Raising our Voice Together!

I remember being told that God is all powerful and can do anything. God has power over everything and controls all nature and everything in the world. They used a big word that I didn’t understand – omnipotent. God held all power and was bigger and better than anyone or anything.

I think I believed that for a long while – I had no reason to doubt what older, wiser Christians told me. They pointed to particular Bible references and I believed them – until it didn’t make sense anymore. Can God do anything? Does God have total control over everything? It is nice to believe this when everything is going your way but what happens when things work against you? When my eyes were opened to some of the deeper realities of this life, I began to wonder. I started reading other parts of the Bible where there are more questions than answers and where anger drips from the pages – much directed towards God and the injustice and pain people experience.

Last week I wrote about some of what I felt in this strange society we inhabit at the moment, one of greed, fear and anxiety. I wrote about my sheer despair at the lack of moral leadership exhibited by many of our elected leaders and the horror I feel for those who are very vulnerable in this nation and across the globe when nations like ours knows little in the way of compassion.

So the question haunts me: Where is God in all of this? The clichéd nonsense I have heard too much of that assumes God is in control and could change anything, anywhere with just a word indicts God as non-caring or uninterested.

In his book, ‘When Bad Things Happen To Good People’, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrestles with his own questions about God’s omnipotence and love. In the midst of watching his teenage son die of an ageing disease, Kushner asks deep questions of his faith and of God. If God is all powerful and loving, why is his son dying like this? Why hasn’t God answered his prayers? How can an all-powerful, loving God watch on and do nothing as a child suffers?

He concluded that either God does not have the omnipotence we imagine or God is not all-loving. His exploration of his faith drew him deeper into the mystery of God whose love and whose power is not through absolute control over everything but who is in all things, vulnerable to the forces and desires of the world. Can God stop greedy people being greedy? Can God stop powerful people acting maliciously towards their brothers and sisters? Can God stop you or I doing that which we want to do – whether good or bad? Of course not! God is not a cosmic puppet-master. We have free will and are invited to exercise it as we will. That’s our freedom and our problem.

It is a perennial problem for humanity because it is too easy to give into the darker side of our being and succumb to the seductions and fears of the world around. Equally when we look upon the world with anger and frustration in our powerlessness and we sit back feeling defeated and helpless, our silence is an exercise of our free will – to do nothing!

Our congregation is joining with many others over the first 4 weeks of September in ‘The Seasons of Creation’. It is an opportunity to ponder the deep wisdom of God revealed through the world of God’s creation. This week the theme is Storm Sunday and it recalls the power of God revealed in storms: the wind, lightning and thunder. Recalling the words of the ancient Psalm 29 we are encouraged to ‘ascribe greatness to the Lord’. The psalm describes the power of God in many ways, symbolised by the power of nature. In the light of my earlier questions I’m not sure I always see this dimension of God? Never-the-less there is a simple faith and trust in this writer of poetry to believe that ultimately God will draw all things into some kind of unity and hope. There is a raw power there that reaches out and makes noises to attract attention and to point us in other directions. I suppose that I feel vulnerable before storms and begin to recognise my own impotence before the powers of the world. I turn inwards and ask questions about who or what I will turn to in the ‘storms’ that shake my life? Who or what will hold me in the midst of such turmoil? Will the powers that be in my world protect or care for me? Is there a power, beneath these powers that I can trust in and hope in to hold me through the storm and calm my fear? I think this is where the psalm points me – to God.

Equally in the Gospel reading from Luke 8:22-25 we read a simple story of Jesus and the disciples on a boat crossing the lake in Galilee. Crossing over means they are travelling to the Gentile territory; they are venturing out of the comfortable, safe environs of the Jewish world to speak of God in the darker places of life. As they ride the boat, a storm erupts and threatens them. Jesus is awakened by the disciples raises his voice against the wind and waves, the powerful forces that confront them and orders stillness. They continue over to the other side and then encounter a man who is lost amongst the graves, the places of death, out of his mind. Jesus confronts this evil and the dark powerful forces with a loving embrace into God’s community. He raises his voice and orders the demonic powers, the darkness, away and embraces the peace of God in the midst of pain.

I think that we need to begin to raise our voices! Several people have commented to me on the reflection notes last week, that they felt the same as me – powerless before the powers of the world who are abusive towards the most vulnerable people. Many share the view that our nation has become greedy and lost its moral bearings towards that which is deeply important – compassion, justice, community and caring for the weak, the poor and the vulnerable of the earth.

