A Place of Love and Liberation…

I listened as a young man told his story to a group of young people. This young man told how his life was in danger, that people, authorities, were after him and would do violence to him again – probably kill him this time. He ran and ran. His family helped him run, desperately trying to keep him as safe as possible. They found money to pay brides and finally put him on a boat to get him away. He suffered sickness, lack of food, water and sleep. He was afraid and lonely and wanted his parents – he is a teenager. He ended up imprisoned in a foreign land unable to speak the language, eat the food or understand what was happening. They asked him questions and he didn’t know how to answer them. Each day he felt more weight and the gravity of his situation. He became more despairing and afraid – and helpless.

I heard the story of some women who were prostitutes, drug addicts and criminals. Their lives descended into a living hell by the time they emerged into this world. Some were born with heroin addictions and others gained them as a means of keeping the inner pain and reality of life at bay. They learned how to take drugs early in life. They understood sex as a commodity, a normal means of making money. Prostitution was not even the word they used for their vocation.

These women were abused, used, bashed and knew only violence and indifference. They walked through their life seeking love and hope in the strangest places – the wrong places but they knew no better. Everywhere they turned was more strife and desperation as they thieved and prostituted themselves to gain enough money to buy drugs to enable them to make it through each day.

Each day they became more weighed down, struggling under the weight of hopeless existence. Pain emerged as their only constant companion and there was no hope for any future. The dreams of others did not belong in their world – most had never known anything different.

It was as if they were in the power of some manner of evil, a spirit of evil that overwhelmed them, frightened them and drove them further into despair and poverty of life and spirit.

I experienced these people through life encounters or the stories they shared of their lives. They are stories of deep and painful humanity. They are stories yearning for hope and peace, for some intervention of love – whatever that might be??!! Love was something some had never known!

Against these stories I heard another. It was of a woman, an unnamed, unknown woman. She lived many years ago and she was a woman described as having some manifestation of evil that crippled her and pushed her to the margins of life. She was unable to stand up straight and the evil within her tortured her emotions. She was excluded from life because people couldn’t deal with her or cope with her deformity. She was an unclean person and people took a wide berth of her. They knew her to be God-forsaken and that’s what she felt deep within her spirit. She felt dry and tired within; a helpless, powerless nobody.

She wandered into the local synagogue (‘church’) for a rest, for some hope, some peace and perhaps a connection with God? Jesus was teaching at the time and saw her. He stopped his teaching, went up to her and spoke to her with tender words of inclusive love. He reached out to her in the name of God and invited her to stand tall and strong. He cast aside the evil presence, the feelings, the spirit, whatever held her and left her in peace. More than inner peace, she was received into the community of God’s grace and love. She belonged for the first time in many years! She was brought back from the edge, the margins, to find a place nearer the heart of God and to be loved by people. Jesus’ tender touch and gentle words were a healing balm that flowed through her exhausted body filling her with a peace that she had never known or would have ever believed possible.

‘Magdalene’ is a house where women who are drug-addicted, prostitutes, hopeless, helpless victims of abuse can go. There they find a home, a place of welcome – no matter what they have done or how they feel about themselves, which is usually pretty hopeless and horrible. Living between life and death, marginalised and desperate they find their way to ‘Magdalene’ not knowing what to hope for or expect. They find a home and place to belong. They are welcomed and treated with dignity and respect. They are given resources, encouragement and self-belief – perhaps for the first time ever! In this intimate space they find love and they encounter God who is gracious and welcoming. It is an unexpected discovery but one that brings the power of healing and restoration. God and God’s way in Jesus is what drives those who run ‘Magdalene’, a church operated house for the homeless and lost, the dead and abandoned, the lonely and longing. In this God is liberation, love and hope.

In the story of Jesus (found in Luke 13:10-17) there is more. The powers that be who operate the synagogue and religious system are angry and retaliate because Jesus has upset the order of the system, their lives and their power. They turn on Jesus accusing him of rejecting the laws and requirements of God. They want him gone. They use their laws to justify and uphold their clinging to power and order and control over others.

