A Humble, Vulnerable Path of Love and Life

Last weekend was a tough one in our household as our elderly Lab (15 year and 7 months old) finally succumbed to the struggles of age and declining health.  We nearly lost him a couple of times along the way and in some ways it was not unexpected and yet it still came on quickly.  He went from wandering around in his aimless, happy way to collapsing and unable to move himself very suddenly.  We gathered around and said farewell to our old mate.  We also brought out the photos – some in print form but most on some device or other – reflecting the various moods of Nebo.

Nebo was a lovely, gentle old dog, although in his younger days his eagerness to be everybody’s best friend was a bit full on and bowled people over.  He had a face that instantly drew people in – friendly, inviting, sometimes pathetic and his big brown eyes engaged you fully.  Nebo was a faithful, friendly, loveable, and loving animal to other dogs, animals, and humans.  I can’t remember him having enemies or really getting angry and rough with anyone or anything, even when playing.  There was a humility and vulnerability about Nebo.  He owned nothing in his life and was quite dependent upon us for most of his primary needs.  He lived in the moment and enjoyed what was happening in that moment – even sleeping, but especially eating.  ‘Now’ was the moment when life was lived – not yesterday of last week, nor tomorrow or even an hour’s time. 

Perhaps one of the most significant things I learn from Nebo, beyond patience, persistence and perseverance, faithfulness, loyalty… is that he was who he was.  Nebo, like all of our pets are who they are and don’t try to be anything different!  They don’t try to become another, more impressive animal or even a different species of dog.  They don’t try to be something they are not.  It is fascinating that dogs are what they are, but so are the trees and creek, and so many other elements of creation.  It seems that it is only us humans who try to be what we aren’t, to impress others and become what we think we’d like to be, something more popular.

I read an interesting blog through the week where the person suggested that power as it is mostly experienced in our world, circles around numbers.  Numbers and popularity are important for powerful people to maintain their power and control, whether through fear and control or through gaining popularity and numbers.  So much of our world is around convincing others of the ‘rightness’ of a particular path, a particular belief system or ideology.  There is much competition around ideas, beliefs, power, wealth, fame and about being correct.  There is much self-esteem and ego invested in being popular or powerful or right or…  We often live for the sake of impressing others, gaining respect, fitting into the dominant group, appeasing others whom we fear…  This becomes tiring and wearing.  It leads us into a place of confusion over who we are as we become what think we need to be within the context we find ourselves in.  Playing the numbers game can lead us into accepting particular systems of belief and practice that are not true to who we are nor ultimately life-giving.  We can find ourselves moving in directions that lead us away from our core experience, beliefs or sense of being because we fear getting off-side with other people of power, influence or authority.

Something of this lies behind the particular readings our churches will read this week – Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13.  In the Philippians poem Paul, some years after Jesus, tried to reflect something of the vulnerable and humble nature of Jesus who draws us into a relationship of love and interconnectivity, of relational, inclusive community.  He describes how Christ takes on flesh and is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, a limiting, vulnerable and humble state.  He proceeds in the way of truth, love and justice rather than seek ways of appealing to popularity or power – so much so, he is ultimately crucified.  Jesus heads in a direction where power and wealth become uncomfortable with his words, his influence and his passion.  Instead of compromising his way, the way of God, Jesus stands firm and recognises that he must be true to who he is and true to God but this path will lead to death!  This is a humble and vulnerable path of love.

The story from Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus confronting religious leaders.  They don’t like his presumptive ways.  Jesus forgives people and speaks of God as loving all people and embracing the poor, ignorant and wayward.  He forgives people in God’s name and lifts them into an awareness of God’s love for them and all people – and all the earth. 

In this story from Matthew, Jesus speaks of a father with 2 sons.  He asks the first, the one who is obliging, obedient and in a good space to do something.  The son agrees: he offers the pious affirmation to the father.  It is, in a sense, about belief, giving ascent to the father but he doesn’t actually do anything.  The second, wayward son is also asked and he says no, you know I won’t or can’t…  He does not hold to the belief system and does not affirm anything in his father’s statement, but he goes and does the very thing his father wants.  Jesus is not so subtly suggesting that those who give ascent to God don’t necessarily do what God wants – ie. love!  Similarly, not everyone who refuses to give ascent to God fails to do what God really wants – they may choose the way of love, and sometimes without even realising it.

Both of these stories invite us into the deeper story and meaning of what it is to be human.  Whilst the religious leaders defend their turf on the grounds of Scripture, tradition and law, they are defending a status quo in which they benefit but has little to do with love and what God is really about.  The Jesus portrayed by Paul is one who is humble and loving and is motivated by compassion and the pull of love.  This Jesus Story is one that welcomes us into its transformative richness.  It opens our vision to deeper mystery and wonder and the profound power of love – for God, other people and the earth.

Our beloved dog, Nebo, reminds me of the beauty of vulnerability, humility and learning to be who I am rather than impress others by being someone I’m not.  I am also encouraged to live in the way of love, which is the way of Jesus and to live this out in all parts of my being – because this is who I am called to be and the way into deeper humanity and life.  Our world needs less ego, less protestations of power, less lusting after control, wealth, fame and more loving humility and grace.  More of Nebo would bring a peaceful, gentle world where we would gather around food and play, take time for sleep and rest, be eager to befriend anyone and everyone and live life fully in each moment.

Jesus’ way is vulnerable, gentle, loving, just and inclusive.  It takes great courage and a deep sense of our own identity, found fully in our status of being loved in God and not having to prove ourselves because we are loved as we are and invited to simply ‘be’.

By geoffstevenson

Extravagant, Generous Love in A World of Scarcity

Why do so many birds have such exotic colours?  A friend often posts pictures of obscure birds that have the most brilliant and beautiful colours.  There’s also butterflies.  At Kuranda, in Northern Queensland, there is a butterfly farm and the colours of these beautiful insects are magnificent – but why so many colours? Or fish in the tropical oceans?  Why the exotic colours of fish and coral and…?

Or why are there so many different and wonderful (and not so wonderful!) sounds, with different textures, tones, timbres?  Why so much diversity and wonder across our world?  What does all the extra colour, sound, texture an extravagance mean?  What is its purpose?  I suppose there are scientific possibilities for some of this diversity but it seems extravagant and wonderful – and overabundant! 

In the video reflection I showed some (well many) photos I have taken from around Australia and I continue to marvel at the diversity and beauty of this strange, ancient continent.  From the red, dry soil of the interior, with its deep blue skies and strange, exotic flora and fauna – and of course the marvellous and deeply sacred Uluru and Kata Tjuta that stand tall and majestic in the desert, holding ancient spirituality and story.  The skies out there are full of brilliant stars at distances that are impossibly far away. 