It is time for us to raise our voices as Jesus did, to speak out with a loud, unified voice against the powers that threaten life and hope. It is time we put aside our fears and prejudices and worked together for what we seem to be losing and for what we believe deeply is true and right. It was when Jesus raised his voice in a faithful response to the powers of the world that God was revealed in power and strength. When we sit quietly in our rooms and ask God to do for us that which we should do, nothing much happens! Do you feel the anger, the frustration, the feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness then it is time for us to pool our words, our hopes and our faithful actions into a united voice for truth, justice and the way of Jesus!

By geoffstevenson

When Enough is not Enough…

Thursday began with me reading some inspiring writings about God’s Realm. It spoke of the hope, love and generous grace of God that sustains life and fills us with that which our hearts yearn. This led into preparation for Year 6 Scripture and the sharing of Paul’s message to the people of Athens. He pointed to their religious lives and discussed his experience of the God revealed in Jesus. He spoke of a God who created all things, not as a distant being but the very source of all things. He spoke of God as the one in whom we live and move and have our being. This is a beautiful thought of how God holds all creation together caring for all creatures and people. God is concerned with the life of the world and everything finds its being and life in God.

As I pondered this thought more deeply I recognised how each person on this planet is a unique creation in God and uniquely loved by God. I thought about how our 2 would-be leaders and their minions have demeaned various people and people groups and felt deeply sad.  Of course it isn’t just them but parts of the media who generate hatred and division, greed and selfishness amongst listeners or readers. I cringed at the few times I listened to various shock jocks on AM radio and felt shame at the words of hatred and abuse I experienced there.

As the day progressed I was aware of the struggles of asylum seekers as our congregation seeks to support Tamil refugees through the Tamil Uniting Church. The chilling stories these young men tell are very sobering and humbling. I wracked my brain to work out how Tamils under threat in their own country could actually get out of Sri Lanka, an island, without getting on a boat (the authorities won’t give them visas to fly out!)? Again, I felt sadness at the way these vulnerable and struggling people have been abused by leaders, media and many ignorant people who have believed this rhetoric.

All of this faded when I picked up the car from the mechanic and tuned into ABC radio news. I was flabbergasted to hear Joe Hockey’s voice announcing slashing cuts to Foreign Aid. I nearly ran off the road! Where did this come from? There had been no hint and two days out we’re hearing about them slashing Foreign Aid. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Australia, along with other developed nations, committed to lifting Foreign Aid spending to 0.7% of our Gross National Income (70c for every $100!). Ours is currently 0.37% but now falling. We also committed to 8 Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

I listened to My Hockey’s reasoning that we can afford to be generous when everything is very good in our own backyard – he claims it isn’t. I was fuming. I cannot remember being so angry with our political system. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back – I was furious!!!

Tim Costello (Head of World Vision Australia and brother of former treasurer, Peter Costello) was interviewed and kept saying how devastated he was. He could not believe that a Conservative Government would do such a thing. He described how in Britain the Tories under Mr Cameron have lifted Foreign Aid to 0.7%. Despite Britain suffering heavily from the Global Financial Crisis (that we largely avoided) they would lift Foreign Aid. He is said to have declared that Britain will not restore its budgetary position on the backs of the world’s poorest people! Australia faired very well through the Global Financial Crisis and is in a relatively strong economic position – we can more than afford to support the world’s most vulnerable people – but won’t!

Tim Costello said that the measures taken by the Developed World had so far reduced the death rate of children in the world from 30,000 per day (1 every 3 seconds!) to 19,000 per day (1 every 4 seconds). That is a staggering improvement but there are still 19,000 children who will die today of poverty related causes – malnutrition, unclean water, poor sanitation, lack of basic medicines and healthcare, infant mortality through child birth… The reductions in our Foreign Aid will take us from helping more children and adults to live to allowing more to die – it is very sobering!

In addition the decreased Foreign Aid will deprive other children from receiving an education. Women and Men will be prevented from receiving micro-economic loans to establish small businesses to sustain their impoverished families. Foreign Aid is vital to the most vulnerable people in our world and a means of us sharing our abundant wealth. Other reports indicate that Australians, overall, are wealthier than 5 years ago. We feel poorer because we want more and the things we want cost more. Australians are very wealthy in world terms – in the top 20% of the world that controls 80% of the world’s wealth. Even those in Australia on the basic wage are in the top 5-10% of the world’s wealthiest people.

