Lavish Blessing and Grace

A minister received a phone call one morning whilst sitting down to his breakfast. Just as he placed a spoonful of cereal in his mouth the phone rang. Chomping through his muesli he managed to answer the phone and mumble his name. No sooner was his name out when his caller announced herself and began to tell him she was in a crisis and needed him as soon as possible. He swallowed the muesli and attempted to ask what her problem seemed to be. She refused his question, growing more agitated by the minute and insisting he come around immediately. He’d had experience with this woman and offered to be there in an hour, to which she agreed and was suddenly much calmer.

The minister completed his breakfast, washed his dishes, had a coffee with his wife, did some emails and finally got into his car and drove the 5 minutes to this parishioner’s home. On the way he formulated a plan to deal with this woman’s tendency to blow any small incident into something huge. When he arrived she offered him a cup of tea, which he accepted. They sat down and before she could launch into her story he held his hands up to quieten her. He said he had some conditions. He would hear her story but he only had 1 hour and before she could pour her heart out with her current problems, she had to spend 15 minutes telling him her blessings. She looked shocked and sat with a confused and horrified look upon her face. After a few minutes of silence, he calmly asked her if she was okay. She told him that this wouldn’t work because she would actually need all of the time to tell him her blessings. For the remainder of the hour she recited an endless list of the wonders, beauty, joy and blessings she experienced in her life.

When he stood to leave she thanked him and her smile was radiant, her problems forgotten in the light of the good things in her life.

Recently someone suggested that I/we are blessed. I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first – what did they mean? All around me was rhetoric pointing out how difficult things are at the moment. There is a budget deficit that is worrying to many. There is climate change and weather problems, lack of rain, bushfires and big questions about the environment. Of course the threat of terrorism is always before us and asylum seekers seem to present eternal difficulties such that we should not allow them in…

I felt like the woman – a little flabbergasted, even annoyed. If we are so blessed then why are all these big problems surrounding us? Then I stopped and realised that the world in which I live is actually a blessed, enchanted world in which the presence of God is so abundantly real and wondrous – but I don’t always think this, see this or feel it. All of the blessedness of life – the people, the world of nature (trees, animals, stars and sky, rivers…), food, health, gadgets and gizmos, music, art and so on – is abundantly free or accessible. The truly good things are freely available to all of us. We are blessed.

With this in mind I read this week’s Gospel story (Luke 18:9-14), a parable of Jesus where he speaks of two men who go to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee (a pious Jewish religious leader) who stood out by declaring that he was not like the other, a tax collector (usually grouped in as a sinner). He declared that he was righteous, law-abiding, not dishonest, perverted or corrupt… This, of course, was all true. He was a righteous man who observed the law religiously and was very respectable.

The other man stood at a distance and bowed down, never looking up. He spoke from the heart saying, simply, ‘God, I know I do the wrong thing – please have mercy on me.’ Again, he was right. He was a cheat who ripped his own people off as he worked for the Romans, the enemy. Everything the religious leader said about him was true. In commenting on this story Jesus said that it was indeed the tax collector who went away justified.

My instant reaction was to think, ‘Good! You self-righteous Pharisee! Who do you think you are??!’ But then I wondered how I might sometimes be in his position and genuinely thank God that I am not like others; that I am okay as I look upon them in their struggles, misery or lostness. All too often I feel in a better position to others – not superior, just in a better place with better outlook, perspective, faith or whatever. Everything the Pharisee said was quite correct but it was also all about him. Often it’s all about me – what about you?

The tax collector couldn’t even look up but he didn’t go on about how bad he was. He declared that he did the wrong thing and sought God’s mercy – it was about placing himself into the grace of God. There wasn’t much he could do to fix everything – he didn’t even promise to but opened himself to God’s mercy. As one commentator put it: ‘This parable… was and is an attempt to shift our attention from ourselves – our piety or our passions, our faith or our failure, our glory or our shame – to God, the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, welcoming the outcast, and healing all who are in need.’

