The Spirit – Power that Overwhelms and Transforms

A brief conversation this morning on the side of the road as we wandered along caused me to ponder.  An elderly fellow Nico and I often meet on our wanderings stopped to chat.  Covid-19 inevitably came up amidst other topics.  We both commented on the response of many people in the USA, how they want to express and emphasise their own individual and personal freedom to choose and ‘do’ over and against the well-being of the communities in which they live.  It certainly isn’t confined to the USA but we wondered how people living in the nation that has over 100,000 deaths and high levels of infection are more concerned about what they want to do than the well-being of the community?  We also commented on the relative capacity and wisdom of various world leaders – the people in power!

It was this line that got me thinking – the people in power, who have power to make decisions on behalf of the societies in which they live.  This notion of power feels, to me, to be at the heart of many things we are seeing around us.  Scientists will tell us that the power of the human race to dominate and destroy land and habitat, and the power to travel and move freely across the world, makes pandemics such as we are experiencing more inevitable.  A virus hidden in deep jungles has more possibility of connecting with humans as the jungles and forests are decimated and we live closer to the sources of such viral enemies.  An infection in one part of the world is able to quickly travel via human movement and soon everyone in impacted.

More than that though, I wonder if what we see in people agitating for more freedoms, protesting and taking action is really about reclaiming some control, order and power in personal life?  I wonder if what we experience is humans who feel the need to be empowered and to control something in life, take things into their own hands and ‘do as they please?’  We see evidence of humanity’s need for power and control in so much of life.  Young (and not so young) who get behind the wheel of a fast, powerful car and feel the sense of exhilaration as they press the pedal to the metal and fly down highway and byway.  They are in control of a great power, whether wisely and skilfully or not is another question.  In political manoeuvrings there is the desire for power and to have authority they can wield for good or ill.  Across the world we see examples of egotistical (narcissistic?) leaders taking control and abusing power to dominate people, violate human rights and use violence and fear to control and manipulate people.

Whether through wealth, positional authority, legal controls, fame or any other means, many seek power they can wield.  This is power that people can hold, control and use.  It is power in their hands and at their disposal and it can be very dangerous!  Such power requires great wisdom and compassionate awareness.  It should be about the common good of the Earth and all inhabitants but rarely is.  There are a few leaders who have been formed through struggle and suffering, whose egos are suitably ‘squashed down’ and who can handle such power with grace and wisdom.  I think of the likes of Nelson Mandela, who through the crucible of suffering (27 years imprisonment) was humbled and vulnerable and gained wisdom.  Alas, much power wrests in the hands of foolish and greedy individuals who are self-interested and think little of others.

This week across the Christian Church, the third major festival occurs.  It is called Pentecost.  Originally this Greek work indicated the Feast of Weeks (a week of weeks after Passover – hence ‘pente’= 50 days).  It was also called Shavuot, a Jewish Festival of harvest but also recalling Moses receiving of the law on Mt Sinai.  The context of the story is the first Jewish Festival of Pentecost after the first Easter (set against Jewish Passover).  The disciples and followers of Jesus were gathered together awaiting the promised gift of the Spirit to come to them – in power.  As they waited, prayed and on this day prepared for the celebration, there was a sound like wind and something like tongues of fire fill their room.  This was Luke’s attempt to describe the Spirit coming upon the people in power.  In the story (Acts 2:1-21), there is confusion and chaos as people are filled with this ‘power from on high’ and their joy, hope and the experience overwhelmed them and flowed out into the city of Jerusalem.  This fearful, uncertain group of people suddenly spoke out with courage and faith, in languages of the world they inhabited.  Jerusalem, filled with pilgrims from across the Empire had people of many language and culture and they all heard the proclamation of God’s love, grace and Reign in the language of their heart.  The joy, passion and vitality of these followers of Jesus overwhelmed many people who responded by joining the group that quickly swelled in number and continued to do so as God’s love and Presence in Spirit transformed them.

The power they felt and experienced was not a power they could control or manipulate.  It was a power they had to submit to and give themselves up to.  It was and is a power that transforms people and communities as the flow of love and justice, wonder and hope, joy and mercy floods life.  It is about the Reign of God that stands over and against all the reigns of kings, queens and rulers of all the dominions on Earth.  It is a Realm of love that draws us out of ourselves and connects us through relationship as a human family that is part of the material world of time and space, which finds life and being in the heart of God’s love.  This is an uncontrollable power that carries us along.  It overwhelms us, like the Apostle Paul who, on his mission to round up and imprison Christians, was overwhelmed on the Damascus Road, brought to his knees by a light and a voice.  He submitted to this power and let himself go into its wonder and life and was given a new direction, mission and way of being that was not his but the Spirit of God’s.

The difference between these powers is that one we want and believe we can have, own and control and the other we must let go of ourselves and allow its flow to take us where it will.  This is a journey of faith, trusting that God’s love and grace is sufficient and answers the deepest yearning of the human heart.  It is the realisation that God is our destination, our home and where we belong, and this power of Spirit will lead us into new life that is connected and relational.  This is the Week of Reconciliation and invites us to think and act for reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples of this land.  Relationship is at the heart of the Indigenous cultures that occupied this land for millennia.  The Spirit gave wisdom and life to live relationally with land, country, and each other in complex systems.  We have much to learn from their wisdom and to help undo the dominating use of power that dehumanises and destroys.  The power of the Spirit is lifegiving love for all.

By geoffstevenson

A World Restored…?

I have been wrestling with a question this week.  It is an old question that is also very modern.  It is a question, in its various forms, that we ask and ponder.  The question is about how the world is and why?  It relates to why things happen the way they do – especially the sad, painful and tragic experiences of life.  It asks why these things happen when we proclaim a God of love – and more so, often the claim of God being ‘all-powerful,’ whatever is meant by that.  If God is loving, kind and all-powerful, why is there suffering?  Why Covid-19?  Why poverty and earthquakes and tsunamis and bushfires and floods…?  Why do people suffer?

The particular form of the question I read and have been pondering comes from the ancient writings of ‘Luke’ in his second volume, called ‘Acts of the Apostles’.   As Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples, they ask him: ‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?’  By this, they are asking Jesus if this is the time when he will restore everything to the way he proclaims it is meant to be.  Is this the time that God will intervene and fulfil the proclamation of Jesus, that God’s Reign is here?  Is this the time when the prophetic words of Jesus will come to fulfilment?  In his first sermon in Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks of release of captives, good news for the poor, liberation of oppressed and recovery of sight for the blind.  Through his ministry he speaks of the hungry being fed and the poor having enough, the oppressed peoples of the earth receiving distributive justice…  The disciples, therefore, want to know if this is finally the time when all of this will happen.  Is this the time when all will be made new or restored; when God will act?

The question is pitched as coming from the time of Jesus but also reflects the community of Luke’s time in the late 1st century.  This community of Jesus’ followers lived under the growing intensity of oppression under consecutive Roman Emperors and their local authorities.  They lived in growing tension with local authorities of their own nation and culture as Christianity and Judaism moved further apart.  They were a religious minority in a world where the few lived in affluence and power and the many were disempowered and impoverished.  There were tensions and struggles that people experienced in their ordinary life that made them yearn for renewal and for God’s Reign to be inaugurated in the world.  Why wasn’t it happening?  Why hadn’t it happened?  When and how would God’s Reign be realised within their hurting world?