So why are we, as a nation so selfish? Talk back radio and letters to the editor indicate many people want further reductions in Foreign Aid or any support of people overseas – why should we share what is ours, what we’ve worked for? As I listened to some of these comments I felt ashamed to be Australian and to not want to help the poorest of the poor in even a small manner.

I was further dismayed when I realised that Aboriginal Legal Aid funding will be reduced by 20%. I have a letter to be delivered to the local Aboriginal Legal Service commending them for their excellent work, their gracious commitment to people who are poor and vulnerable and their professionalism. It is easy to cast aspersions on Aboriginal people, especially when crime is involved. It is easy to blame and accuse other people who are different and we do it well – asylum seekers become ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ (despite there being no queue) and so on. We demean other people and people groups without understanding why they are what they are or do what they do. I don’t want to excuse crime but I want to understand why people get into situations and do what they do. The Aboriginal Legal Service supports people in deep crisis; crisis or spirit, crisis of hope, crisis of identity and they do so with dignity, integrity and pride. Now their work will be more difficult and vulnerable, abused people will have less support and less voice to stand up for them.

It seems that everywhere we turn vulnerable and marginalised people are being pushed further to the margins, forgotten or demeaned. Older people in our society have received little, if anything out of this election campaign. Their lot as we live longer becomes more difficult. I have taken 2 recent funerals of people who have lived into their 90’s and have had poor quality of life in their last days. Those who have cared for them are often overworked and underpaid. There are many difficulties in the Aged Care system (not the least of which is that some organisations seek to make significant profits from it!). How will we care for people as they age and have particular needs? These are also human beings and deserve dignity and respect but don’t always receive it.

I am aware of the many children who are presenting with various disorders and syndromes – more than in previous decades. Those on the Autism spectrum, for example, have some particular difficulties in coping with life and fitting in. They are not always understood in school systems or other social places but deserve respect, support and help. These children struggle to fit in and belong. These families struggle to make their way through the systems that don’t understand their children and have to fight for understanding, respect and proper support.

Another issue that is seriously under threat is the world I which we live – the Earth. It is struggling under the enormous weight of human development, population growth and growing waste. The climate is changing and most scientists point to human activity as a factor. There are things we can do for our own land and that of others – if we will take our heads out of the sand and act now. It is time for us to change and do what needs to be done, to look towards alternate energy forms, to plant trees and cultivate new forests and care for the Earth.

These things cause me deep sadness and feelings of helplessness as those leading us seem to wave off these issues in the name of reinforcing the wealth and prosperity of middle classes, corporations and ‘the economy’. The economy is meant to serve the people, including the most vulnerable and weakest but that isn’t how we experience it. Those who struggle the most are finding it very hard to access what they need.

There is something in our psyche at the moment that believes we are doing poorly and are missing out; that we need more and more or we won’t be happy. There is something that is preventing us from being satisfied with what we have and who we are.

As I ponder this I am aware that our Gospel reading this week (Luke 12:22-32) reminds me that in God I find everything I need! Jesus’ words remind me that God has provided enough on the earth for everyone. There is enough food, enough water and enough space if we share it with one another. When we live in fear of the future or the rhetoric of a society that warns we need more wealth, we seem to remain discontented and lost. I don’t find deep wonder and joy in people who are trying their hardest to make more money and accumulate more stuff. They are stressed and fearful, always dissatisfied.

God invites us into the place where our living finds fulfilment because we become satisfied with what we have and feel joy in sharing from our wealth. God invites us into the place where we need not fear nor worry but rejoice and be hopeful because God’s way is true life and hope. Jesus invites us to live fully and love wastefully in God’s abundant and gracious presence.

Take a walk into the garden and experience the wonder of God in the created world. Breathe in and express gratitude for the true beauty and wonder of life and be satisfied in God’s loving embrace. Then act for those who are vulnerable and stand up for justice in Jesus’ name!

By geoffstevenson

Connectedness and Life in God…

Recently a group I was part discussed how so much of the physical world is interconnected. For example we were reminded that every drop of water that is part of me has been part of every ocean, river, stream and many, many creatures through the many years of the earth’s existence. The carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and other atoms that are part of me have also been part of trees, plants, animals, earth and so on. The connectedness of all things is something often forgotten in our modern world where we seem to be cut off and disconnected from so much.