So the parable is not about being humble, although that is a desirable quality. Nor is it about living with the heavy burden of the recognition of or, guilt and shame of ‘being a sinner’.  It is about recognising our blessing, a blessing that comes from beyond us, wraps itself around us, holds us even when we walk outside its gracious path, deviate from its virtues or blithely live oblivious to its holy presence in our life. This benevolent gracious mercy comes to each of us and dwells within each of us. It is the presence in which we live and move and have our being. It is the deep love at the heart of the universe, the rich grace of beauty, wonder and kinship. It is more precious than the air we breathe or the water that quenches thirst, refreshes and renews us. This blessedness is an act of God who cannot but surround us in rich blessing and fill us with delight and wonder. It is for all – the righteous Pharisee and the sinful tax collector. Except these designations become meaningless before gracious holiness and we simply become people, loved and cherished in the Divine heart. We are children who are loved deeply and for whom this gracious God yearns and lavishes abundant generosity. Perhaps we might look up and out and rejoice in the abundant, lavish blessing that surround us and give thanks!

By geoffstevenson

Perseverance and Persistence

Do you ever feel like throwing it all in and giving up? Do you ever wonder why you bother – nothing seems to change and it doesn’t get better? It is fairly easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a task or a struggle or the pain of life that seems to keep attacking us. Sometimes the word ‘perseverance’ is the most annoying and awful word! It is the last thing we feel like – persevering! We want the whole thing to disappear, change, transform…

I remember a football training session after a few days rain. We couldn’t go onto the field because it was too wet. The coach, in his infinite wisdom, decided we needed some fitness work and could go for a road run – about 10 kilometres. It doesn’t sound far to some but to a bunch of young people it seemed a very long way! We began together, running and cracking funny jokes but is short time we began to separate out. The couple of fit guys ran steadily and easily. The rest of us gradually slowed down, panting and struggling. I got to the half way mark and it was okay but as I came back it got harder. My legs began to ache and feel heavy. My lungs gasped for air and all I wanted to do was stop! And go home! I cursed the coach, the run and everything. I hated every minute, every second of the return part – is was incredibly awful and difficult! I walked some of it and then jogged a bit then walked a bit more…

I think that the only thing that kept me going was wanting to end it! I desperately wanted to get back and STOP! There were moments I didn’t think I would and other moments I felt I could go on a bit  longer. Eventually I somehow made – we all did. Some took quite a long time, much longer, even, than me. We then had some stretches and a cool down that finished most of us off. A night to forget!

Sometimes ‘perseverance’ feels like a dirty word, a word that we would rather not have to consider. Perseverance demands or we keep going, we believe there is some hope or possibility that our current experience will end but we feel too tired, too despairing, to hopeless to keep going. It feels too hard.

There are many situations in life where this is part of our experience. Work that drains us and is difficult and uninteresting but we have to persevere. Mothers of young children who feel at their wits end, tired and worn out, needing space, a break… They have to keep going and keep going. Those who struggle through illness that requires ongoing treatment or results in physical changes that have to be accommodated into living but are really difficult changes – administering medications, dialysis, amputation, loss of sight or hearing, radiotherapy, chemotherapy… Those who endure harsh poverty from which there is little hope of emerging or endure injustice that they cannot overcome, alone. There are those who endure grief and loss or are haunted by painful memories. There are many situations in which we find ourselves caught, trapped and feeling oppressed or overwhelmed and the very thought of persevering is difficult to consider.

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures contain many stories of people caught in places of harsh endurance, pain, isolation, feeling lost or overwhelmed and needing release, hope, peace and rest. One such story has many facets. It is the story of the Exile of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BC. The Northern Kingdom had already fallen to the Assyrians from the north. The Babylonians from the east had been threatening and finally overwhelmed the capital, Jerusalem. They destroyed the wall around the city, destroyed the Temple and razed much of the city. They took many of the inhabitants into exile in Babylon where they felt deep grief and pain. They cried out in their sorrow and lostness. They sang miserable dirges that mirrored their life and being. They had to get used to different food, different culture, different customs and felt very lost – dead.