Jesus stands up to these people who would use power and structures, control and laws to prevent the healing and restoration of a very poor, helpless woman! After all, what is God really on about? Is God about rules, laws and controlled order? Or, is God about liberty, freedom and life under the Reign of God? Does God require love or judgement? Grace or control and power over? In same way there are forces in our society that don’t like people to find life and freedom if it means they lose control or power.

People in places of power will use everything they can to maintain the status quo even if that means injustice, hatred and violence – it usually comes down to violence and more violence. This is what the young man in the first story is caught up in – both in Sri Lanka and in Australia. People in power who use that power over others and keep them silenced and out of the way. Love opposes this and opens the heart to welcome everyone in the love of God that is healing and restorative. God’s love is generous and liberating!

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By geoffstevenson

A Way that Questions the Powers!

I often have the sense that I am seeing or hearing an endless cycle of the same rhetoric as if on continuous play. It changes in some ways but I keep glimpsing the same messages and meanings until I feel anxious, frustrated, angry or helpless. Let me explain: On TV or radio news and commentary, in advertising and in the political, corporate and social commentary I feel I am continually being pushed to believe something I don’t think is there and don’t want to believe.

The ‘something’ that I am being led to believe is that I will only be safe, happy and realise any potential within myself if I subscribe to and commit myself to the doctrines of the dominant cultural and political forces that surround me. If I believe what I am told by the leaders of our nation or the experts trotted out to sustain the rhetoric, I will give myself to them and they will protect me, give me what I need and make me happy.

Essentially that is what we hear every time an election comes around – variations on a theme of fear and uncertainty. I heard Mr Abbott several times suggest that he will make me feel secure and safe if I vote for him. Mr Rudd alludes to something similar, if less specific about security and safety. They will do this by massaging and managing, caring for and strengthening the economy. The economy is raised up as the most significant reality in our lives. It is worshipped and idolised and carefully and fearfully followed and watched over. Of course there is the rhetoric over asylum seekers and the ‘invasion’ of ‘illegals’ who are threatening our very way of life – both parties will keep us safe from these ‘enemies and threats’ from across the sea.

In many ways it seems that I need to be protected and made more secure and safe – from what the experts say. However, I can’t quite see these things personally. I don’t feel fearful or insecure. I’m not sure that I feel scared of what is around me or of the state of the nation – that’s not to say I don’t believe significant changes shouldn’t be made in the political realm (I just don’t think either choice will do what I think is necessary!). I’m not sure the economy is a living, breathing thing. Nor do I believe it is as fragile as I am made to believe. It goes in cycles and those cycles go up and down. It’s like Chance the gardener (aka Chauncey Gardiner in ‘Being There’) who in his simplistic manner speaks of everything in simple gardening terms because that is all he knows. In the garden there is summer then autumn and winter. Then comes spring and the flowers grow again. Those around Chance hear this as profound wisdom for politics and national economy – and there is truth in it if we will not be fearful and convinced of what the powerful tell us.

Beneath the rhetoric of our society I hear echoes of Jesus’ world. Though it was very different it was also similar – the more things change the more they stay the same. The major difference was that in his world you could see the powers and forces working upon the world. They were less hidden behind sound bites and political and ideological double speak. The Emperor stated quite simply and forcefully that he was boss and he alone promised the only safe way through the world and history. The only way for a nation or group of people to be safe was to come under the Empire, pay taxes and submit to the wisdom, authority and power of the Emperor, of Rome. Caesar Augustus, for example, declared himself to be the Divine bringer of peace, safety and liberation to the world. If he was for you, you were safe and well cared for.

Jesus and others didn’t believe in this way of violent power. He looked and saw how the masses lived on fringes, struggling for life, hope and a place to belong. They were people who were left out, unimportant, marginalised, ordinary people who had little value in the eyes of the powerful. Jesus believed in equity and equality. He stood for justice and peace. He provoked the powers that be with his words and actions and proclaimed that there was another reality that stood in opposition to the powers and forces of the world in which he lived. He called it the Kingdom of God and said it was characterised by gracious love for all people. It saw connections between people and God, people and one another and between people and the earth. It valued each person as a uniquely created being in the image of God. It said that women and children belonged as much as men. It valued people who seemed ‘different’ to the dominant ways – people with different coloured skin, people living with chronic illness or disability, people of different sexual identity and orientation, people living with mental illness… This Kingdom was one where community and belonging were paramount and where hope and joy were promised and the promise fulfilled.