The environment is such a vital part of our lives but we do not always appreciate this. We do not live with the constant reminder that we are dependent upon the world around us for our well-being. We are disconnected from our sources of food, the necessity of rain, sunshine and the seasons. We are disconnected from the cycles of nature and the importance of the various creatures that inhabit our world and contribute to the whole scheme of life on our Earth. We are disconnected from other people and even ourselves in this privatised, individualistic, materialistic world in which we live.

In the group we were reminded of how we are deeply connected to everything around us and that all life, all existence is in God – everything that lives and breathes has its being in God. God holds us all together connecting and sustaining everything.

This month of September we will join with many congregations around the world who will celebrate the Seasons of Creation. This is four weeks of recognising God’s sacred text written into the created order of the world. We will open ourselves to the wonder of God’s world and read the wisdom, grace and love written into the creatures, the Earth and the connectedness of all that is. One of our texts this week is from Job 38 and in it God speaks to Job about how creation is more expansive and wondrous than Job can imagine. Life is more than Job can comprehend through his own small vision and egocentrism. His life is important but to try and view all life through one’s own eyes alone is very narrow and misses much of the deep and profound mystery that only God knows.

This week our focus is on oceans, which are broad and expansive, beyond our ability to fully understand. They connect continents, nations and islands, large and small. They contain vast arrays of life and sustain our planet through the provision of water. The oceans, in a sense, ‘hold the land mass’ of Earth. They are mysterious and unknown to most of us – the deep, dark depths contain secrets we are not privy to. In this they are symbols of God and an image of God who holds life in all fullness, wonder and mystery. There are deep, dark places in God that we do not understand or know. As we splash, play, float on and enjoy the oceans, so we find life and joy in this mysterious, wondrous God!

It is important that our species begins to reconnect with the Earth and non-human creation and understand the relationships that are vital to the continued well-being of all creation. We need to understand that we are dependent upon other creatures, cycles of life and the rhythms of the seasons. Scientists have been trying to warn us of what the faith traditions have long known (as have indigenous cultures!) that we are dependent upon the Earth and its systems, creatures and resources. Humans are contributing to dramatic changes in the environment from the increase in deserts, salinity, vast pollution, diminishing resources and food, climate changes and the extinction of other creatures.

This is not the way of God, who created and loves the world and who gave humans responsibility to care for the earth as stewards. Nor is it the way of God to accumulate resources and wealth to ourselves and deny others access to what they need to live. Our world, in becoming increasingly alienated, competes with each other for more and more. As those able to accumulate live in luxury, many others become more desperate and needy.

The disconnectedness of humanity is revealed in many ways – the conflicts between people and nations over power, wealth and ideology; the ignorance that we have regarding others and what they experience or need. There is deep loneliness and fear in our society, along with exclusion and isolation based on race, culture, creed and other factors.

This week is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s great speech, ‘I Have A Dream’. In that wonderful speech King calls for a world where people are connected and share food around the meal table. He calls for a world where people are not judged by skin colour, gender or other differences but drawn together into the fellowship of the human community created by and loved by God. It is a wonderful vision built upon images from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and nurtured in the crucible of human experience. King’s own experience of racism and rejection based solely on skin colour fuelled not hatred and retaliation but compassion and love towards those who were ignorant and powerful. He stands against racism, exclusion and hatred in love, seeking openness and grace between people.

This is what God is about, connecting people in love. God is love and where there is love, God is there. Our second reading for Sunday comes from the book of Hebrews (13:1-8, 15-16) and one version says this:

See to it that love continues to run both ways in all your dealings with one another. Don’t limit your hospitality to your friends. Some people who have welcomed strangers into their homes were actually opening their doors to God’s messengers without realising it.
Keep standing up for those who are in detention, just as you would if you were locked up with them. Imagine yourselves in the shoes of those who are being harshly mistreated and work for them accordingly. Don’t let out of sight mean out of mind!

In these weeks of reading God’s texts of the created world alongside our sacred written texts, we are encouraged to listen to God’s wisdom through the creatures, cycles and wonder of the world around us. We are invited to ponder the wonder, mystery and connectedness of God who holds all things in grace and love and draws all things together into the Divine heart.

By geoffstevenson