Surely, and especially in the light of Covid-19, we ask similar questions, some from a religious perspective and others from an agnostic/atheist space, questioning the suffering in the world.  Why is all this happening and what does it mean?  Is there something, someone, behind it?  Where is God in all of this?

Jesus proclaimed that God’s Reign is at hand, very near, and stands over and against the powers and empires of the world in which we live.  His life, words and actions, proclaimed this Reign and people experienced the liberating love of God.  His ministry was inclusive, bringing people into a community of belonging.  There were outcasts and marginalised people, both rich and poor, sick, disabled, people of ‘questionable morals’ and they found themselves embraced in a love that was overwhelming in its inclusive beauty and healing as they found space within a community of grace.  This love was the power of God released into the world and ultimately revealed in Jesus’ resurrection.  Through crucifixion and death, Jesus was raised into new life in a new way.  This Divine love overcame death and the powers and principalities of the world and these followers experienced this eternal, Risen Christ in their midst.  Jesus revealed the face of God and the Risen Christ revealed and released this power of God in the world.

Jesus’ response to his disciples, and therefore proclaimed through Luke’s community 5-6 decades later, was that the times and ways of God are mysterious and known to God.  BUT, he said that they were to wait a little while and the Spirit of God would come upon them and they would become witnesses to this Reign of God in the world!  They would take the liberating, reconciling message of love and grace to the whole world!

In a very real way, this is Jesus’ answer – God’s Reign is here and all around!  We are witnesses to this reality in our world.  We experience God’s Reign of love bursting into our lives.  We can experience it in many ways and places – the very real beauty and wonder of our world and of life together.  We encounter the richness of life in story and art, music and movies, meals together and sharing the deep moments of life, joyful and sad.  The Reign of God is that which is about love and beauty, wonder and joy, hope and resilience, justice and peace for all people.  It is present wherever love is present, and people are welcomed and included into a community of belonging.  It calls us out of ourselves and the individualism that predominates across our world and seeks the common good of all people and the creation.  It is opposed to the violence, domination, oppression and injustice that destroys hope and denies life to so many people.  It calls us onto another path beyond accumulation and dependence upon wealth and material possessions that claim our attention and being and separate us from others. It is revealed in the self-sacrifice and selfless lives that move us and inspire us and the wisdom of those ‘saints’ who call us into something deeper and more profound than the ordinary story that dominates the life of our world – ‘me and mine’, ‘power and wealth’, tribalism that excludes and marginalises, and discrimination and judgement.

When this apocalyptic good news bursts into our lives or gently takes hold of our being in a moment of profound wonder, love or suffering, we begin to see differently; we glimpse the world beyond the world, that Jesus called the Reign of God.  Sometimes it flashes past, an idea through our mind or an image that grabs us but isn’t fully formed.  Sometimes we are brought to our knees in deep yearning or hope, wonder or joy.  We may not know where to go with this, what to do with the experience and we may fear where it will take us or what it might mean.  Jesus’ invitation to his disciples, and through them to Luke’s community of disciples and down the generations to us, is to quietly let go, to pray in expectation and await God’s action in our lives – the Spirit of Life.  As we experience, more deeply, the mystery of God’s Reign and awaken to its truth, justice and life, we become witnesses living into this life.  Our witness is a life lived in the way of Christ, the way of peace, hope, inclusive love and justice.  It becomes the reality of our words and actions and attitudes towards others and the world and it embraces every sphere of our being, political, religious, work, family, leisure. This is how the world is changed, when God can work in and through you and I to witness to the way of Love and justice.

By geoffstevenson

In Whom We Live, Move, Breathe…

Are we a religious society?  The usual response is, ‘no’.  Of course, data related to traditional, organised religions, indicates there has been decline for some time.  It is a strong minority of people who belong to religious traditions and participate regularly – whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the various others.

I wonder, though.  As I wonder down the streets of city and suburb or journey through social media, television, radio, music, sport and other areas of life, I experience a range of ways people engage in various forms of religious activity and worship or sacrifice on the altars of the deities that fill our lives and to whom we turn for hope, meaning, comfort, distraction or joy.  We speak of the economy, for example, as though it is a living, breathing reality we must care for, appease and pacify lest it not bless us and offer the fruits of that blessing through wealth and prosperity.  The affluent addresses of the city, generally in high rise buildings with spectacular views, house the political, financial, legal and corporate power and wealth of our society.  People who give much of themselves in work and sacrifice on the altars, to the cause they hold dear and from which they hope to derive fulfilment and life.

In the mega-malls that occupy city blocks are the plurality of shops and businesses vying for attention and consumer spending.  They promise the world, if necessary, or the answer to the struggles of problems we face.  It is interesting to recognise there is a plethora of places that deal with ‘image’; how we look, appear and try to define and understand ourselves, and the image we present to the world.  There are therapists, gyms and professionals who deal with skin, hair, nails, diets and physique.  There is a diversity of clothing stores seeking to create the image through our dress – cool, mod, chic, outdoor rugged looks, sporty, formal.  The list goes on.  Accessories and add to the flavour and image we present, giving us and others a sense of who we are.

Food outlets, cafes, restaurants, bars all provide for our desires in food, diet, celebration, meeting and spaces for conversation.  Department stores and specialty stores seeking to provide us with everything we never dreamed or thought of owning, exist to create that need, desire and satisfaction.  We enter and are greeted, given commentary on this or that product, service, gadget, for which we hand over money, receive a blessing and leave.  There are elements in common with many forms of religious service.  We leave with a renewed sense of hope or meaning or purpose or delight, contented and happy.

Down other lanes and byways, there are the pubs, clubs and even casinos where food, drink and gambling are possible – everything from TAB and betting the horses (or any other sporting event) through KENO, Lotto and poker machines.  Many people who engage in these as regular activities sacrifice money and time for the hope of a windfall that will solve their problems, giving them life of joy and fun.  There are rituals and processes that many people religiously follow, and their trust and hope is placed in these things.  Of course, there forms of gambling that are more sophisticated and depend a little more on skill and knowledge than pure luck – the high roller games of casinos or the stock market and other forms of investment.  Such investment demonstrates where we place hope or meaning or purpose, on money and accumulation of assets that will provide security for the future.

We are a religious people in many ways, and I suppose I am yet to meet someone who is not seeking for something more or yearning within for a deeper hope, or comfort or distraction.  We seek and look in many places and where there is the tendency away from religious worship offered through churches, synagogues and so on, we turn to other places and ideologies and recreate worship, religion, hope and meaning in other forms through other deities.

Across our society there are many groups who engage in meditation and mindfulness, drawing down deep into the silent places to find peace and calm and sometimes wisdom.  Ultimately, we may find ourselves drawn out of ourselves to embrace a larger picture or experience of life and the world.  These practices often differ little from the forms of prayer and mediation or contemplation offered through traditional religious forms and they feed our spirit.  Other people commune with nature and find themselves embraced into a world of connectedness, a web of relationship with Earth and its creatures, its forms and diversity.  Most of us gasp in wonder at a beautiful vista or sunrise/sunset.  Something within us is touched and moved and shifts as we encounter something bigger and more profound, a beauty that draws us in and out.  There is a Spirit that touches our spirit and we know something different and bigger.  This Spirit comes to us in our prayers and yearning, expressed purposely to God or into an unknown, infinite space of uncertainty.  This Spirit hears the cries of people and is present to us in our awareness or lack thereof.