A range of prophets wrote and spoke into this situation. There are a range of responses throughout the Hebrew scriptures, one of which is the book of Jeremiah. He spoke some seemingly odd words to the captives. He encouraged them to claim their place amongst the foreigners, the befriend those they now lived with, to learn to enjoy their food, to pray for these people, whom they considered enemies and make them friends (Jeremiah 29). Further along he promise that God, whom they have lost their sense of, is still with them in this strange place and will ultimately restore their homeland and bring them peace. He urges the people to embrace the ways of God in this foreign land and live with generous love and grace, with the love of God written on their hearts. In other words recall the faith they have received and remember the words and hope that God continually brings and grasp it in their lives. Patience and perseverance requires faith and hope. It is about accepting the reality of the present but to recognise the presence of God in our midst such that we have a deep spring or well of sustenance. This well can rise up within us and give us the strength to endure each day, one at a time.

Often the changes we seek, we need, will take time to emerge and become reality. The situations we experience run deep, are entrenched, and will require time and endurance to overcome. Sometimes we will plain have to learn to live in the new place we now occupy – with all the grace, patience, hope and joy within us and that God offers.

In Jeremiah 31:27-34, the prophet speaks of planting the land of Israel with the seed of humans and animals – it is the promise of renewal. God will write the law of love on their hearts and they will know God and be at peace with the God who offers peace and life. This passage speaks of hope. It may not become a reality immediately but may take time to materialise. We may be part of the seeding of hope that will emerge down the track. Our contribution may to be lay the foundations for change and hope, for life and joy to emerge through the struggle or pain.

In the Gospel passage for this Sunday (Luke 18:1-18) there is a story about a woman who is struggling under injustice. She complains to a judge who couldn’t care less and ignores her. She perseveres and annoys the judge so much he finally gives in and grants her the justice she seeks. Jesus says that this is how we ought to pray; such prayer is persevering, insistent, persistent and endures despite our situation. It is active and engages us as we believe what can be in God.

By geoffstevenson

Embracing the Outcast…

There is a category of people in the Biblical language called ‘unclean’. They are often lumped together as the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners’. Essentially these were people who, due to their life choices, physical/emotional state, particular illness, vocations…, were considered outside the laws of Moses (the Old Testament Jewish laws relating to purity…). The reality for those who were chronically ill, mentally ill, physically disabled or those whose life choices put them outside the law and were classed as unclean, was that they could not participate in the life of the community. They were outcasts and marginalised. Those with chronic illnesses/disabilities were considered sinners because they were being punished for something they or their parents had done of which God disapproved – they were cursed by God.

This was dubious theology that Jesus refuted – God doesn’t curse people with disease if they disagree with God or ‘do the wrong thing’. This exclusion was also contrary to the way of God. Keeping those who were contagious away from the general population was one thing, excluding them from the grace of God was another. Not condoning or even standing against activities that were wrong was one thing, considering such people as beyond God’s grace was another. When I read stories of how the ancients treated some people I am often flabbergasted! I come down to earth as I recognise modern ‘unclean’ categories.

In our society there are several groups that are treated as if they are unclean – excluded from communal life by intent or practices that deny them opportunity. Those who live with mental illness are more accepted now than previously but they still have great difficulty in accessing the kinds of life we mostly take for granted. There is a stigma attached that makes other suspicious or fearful. Those who live with disability – physical, intellectual or emotional – experience much difficulty in being accepted, understood and embraced into communal life, in a way that is safe, trusting and inclusive of who they are. We often fail to see them for who they are or appreciate the particular gifts, contributions and skills they have to offer. The variety of stories where children with particular emotional disorders are suspended or poorly understood at the level of infants or primary school is alarming. It parallels wider society whereby we fail to understand and engage those whose perception or way of engaging the world is different. We treat them as ‘unclean’ and exclude them from fear or ignorance.