The Top End has the most profound and diverse wildlife, wetlands and beauty but it is so different from other places on this strange continent.  Kakadu, with its rivers, crocodiles, bird life, escarpment and ancient stories is truly beautiful and spiritual.  A few hundred kilometres to the right and we end up in the midst of tropical rainforest of Northern Queensland, with indescribable beauty of flowers, plants, trees, rainforest, beaches, lakes and of course the Great Barrier Reef.  The fish and sea life are astounding and, to me at least, mysterious and curious.  A journey to the South-West of this strange land is filled with beautiful beaches, tall Kauri forests with magnificent trees rising tall to the sky.  Amazing wildflowers line the roads and fill gardens, parklands and are overwhelmingly beautiful and diversely abundant.  The North-West changes again, with tall cliffs and still unchartered waters, wild and brilliant, shining in the early morning sun.  Broome comes alive as the sun sets across Cable Beach, with its camels and four-wheel drives across the broad and beautiful beach.

There is so much more – Sydney Harbour, Blue Mountains, the inland plains or wine country and so much more.  Beauty, diversity, abundance and extravagant colour!  Then the animals, birds, marine life, insects, reptiles… are diverse, coloured, abundant and strange.  All of this, for me, speaks of the love and grace of God, who creates such beauty – for beauty’s sake.  God, the artist extraordinaire, fills the Earth with abundant, generous, lavish beauty and it is all there for us to see, enjoy, appreciate and live with in harmony and gentle relationship.  Which, of course, we don’t!

And that is the problem.  Lavish beauty, generous diversity and abundant wonder are freely available.  There is more than enough for everyone and it is all there – every day.  For some reason, humans have developed the knack of accumulating more than we need and protecting it for all we are worth.  We accumulate as individuals, small groups (and families), communities and nations.  We then protect what we have from those who are different.  Built into human society is the competitive streak that strives to get more, have more, own more, be more and fight those who are threatening or different.  We build our own tribal groups, compose our rules and laws and exclude those who are different or don’t fit, or we don’t like…

This week I have found Jesus’ story in Matthew 20:1-16, confronting, challenging and one that might liberate our world.  It is a story of a wealthy landowner who goes into the market to hire workers for the day.  He arrives early chooses his workforce and they get down to business.  Later he goes back and hires more and then again in the middle of the day and later afternoon.  At day’s end the workers gather to receive their pay.  Those who were hired last receive the full day’s pay – but so do those who worked all day.  Everyone received the same amount for their work.  Those who started early complained that it wasn’t fair.  They had worked a whole day and these newly-arrived workers only a couple of hours – surely they deserved more.

The landowner asked them if they received the agreed amount, a fair day’s pay for the work they had done.  It was reasonable, they agreed but those who worked less should not receive the same amount.  The landowner asked them if it wasn’t his right to be generous to those who came late?  Could he not do what he wanted with his money?  Could he not be generous?

I was shocked, yet again by the story and all its implications as I pondered it.  The early workers complained about the unfairness of those who worked longer hours only receiving the same as those who started much later.  Most of us would as well.  It doesn’t sound fair.  Across our society there are always cries when people receive ‘money for nothing.’  Those who are unemployed are called all manner of things, including lazy, because they won’t work.  There are many assumptions made about a diverse group of people, for whom life isn’t exactly easy.  The first programs to be cut when there is stress on the economy are usually those for marginalised or impoverished people or communities, whilst taxing the rich is taboo.

In my reflection on this story, I realised that the landowner approached the group of workers from the perspective of need rather than work.  He paid them according to need rather than work done.  They were all dependent upon available work to feed families and they ventured to the marketplace each morning in the hope of securing work.  Some were younger, fitter, stronger, healthier…  Others were older, weaker, less fit or healthy and they all competed for the available spots.  I can imagine some people securing all the work whilst others struggled.  The fact remained that each had families to support and needed money.  The wealthy landowner responded to need not work.

The parable challenges me to ponder the unfairness of our systems – not because some are lazy and get handouts but because some have managed to accumulate the majority of wealth and power and lord it over the rest.  Some countries have more than enough resources of food, education, housing… and others have far too little (and even in some of those there is exploitation where a few rich and powerful take the lion’s share and further deprive the desperate).  There is enough food, resources, love and beauty for everyone – if we share.

In God’s economy, there is more than enough, and we are challenged to include, embrace and share from the lavish, generous, beautiful gifts God has provided for the world.

By geoffstevenson

Through Darkness and Change into New Life!

A few weeks ago, after a few days of heavy rain, Nico and I were thwarted on our daily walk along Toongabbie Creek.  Instead of taking the ‘high road’ and around to the road bridge across the creek, we walked along the creek to cross over a rocky platform that usually provides easy passage.  The rains had raised the river level and the little creek was a raging river!  The rocks where we normally cross were covered by raging water and Nico stopped short, confused and suddenly lost.  He knew we normally crossed here but it was different and we were cut off.

There have been many times when I’ve been ‘cut off’.   I remember driving through a relatively new housing area along a main thoroughfare.  On the map it was a through road but when I was confronted by a solid fence, behind which was a road construction plant and mounds of earth and gravel, I realised I was cut off.  There was no way through, nor even around this section without leaving the area altogether and effectively starting the journey again, which I did – and ran late!  There are places I have been prevented from entering for one reason or another and barriers that have kept me moving forward.

Many of these barriers have been physical and blocked my path on a journey.  Other barriers have been legal, financial, cultural, emotional, psychological or spiritual.  There are barriers that block our way and prevent us for moving forward – sometimes we cannot go forward not back. 

Some of the most difficult barriers come in the midst of grief and loss.  There is a moment, which can extend on for some time, that is called the liminal space.  It is that space where the confusion, disorientation and overwhelming despair holds us in its grip.  In this space, that feels dark and cold, lonely and desperate, we feel caught between the ‘what was’ and the ‘what will be.’  We discover that we can’t go back to what was but imagining any new future is beyond us.

I remember, several times, feeling this strange experience of being lost in a ‘nowhere land.’  In times of grief, loss or deep change I have felt disoriented and helpless before the forces and powers that have overwhelmed me.  Perhaps the deepest and darkest of these experiences was mum’s death when I was 24.  It came over a couple of years as she battled Ovarian Cancer.  I remember feeling this strange sense of confusion and disorientation as everything I’d known was suddenly different, changed, no longer real.  Mum has been part of my whole life and always there and now she wasn’t.  How could like continue on?  How could I continue to live when a significant part of everything I’d known was no longer there?  Could life rearrange itself and continue on in a new way?  These were the kinds of questions that I was confronted with.  They came and went as we struggled through the various stages and processes of grief and the work of death.  Feelings ebbed and flowed, raged and overwhelmed, dissolving into confusion and uncertainty.  There was the sense of a barrier, an impossible gulf between how things were and even imagining the future. 

This gulf is not unique, nor unusual.  It is a liminal space that is like a black hope of confusion and powerlessness.  You can’t move forward but you cannot go back.  You feel stuck ‘in a moment you can’t get out of,’ to quote U2.  It is a moment that goes on and requires us to take on the grief, to live through it rather than avoid it or try and distract ourselves from it.  The pain and confusion are real and need to be embraced, lived through, confronted and dealt with. 