Paul wandered into the ancient city of Athens (see Acts 17:22-31) and observed there, the idols and gods worshipped and appealed to in statues, monuments, buildings…  Amongst these monuments and idols to the gods there was one to ‘the Unknown God.’ Paul was invited to the Areopagus, the public place where people listened, discussed, debated ideas and philosophy, to speak into the crowd of what he knew, this strange and different ‘philosophy,’ perhaps.  In addressing the people, Paul admired their religiosity, their search for truth and desire to worship the gods of their world.  He noted all manner of gods, worshipped and remembered or symbolised in statues, monuments, idols of every form.  As he spoke he highlighted the statue to ‘the Unknown God’ and said that he would speak to them of the very thing they worshipped but were ignorant of – this God who was still unknown.  Paul speaks to the people about a God who created everything that is and does not live in human Temples and is not served by human hands, as thought God needs anything.  This God is the One who gives everything life and breath. This God is revealed to us in Jesus, who lived amongst people, the human face of God.  Jesus witnessed to the Kingdom/Kindom or Reign of God that is everywhere around.  God is experienced in everything for God is the origin and source of all things, ‘the One in whom we live and move and have our being.’  This is a quote from one of their ancient poets and speaks of God as the ground, the source the origin of all things and who is experienced in love, justice, hope and peace that characterise the Reign and life of God.  All things are held in God’s Spirit that breathes life and form into everything and breaks into our lives with unfolding grace that transforms and renews us.  We experience this God in everything as our eyes open and our heart yearns and we let go to be embraced into the heart of Love at the centre of everything, the Living God who has a face and comes to us and loves us.

By geoffstevenson

The Way of Compassion and Love that Leads to Life.

As things in our world unravel through this strange time we are in, we are left to wonder where it will lead and what will come of all this.  Will we simply return to normal, whatever that was, such that these months of isolation and solitude, of connecting via the digital world, will feel like a strange dream from which we emerge?  I suspect that for many there is a yearning that it will all go away, and everything magically be restored.  There is much pain and struggle, both health issues and economic.  The situation in the Developing World doesn’t gain much media attention and their plight is more serious than it was before all of this.

For some people, there is a pondering: does this pandemic provide a deeper experience and insight into life in our world?  Do we look around and see things differently?  Are we drawn into a deeper sense of relationship and life with each other and the Earth?  Do we really want to return to what was?  Was it really that good, that just and fair?  Was it sustainable for the human race and the Earth and its creatures?

Maybe there is a deeper awareness emerging amongst some people.  We have time to recognise the needs and struggles of one another.  We can see and feel the sense of struggle the Earth has been liberated from over these last months – the air is clearer, rivers are clearing and there is a peace within the world beyond our doors and concrete edifices.  Social isolation has been difficult, and we’ve felt disconnected but perhaps that helped us appreciate more deeply being connected to other people.  Maybe we’ve discovered other ways of being beyond busy-ness and making more money to spend on more stuff…  Maybe we can appreciate a simpler way of being that touches us more deeply and allows us to live more fully into each moment – rather than projecting onto the future moment(s) that never seems to arrive.  Maybe Covid-19 has enabled us to recognise that humanity is not the centre of everything.  The Earth and creatures live more freely without humans interfering so much.  The Earth doesn’t really need us – as much as we need the Earth.

This strange time is confusing and difficult and there is much suffering amongst people who are struggling economically to make ends meet.  The poor will always suffer more.  There is also a recognition of the change that has come upon us and we wonder what the future really will be like.  There is grief as we recognise the loss or change and confusion as we struggle to make sense of where all this is taking us, requiring from us and what the post-Covid-19 world will be like.  It is puzzling, confusing and uncertain.

In the passage for this week (John 14:1-14) the disciples are puzzled, confused, and uncertain as Jesus speaks openly of the ending of their journey together.  He is approaching death and will no longer be them – at least in the same incarnate way.  Jesus will be put to death and move through it to the mystery of resurrection and ascension.  He will return to the place where he belongs, ‘home’ in God.  He tells them not to allow their hearts to be troubled nor afraid but to believe in him and in God, that there is hope and life, comfort and belonging!  He says he goes to prepare a place for the disciples and where he is, they will go also – they know the way.  Dear Thomas interrupts with questions and doubts, confusion, asking: ‘We don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?’

Jesus responds with words that have been used in various ways since.  He says to Thomas: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.  No-one comes to the Father except through me.’  This is either the height of egotistical arrogance or profound truth and wisdom.  On the lips of some world leaders these words become dangerous realities – communist rulers, fascist dictators – and even leaders of liberal democracies who seek to control truth and wisdom and use the force of positional authority, personal power or media spin to control and manipulate news and information.  Either Jesus is deluded or pointing us to something deeper and more life-giving then other relative truths in our pluralistic society.

In Jesus’ day, these words stood him in stark contrast to the powers and authorities of his world, namely the Roman Emperor.  Caesar was all-powerful and Roman Imperial Theology/Religion legitimated his authority, power and the truth of his words.  His word had the power of life and death and was the uncontested truth.  To deny the truth of Caesar was treasonous and warranted death.  For Jesus to claim that he is the way, he is the truth and he is the life-giving one, was to proclaim that Caesar was not – the way, truth or life.

In our world Jesus’ words stand against the pluralism of competing truths that lay claim to our lives – economic truths, ideological truths, political truths, religious truths and the claims made upon us by anyone and everyone.  There is no shortage of truth if we are willing to listen to the world around.  I wonder, though where this multitude of truths lead us?  Personal opinion and ideological belief systems make all manner of promises but where do they lead?  What is the ‘way’ predicated by these ‘truths’ and what is required of us as we pursue economic and material prosperity or growth in ‘standards of living?’  What is the impact of the extremes in individualism and a world driven by personal rights over and against the needs of others?  When we accumulate more for ourselves, who inevitably misses out and what is the impact on the lives of other people – especially the poor of the world?

Jesus proclaimed and lived a way that was, and is, grounded in love and compassion.  It is characterised by forgiveness, mercy, justice and the inclusive embrace of all people.  This way of love transcends the violence and individualism that impacts our world in too many ways.  Jesus tells the disciples that if they have seen him they have seen God. If they have looked into the life and being of Jesus, they know what God is like – love, deep and profound, all-encompassing and life-giving.  According New Testament Commentator, Rev Dr Bill Loader, Jesus’ claim to be the way, truth and life, “is a fundamental Christian claim. For some it justifies an exclusive claim that denies that God is to be found anywhere else. For others it justifies the claim to find God wherever God is recognisable by such words and deeds, even where Christian claims are not made or not known… Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us. That means two things, especially as we now think canonically and include more of the story of Jesus from the other gospels: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us (even if we know nothing else!) and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world – there’s a place for all! We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way.”

We are invited into the place of belonging, in God, where find our home, our peace and our life.  This way is the way of Jesus, a way that draws us into love, relationship, mercy, forgiveness, justice and faith that trusts in the One at the centre of all things.