We treat those who are different, whom we don’t understand or those of whom we are afraid fearfully and keep them at a distance. In our ignorance and fear we marginalise people and make them into outcasts – ‘unclean’. I remember my days at Parramatta Mission in the Kitchen which provided meals for those who needed a bit of support. Many were homeless and others impacted by poverty. Some of those who came had clothes that were shabby, stained or torn. Others had hair that was knotted or fingers stained and dirty. Some were people whose grip on reality was slim through their psychological illness and poor physical health. They induced fear in the streets when they swayed down the street talking to the voices in their heads. People gave them distance and grimaced at the sights and smells. These were indeed unclean people – in every way.

When they came into the Kitchen and received a meal each day they began to change. They began to trust people a little and began to talk to others. Some of these people had had very high level jobs before some kind of breakdown took it away. I remember one homeless man whose only community were the homeless others with whom he shared a squat. He’d had a significant role in the Department of Education. These marginalised people were people. They needed grace and inclusion as much, if not more than anyone else. They needed gentle patience and much love and they responded to it.

We treat people who are so desperate to leave persecution in their homeland they jump on leaky boats to find asylum elsewhere as criminals, and lock them away. A recent letter from the Uniting Church Synod is calling us to be part of a campaign to end the detention of children. It is sadly shameful to realise that we do this to children! We treat them as unclean people and exclude them from life and freedom in the community. We lock people up because of fear and politics.

There are many other people who experience forms of marginalisation in various contexts, whether women seeking to pursue their vocation, gay, lesbian and transgender people who are still looked upon with disdain and abused, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, Aboriginal people…

In this week’s Gospel (Luke 17:11-19) we hear a story of 10 lepers who approach Jesus from a distance and ask for mercy. Jesus sent them to the priests to show themselves and be declared clean. On the way they realised they were cleansed and one returned to thank Jesus. We don’t actually know what happened to the 10 men, how they were cleansed (the assumption is Jesus did something but nothing is stated). The conversation between Jesus and the one who returned to give thanks suggests that the story deals with more than physical healing. It is about being reclaimed, restored into community. This is a story where Jesus reaches out to people who are outsiders, marginalised and excluded to embrace them into the gracious community of God’s love – that is salvation!

In our own world there are many opportunities for us to embrace outsiders into the community of life and hope. There are many ways in which we are able to open ourselves to people who are excluded and denied full acceptance into the community and welcome them in gracious hospitality. It might be to visit the local nursing home and sit and talk with the people who have no visitors. Some can’t get out of their rooms or don’t socialise well due to deteriorating health but need company to feel included. We might learn to accept people who are or seem different to us, especially those of whom we are fearful or suspicious. We might seek to enlighten our ignorance on different groups of people by seeking out some to hear their story. The way of Jesus is the way of lovingly embracing those who are outside into community. Perhaps the beginning is for us to stop and give thanks for the blessed lives we have!

By geoffstevenson

Remember Your Story

Have you ever wondered how people become the way they are? Why, for example did the brothers explode bombs during the running of the Boston Marathon? How did Hitler come to be as he was – a psychopathic murderer? What motivated and inspired Osama bin Laden?

I am curious how these people developed. Were these people innately ‘evil’? Was there a traumatic or abusive experience that ‘turned’ them? Were there influences on their lives that moulded and formed them? Who were the significant people who helped form these people and what they did?

Equally, I might ask the same questions of those who we hold up in heroic ways, people who stand tall above the rest for having deep virtues. How do we get a Mother Theresa or Ghandi or Martin Luther King jr…? Who influenced them, nurtured them and guided them.

