Yearning For Something Else?

I spoke with someone recently and they spoke with a sense of inner despair. It wasn’t overwhelming despair that brings you to your knees. It was sense that life wasn’t going in all the right directions; that they had lost control of things and felt drawn into a degree of chaos and continual stress. There were things around them that they had no control over and felt a sense of powerlessness. There were other things – an ill parent, kids struggling, feelings of dissatisfaction in work and a general busy-ness that pervaded life. Tiredness, weariness, stress and anxiety filled this person’s being. Underneath these feelings was a deep yearning, a deep hope for something more, something life-giving and hopeful that they couldn’t see.

Have you experienced a similar sense of frustration, a desire for something more, something different when confronted by the news of the day? Do the political shenanigans, corporate greed and violence of our society leave you yearning for something different? Do you feel somewhat helpless before the powers of the world and the events of life – your personal life and that of the world around?

It was into a world in flux and living under the weight of the most powerful empire the world had ever known that Jesus lived and grew. He experienced the power of Rome that dominated his world and controlled he and his people in the Jewish Homelands. He experienced the powers of the world that manipulated and controlled people’s lives, leaving many in poverty and desperate for their families.

He experienced the violent power that Rome used to control people and the greed and abuse of power that its governors and rulers in Provinces used over the people. Jesus also lived within a world that proclaimed the Roman Emperor as Divine and who worshipped Caesar as God. Augustus, the Emperor when Jesus was born, was deified, and revered as Saviour of the world, the one who brought peace to the world – the Pax Romana  (Peace of Rome). It was a world vastly different but with similarities to our world. Powers ruled over the people and they felt powerless – much as we do. Even in a very democratic society, we feel powerless before the decisions of government or the power of corporations and large institutions. We have little influence and can often feel tossed about by the powerful who decide much on our behalf.

We feel anxious before the violence that seems to be perpetrated all around us and seems to hold the world in its grip. There is the arbitrary violence on the streets, the violence many experience within the home, the violence of language that belittles and abuses people. Of course we are aware of the violence of warfare. We have national days that remind us of the hellish nature of war and we remember the stories of men and women who have sacrificed everything for peace and cry out their desperate warnings to seek peaceful solutions in our world – but still the powers that be use military might to resolve all manner of conflicts. There is the violence of poverty that holds billions of people in its grip and we look on relatively helpless.

These issues are not new, they just have a modern face and we are the ones who feel the yearning and desire for something else. These were the sorts of issues confronting Jesus and they were behind his proclamation that God’s Reign is here! In a world where the Empire (of Rome) controlled so much, Jesus proclaimed God’s alternative vision for the world. In the face of gross injustice, exclusion, poverty, greed and violence, Jesus spoke of God’s Reign of love!

The alternative Kingdom/Realm of God of which Jesus spoke stood in contrast to Rome’s Empire of power and might over people. God’s Reign is grounded in love and justice! There is room for everyone and everyone has a place, a role that is valued and we discover the best within ourselves and are empowered to become who we can be! This Realm is inclusive of all people, accepting each of us as we are and calling out of us the deeper truth and reality of who we are and can be.

The Realm of God is built upon peace and reconciliation. It understands that peace takes courage, time and energy. It requires that we confront prejudice and fear and listen with respect to those who have a different perspective or opinion. Perhaps the ‘truth’ is deeper than either party recognises, and we each contribute elements of truth? Therefore, the Realm of God is non-violent! God is not violent and opposes violence in the world. None of this means that the realm of God is typified by those who are weak and timid. In fact to live non-violently and to seek peace takes great courage and inner strength. So much violence is cowardly as people stand behind weapons or ‘surprise’, military might, destroying enemies rather than confront them in person. When the Realm of God stands against the powers of the world it does so non-violently. It absorbs hatred, abuse and violence and stands firm in tough love.

The Realm of God is communal and it is in this community that we experience the liberating power of hope and love. The community stands together and draws strength and encouragement to live as God’s people against those who choose greed, injustice and violence. This is  gracious community in which each person is welcomed, whoever they are, whatever they think or feel or experience. It is a place where we can feel safe to become our truer selves and to encourage each other in grace and love. We work together for the common good beyond us, for justice, peace and the liberation of all people. We seek and appreciate the beauty of the world around us. In the wonders that are present within the natural world we experience the Sacred, the mystery and wonder of God. Within the beauty and wonder of relationships, shared meals and common life we experience the presence of God who holds all things and people together. We wonder, together, why we waste so much time despairing what might be and energy on sustaining conflicts when life is meant to be lived.