Of course this vision, this message contrasted with and often opposed the message of the dominant powers and that got Jesus in all manner of strife. What’s changed? Whenever anyone opposes the rhetoric of the powerful they get angry and loud and sometimes violent. If it isn’t they who deliver the violence then their voice-pieces in media etc do it for them.

I confess my frustration with (read anger and rejection of) the voices who consistently tell me that I am wrong and I should feel insecure and depend upon them and their ideology. In this week’s reading (Mark 12:49-56) Jesus’ speaks of how his words bring division and struggle – especially for those who take them up. When he speaks of hope beyond the local powers that be, when he points to a vision of love, grace and peace from God, the powerful get twitchy and nervous. As his rhetoric finds expression within practical life, they become angry. As his words penetrate into the hearts and minds of others making them immune to the simplistic ideology that hides aspirations of power, they act to silence those words. The cross stands tall in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ followers as a symbol of the power responses made towards his way, the way of God. The compassionate images of a mother holding the dead body of her son as he is taken from the cross symbolises the compassion and vulnerability at the heart of Jesus’ way. Incomprehensibly it is love, vulnerability and powerlessness that expresses the true power of God’s way. It is the one alternative that gives me hope and a sense of direction; of truth and life. It is a life-giving, joyful way and it takes courage to stand with Jesus against the powers, to live and express love for all!

By geoffstevenson

The Mystery of Faith…

A Christian theologian was on a plane speaking to the woman next to him. She indicated at one point that ‘I am much more interested in Buddhism and Sufism than in Christianity.’ He asked why this was her preference?

She replied, saying ‘Because they are about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing.’ She continued, ‘I don’t think that beliefs matter nearly as much as having a spiritual path and following a way.’

Like the man who told this story I can understand the woman’s statement even though I have some disagreement with what she says. The fact is that Christianity is first and foremost about a way. It is a way of living, a way of being that reflects the way of Jesus in the world. The earliest name for Christians was People of the Way. They were people who lived a way of life that incarnated the Reign of God in the world. They lived according to various teachings of Jesus about love – for God, others and self. They received everyone into their fellowship in a community of equality and respect for each person. They lived justly and shared resources amongst those who had needs. This was a whole way of life that reflected the grace, justice, love, peace, hope and joy of God!

I can understand something of the woman’s statement because for many Christianity has become a system of belief – believe (in your head) the correct statements, doctrines, beliefs, dogma… and you will be okay (‘saved,’ ‘going to heaven,’ ‘forgiven’). It is all about beliefs for many. I remember my earliest days in Sunday School and then church where my understanding was essentially ‘Believe these things and you will be saved.’ The belief I was called to was a series of statements and ideas, doctrines and dogma that this particular congregation held up as the truth of God.

They weren’t unusual because most churches have done this – the statements of beliefs may vary but the reality is that Christian faith is about believing the right things in your head.

The problem with this modern notion (and it has only been the case since the development of the modern Western Society) is that it is contrary to the Biblical witness and of Jesus. If you read carefully you will recognise that Jesus never called us to believe certain statements to be true in order to be his follower. He invited people to follow him on the road. His life and teaching was about how to live, another way to live that was grounded in God’s Reign rather than the pattern and system of living grounded in the dominant systems of the world around – the Jewish Temple system of the Roman Empire. It was a way of the heart!

Faith is central to Christianity and there are different words for faith in our history. It is also central to life and the modern world messes with the notions of faith that have been important to people throughout history. When we talk of science we tend to think of certainty, factuality and truth. The scientific paradigm of Western culture has given us the sense that there is truth and falsehood; there is truth that is provable and false nonsense based on folklore, opinion and so on. We have had belief moved from heart to head as the modern world connects truth and factuality in a way that no other society has done.