The story that confronts me this week is from Exodus 14.  It is somewhat familiar and depicted in epic fashion by Charlton Heston in Cecil B. De Mille’s epic saga, The Ten Commandments.  Heston played Moses, the chosen leader to bring liberation to the Hebrew people who were slaves in Egypt.  After a variety of plagues and challenges, the Pharaoh gave in and the Hebrew slaves left homes and life in Egypt for a new future.  They left in a hurry taking only what they could carry and fled into the wilderness towards the holy mountain, Sinai, to worship God.  As they travelled the full realisation of the struggle became apparent and their complaining began – why did they agree to leave their stable, relatively secure homes where there was somewhere to sleep, food to eat, even if slavery was tough?

They wondered about turning around, until one day they saw, in the distance behind them, a dust cloud – the Egyptian armies were in pursuit.  There was no going back!!  The door to the past was closed and they headed onwards until they came up against a large body of water – the Red Sea.  As the story goes, told in a variety of ways and celebrating liberation and life, the people cried out to God through Moses.  God told him to reach out his staff and touch the waters so they would divide and the people could pass through.  The story describes parting waters and the people walking through on dry land as the pursuing Egyptian armies gained ground.  As the last Hebrew walked through the parted waters, Moses touched the waters again with his staff and the sea closed in on the Egyptian armies that were making their way through in pursuit. 

It is a wonderful story that gets captured by minds that want to prove, disprove, defend and literalise – all the while missing the simple beauty of the story.  It is a story of grace and God is the mystery in the midst of it all, the One who walks with the people and holds them in the dark places of life and grief, loss and confusion.

I found myself on that bank before the ‘Red Sea’ of grief and hopelessness.  I was in their place, unable to go back but unable to imagine a way forward, caught in the ‘betwixt and between’ of past and future.  I couldn’t move and felt stuck.  That is a normal experience and difficult.  One day I woke to the reality that life had moved on and somehow, I was on the other bank.  Somehow, I had found myself in a new place, moving into a new future.  I recognise the grace in the midst of this, grace that brought hope and strength in the midst of the struggle.  Sometimes, I confess, that hope was not a brightly shining light but a very dim glow in an overwhelming darkness; a Presence that was there.  Often, this Presence was on the edge of experience, close enough to be ‘felt’ and provide a sustaining hope but not a strangling, obvious Presence.

The stories of God’s Presence in the recounting of the ‘Red Sea Crossing’ are often poetic and describe the wonder of grace as people move from slavery, confusing chaos, fear and bewilderment into new life.  The journey is long and meandering and the people complain, experience fear and anger, wonder and awe and God’s Presence moves in and out and through this journey and the people’s lives.  So it is with us – well it is certainly my experience.  God’s Presence sustains and leads us through the bewilderment of grief, loss, change, and the uncertainty that life brings.  Will we trust God above all else and follow?

By geoffstevenson

The Contrary Way of Love!

The news, on radio, TV or online, tells some awful stories of violence, hatred, vengeance and mesmerising sadness and disbelief at the actions of human beings against one another.  Over the last few days there have been stories of bikie vengeance against other bikies resulting in death.  The Family Court Bomber, who killed three people through the 1980’s has been sentenced and his truly awful calculated and hate-filled violence, recounted through his trial.  The Christchurch Mosque Shooter was also sentenced last week, and his evil acts remembered by the families and friends of his 51 victims. 

Violence and hatred continues to spread its cold tentacles across our world, spiralling people and communities into despair and hopelessness.  The downward spiral of violence engulfs people, innocent and perpetrators, alike and there are no winners.  Violent responses typify how too many humans respond to difference, conflict, disagreement, fear or anger.  Bob Dylan asked us the question nearly 60 years ago –

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly/Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take ’til he knows/That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Still, the answer seems to be blowin’ in the wind!  When will we learn?  When will we change and what will it take?

This week I have also been challenged again by words of Jesus (Matthew 18:15-20) and Paul (Romans 13:8-14).  Paul urges us to wake up!  He speaks of the centrality of love, love that breaks open the barriers and boundaries that separate people and invites us into relationship.  Jesus speaks of relationship and how to address the inevitable conflicts and f=differences that will emerge amongst us.  We will disagree.  We will see things differently.  We will say or do things that hurt or upset one another.  We will get tired or fanatical or obsessed or afraid or anxious or… and we will do something that hurts another.  We will have our own attitudes and opinions, our own belief systems and these will drive a wedge between us and others.  We will inevitably allow our belief systems and perspectives to judge others and infiltrate relationships or potential relationships and create conflict or exclusion.

Jesus invites us to engage in the work of honest relationship by engaging with those who differ or hurt us.  We are invited to offer and honest but gracious response and invite a discussion that seeks a middle ground, a way to move forward without animosity and to maintain relationship.  Talk to the other, listen and share your mutual perspectives.  If this doesn’t work, bring in others with wisdom and grace to listen and mediate, to support and help.  Lean on the wider community or authorities who have wisdom and seek a way forward in the community.  If nothing works and the difference will not be recognised or dealt with, then you may have to go your own way but continue to respect the other as a person and treat them with some mercy and compassion.  This is hard and strange stuff in the context of modern society because the examples within our leaders seem to take the path of least resistance through violence.  We build bigger armies with greater technological potential and threaten those who seem weaker and challenge us.  If a nation does something we don’t like, we retaliate in some way.  The news reveals how violence continues to threaten our communities and world but never results in peace or ease.  People have long memories and wars and hatreds persist many years until vengeance and revenge are finally meted out.

Paul’s  encouragement to love above all things is the message, the simple and profound message the world needs – we need and yearn for!  I read the story of a minister.  After many years pastoring a congregation he moved into another leadership role and also moved to another state at the same time.  He wondered about his new relationship with the church and how it would look.  Would he want to go to church or need to go to church when he was no longer leading the congregation?  What would he look for in church now he wasn’t doing the preaching, leading or responsible for the well-being and so on of the congregation?

The results surprised him.  He realised that he not only wanted to go to church but needed it.  He needed a group of people with whom he could be vulnerable, a community to belong to and share life with.  He needed a place to go and be quiet before God with other people and then to share some active service of the community and world beyond the church.  When they settled into their new home, he and his wife set about finding a church, a community of faith that would allow them to belong and help them meet people, serve the community and listen to God.  They wanted a group of people who sought to live in the way of Jesus.  They stumbled onto a church that felt right for them relatively quickly.  It had a great interest in social justice, equality, inclusiveness and a range of ways people could belong, have fun and share life together.

The biggest surprise for this minister, however, was what he discovered he needed and wanted from church now he was more on the listening end of worship.  He wanted and needed encouragement and support to become a more loving person.  He realised that if he was to grow and follow Jesus with integrity he had to learn to engage as a loving human being before the world.  How would he love those who rejected him and his ideas?  How would he love those who were different and whom he was always told not to trust?  How would he love people who seemed ‘unlovable’ to the world around him, people who were difficult, disturbed, marginalised…?  Where would he learn to love other people more fully?  If it wasn’t in church, he wasn’t sure where it would or could be. 