By geoffstevenson

The Gateway into Life…

On the border between San Diego (California, USA) and Tijuana (Mexico), there is a plaza, a circular plaza.  It was on the border and a monument was erected, now on the Mexican side.  Last century a fence was built but it was possible to pass things through the fence, along with messages to family and friends on either side of the border.  In 2009, this was blocked when the Federal Government seized the land from California.  A more solid fence was built and extended out into the ocean about 300 metres.  Family gatherings were made more difficult and at times stopped altogether (from the US side).

Over a decade ago, two Methodist ministers, one on the Mexica side and the other on the US side began a church service.  They gathered with whoever wanted to be part of it and held a service each Sunday afternoon.  No longer able to share food through the fence   (apart from it being too hard to squeeze food through the very narrow space, there were now restrictions around quarantine).  They shared Holy Communion each week – both sides holding the elements and praying together, eating at the same time and uniting themselves to each other. There are prayers, readings and singing.  Over the years they have experienced various restrictions and hardships, often without warning – and all from the US side.  Originally 40 people were allowed in what is called Friendship Park and then suddenly that was reduced to 10 at a time without warning.  Sometimes they have been allowed to be close to the fence and pass the peace God by touching little fingers through small openings.  Other times they were required to be 15-20 metres away from the fence and therefore, each other.  They would worship via mobile phone.  What ever has been thrown in their way, they have countered creatively, with hope and patience.

Journalist, Amy Frykholm, visited the church and spoke to Methodist Minister, John Fanestil.  She says: The work of the border church includes claiming the “true nature of the border,” Fanestil says. The federal government wants to mark the border as a place of crime and danger and fear. “We know it as a place of encounter, exchange, friendship, fellowship. We try to show up weekly in order to show what the border is truly.” While the coronavirus has put this weekly in-person meeting on hiatus, the true identity continues to be claimed, on both sides of the border.

As I read a reflection on this church and the story around it, I thought about the strange passage for this week – John 10:1-10.  It contains a plethora of images around sheep, shepherds, sheepfolds, voices that are familiar and recognised, a gate and thieves and bandits.  It shifts the metaphors, with Jesus featuring as shepherd, gate, gatekeeper…

In the story about the US-Mexican border and the church that meets across it, there is hope and an opening.  The authorities want to close off contact and connection, to stop the interaction and exclude people through a barrier that is solid, keeping people in and out.   The Church transcends the barrier, connecting people across the fence and their differences of culture or politics, uniting them as people of God who are loved and united as one.  It is a powerful symbol of hope and friendship, of relationship and peace rather than conflict, division and fear.

It is into these places of fear, division, where barriers are built and fences erected, where people are isolated and excluded, that Jesus becomes a gateway into a new possibility of life and relationship.  Jesus calls himself a gate, an opening in the solidity of the walls and barriers that divide, creating a way to traverse these barriers and build relationship and community that is inclusive and life-giving.  Jesus, the Gate, pushes boundaries and barriers back, creating paths to freedom and life for everyone.

There are many barriers that divide us, or we erect against the world and those who are different.  We create barriers from fear, the need to control, for security and protect things we have.  There are many who find themselves enslaved behind the fences and walls of exclusion, prejudice and fear.  There are many who are excluded because of gender, age, culture, creed, sexual identity or orientation.  Others are excluded by virtue of mental or physical illness, disability of body or mind, psychological or emotional trauma from abuse, violence or war.  Such barriers divide and separate.  Jesus, the gate, breaks open our barriers and brings the hope of something new that unites people in the human family, embracing a world of diverse beauty and wonder.  It begins with a small hole that allows the Light to shine through.  We begin to ‘see’ and we’re drawn into something bigger than ourselves, something beyond ‘me.’  At the border church they can touch through small spaces and connect.  The voice of One who proclaims love and life resonates through their worship, across borders of division and exclusion calling them into life together as an inclusive community across time and space.

This gateway intrudes into the divisive and conflictual ways of people, creating the possibility of relationship that transcends our fear or hatred, greed or difference.  If we learn nothing more through the Covid-19 crisis, it may be that our experience of isolation and separation helps us understand and identify with those who live in more extreme isolation and exclusion.  Our simplified lives for a season may help us understand we don’t need as much as we have, and we can share with those who have too little.  In this time our Earth has breathed and rested and so have many of us.  Do we need to return to the frenetic lives of accumulation and expectation that engulf us in ordinary times?  Surely there is a gift in this wretched time that offers a way of hope and new life to the world – if we will listen and have the courage to move forward in a new way.  Jesus, the gate into new life and being has opened a possibility through this time, a voice of life echoes through the stories and lives of the world that yearns for rest and peace, calling us to imagine and believe that everything can be different.

In another reading for this week from Acts 2:42-47, there is a wonderful picture of early followers of Jesus, hearing his voice ring through the stories of their Scriptures, their experiences of Jesus and his life and the profound experience of resurrection that shattered their grief and false expectations.  They lived in a communal way where all was shared so no-one had too much or too little and those beyond this community also received help as they needed it.  The community shared meals and prayed, shared stories and life and their common life was grounded in love.  They were a living hope and Christ was in their midst.  People were drawn to this way of love and inclusion, so very different, and a place where age, gender, culture, economic status and all other categories and barriers were overcome.

The little Border Church is also a prophetic community that transcends hatred, division and exclusion in the way of Jesus, the gate who opens the way to liberation and life.

By geoffstevenson

Broken Dreams Along the Boulevard We Travel!

Two songs with the title: ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams:

I walk a lonely road/The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes/But it’s only me, and I walk alone

I walk this empty street/On the boulevard of broken dreams
Where the city sleeps/And I’m the only one, and I walk alone

I walk alone, I walk alone/I walk alone and I walk alone…  (Greenday)

 

I walk along the street of sorrow/The boulevard of broken dreams
Where gigolo and gigolette/

Can take a kiss without regret/So they forget their broken dreams/

You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow/When you behold your shattered schemes
Gigolo and gigolette/Wake up to find their eyes are wet
With tears that tell of broken dreams/Here is where you’ll always find me
Always walking up and down/But I left my soul behind me
In an old cathedral town

The joy that you find here you borrow/You cannot keep it long it seems
Gigolo and gigolette/
Still sing a song and dance along/The boulevard of broken dreams

(Lyrics – Al Dubin; Music – Harry Warren)

Both are songs of the journey down the path of sorrow, despair, loneliness and lost hope.  The road can be long (and winding?) and seems to go on forever.  It is a lonely path and our world closes down as we wander.  We feel the loss of control and a powerlessness over our lives.  The boulevard of broken dreams is one we all wander and know in our being and many people are on this road now.  The broken dreams and lost hopes leave us feeling dry and hopeless.  Lethargy and deep melancholy, or worse, depression, overwhelms us and the journey is hard.  We feel lost and can’t see a way forward out of the chaos and grief.  The boulevard of broken dreams…

In a story read in churches this Sunday we hear of another journey made in despair and loneliness.  It comes to us from Luke’s story of Jesus (Luke 24:13-35) and features two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and an unnamed one (probably a woman?).  They are walking away from Jerusalem to their village of Emmaus.  It is obviously a decent journey and takes some time through the day.  They discuss their grief and disbelief over the events that have overtaken them in Jerusalem.  The week began so well, with crowds hailing Jesus as ‘King’ and heralding his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (that was only 2-3 weeks ago in our celebration!).  Through the week things heated up and the resistance to Jesus grew until he was arrested, charged, sentenced and crucified.  It all happened so quickly and so completely.  Now the followers of Jesus felt lost, alone and out of control.  They also lost their hopes and dreams – this was a boulevard of broken dreams!