This Realm of God is a subversive Realm that threatens the powers of the world around who want to control things and maintain a status quo that isn’t fair or right. This Realm is a constant power of love that threatens to transform the world through the power of people working together in the Spirit of God for love, justice, peace and common well-being!

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By geoffstevenson

Standing Firm Against the Powers

I remember, years ago when I was quite young, going to the beach whilst on holidays. It was a bright sunny day after a couple of days of stormy weather. As the day heated up we were excited to go into the water and all looked good. I had one of those popular polystyrene ‘surf boards’ and rushed out into the water. I went out a little way and realised, with delight, that the waves were a little bigger than a few days before. Lying on the board I caught a wave and washed pushed forcefully towards the beach. At the point where the wave broke I was ripped away from the board and thrown about in the surf. It wasn’t huge surf but to a young kid not expecting it I was thrown and rolled around. I came up with mouthfuls of salt water gasping for breath. My memory after all these years was of being completely disoriented. I didn’t know up from down or sideways. I felt powerless beneath the waves power and thrust in whatever direction it was going. I felt, for those few seconds, utterly powerless and at the mercy of the surf.

I recall that story because in different ways it serves as a metaphor for other moments of my life where confusion, powerlessness and desperation have held sway over me. These are the moments and times when other forces and powers seem to have us in their grip and there is little we can do to free ourselves.

There are many times when we feel ourselves being tossed and turned by the ‘waves’ of life and we feel out of control, helpless to save ourselves or free ourselves. We feel at the mercy of the forces of life that grip us. Sometimes there is a sense of panic and other times, weary despair. We feel stress and fear; overwhelmed by the power holding us. There appears little or nothing that we can do before the powers of the world that threaten us.

The kinds of experience are many and varied and often multi-layered. There are the experiences where ill-health, dying and death consume our being as we live alongside one whose life is ebbing away. There are moment where death comes quickly, suddenly and we are thrust into grief and our world spirals out of control. Chronic ill-health, disability or mental illness can grip people in a sense of powerlessness as various stressors overwhelm and threaten them.

There are other issues in our world where there is overwhelming power that controls human life, where we feel powerlessness before greater forces. In recent weeks we have experienced the power of fire raging through bushland destroying all before it. A typhoon in the Philippines has devastated coastland, homes and caused untold tragedy.  We feel powerless before these powers and forces of nature. Of course such natural disasters are often overlayed upon other critical factors. When nursing home residents had to be moved from their homes because of fire threat it was very, very difficult – the stress of the fires was compounded by the powerlessness of these people and the fear and confusion they felt at moving from a familiar home. Extreme poverty always increases the dimension of tragedy in natural disasters such as the typhoon or the tsunami of a few years ago. Layers of waves hit these people and they roll around and around in the surf that is their life.

This week there was the story of a young Burmese refugee who gave birth in a Brisbane Hospital. Soon after the birth she was returned to the detention centre and only allowed to visit her baby between 10 – 4 each day! The crisis that refugees experience in fleeing threat in their homeland and seeking refuge in a strange land is compounded when they are locked away, unable to find out information on their detention. The despair and fear is palpable in their being. This young woman, heavily pregnant must have experienced a great deal of stress, confusion and fear. The birth, in a strange place with strange people, must have been difficult and then to be removed from her baby and kept in a detention centre – I cannot comprehend how she must feel!!!?? I cannot understand the powerlessness, anxiety, fear or whatever she feels in her helplessness. We, who look on at these difficult situations feel powerless before the forces of the world that threaten life, freedom, hope and peace.

In this week’s Gospel (Luke 21:5-19) we read words of Jesus, recorded by Luke several decades after the events. He speaks of the destruction of the Jewish Temple – three decades after Jesus’ death and three or more before Luke writes. Jesus’ words speak of the calamities that will come upon the world as his hearers know it. He speaks of religious and geo-political conflicts that are way beyond their control. Powerful Roman forces will destroy the Temple and other forces create havoc. The simple, ordinary people will  be pawns in a game of life where they have no control but must accept the flow of life as the ‘normal course of events’. Jesus urges his followers – anyone who will listen – to stand firm and endure in the midst of turmoil. Jesus’ words are a warning that things will not be easy in this world. There are many forces and powers that we can be caught up in – political dysfunction, religious fanaticism, corporate greed, social indifference will all be part of the lot of those who are ordinary, simple people, those who care, those who work for peace, justice, compassion and hope – all the things Jesus is on about.