I remember thinking about this minister’s journey and recognised that being a more loving person is the most significant way of growing as a human being and living a richer life.  Love is the most powerful force for creating a better world.  It helps overcome fear and division, hatred and mistrust.  Love can transform people and groups in ways that little else can.  I find this a profound and challenging idea.  We need more courageous love.  We don’t need more weapons of mass destruction and violence.  It is those who lack imagination, courage and wisdom who reach for the gun and the bomb, the fist or club to react to those with whom they disagree or differ. 

This path of deep love, of relationship is grounded in the way of God, who is a ‘relational community of love’ reaching out to all to draw us into the way and life of love!

By geoffstevenson

A Narrow Way into Life – Through Crosses and Denial…

COVID-19 is dragging on.  The pandemic is here for the long haul and I, like so many, am tired, weary, confused and sometimes lost in the chaos and challenge of these times.  All around, there is news of new outbreaks and the virus keeps on keeping on.  Whilst we have been relatively spared compared to many other nations, the toll is still too high and the crisis across our elderly is traumatic and awful.  Within this chaos I have heard news of young people taking their lives – the stresses and constrictions of COVID-19, along with pressure of HSC and other exams is taking a deep toll.  Many are struggling with mental health issues and in too many homes, there is escalating violence. 

I feel utterly helpless before this pandemic to do anything except try and minimise risk to other people.  Limiting public exposure, wearing masks and strongly encouraging our congregations to take the most responsible and difficult paths of very limited or no gatherings, are some of the small responses I can make.  I think about many communities across the nation and world, especially those that are poorer and with limited resources and limited access to good healthcare.  I am sometimes overwhelmed by the injustice of our world where the rich have better options and chances of coming through this. 

Then I open the Bible and hear a story that seems to ram the point home.  Jesus speaks, not of peace and comfort, as I would like.  He doesn’t promise me a way into ease and security or even consolation.  He speaks of suffering!  When confronted by Peter, challenged about their obviously conflicting understandings of ‘Jesus as Messiah,’ Jesus turns on him, putting Peter in his place.  He tells the gob-smacked disciples that he is off to Jerusalem to die at the hands of the powers of religion and the world. 

The people expected a Messiah who would take up the kingship and rule from Jerusalem. He would liberate them and set them free from Roman rule.  He would be a political and religious successor to the great King David.  The ordinary people would now have life and peace!  No, he speaks instead of suffering, pain and death.  He then rubs salt into the wounds suggesting that if anyone wants to be his disciple, they must do the same – deny themselves and take up their cross!  He goes on: ‘Whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’

I’m not sure I want to lose my life – not yet.  The thought of following some of the heroes of faith that I love to read about – Martin Luther King jr, Bonhoeffer, Romero – doesn’t appeal right now.  I also wonder about denial and what denial as a way of life, really means?

As I sit here writing, the words of the Moving Pictures song come to mind:

What about me? It isn’t fair/I’ve had enough, now I want my share
Can’t you see, I want to live/But you just take more than you give

Isn’t that how we often feel in this time, when government closes everything down or churches and other groups are recommended to not gather, when masks and distancing and limiting outings and…  deprive us of our lives, our freedom, our joy, our rights, or whatever we feel deprived of.  Then Jesus seems to say that’s okay – suffering is a path that should be embraced as he did.  For what?

Isn’t it the truth that we avoid suffering and struggle for all we’re worth?  Don’t I work hard to not be uncomfortable, insecure, afraid or suffering.  I hate sitting in a place where my mind is overwhelmed and fear asserts is ugly face in everything and there feels like threat coming from all directions.  I hesitate to enter into the deep pain of others because I know it will rub off and I will feel it with them.  I would sometimes rather run in the opposite direction as fast as I can, to escape, avoid and abandon hopelessness, fear, death and pain.

The truth is that I can’t!  These things are all around and the faster I run, the closer they seem to be.  Suffering follows everywhere because it is impossible to watch the news without being challenged by fear, grief, pain and struggle – broadcasters seem to thrive on it.  It is impossible to live life and not encounter that which is difficult, painful and tragic.  It is also impossible to live a life of unencumbered bliss and contentment where nothing challenges our status quo of ease and comfort. 

The other word that sends shivers down so many people’s spines is change.  We seem to be caught in the slipstream of change and its cold grip feels threatening.  Change is uncomfortable, unsettling – especially when everything seems to be forced into change!  Much of what is, seems preferable to change, fear, pain, struggle and death.  This does not seem to be the path of Good News that I want from Jesus.  It doesn’t feel like life in abundance and yet I can’t avoid change, suffering or struggle.

I come back to the sense of ‘what about me’ and wonder if that isn’t always my/our problem – that so much comes down to ‘me’.  Too much response in COVID-19 world is about personal/individual rights rather than the well-being of everyone.  Too many respond out of self-centredness and live out of fear and personal need.  I find myself caught between my own feelings and desire for security or safety or comfort and the pain of the world around me.   I want someone, something to fix it all and make it all okay.  God, what are you doing??  Why doesn’t God ‘fix’ everything and make life okay for the world??!

In response, Jesus tells me to deny self, to let go of my ego and step out of the cycles of denial, violence, acquisition and my attempts to control life and everything around me.  What might it mean to ‘let go’ and live another way.  What if faith really does mean living into a mystery that is beyond materialism and competition, beyond ‘me’?  I can’t help thinking about Jesus and his resolute manner, his absolute passion, confidence and hope.  I think also of those I named before, such as Martin Luther King jr.  His last speech, the night before he was killed is remarkable and filled with a vision, a hope and a belief that is mesmerising, inspiring and something that touches the depth of my soul.  Letting myself go into this mystery of love that invites me to love God and neighbour as myself, to engage with others in the painful moments, living through them rather than playing with avoidance and distraction. 

What will be the cross I bear?  I actually refrain from wearing a cross because it is so confronting and challenging – an instrument of torture and pain.  I am challenged to take it up, not wear it as an ornament.  I am offered a path into the narrow way that will take me through the valley of death’s shadow and from there I will find a strange way into life???!!  Instead of avoiding everything that will transform me and bring change, the uncomfortable, challenging and confronting words and experiences of life, to enter into them and into the darkness of the world, trusting God goes before me, before us and shines light that is healing and renewing.  Will you come on this strange journey of crosses and denial into life?

By geoffstevenson

Who Do You Say I Am?

The US election is hotting up.  The Democratic Convention is currently in process and the several speakers are encouraging the American people to ask: ‘Who is Donald Trump?’ Is Trump the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) as he would have us believe or is he a pretender, responsible for all manner of problems?  Who is Donald Trump?  The corresponding question is: ‘Who is Joe Biden?’  Is Biden the real deal or a demented fool, as Trump’s campaign would have the people believe?

Who are these men?  From each one’s perspective, they are asking: ‘Who do you say/think I am?’  Everyone’s answer to this question will influence how they vote, much as it does everywhere.  The question pushes us further in many situations as we are challenged or seduced by marketers, advertisers, in the corporate world, the religious milieu, or in the personal realm.  Whether it be employing someone, forming a new relationship, recruiting for a sporting or other team or seeking out someone to help of assist us, we ask this question in some form, whether consciously or subconsciously: ‘Who do we say this person is?’