As they walked and grieved, a stranger joined them and asked why they were sad.  They were surprised and shared their grievous story.  We had hoped he was the one!  We had hoped…  It is a phrase we know: We hoped the doctor’s diagnosis would be better.  We hoped the relationship could be restored.  We hoped the job could be saved.  We hoped…  We hoped… Wed hoped…  But then hope is gone, broken dreams shattered along this lonely road – and we walk alone.  It feels so alone!

The stranger listened to their sad story, their lonely tale with despair and grief.  He then told their story back to them, embracing it within the bigger, deeper, richer story of their people and God’s engagement and life through them.  He told them what had happened and why and where in the story God was real and present and engaged – God’s love continued to be with them and would rise in new and wondrous life (already had, in fact!).  In the hearing of this stranger’s words their heart burned within them – the joy, wonder and hope they felt in Jesus words and life were rekindled in new ways by this mysterious stranger!  They reached home and the stranger kept going but they stopped him and invited him into their home. They sat down to a meal and the guest turned host, taking bread, blessing, breaking and sharing it.  They immediately recognised the stranger as the Risen Christ in their midst. He disappeared from their sight and they rejoiced in the recognition and mystery of his presence.

Written some decades after Jesus when faith, life and church was perhaps harder going under various difficult Emperors, the followers of Jesus wondered how the Risen Christ was present to them, how they experienced this Risen Christ in their midst.  Luke’s story reminded them that Christ is present as the stories of faith and life are shared, as we are embraced into something bigger, more enduring, that embraces the deeper questions and experiences of life, faith, pain and joy.  Down the boulevard of broken dreams or Emmaus’ dusty road, where life is dry, lonely and filled with fear and grief, the Christ is with us.  Sometimes as friend and sometimes as stranger who walks with us.  The Christ is in the deeper story of God’s grace and life-filled promises that emerges from the despair and silence, nurturing new hope.  Christ comes to us in the breaking of bread, a shared meal where love and life are shared and we welcome others into our midst, stranger and friend.  Christ is present in the prayers of hoe and despair, of grief and pain, of joy and wonder.   Christ touches our hearts with the soft, gentle emotion of joy that moves within us as we listen to the pure joy of a song or tune that stirs us in melody or memory.  The story told or presented in movie or drama, that stirs our soul and moves our emotions is full of Christ and we come face to face with the Reality beyond all reality, the foundation of life and everything – the ground of all being.  The One in whom we live and move and have our being is revealed spectacularly in the beauty, diversity and awe of nature, creation, the world and universe beyond.  We small humans recognise our humility and dependence upon Mother Earth, Brother Sun and Sister Moon and the stardust that has formed our bodies.  Our hearts burn and we know the presence of the Risen Christ in these moments of sacred awe and holiness.

The inbreaking story and presence of the Christ is a transformative moment that draws us out of ourselves and our small perceptions of life and the world (that often feels like it revolves around us!) into a story that is ‘us,’ ‘we’ and everything.  We do lose control and are invited to let go of our need to be in control and trust in the grace of God, mysterious, uncontrollable and blowing through us like wind and breath to birth new life, new hope and new being.  The Risen Christ is everywhere around and holds us in grace and love!

By geoffstevenson

A Time of Change – and Opportunity!

In Fred Watson’s book, ‘Cosmic Chronicles,’ he speaks of Galileo and his work around 400 years ago.  Galileo and his telescope proved Copernicus’ theory that the Earth was not the centre of the universe.  He presented his scientific evidence that conflicted with the traditions of the powers of the world (ie. Holy Roman Church!) that held to the Aristotelian (Ptolemaic) view that the Earth was the centre of the Universe and the sun (and everything else) moved around it.  Galileo’s writings on his research and observations, astronomical and mathematical, rattled the cages of many senior figures who were part of the scholarly classes of Catholicism and held strong views and interpreted their own observations within the context of their world-view: The Earth is the centre of everything!

Galileo challenged this world-view.  He challenged their thinking, their beliefs and their way of understanding life, and God’s world.  If the Earth wasn’t the centre of the Universe but ‘just another planet’ in a vast universe then much theology, tradition and their sense of importance and power was threatened.  What if we aren’t the centre of everything, but spinning on another small planet in one galaxy amongst innumerable others in an infinite universe?  The importance and centrality of human beings, and more importantly at the time, the Church, was challenged and threatened.  If clerics were not correct and this ‘ignorant mathematician’ and his new-fangled telescope proved Nicolaus Copernicus’ theories from seven decades earlier correct, what would that mean in terms of truth, trust and power?

Newton and other scientists emerged and pushed their scientific evidence-based physics further and further, eroding the wisdom and knowledge of the all-powerful elites,, the Church who controlled the minds of ordinary people.  In essence, the church was dragged kicking and screaming into the new era of modern science but of course it didn’t go quietly or graciously but with power and violence where it could.  There were inquisitions and trials, courts and guilty verdicts.  Heretics were made examples of and punished for ‘persecuting the Holy Spirit’ and defying God’s good way in the world.

Still, the world-view changed and we have lived with it for a few centuries now.  This paved the way for many other advances and modern assumptions about life and the world.  Our willingness to dominate the earth and conquer every habitat and environment, seeking resources for our own benefit arose from these early sciences and the discoveries they made.  Science also, helped desacralize the world, explaining the many mysteries that were previously the domain of God and God’s Spirit.  Interestingly, many of these scientists were Christian and sought to find ways of understanding God’s world to glorify God.

The world changed, as the way we saw and experienced the world, changed.  Flowing through the Reformation era and into the Enlightenment, were cultural, political, religious and intellectual changes.  Industry, nuclear families, growth in city-states, liberal democracy and capitalism are a few of the changes wrought through this era of transformation and change.  A world-view provides a powerful lens that shapes who we are, how we think and what we believe is important.  Our current world-view is now crumbling after a few centuries and the failures of systems to adequately deal with life in our world in the late 20th century/early 21st century, is acute.

The Coronavirus epidemic has given us an opportunity to recalibrate – a necessary opportunity.  Many social media postings point to the possibility of change rather than reverting back to where we were.  Amongst the suggestions are a new relationship with the Earth itself, simplifying our lives and reducing the profound stress humanity has placed upon Mother Earth.  Simplifying our lives to find space for one another, relationships, which in our solitude we discover are very significant!  The world economy has been impacted severely and the temptation will be to restore it and all things to the ways they were.  Such economic growth relies on more of the same – acquisition and accumulation, a focus on personal wealth, higher [economic] standards of living and the ‘affluenza’ that has been rife across our society.  There is simply not enough for everyone to share the same materialistic ideals as we have.  Despite our affluence and prosperity, we do not seem happier or more content.  There is more stress, tension, addiction, anxiety and depression across this wide brown land, along with suicide.  It is time for a different view of life!

