and powerful will be brought low and the lowly lifted high.  The hungry will be fed and those who have too much food will go hungry.  Mary of all people is lifted high and honoured despite being a nobody in the world’s eyes.  Mary’s song is a profound challenge to the stories that populate the daily papers, the evening news or the flashes of updates on social media.  Like Jon leaving his monastic life, Mary reveals a deeper reality that lies beyond the superficial realities of daily living.  These things of life are not unimportant, but they find deeper purpose and meaning in the bigger story of life, faith, hope and love that flows from the heart of God.

There is simple wonder and profound awe to be experienced all around us in the world and its beauty – plants, trees, lakes, streams, animals, birds, relationships, simple meals, laughter and joy.  Life is to be lived and savoured in simple and profound ways and in the presence of the One who holds all in grace, love, hope and peace!  That is Christmas!

By geoffstevenson