This question comes to me from the mouth of Jesus, or at least the pen of Matthew (Matt 16:13-20) and attributed in one version or another to Jesus.  The context is interesting.  Jesus took the disciples on a road trip, as commentator Brian McLaren refers to it.  It was a journey of about 40 kilometres to the north from Galilee to Caesarea Philippi – on foot.  Caesarea Philippi was an interesting city that was a centre of religious and political power.  Centuries before Jesus it was a centre of Canaanite religion until the Greeks conquered the territory and it became a centre for worship of the pod, Pan – the human-goat figure who played a flute.  The city was then called Paneas and featured a grotto with a spring that emptied into the very upper reaches of the Jordan River.  Close to the grotto, was a broad escarpment into which niches were carved.  Into these niches, were placed statues, idols and offerings to gods.  Offerings and sacrifices were also thrown into the grotto.  It was a religious place!

Herod the Great, the king under the Roman Empire, developed it as a city and build one of his three palaces there.  In 4BCE, following his death, his son Phillip inherited the kingship of this part of Herod’s rule under Rome.  Phillip developed the city and built a new temple there.  He renamed the city Caesarea Philippi in honour of the Emperor (Caesar Augustus), although there was a bit of ego in there as well adding his own name, which also served a practical purpose in distinguishing this Caesarea from the other Caesarea (Maritima) on the Mediterranean coast.  Phillip set Caesarea up as his capital and administrative centre – it was a highly charged political and religious site!

Jesus and his disciples arrived in the vicinity amidst all of the reminders of religion, politics and power.  All around were symbols of other powers, including the most powerful force in their world – the Emperor!  It was in this context that Jesus asked the disciples who people said the ‘Son of Man is’?  They responded with the diversity of ways people thought about this ‘Son of Man’ – Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, one of the prophets…

Then the crunch question: ‘Who do you say that I am?’  Who did the disciples think Jesus was?  The question wasn’t merely academic.  It wasn’t about friendship commitment…  The question went to the heart of their lives – who would have their allegiance, their energy, their hearts? 

In the Roman world, the Emperor was the highest and most powerful figure (as is the case in some nations today, where the leader must be revered, feared and has enormous power, often ruling by fear and using violence to ensure compliance).  He was often deified and worshipped as divine.  Caesar Augustus, the first Emperor and ruling when Jesus was born, was revered as the son of god – he was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who was deified (Augustus was also deified a month before his death).  He claimed to have brought peace to the Empire by bringing the warring factions into one entity and ensuring ‘peace’ across his world through his armies.  He was hailed ‘son of god’, ‘bringer of peace’, ‘saviour of the world’ and worshipped as lord.  Titles that Christians would later use for Jesus.  Such use was treasonous and challenged Caesar’s authority and power.  It could lead to death! 

Therefore, when Jesus asked his disciples the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ it was a politically charged question that invited a deeper commitment to something that was subversive and radical.  When Peter responded, saying that Jesus was the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he and the disciples were making claims upon Jesus that ought only be made of the Emperor.  If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  If Jesus is the Son of God, Caesar is not.  If Jesus’ way is the way they will follow, Caesar’s way is not.

The disciples recognise that in Jesus they have found the deepest reality and truth they could know because he leads them into the heart of God, which is infinite love!  They have experienced the most profound wonder in Jesus as he has opened their hearts and imaginations to the Reign of God that is ever-present and very close, a Reign that challenges that of Caesar in its very essence. 

Caesar’s rule is one of violence and power over through domination and engendered fear and obedience through brute force.  His armies were constantly at war, defeating and threatening their enemies, maintaining order and compliance.  It was the ‘rule of peace’ at the end of a sword.  It is a philosophy still in use today.  The news reported that Vladimir Putin’s opposition rival in in hospital due to poisoning.  He is the latest in a long line of people who have challenged Putin and either been locked away or ‘removed’.  It is a rule of chilling, cold-blooded violence and abuse.  He isn’t the only one.

Caesar’s rule continues today in many forms and guise because it is the way of the world where powers compete and challenge each other for more power, control and wealth.  It is a way of seduction or fear, a path of obedience and loss of freedom through the binding knot of ideology and enforced belief.  There are other forms where people are held by forces that are seductive and addictive, where we are led down paths that are glitzy and feel good but deliver little or capture us in a downward spiral into darkness of addictive lives.  The world of Caesar will offer much, demand much and urge us (or force us!) to sell our souls for a promise that will be revealed as hollow, empty and nonsense.

It is over and against this that Jesus asked his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’  Whose side will you be on?  Will you throw your hat in with me or take the easy path of subservience to Caesar?  Will you follow in the way of freedom and hope, a love-inspired way where justice and inclusive kindness permeate the way?  Will you follow me to find the liberation of your souls from the bonds of belief systems, false expectations and violence?  Jesus’ question challenges me – who do I say Jesus is?  If he is of God, will I follow?  Will it impact all my actions, thoughts and the very heart of my life?

By geoffstevenson

Accepted for Who We Are…

These words from Martin Luther King jr’s famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 have rung loudly in my ears of late: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they are judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

In so many ways this sentence challenges many of the perceptions, prejudices and struggles within our world and our various cultures.  To judge and be judged not on where we come from, look like, sound like, our creed or culture but by the quality of our character is a profound challenge and would be a profound movement in our lives and world.  I think of myself and the simple prejudices that appear from nowhere as I walk down a city street or through a shopping mall and encounter difference, confronting other, and I feel a variety of responses to people and their superficial appearance – both positive and negative.  I wonder, sometimes where these feelings and responses come from, where they are lying hidden within me.  I sometimes have to shake my head and push unjust, unfair and prejudicial thoughts away to give a person some space ‘to be’ and to demonstrate the reality of their humanity. 

I often hear of people whose belief systems differ from mine, often dramatically and I find myself ‘writing them and their perspectives off’ without an opportunity to hear their story and understand something of their being, their life and why they are where they are.  On the occasions I do listen, I often find myself changed and more open to another possible view of the world and another experience of life.

I remember listening to a bloke who grew up in a part of Sydney that has a very low socio-economic status and is considered a pretty poor area by most.  It is probably an area we would like to avoid and even fear the people who live there.  Apart from being dangerous, we suppose them to be lazy, uneducated, poor parents and a variety of other judgemental statements.  He spoke of living there; it wasn’t always easy.  There were low expectations in terms of education and work.  There was boredom and a low self-esteem amongst his peers growing up.  He worked at school and thrived in sport.  He gained a place at university – a rarity for his cohort at school, most of whom didn’t sit the HSC.  He also received interest from professional sports.  He gained opportunities through both.  There were times when he was overlooked for work or sporting teams because of his postcode and was advised to use another– one of a grandparent or relative – so as not be prejudiced against and given opportunity based on capacity.  He was angry that society judged him and others on where they lived, assumptions that deprived them of the opportunities to rise above the challenges and become the people they were created to be.