This Sunday we continue to read John’s story of Jesus (John 20:19-31) and encounters with the Risen Christ that left his followers mystified, confused, fearful, hopeful and transformed.  The followers were hidden away behind locked doors on the evening of the day of resurrection.  They were fearful of those who killed Jesus.  They were lost in their grief and despair – life has changed and can never be the same.  Jesus captured their imagination, their hearts and minds, and even to an extent, their lives.  They lived with him, followed him, listened to his teaching and participated in the mission of Christ.  They saw a new way but their world-view remained – they still had the typical Jewish expectations of the Messiah and God’s liberation of their world from Roman Imperialism.

Jesus died, killed by the powers and principalities of the world, Roman and Jewish in their attempt to hold power.  Jesus would not betray his passion and life in the Reign of God, that which he proclaimed, lived and embraced in his being.  The Reign of God stood, from Jesus’ perspective, as the original and deepest truth, the only true source of life, hope, salvation and grace.  It is a Reign of love and compassion, forgiveness and mercy that stands over and against every other reign of empire or Earthly authority.  It questions every world-view and provides a lens that challenges everything through the love and justice of God  The disciples had their view of everything turned upside down and inside out!

In that locked room, followers gathered fearfully; they were lost.  Into their confused presence Jesus appeared and presented himself as this new resurrected self, transformed but contiguous, it seems, bearing scars of suffering.  He blessed them with peace and breathed upon them saying, ‘Receive a Holy Spirit.’ He commissioned them with a mission of reconciling forgiveness and love, proclaiming God’s gracious acceptance of all into this Realm of true love, forgiveness and peace – for all people, and the Earth.

There is always the accompanying fear, even terror, in the stories of resurrection because it challenges everything we hold to, what we know in our world and our view of life.  It isn’t enough to know about God or Jesus or Spirit.  We are called, invited, challenged into the way of life, of following this path of love, grace and justice.  It is a vulnerable and courageous way that will challenge our world and what is held dear!

By geoffstevenson

Out of the Darkness, Shines the Light of Love!

There will be many different things about Easter this year.  I have missed the annual ‘Stations of the Cross’ Art Exhibition and its provocative, challenging art that engages the story of Jesus as he journeys to death – and beyond.  Last year we were able to host a ‘Jazz at the Stations of the Cross’ evening at the exhibition.  It was a challenge that was deeply meaningful to me, sitting amidst the wonderful and engaging art whilst playing various Jazz numbers that attempted to reflect the mood and message of the works and the story.  There was something personally challenging and deeply meaningful to be able to explore the story of Jesus journey to death in music.  The moments of improvisation through the music was an opportunity to create my own response to the story provoked through the art.

The Stations of the Cross has always thrown up new ways of engaging Jesus’ story and entering into deep and challenging dialogue with artists and art, story and faith that always alters my perspective and speaks into life and death.  I will miss this annual pilgrimage and its provocation to enter the story in new and confronting ways.  I have wandered back through previous years and the art that has left me scratching my head or gasping in wonder.  I have sought to hear the familiar story anew and within the strange world we find ourselves in.

I also wandered through the last 8 chapters of Matthew’s story of Jesus today.  There is a plethora of material, diverse and strange.  Jesus entered the city, hailed as the would-be hero come to liberate the people.  He then turned the Temple upside down.  Two different actions aimed at the powers of his world – political and religious power and might controlling the lives of ordinary, struggling people.  He offered parables of the alternate (original) Kingdom or Reign, he called the Kingdom of God/Heaven.  Parables that challenged the powerbrokers and religious leaders, questioning their authority and how they missed the point.  The ‘in’ were out and the ‘out’ were in.  Those who should know and see God’s Reign all around them were blind to the truth through their lusting for power and control over people’s lives.  Those who were lowly and faithful, yearning for hope heard and saw and responded to the invitation of the Galilean Rabbi who proclaimed the Reign of God present for all to enter and experience.  Jesus was tested by the religious leaders and came out on top each time.  In one encounter the lawyer asked him what the greatest commandment was.  Without a flinch Jesus replied: ‘Love God with all your heart, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.’  Do this and everything falls into place for this is the reality of God’s Reign – love!

There was the story of a wedding banquet provided by a King for his son, with everything organised and invitations sent out.  When all was ready, he sent his servants to gather the guests, but everyone had an excuse and couldn’t make it.  So, the angry King sent the servants out to invite anyone they could find – and they came.  There’s a sting in that tail but that’s for another time because the those expected to be first were last and the last, lowly and insignificant entered.  And that’s how it is with God’s Reign!

There is more preaching and other parables – the well-known ‘Sheep and the Goats’ that reverses the expectations of the faithful and ‘good’.  Those who enter God’s Reign are those who selflessly care and love others, giving food, water, and comfort.  This story flows from the Great Commandment and expresses love in action, the way of God’s Reign expressed in the world. As the Passover Week rolls on, the tension rises and there is increasing angst and opposition from those who have the most to lose.  The religious leaders plot to get rid of Jesus, whom they see as one who threatens the status quo and the balance of everything.  They are good people at heart, well mostly.  They are passionate but lost in power and belief systems that lead them away from love for God and neighbour.

At Jesus’ final meal they celebrate the Passover meal, a memorial that remembers the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt many, many moons ago.  There is hope and promise in this story of liberation and one that speaks into their own reality of Roman oppression.  At the end of the meal Jesus offers bread broken as a sign of his body broken in love.  He passes the cup of wine around, inviting them to drink, a symbol of his blood shed for freedom and forgiveness of the world.  Confusing words for his followers and more confusing still was the interchange between Jesus and Judas and then with Peter – the former betraying and the latter denying.

A time in the Garden of Gethsemane was filled with pathos as Jesus poured out his pain and desperation in prayer, seeking deliverance from the ‘cup that I have to drink; not my will but yours be done.’ The agonising prayer falls on the puzzled ears of his friends, and the scene escalates when a crowd comes to arrest him.  Betrayal with a kiss, swords drawn, a brief confrontation and Jesus was led away.  The disciples fled in fear, but Peter followed at a distance, lingering in the courtyard around a fire whilst Jesus was tried in a Kangaroo Court inside.  In fear, anxiety and confusion Peter denies being Jesus’ disciple and it feels that Jesus is cut loose from everyone.  The one in whom the Reign of God is deeply manifest and who proclaims this rule of love in his life and being, is alone and the world’s powers and principalities circle and close in.  Religious and political power focuses its wrath upon Jesus, and he displays the vulnerability and love of God’s Reign.  His humility is not weak and wishy-washy, but strong and courageous.  He endures the madness, the suffering, his Passion, with faith, courage and strength.  He stands tall against the powers in complete trust in God’s love to never let him go.

The Stations of the Cross takes us on an annual journey on this walk of shame and suffering from sentencing to death and then into resurrection.  Jesus is flogged and carries his cross.  He staggers and stumbles and needs help from Simon the Cyrene, who carries the cross for him.  At Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, he is nailed to the cross and then lifted high into the sky, a symbol of Rome’s power and might.  It is a warning to anyone who would flaunt their power or challenge the powers – suffering and death awaits.

Death and burial conclude the story.  The powers of the world win and the disciples hide away, defeated and despairing.  They fear the world and grieve their loss, the loss of Jesus and everything they have hoped in – it is gone.  This, as far as it goes, is how we imagine the story.  It plays out day-in, day-out, in our world.  The powers flex their muscle and overwhelm the dissident or prophet.  They destroy those who live a life of deep and profound love, questioning the way of the world and proclaiming a different, more inclusive and merciful life for the world.