In the Christian (and other) sense, belief has different elements. There is the belief of giving assent to a statement of truth – believing something to be true. In Christian faith we believe in God, the centrality of Jesus and the foundational centrality of the Biblical witness. Various Christians will add other statements of belief to these central elements.

There is also belief as trust where we trust ourselves, even our lives to something – in Christian faith we trust in God. This trust is to give one’s life in trust (faith) to God as the rock, the foundation in whom live we and breathe and have our being. We move further into this life of faith as we enter into a relationship of trust and fidelity. This is faith as faithfulness; faithfulness not to statements but to God as central to our lives. Finally there is faith as a way of seeing, a vision of what can and should be. The Christian vision derives predominantly from the vision of Jesus’ teaching around the Kingdom or reign of God. We see another way of living, of being and we live into by faith because it is not the predominant way expressed in the lives of people around us.

This week’s reading comes from the New Testament book of Hebrews (Hebrews 11) and is a wonderful essay on faith. It speaks of the Old Testament as a story of faith and details the stories of its heroes as stories of faith. We aren’t told what they believe in their heads because that isn’t the point – it is what they do with their lives. Having said that there is an essential belief in God – with heart, mind and soul! So there is head stuff here – they believe in God, the very being of God who is beyond all creation but also intimately close, who calls people and empowers them to live into this call. They believe in God but this belief is expressed in a life lived.

Abraham hears a call from God (we don’t know how he received or perceived this call only that he did) and it was to pack up family and servants and journey to a place that God would tell him. He did it. He didn’t think about it and believe God in his head. He didn’t think about it, write about it, talk about and formulate it into a creedal statement. He packed everything and left his home to journey to an unknown place. This is faith – believing in God and then living in that faith with our lives.

Today in Scripture I told the year 6 students about martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement. They were intrigued by his story – that he stood up to the powers of white racism and government policy and he did it out of faith. He did it non-violently and he did it knowing he may lose his life! Faith for King and others was worth living and dying for. It was about living into things they believed about God. For example justice means nothing if it is contained within statements but not lived out in human life.

The modern rise of atheism is a symptom of people’s desire for factuality and uncertainty about faith. In the church many want absolute certainty about everything and fear doubts, questions or change. Faith is about putting on the boots and walking into the future because God is God and we believe in God, even if we don’t know all the answers!

I often find myself somewhat caught between two extremes. The first is those who turn to science and scientific principles in order to understand the world. These people want and seek proof, evidence and the ability to analyse ideas, beliefs and hypotheses before they will accept them as true. God doesn’t fit neatly into their world-view. God cannot be brought into a test tube and analysed, proven and studied. God cannot be proved, no matter how much people of faith want to suggest that God is provable.

The second is the life of faith, specifically for me, Christian faith. Whilst I can say that I know God and can suggest experiences of the Divine, I cannot prove God’s existence and must accept it as a faith step. I cannot prove that prayer is efficacious or that praying will change anything but I have anecdotes from mine and other’s lives that suggest that perhaps prayer does make a difference and change things. Whether it is the calming and peaceful effects of meditation or the centring influence of mantras, I feel the effects of prayer. There are the myriad stories of mystical experiences of the Divine impacting human life in surprising ways – flashes of inspiration; visions of another realm; convictions of a path to take and so on. Prayer is also the crucible where I am formed in the likeness of the Christ, of God. As I pray for the world and people around me, I am drawn into the place where I am challenged to be changed. One cannot pray that the poor be fed and not feel somewhat responsible for contributing to the bread they need!

In other words, in my daily living I live between the worlds of scientific proof and certainty (even when at the edges science is not as certain as often realised!) and the life of faith. Somewhat surprisingly I don’t usually find the conflict that many others do. I love science and what it provides me with in terms of understanding the world within, around and beyond me. I love being curious about life and the world and seeking ways of understanding the ‘how’ of life. I also want to go deeper than I can with my scientific tools. I want to ask other questions about the ‘why’ behind life and the world. I want to explore the relational elements of life in ways that is often less consistent to science, which often pulls things apart to study how they work. Beyond all of this is the morality of life. Science is not specifically interested in matters of morality or moral choice. It is not immoral but neutral in that it is not interested in such questions.