I listened and realised that I judged people like him who came from those areas.  I recognised my own ignorance and unjust thinking based on the broader ignorance of our society.  Other people I have met have also exposed my prejudices in terms of race, culture and lifestyle.  In meeting addicted people, I have discovered those who are struggling with deep and difficult issues.  I have also recognised my own addictive tendencies although these are ‘more acceptable’ and less damaging to me and others.

As I ponder these words of King’s I know that they confront me and challenge my own prejudices.  They push me to ask questions of myself and how I respond to various images and stories I see on social media, the mainstream news or in popular culture.  Where would questions regarding content of character lead me?  Am I willing to go there and experience the ‘content of character’ of people who are different, challenging or confusing?

This week, in the Gospel reading (Matthew 15:10-28), Jesus was confronted by religious people who complain about handwashing rituals – purity laws.  Jesus responded that it isn’t the stuff we put into our mouths that defiles us and renders us unclean, but what comes out of mouth, action and attitude.  What we do is far more compelling than what we eat, drink, take in.  For Jesus’ Jewish culture, there were various laws, dietary and otherwise, that defined people as ‘clean or unclean’.  These were about holiness and rightness before God.  Various foods were considered unclean and contaminated the body if eaten.  Various forms of illness, dress, work, lifestyle also defined people as clean or unclean.  There were also barriers between cultures that separated people and kept them pure from the contamination brought by those who were different – Jews didn’t associate easily with Gentiles (non-Jews), for example.  The story moves deeper into the embedded racism of Jesus’ culture, of which he is part.  A woman described as a ‘Canaanite woman’ came to him begging for help for her sick child.  Matthew’s use of ‘Canaanite’ drives the issue of difference and ‘other’ into the deepest territory.  This represented ancient hatreds and enemies of the Jews.  The woman is an enemy, unclean and lowly.

She begs for mercy and Jesus tries to ignore her, hoping she will go away.  She doesn’t and he finally insults her, calling her a dog – ‘Is it right to give the children’s bread to the dogs?’  The woman will not be put off and suggests that even dogs eat the crumbs left over – ‘give me some of the crumbs – I don’t want all their food but just a little for my daughter!’

Jesus was taken aback and demonstrated a gracious rethinking of his position.  He recognised her deep faith and finally realised that she ‘was the world’ that he had been preaching about as God’s Mission.  He finally praised her great faith and her daughter received grace.  This story of encounter, listening and an open heart to be changed and have our eyes opened to the deep, common humanity of other people is challenging and the hope of our world – especially through the challenges of COVID-19, Climate Change and the conflicts and refugee situation across the world.

Clean and Unclean were categories – then and now.  Food, codes of dress and standards in other areas of life are elements of such practice.  There are various barriers that exist to exclude various people and protect those inside from those outside.  Women know how difficult it is for them to break through in various professions and be seen as equals.  Pay and other benefits are often less for women than men in similar situations.  Sexuality, gender, age all have their own sets of barriers.  Sometimes young people cannot get a toe hold into an organisation or profession and sometimes it is the older generation who feel excluded.  Sometimes we discriminate on dress, expecting suits and ties or other particular forms of dress code.  There are myriad ways in which we restrict others from accessing that which we want to hang onto or control or exclusively benefit from, whether as individuals, organisations and corporations or as a nation.  We readily exclude some and welcome others and we use particular rules, taboos, cultural norms and expectations, language, colour… to do it.  How do we look at others?  By the quality of their character or superficial appearance?

By geoffstevenson

Crossing to the Other Side – With Jesus!

When I was much, much younger – about 9 or 10 – we went on a school, excursion to Manly.  I think we went to the aquarium that was there for a long time.  The excursion set off from school in Panania and travelled by train to Circular Quay.  The day was fine and sunny as we set off but became overcast, with grey clouds rolling in over the city.  As excited kids we didn’t notice and climbed aboard the Manly Ferry.  It was ana exciting ride past the familiar landmarks around the harbour.  Because it was an excursion we had a page or two of questions to answer throughout the day, naming the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, Luna Park, Fort Denison and some of the small harbour islands and other landmarks along the shore.  All was good until we got closer to the heads and began to journey across their face.  The wind grew stronger and the swell increased.  The little ferry began to rock and roll on the increasingly turbulent waters.  As we travelled further into the larger swell the ferry rolled more wildly.  I looked out the window and saw turbulent water.  The windows on the other side were all sky and grey, swirling clouds.  This changed quickly and the sky became water, the water sky.  I felt anxious and afraid of the large seas, hoping and praying we wouldn’t be swallowed by the waves and sink to the bottom of the cold, brutal harbour!  We survived the tumultuous trip, relieved and suddenly brave after the event. 

When the wind blows up there is another side to the beautiful Sydney Harbour and doesn’t seem so gentle or kind.  There is the lurking threat, the warning that there is power here I cannot control.  I imagine what it might be like to fall into this sea and flounder amidst the waves that rock, roll, twist and rush past with the currents.  I wonder what it would be like to feel the pull of the sea dragging me this or that way and probably down into the depths where humans cannot and do not survive.  I imagine myself small, helpless and at the mercy of these alien powers to do with me what they will. 

This image of being on the sea in a storm has been used in many ways to imagine the struggles of our lives.  We feel ‘all at sea’ or caught in the turbulence and storms of life.  We are ‘blown off course’ or caught in the raging waters of change or crisis.  As I look into these deep dark waters they reflect the harsh side of life, the stresses, challenges and threats that sometimes overwhelm me.  When I am caught in crises I am thrown off balance.  I feel pushed and propelled in all directions under forces that seem beyond me and sometimes beyond life.  I feel like a small vessel in a huge, mountainous sea that threatens my very existence.  I am small and vulnerable, weak before the strength of mysterious powers that rock life or threaten stability and well-being.  Sometimes there are forces within our bodies that generate illness in ways that seem foreign and dangerous, waging war against our very being.  Sometimes the crisis arises between people who stand against one another and the conflict escalates and builds into something that draws others into its insatiable vortex.  Sometimes the powers of the world wage war on the vulnerable and powerless, the little ones of the earth, and I feel caught in the helplessness to defend justice and protect the vulnerable.  Anger and rage rises within me but I am still helpless to change or stand against such power alone. 

Life is filled with the very dangers and uncertainties that threaten each of us in profound or more moderate ways.  Life has implicit dangers and risks and we sometimes find ourselves in the raging waves or turbulent seas being pushed and pulled through grief, shame, illness, unemployment, conflict, injustice, violence, abuse and the ensuing confusion and disillusionment.  Life is a very small boat on a very big sea, often at the whim of forces we cannot see and do not fully understand.  In COVID-19 world that threat and danger seems all the more prescient and troubling.