As people live out the reign of God they are initially welcomed and praised.  Acts of goodness and selflessness are celebrated, so long as they don’t go too far or expect the same of everyone.  When someone rises up and seeks a new way in the world, inspired perhaps by the story of Jesus, his life and being, they will eventually be taken down.  Such love and grace can’t be allowed to run freely and loosely in our world – the powers won’t allow it!  The Reign of God is too pure, too lovely, too real and too threatening to allow to go unchallenged.  The greedy and powerful will not allow it, whether they claim some faith or not – money and power speak louder than love.  The belief systems of power and privilege hold sway and the ordinary are overwhelmed, beaten into place or lulled into placid acquiescence, distracted by empty promises and addictive lives that thrive on superficial alternatives to the Love at the heart of everything!

And death, despair and alienation course through the collective veins of a world that in its deepest being yearns for something more, the vision of the Galilean Rabbi who proclaimed that the Reign of God was at hand.  The Covid-19 crisis has disrupted our lives and thrown us into a confused disequilibrium.  Everything is up for grabs as nothing we relied upon seems real or reliable and we don’t know how we will negotiate the new world we find ourselves in.

What will things look like, post-Covid-19, whenever that emerges?  How will we re-emerge and what will we hope for?  Will we seek to return everything to the way it was, even though we and the world is different?  Will we hope for a return to the status quo that was, the one that didn’t really serve us terribly well?  Will we listen and learn and live differently, with passion and hope and joy and openness to others in an inclusive just world?

In the darkness of the world after Jesus died, when grief and loss, fear and pain wrestled and whirled within the upper room and amongst the followers of Jesus, there was nothing.  It was hopeless and powerless despair.  Nothing could or would be the same again and they were utterly lost!  I wonder if we feel even a little of the confusion and despair rife in our world, an echo of every deep and dark moment of human (and earth) life?  What lay ahead?  How would they re-engage life?  How could they?

In the gentle pre-dawn light two of the ‘Mary’s’ went to the tomb where they lay Jesus to prepare his body for proper burial.  They were challenged by the stone that was laid across the tomb – how would they move it.  Matthew’s story contains an earthquake, angels and fearful guards who do a runner.  The stone was moved, and the tomb is declared empty – Jesus is not there, but back in Galilee and they are all to meet him there!  The women encounter this Risen Lord on their way back and are told not to fear but to tell the disciples!

This is an intrusion of the highest order into the lives of these people, indeed into the life of the world.  It defies rational thought and experience and turns everything upside down.  It doesn’t make sense and challenges the powers and principalities of the world.  The worst the world could do to Jesus could not destroy and overcome love.  Resurrection vindicates the proclamation and life of Jesus, that God’s Reign is here and wholly available to all.  This Reign is a revolution of love that turns everything upside down, changes everything and transforms the darkness of despair into hope.  The hope is that nothing can separate us from the love of God, a love that transcends time and space and is the fundamental and essential love at the heart of everything.

The Reign of God permeates our world and touches our lives in the wondrous and awe-filled moments, through the beautiful melody, moving story, the extraordinary diversity of life and the Earth’s features, an infinite universe beyond, and the sacred moments of life.  God is present in and around and beyond these experiences and the love that binds everything into a relational web of being.  This Reign is at hand and is an open door to the future.

By geoffstevenson

Who Do You Sing, Dance and Cheer For?

I wandered into the stadium, a wonderland of colours – black, red and white – a field of dreams before me and the hopeful contenders going through the warm-up processes on the carpet of green.  With trumpet and drum and voice they bid me sing; ‘Who do you sing for?  Who do you sing for?’  Who do I sing for?  This team or that – the one they’ve come to see or the one who wants to ruin the dream?  Who do I sing for and what is my song?  Is it the ‘forever’ song that commits me to these colours through thick or thin, for better or for worse, perhaps?  In the end I sang along and it was fun – to be part of the group, bound by the colours, the song and camaraderie.  Of course, winning the game!

Who will you sing for, with that song that runs deep through your being?  Who will you sing for with the song of your heart?  What is your yearning and which is the song that you will sing?  Can you hear that song, deep and rich, in a world of noise reverberating around you?  Can you hear a song, pure and clear, of justice and peace – a love song that echoes through the wind and the trees and holds birds afloat?  Who will you sing for when the parade comes to town and there appears an unusual choice?

The journey takes Jesus and the followers to the Olive Mount and the Eastern Gate to Jerusalem, through which he will pass.  But first he gets on the donkey, with its foal, and sets off on his ride.  Towards the city he goes and the crowd understands.  They salute him with branches and sing him their song – their Song!  Who do you sing for?  It is him!  It is him!  ‘Have mercy, Son of David, save us!’  Save them?  Save them from what?  The sin of which we speak so freely in such confusing manner?  Save them from life that happens all round, the harsh despair they feel in their bones?  Save them from despots who rule in the city and take what they want leaving them poor and bereft?  What is this salvation cry, sung to the rabbi on a gentle donkey?  What will he do, this Davidic son, so unlike the one they hope he will be?  Will he rise up with sword and spear, leading an army so powerful to bring fear to the enemy heart in Rome?  Will he conquer all in his wake and free our small tribe?  With his donkey and palms, that’s a far, far cry!

Wait a moment, though, what is the choice?  Who else can we sing for in this solitary parade?  Well across the city in the wide open gates there is another parade, one of royalty and pomp.  Who is that who comes into this city street?  Who is that behind the Roman troupes, soldiers adorned and on parade, a symbol of power, glory and might?  Who sits astride that large war stallion and comes in power to own the city?  It’s Pilate, the Governor, the man of Rome.  He rides in power, a great show of strength and demands the allegiance of citizens all.  He wants good behaviour at this festival time, a Passover Feast, celebrating God’s great deliverance from bondage and strife!  O the irony – celebrating deliverance from bondage and new freedom under God, before the man of Rome, who holds them bound??!!

So, who will you sing for, there’s now a choice?  Will you sing for God’s Reign or that of Rome?  Will you make a loud noise for the way of God – on a donkey, with rags and palms?  Or, will you put your hand in with Rome; go with power and strength – the armies and weapons that hold the status quo?  The safe option, of course, is to stand with the strength.  They’ll protect you (well, not kill you) and while it may not get better, it shouldn’t get worse.  Who will you sing for?

More than that, what is the song you sing?  Is it a song of passion to change the world, a song filled with language Divine and rapturous melody harmonised in major 7th’s and 6th’s and 9th’s, dissonant and resolving or a cacophonous dissonance left hanging?  Is it a song to sing in your heart to free you from fear and lead you down deep where the sacred presides?  Or do you sing in a fanatical way, obsessed with some truth you need to convey to those out there who need to get in but won’t listen, won’t hear, ‘because of their sin’?  Is the song you sing one that touches your heart or are you leaping on the bandwagon, possessed of the moment, caught up in the fun – a man on a donkey who rides by as people wave and sing?  What do you think?  Is this a clown entertaining the downtrodden crowds, giving some distraction in the midst of hard life?  Is Jesus a fool on the hill who won’t hear the truth and persists in his comedic pursuit of the Reign of God?  It’s an important question we ask as we sing – the song and the content and the author won’t fade away.  Like the ghosts of Christmas he invades our times, nudging our conscience and feeding us lines of wisdom, that confuse our world-weary ways, turning worlds upside down so the bottom is up and the top is down.