For me faith is a risk. It is a risk to believe, whether in religious faith or believing in other choices of life. It is a risk to purchase a house when we can never fully know what may or may be good or bad about it. It is a risk to get married, have children, enter other relationships, take on a life of integrity, choose an occupation… These are risks of faith in that we cannot know at the outset whether it is right to trust and love that person. We cannot know whether our decision to love will be good and right or go awry. It is faith.

For me, it is faith to trust in the reality of God because I cannot prove God. It is also a risk – what if it is all make believe? What if I’ve missed something and this is not real? Sure, my experiences of the Divine and what I see in other people and the stories I hear help convince me that this is the right path for me but it is never provable! So I would rather take a risk and follow a path that is about peace and justice, hope and love than reject these things. I would prefer to live in a world of generous sharing and gracious care than one of dog eat dog. I don’t like rampant individualism or greedy accumulation that seems to dominate other parts of society. I don’t like the morality that seems to arise in the vacuum of neutral values. The hopelessness of lives devoid of direction, love or meaning that descend into addictive life patterns is deeply sad. I have seen too many people who live in a world of loneliness, fear, confusion and defeat. Whilst it may be a risk to believe in a loving God at the centre of life, it also offers a hope and foundation for something richer and deeper.

I look at the church and what it does – beyond the negative stuff we tend to hear about. Why does the church in this land provide the foundation of support, care and service for so many people who need special help? Why is the church the largest non-governmental provider of social services in the nation – by a long, long stretch? Why do various studies indicate that people of faith (whatever faith) tend to be more generous and volunteer more frequently? These things are all a risk but we take them because they are a good risk and even if we’re wrong about God, isn’t the world a better place when we love each other, care for each other, seek justice and try to live peacefully – the life that Jesus calls us to?

The life of faith finds its origin and sustenance in the belief that God is love and this Love is at the centre of the universe. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being – a profound and wonderful thought! It is about living in the loving embrace of a God we cannot see or even truly define. We risk believing that God is love and not the judgemental, vindictive being that so many envision. We risk believing that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from God’s love in Christ, as Paul says in Romans 8. This love provides a joyous background to believing and living where defeat and rejection can be taken in our stride. Such defeat is experienced in the light of God’s love and transforms our response into one characterised by a belief and hope that God and love will prevail. It is even prepared to suffer or die for this belief – this is risk!

In some parts of the church there has been a focus on the sinfulness of humans and Divine judgement as the starting point. Various verses of Scripture certainly can be used to justify this position but it isn’t the predominant way of Jesus who was inclusive and embracing of the diversity of people, welcoming them into God’s Kingdom of gracious acceptance. This is actually the beginning of faith – God loves all people and wants the best for each of us as a truly good parent might. The life of faith grows in the seedbed of love and acceptance and out of that love takes risks for the sake of God’s Kingdom. We grow into a life that is centred more and more deeply in God and God’s nature and become more truly the people we are created to be. Forgiveness and healing, growth and understanding all occur in this crucible of transformation.

Faith is a risk that involves our whole lives and calls forth greater things from us. We risk God’s love and grace believing, hoping and trusting what we know in our hearts and believe in our minds – God is Love!

By geoffstevenson

What Would You Die For?

Eric Elnes is a pastor in Phoenix Arizona. He had this strange idea to walk from one corner of the US (Phoenix) to the other – the nation’s capital in Washington DC. His idea took hold of him and many others gathered around a small group who would make the trip. They were to take message of love and grace to the nation’s capital. It was a message of God’s love that wasn’t often heard in the public arena as Christianity had become negative, judgemental and harsh. They wanted to tell people that the starting point with God is LOVE and relationship. In this relationship there is hope, healing, grace; a place to belong and become who we can be most deeply.