This week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14:22-33) holds this powerful image before us.  This story comes after Jesus engaged a large crowd and sharing in the food of body, mind and spirit that flows from the Reign of God, giving life and hope through God’s inclusive community of love and grace.  He sent the people away to their homes and then the disciples were dispatched to cross the lake (‘Sea’ of Galilee) while he went into the mountains to pray.  Through the night a storm blew up as is common on the lake.  The little boat of the disciples began to be thrown around in the waves.  The winds and waves threatened the life of these disciples crossing the sea to engage the dangerous and foreign world beyond their region and side of the lake.  They were venturing into an unknown mission field ‘across the lake’ – on the other side.  The ‘Other Side’ is that place where we feel unsure, fearful even, a place that we may not normally venture. It is the place where life is different and we are not comfortable.  It is the place where God’s Mission leads us.  The disciples crossed over to the ‘Other Side.’  They travelled from the ‘clean’ side of the Jewish homelands, where everything was comfortable, familiar and safe, into the Gentile territory – unclean, ‘dangerous’ and wild.  They were sent across, with Jesus to follow, to participate in God’s Mission to the world!  We are similarly sent!

When we walk in the way of Jesus, the way of love and justice, we will face storms and resistance from the powers that be, the status quo who will fight for all their worth.  When we reach out to love and offer care of challenge for justice there comes a point where it is all too much for the powers that be because their very existence is threatened or challenged and they no longer remain quiet or passive.  Think of people like Martin Luther King Jr who stood for truth, justice and love but was resisted by the powers that be until they killed him and threatened the movement.  There are many other examples of people standing for truth or justice or reaching out in love and grace to people in crisis or who are vulnerable and find themselves resisted, rejected and in conflict with raging powers of the world around, a status quo that is fighting back – the Empire strikes back!

In this little story of Matthew, Jesus calls to them from beyond the waves and wind, beyond the boat and they are amazed for the presence of Jesus comes to them in the midst of this crisis.  Peter asks if he should come to Jesus and he is invited to get out and ‘Come!’ Peter takes a step or two and them hears wind and waves, the power of the forces acting upon the boat and his fear overwhelms him and he begins to sink.  O how we sink as fear, tiredness, frustration and hopelessness overwhelm us.  We sink into the mire of despair or depression.  We sink beneath the waves and feel we are drowning.  Jesus reached out to Peter and held his arm.  They got into the boat and all was calm.  The powers that threatened the boat no longer had power or threatened the lives of the disciples.  This Divine Presence brought calm and broke through fear, doubt and despair to open the space for belief as trust and the courage to persevere, to act and to walk with Jesus into the future that opens up before them.  Will we journey across the ‘Other Side’ in God’s Mission, trusting this God?

By geoffstevenson

There is Enough For All in the Kin[g]dom of Love

In flicking through the weekend papers, I sometimes stumble over the ‘Social Pages,’ the place where the ‘A-listers’ of Sydney society are featured in all their glory – and otherwise.  I’m never really interested to read their stories about the latest party or event that they have attended.  I confess that I’m rather pleased I don’t have to dress up and play that game, of pleasing and impressing people to climb a ladder, social or otherwise.  Likewise, the lavish affairs that follow various entertainment awards ceremonies, the after parties, often seem (to the outsider) orgiastic affairs of rich food, too much drink (and other stimulants) and other ‘entertainment.’  These are for those who are invited, who have made it in the world of entertainment, business, sport, politics; those who are celebrity.  The higher up the ladder the more significant and upmarket the events you are invited to, the more exclusive and lavish.

It was such an affair that is spoken of in Matthew’s story of Jesus.  Herod Antipater, one of the sons of the infamous King Herod ruled over part of his father’s kingdom under Rome.  For his birthday he threw a party, an over-the-top affair for those he wanted to be seen with, to impress or who were sycophantic beings wanting to show their faces at such an event and impress others.  It seems a lavish affair of wine, food and seduction – and violence.  Following a seductive dance, his stepdaughter was promised anything her little heart desired.  She consulted her conniving mother and they decided on the head of John the Baptist.  John was an outspoken prophet who lashed out at the couple because Antipater got rid of his first wife and took Herodias, his half-brother’s wife, for his own.  John railed and Herodias fumed, looking for the moment of vengeance.

So, John’s head was delivered on a platter to the Queen and her daughter, ending a night of lavish food, wine, seduction and violence.  This is the feast of Herod and an echo of how power, wealth and fame so often form exclusive enclaves where the ‘elite’ can lord it over the masses and feel their superiority.  They may also be places where jealousy festers and egos compete for prominence and the upper hand.  Self-centred individualism thrives in these competitive niches and alcohol lowers inhibitions and fuels conflict and violence.  The stories emanating from the rich and famous are legendary and ongoing.

Over and against this lavish feast of orgiastic violence, was a very different gathering.  Matthew (14:13-21) describes a very different affair as Jesus wanders the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Crowds of ordinary people gather in large numbers.  This crowd probably included anyone and everyone, whether they ought to have been there or not.  The lonely, desperate, powerless and anyone caught in the yearning and longing for life and hope, heard where he was and made their way there.  They gathered to listen, and Jesus filled their mind and being with words and stories that touched them to the core of being.  He lifted spirits and gave hope as the gathered people grew into an inclusive community who shared the pain and joy of life together.

It was late in the day when his disciples realised that there was no food and the people needed to go and find something to eat.  They approached Jesus who told them to feed the crowd themselves!  ‘We have no food!  It would cost us everything we have and more to buy food for this crowd.  We can’t feed them!’  Jesus told them to gather what food was available and bring it to him.  They found some loaves and fish.  Jesus held the food up, gave thanks and blessed it.  He broke it and gave it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd of ‘5000’.  Everyone ate and had enough.  There were 12 baskets full left over. 

This is such a different and contrasting story on so many levels.  The people gathered to learn and grow, to find hope and life.  They were connected in an inclusive gathering where all were welcomed and could find a place.  There were no ‘A-listers’ (nor ‘B-listers’…) but everyone recognised as equal and unique.  They were drawn into a fellowship of love and grace that nurtured them in the lifegiving love of God. 

In the story, everyone receives food – the same food.  It was simple but filling and nourishing and it fed everyone.  There were ‘5000’ and 12 baskets full remained.  The numbers are suggestive – ‘5’ is the number of the Torah, the Law of Moses – 5 books.  This story is about the Jewish people, God’s chosen and those to whom Jesus belonged and proclaimed God’s Reign.  The 12 reminds us of God’s people – represented by 12 tribes and then 12 disciples.  This is a feeding story where all God’s people received their fill for body, mind and spirit – and there is some over!

Further along in Matthew’s story there will be another similar story, a feeding of ‘4000’ with ‘7’ baskets full left over.  It happens on the other side of the lake, the gentile (non-Jewish) side.  The number ‘4’ symbolises the whole world (4 corners of the globe) and ‘7’ is the number of God’s completion (the 7th day is the last day when God rested after creation).  This will represent God feeding the whole world! (with some left over!).