There are those with psychological knowledge and expertise who could probably shed light upon this and a cursory glance across the internet indicates familial elements are very significant. The role of extended family in nurturing, guiding and influencing seems to be a primary element. Those who have strong, stable family with open and trusting relationships that offer positive examples (rather than just words) seem to have a positive foundation. Beyond the family there are other influences and the significant people in one’s life can have a positive or negative influence beyond the family. Friends and other significant adults fulfil a very important role in nurturing and influencing personal growth and maturity. When there is a vacuum in a person’s life, especially in younger years, it will be filled with whatever individual or group influences offer a sense of belonging and community – whether that is a positive of negative force.

Beyond personal influences, the broader stories of people, families, cultures, nations are strong formative influences on how we think, what we believe and how we live. What, for example, sustains ongoing enmity between people of different cultures, such as the ethnic, political or religious struggles between various groups or nations? What sustains the memory of people in Northern Ireland to hate each other even when they interact daily with people of the opposite group? What sustained and fuelled hatred in the former Yugoslavia, or between Israel and Palestine? What stories and traditions told in people’s stories hold this memory and keep it alive?

Of course there are stories that keep alive hope – for justice, peace, and a world where all have enough and share together with respect and grace. There are stories and traditions that keep alive the deep human yearning for a compassionate life that seeks justice and love. There are stories that keep alive courage and community, of caring for others and lifting up the weak and marginalised. These stories, when told boldly lift our spirits and remind us of who we are as human beings. They show us what we are called to be and we want to respond, to hold to this truth and live the life! I remember this experience in movies and stories that have moved me. Dead Poet’s Society held up a vision that moved and inspired me. The Blind Side was a wonderful story of opening one’s heart to the other, the person who is very different and finding common life together.

The traditions and stories we have received, along with those who have shared them and lived them before us, are very powerful influences on our lives – perhaps more than we realise. They may hold the foundation for many of our attitudes – our lovely characteristics and our darker side of racism or exclusion…

Our political allegiances or economic expectations, our embracing or rejection of violence as a means of resolving conflict all come from our formative influences of people and story, tradition and communal narrative. I wonder if we ever stop to question the narratives that we unquestioningly accept? I wonder if we ponder the stories and traditions that helped form us and remember some of that which we have forgotten? Do we ever stop to remember stories of hope, courage, peace and love when life is at its worst and harshest? Do we critique the stories and traditions foisted upon us from a rampant media competing for our hearts, minds and money? It is important to recalibrate our bearings, our life and what stories control and guide us.

This week’s reading comes from one of the ‘pastoral letters’ of the New Testament. Generally understood to be written towards the end of the 1st century, it speaks with the voice of Paul writing to the young Timothy, whom he mentored in faith and mission. Paul and Timothy are both dead but the writer recalls their relationship and writes in their voice to help a community rekindle the faith and faithfulness of these great leaders and nurturers of the way of Jesus. The letter opens with a reminder of the influence of Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, and mother, Eunice, who nurtured faith and passion in the young Timothy. They gave him the guiding story of Jesus of Nazareth who revealed the Kingdom of God and lived out the reality of the Kingdom of hope, peace, life and abundance for all. He received the story of Jesus who revealed the passion, love and justice of God in such a profound manner that he stood opposed to the powers of the world and was crucified as a political threat to the Empire. He received the story of resurrection, the mystery of God that is life, abundant, rich and gracious, for all. It is the liberation from death and the fear of death that empowers us to embrace life to the full and live for the Kingdom of God and the transformation of the earth on the power of God’s Spirit.

Young Timothy received this tradition and the church of the late 1st/early 2nd century receives this letter to encourage them to remember the story. They are encouraged through the persecution of Rome to remain strong and courageous but to stand in love and the power of God. They are to embrace the passion of their deepest joy and hope and to live in fullness of this reality and truth.

As this early church began to develop statements about faith and replace faith, as a living way, with faith as a set of beliefs, they are encouraged to remember that faith is a life lived, a way (of Jesus) to be embraced. It is a community to belong to and God is in our midst, renewing, creating, loving, inspiring and delighting in acts of faith and love.

By geoffstevenson