In Asphalt Jesus, Elenes speaks of the task of preparing a statement that set forth their vision of a generous, positive and affirming faith. His draft was 19 pages! Friends read it and told him to radically shorten it – to just 1 page! But how? What would he leave out? What was important to include? In his original draft he had described a number of important principles that he felt needed inclusion. He began the task of whittling down his tome into something bite sized and readable, succinct and focussed. He weighed the relative importance of each principle by asking: ‘What sacrifices would I make to protect or preserve this principle if I felt it was threatened?’

He began by considering what principles he would be prepared to give a sizable portion of income to protect. Next, he asked what remaining principles would he do something radical and challenging for – such as walk across the USA? He continued: What principles would sacrifice his job or vocation over? Each time the list condensed further. As the level of sacrifice was ratcheted up, the number of principles was reduced until his final question became: What principle would you be willing to die for?

The question seemed a little over the top in the context until he realised that walking across the nation came with some great risks – someone could be killed in an accident or lunatics who decided they were ‘spawns of Satan’ might seek to harm them… Elnes thought: ‘Are there principles that are so essential to life’s happiness and freedom that I would be willing to die on their behalf?’

It was a tough question and one that wasn’t easily answered. He thought about it and realised that he would die for people – family, close friends… He would die for relationships but were there actually any principles? He thought about Jesus’ words that ‘no greater love does a person have than to lay down their life for their friends.’ He recognised it was about love and relationship not principles. Elnes’ personal reflection went further. It was unlikely that any of his family were in such mortal danger that this walk would resolve their situation and save them – so why do it? He thought deeply about his own life and what were the most important elements, experiences and personal understanding. It was that he was loved, deeply loved, not just by people but by God. His whole self-being, his vocation, his life was lived in the awareness and that he was loved by God. His essential being and had found freedom and life in this essential reality – that God loved him unconditionally. Every other love grows out of this and is more deeply fed and realised within this fundamental ‘belovedness’ in God. Eric Elnes suddenly realised what was worth dying for: ‘Yes, I’d give my life if necessary to help just one or two people truly understand that they are loved, not hated by God. It would be worth it if just one or two people came to know that they are not alone and that they are loved beyond one’s wildest imagination. There are millions out there. I’ll walk for them!’

I wonder: What would you die for? What is so important in your life, so precious, so fundamentally important and essential that you would consider dying for it? It’s a tough question but an interesting exercise as it helps us peel back the layers of demands and distractions in our lives to discover what is truly important. We live in a society that is increasingly materialistic. Greed and the endless cycle of accumulation consumes our lives. If we stand back for a moment and observe our own lives and those of our society we recognise the power of the addictive pull of material possessions. Everywhere around us we are told what we need in order to be a complete human being. We are led to believe that more and more possessions, gadgets, devices, or products that make us look act right just right, places we must visit or live, cars we must drive… Everywhere is a message of what we must have and own in order to be someone and to find true happiness. Without the latest gadget or gizmo we will simply not be happy or whole. We are also told that we must be in absolute control over our lives, independent and strong before the world, self-secure. We are given the tools and techniques (for a price) and industries have grown up around helping people to find financial and other self-security and self-power.

The trouble is, as far as I can see, no-one is any happier. In fact there seems to be greater stress and fear as we all believe that we don’t have enough. We are afraid that we will be found wanting, that we will not have enough to be truly happy! The fact that we don’t discern any appreciable increase in our degree of happiness only fuels our need and desire. What would be worth dying for? Is any of this worthy?

In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 12: 13-21) Jesus tells a story of a man who became rich because of his good harvests. He builds barns to store his grain and then plans to sit back take it easy and enjoy his wealth. Life is about him and him alone. Jesus asked the question of what it all meant when he died that very day? Was giving himself totally to his own pleasure and storing up everything for himself worth it? Did it mean anything in the grand picture? Was he even happy (is happiness even the ultimate goal?)?

Jesus told his listeners that there is true value in building up wealth in God – it is about the relationship that Eric Elnes recognised as so important he would be willing to die for it. So many of us have become obsessed with the things of the world around us, living with stress and fear of what might be. So many of us have been pushed further toward material prosperity and have lost our sense of what is truly, deeply vital and meaningful.

God loves us and invites us into a relationship of hope, healing and grace.

By geoffstevenson