In God there is enough for everyone!  There is enough for body, mind and spirit.  There is enough love, grace, hope, peace and life for all!  In God there is enough!!!  This ‘enough’ is inclusive, life-giving and for all the world.  It is only as we become preoccupied with self and seek to control our own resources rather than generously share what is provided with one another that there becomes lack – as we see terribly visible in so many parts of the world. As nations become exclusive and hoard resources, lend with high interest and are not willing to work together, share and ensure everyone has enough, people will continue to suffer starvation and die – at the rate of 25,000 a day.  Poverty-related illness, death and suffering is an enormous issue that we have the resources to overcome.  The US, for example, spent trillions of dollars on a war against Iraq (and in Afghanistan) that achieved little more than create greater chaos and suffering.  A portion of that money could have brought huge relief to the underdeveloped, hungry world!

The vision of God’s Reign is a feast where everyone has a seat at the table and we all share in the new wine of the Kin[g]dom, a place where all belong and find their life in the inclusive, nurturing, liberating Divine Heart, a Relational Community of Love that holds all things graciously and tenderly.  The vision of ‘heaven on earth’ as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, is for this Reign to take shape in our lives here, now.  We see glimpses of this when humans pull down barriers, share resources and work together in a crisis to help each other.  People share – food, money, beds/housing, clothes.  Everyone has what they need in that moment and we worry about the next moment when it arrives, rather than our continual hoarding and stashing away ‘our stuff.’ 

In God’s Reign, in God’s creation, there is plenty!  There is enough for all the world but only when we are liberated to share and embrace one another in inclusive community.

By geoffstevenson

A Prayer We Find Ourselves in!

Have you ever experienced something that has been so painful and difficult that you all words failed you?  Have you ever been in a place where you were so deeply moved that you inwardly groaned or cried out in inconsolable, incoherent words?  Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that even prayers would not, could not, form in your mouth or mind and you were left with the deep emotive groans and yearning that transcended articulation?

There have been many such moments I could recount.  Times of deep grief where death has surfaced and left its painful shadow over me and others.  I recall how, six years ago this last week, a young man was taken from us, along with nearly 300 other innocent people.  Jack was returning from a wonderful adventure when Russian Separatists took out their vengeful hatred on an innocent passenger jet.  It was an unbelievable experience where words failed me, and prayers were lost to words.  There was only the tearful sobs of Jack’s friends and family and the incredulous, disbelieving groaning of pain.

There have been many other moments of death, where grief has usurped life and joy and drawn me down into its dark abyss.  Mum’s death was as despairing and grief-striking as possible to bear.  There have been others where I have held a phone and stood in dis-believing silence.  I have had to arrange several funerals that were heartbreaking and the painful moments of organising them filled with disbelieving, pain-filled silence – a young girl, murdered and her body dumped behind a shopping centre; a young man murdered in his own home; a middle-aged man with everything to live for, suiciding – and other suicides that were desperately sad and confusing; illnesses, struggles, loss…

I have looked into pages of social media with disbelief and confusion as reports of horror fills the screen.  Animals suffering, the Earth being pillaged and left for dead, landscapes ravaged by bushfire, land-clearing and pollution.  The inhumanity of humans towards each other and the narcissistic greed and abuse of some people over others has left me speechless, disbelieving and overwhelmingly sad.  I felt a desperate confusion (and still do!) about the poor young Sri Lankan family from Bileola who were sent to Christmas Island, despite a community behind them, begging authorities for them to stay (and the concerns for their safety over a return to their homeland).  This week, the mother was finally taken to hospital on the mainland after being in pain for 2 weeks.  The inhumanity of our system is reflected in this Tamil family’s story.  As I read Munjed Al Muderis’s story as a refugee, I was ashamed and speechless.  Munjed is best known as a world leading orthopedic surgeon specialising in prosthetics.  His account is deeply sad and shameful and I am left without words or prayers to pray in the face of such inhumanity and pain.

Paul speaks into this painful lack of words that I feel so often.  He speaks of those moments when we can’t pray, can’t even speak and the Spirit groans within us in sounds deeper than words to express the inexpressible.  The Spirit is revealed in our deepest yearning and longing, even in those moments when we do not know what to say or we feel so numb, confused or overwhelmed to even process anything.  We become part of the groaning within the heart of God!  This is perhaps the beginning of hope – in our absolute weakness and helpless despair, God is revealed in vulnerability and holds us in this gentle place where silence is filled with deep groans and yearning.

Paul’s words in this profound passage from Romans 8 (vv26-39) are about hope.  In the earlier verses Paul speaks of the whole Earth groaning and awaiting its liberation as with the pangs of childbirth – an expectant waiting and hoping.  The liberation of the Earth is connected with the liberation of Humanity and all things in God, who is the deep and profound source of hope for all the world.

The complex thoughts of Paul flow through the remainder of the chapter and it rings with hopeful optimism because we discover our lives in God and there, we stand on the firmest and deepest foundations, grounded in pure love.  ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’  ‘Through Christ we are more than conquerors…’ These familiar words have provided hope to many as we discover that God is love and reaches out to all people and nothing can break that bond of loving grace that holds us through the deepest darkness and brightest joy.  God is for us and no enemy can overwhelm that love.  They may kill the body, silence the mind but the spirit, our essential being, cannot be quenched because it is held in God’s love and grace.  Nothing, says Paul, can separate us from God’s love – nothing in all creation or beyond, can separate us from the love of God in Christ! 

It is this love, this hopeful, overwhelming love that shines its gentle light into our darkness and illuminates our despair.  This love is the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Reign that is ever-present, all around and liberating, subversive and just.  In Matthew’s story of Jesus this week (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), we read more stories of God’s Reign – the mustard seed and yeast commented on last week.  The subversive way of God who opposes the corruption and injustice in the world.  The Reign of God is described as like a man digging in a field who discovers a treasure.  In his joy, he sells everything he has to buy the field.  Or a man who finds a pearl that is the finest he has ever seen, again he sells everything to buy the pearl.  There are more stories of sorting and even judgement where there is separation of good and evil, those who choose a way that is violent, evil and unjust over and against those who seek love in its vulnerable beauty.

The Reign of God is so precious that a person who experiences the apocalyptic inflowing of the love, acceptance, grace at the heart of God, will do anything to hold onto it, to live within it, to allow it to overwhelm us and flow around us.  There is nothing we can do but reach out and receive the grace that flows from God.

These passages lead us into the deeper experience and wonder of life.  This is not some rose-coloured, superficial bliss that leads us out of the deep groaning we spoke of earlier.  Life is lived in the midst of the harshness of the world and suffering is equally part of our experience as is joy and freedom.  It is through the passages of grief and struggle that life’s colour emerges if we are able to negotiate our way through.  The promise is that the Christ who through crucifixion and resurrection walks our path before us and with us and the way is shared by others who hold us when we cannot stand.  It is a shared life and we don’t do it alone.  We are drawn into the life of Christ in the world, amongst the pain and struggle, to share the joy and hope and live life to the fullest because God is with us in the deepest mystery and hope.  The Spirit’s groaning within us reveals the yearning of God’s prayer for us and the world, a prayer we find ourselves in!

By geoffstevenson