His song, echoed on voices passionate or naïve, is a death-life song that carries him onwards and downwards on this lampooning ride to take it to Caesar and Pilate and those who collaborate in the Temple space.  It’s a song of justice, a vulnerable love-shrouded cry into an unhearing world that kills the prophets and laughs into the face of those who protest the wrongs that abound.  It’s un-Australian they’ll cry! – ‘Unpatriotic’, ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘tree hugging, latte-sipping, chardonnay-swilling, ABC-listening’ and everything else that sets someone apart as a loopy fool on the hill following the lonely one into the Holy City, singing for love, for justice and compassion in an inhospitable world.  They’ll take it to widows and orphans, single mums and their kids, the unemployed who feel lost, the hopelessly addicted, the despairing and vulnerable seeking asylum and refuge, the migrant wrestling with this confusing tongue and a cultural milieu still finding its voice.  They’ll lampoon the older inhabitants here and shake their heads at the shame of their race and anyone different who raises a voice will be laughed out of town or ‘burned at a stake’.

Can you see that the songs merge and conspire and modulate as through a symphony where the theme undergoes transposition and variation?  Can you hear the song challenged by tunes and lyrics, imposed from above, from powers that darken and avoid the light-soaked melody?  Can you make out the melody in the world today, a faint hum that you need to incline towards with intention?  There are many songs with wonderful words that are Divine-infused because the singer has heard the faint humming sound and listened deep within to a Spirit of melody, the poet-laureate of universe heart.  Who will you sing for?  What song will you sing?  Will you allow the song to get into you, deep and rich, raw and profound?

The Reign of God reverberates through everything around us if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, if we open ourselves to a voice and world beyond us, beyond ourselves and our small interior world.  God’s Reign permeates all things and is grounded in love and grace, free for all and hold everything deeply and gently – even in this troubled time.

By geoffstevenson

Can These Bones Live??

The strangeness of this new world continues to enfold us, causing discombobulation, confusion, uncertainty and a sense of unreality.  We know it is real and some feel the fear or panic.  Others are caught in the midst of illness and a life and death struggle.  Most of us don’t really know what to think because everything seems to have happened so quickly.  In this pandemic, we know there is an ‘enemy’ if you like, but we cannot see it.  With flood, fire and other disaster experiences, we can see the danger coming.  It is physical and there is warning as it approaches.  With this pandemic, we cannot see where the virus is or how it might invade our body – or what its presence may mean to us.  We cannot gather with other people in the midst of impending or actual emergency and danger, but are required to stay apart, distanced from each other, knowing only that the virus comes through people and the droplets in their breath.

We are driven into homes, isolated from others, with many businesses, organisations and other familiar activities shut down.  It is preventative and hopefully will help break the escalating cycle of virus spread.  This world is so different!  So much has happened in just a short time and we have our churches and other organisations closed for the first time in living memory.  ANAZAC Day will be so different for so many people, the gathering with friends and comrades of war to support, recount and remember together won’t happen.  The Royal Easter Show is gone this year, along with the Olympics and many other sporting competitions and events.  The world has changed in weeks.

Most of us are struggling to make sense of this fast-paced change in our lives and where it will lead.  What businesses will remain at the end of this and in what form?  What are the economic implications of the necessary shut down and how will we emerge from this?  What are the changes that will become a permanent part of our lives?  How will things look when this is all over and how will this experience change us?

This week Christians will gather in strange and exiled ways across the world and many will read an ancient story that is strangely prescient for our current time.  It comes from an age so different from ours and in a place far away in terms of distance, culture and world view.  Somewhere in the mid-6th century BC, a man living in exile along with many of his countrymen and women, spoke into their new world of despair and hopelessness.  They were exiles from the Kingdom of Judah, after the Babylonian armies conquered their homeland and destroyed the walled city of Jerusalem and took many inhabitants (artisans, craftsmen/women and leading citizenry) into exile in Babylon.  In this new land they were given relative freedom and had food, shelter and some work.  In this new land, they were lost in a foreign culture, foreign language, different food, climate and world.  They were grieving and lost.  They felt deflated and defeated, and they despaired.  The people felt that all life had been taken from them – how could they live?  Psalms, like Psalm 137 reflect the grief and sense of lostness they felt:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our     tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

Into this despair, grief and sense of being lost, various prophets rose up; ‘voices of God’ who brought hope and renewed vision to the people.  One of these was a man called Ezekiel and he was probably with the early exiles taken into Babylon.  He had a message of hope and life from God.  In the story this week, Ezekiel is taken in a vision back to Judah, to a large valley.  As he looked across the valley in this vision he saw a vast number of bones, dried, lifeless human bones.  These were probably the bones of his people following another of Babylon’s raids on Jerusalem and the bloody battle that ensued, leaving a valley of death.  The bones had been picked clean by birds and wild animals, and left to dry under the hot sun.  The image was barren, lifeless and desolate – just like his people!  In this vision, the Spirit of God asks him: ‘Can these bones live?’

What a question!  Can these bones live?  Is this not the very question we ask of ourselves?  Perhaps not in those precise words, but the sentiment is the same – how can I go on?  What is going to happen?  How can we exist?  These thoughts and questions flow through situations of grief and loss, pain and struggle, illness and despair.  Can these bones live?  Can we continue on?  If so, how?

Ezekiel can’t answer and puts it back onto the Spirit – ‘you know.’  He is then told to prophesy, to speak into the lifeless valley of dry bones and speak a work of hope – to tell the bones and bodies to reform.  He does and there is a rattling sound throughout the valley.  Bones move around reforming into skeletons and then sinews, muscles, flesh all form around the skeletons leaving lifeless but whole bodies.  Then the Spirit tells Ezekiel to speak into the valley and tell the breath to come and reanimate these dead bodies with life.  Ezekiel speaks and there is a sound like wind as the breath of God blows through bringing new life out of death and the bodies are alive!

‘This is your nation, your people,’ says the Spirit – they are dead and lifeless, but I will breathe life into them and restore them and give them their land back.  It is a profound message for people who are in a strange place, feeling lost and exiled.  Most, if not all of those who were taken into exile will not live to see the promise fulfilled but the very word of hope breathes life and hope into their being and they are encouraged to live with expectation and faith.  In the midst of confusion anguish, fear and uncertainty about whether God is alive (was God killed by the Babylonian God whose army won the fight??) and present or even interested in them, this word comes to them.  In the midst of change and brokenness, the word of God reaches them to lift them up, to breathe life and hope into their flagging bodies and spirits.  They are not abandoned!

For these people, there is the reality that life is different and will not revert back to how it was – even when they or their children and children’s children return to their own land.  Life will never go back to how it was!  They will have to negotiate this new world and God is with the to give strength, hope, surround them with love and life if they will receive it and live into this hope and grace of God.

For us, there is much similarity as we look at the world through different eyes and try to figure out what is happening and make sense of where this will all lead.  We are feeling the stress and confusion and a whole lot of other feelings.  The word of God breaks into our lives in this time and place to restore life, hope and love within us.  We are invited to live in this presence of God and find a place of joy, hope, peace and life.

By geoffstevenson