He warns that there will be voices from many quarters urging that we follow and adhere to their way. In the midst of struggle we will experience the presence of God giving us strength, patience and grace. If we are grounded in disciplines of the Spirit we will have the resources to endure, that will sustain us in the midst of crisis. Prayer, reflection and meditation on the things Jesus speaks of – justice, compassion, community, love, peace, hope and so on – will help us know the way and have the inner resources to stand firm.

Jesus’ words, however, are not just an encouragement to let the forces have their way with us and the world. We are encouraged to stand against the forces and  powers that threaten us and our world as we are able. It will help us to join with others for support and to encourage one another when things are tough. Whether we are individuals or organisations of people we need stand and work together for the common good and well-being of one another and the people of our world.

Draw strength and hope from God who is with us in all things!

By geoffstevenson

Remembering…

‘Do you remember…?’ ‘Remember when we…?’ ‘I remember…’ Remembering is an important function in our lives. We remember stories, experiences, events and in the remembering are able to re-calibrate our lives, our direction, our expectations and hopes. Remembering is a vital part of us being and becoming who we are.

We gather with friends or family we haven’t seen for a bit and begin to recount stories that remind us of who we have been together, what our relationships have meant. The sharing of remembered stories re-establishes the relationships and helps us move into new territory together.

Remembering has broad meaning across all parts of our lives and our society. We periodically review photographs, writings, objects that contain story and memory and we remember. We may sit for hours reliving events and experiences, the cultural realities of family or friendships – the various times of our lives. As a society we remember various formative moments or events that have helped to form us. There are various holidays and celebrations that seek to elucidate within us memory of who we are together, as a nation, society and culture.

Some of these days vary and fluctuate in meaning. It has been the reality that memory has often been selective, that we have chosen to remember some elements and ‘forget’ (or deny others). Australia Day has become a day of celebrating what this diverse society of Australia has become – a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan society influenced by the bush and outback, the beach, sport… What is often missed in the Australia Day celebrations, of course, is what it meant to indigenous Australians; what this invasion of culture, British, European and then the world, has meant to the first Australians and how they continue to struggle. We remember but not always from all sides and perspectives and therefore our remembering may well be incomplete.

In many families there are the stories and people that aren’t allowed to be remembered – the events that are dark, shameful or embarrassing. Memory can be very selective and the act of remembering skewed and biased. Truth is a casualty of shame or fear when memory is censored. When we edit our stories, our memories, something important about who we are is often lost and we are prone to repeat that which we deny until we accept the dark elements within our story. We see this truth every day in the media as they relate the ongoing sagas of people’s lives. There is the endless array of ‘stars’ whose lives flit between success and chaos as they continue to re-engage in harmful, addictive and destructive behaviour, mostly denied or ignored. The investigations into child abuse, demonstrates how denial and ignorance only increases the spiral of abusive behaviour in institutions. When we remember selectively, we don’t remember truly and we open ourselves to the same failures as the past – until we are prepared to face and accept the shameful elements along with the wonderful things.

Having said that, sometimes memory is filled with the negative, the difficult, the struggle of life and fails to pick up the beauty and wonder of life. We may feel so overwhelmed by sadness or despair that we fail to recognise the sacred, the wondrous and the beautiful in our midst.

Our gathering as congregations of Christians is largely about memory. We remember stories of peoples and cultures ancient and distant. We listen to their stories in which we hear wisdom and the voice of God coming through history, story and memory. They are ancestors in this spiritual journey, part of the movement that embraces God’s Reign of justice, peace and love. We remember the way Jesus interacted with people, rich and poor, powerful and outcast. We listen, we remember and remember who we are as God’s people. We regularly share in the symbolic meal of Communion, where we gather around an open table, welcomed by the Risen Christ in the name of God who is love. We remember his life given up for the sake of God’s Reign and how he stood against the powers of the world, the evil and injustice, and commit ourselves to this memory in our lives. We remember and in remembering we become!

On Monday there will be another day of remembering, called Remembrance Day. It is a day of entering into the stories of those who have been called into the various wars and conflicts around the world. We remember those whose lives were sacrificed, given for the sake of their family, friends and a freedom they believed in – enough to risk life. We remember the depth of struggle and sacrifice, the living hell, those who fought went through in trenches, in jungles, in deserts… I have recoiled from many stories I have heard over the years from  those who have been willing to relive a memory or two. The horror, the hell and the sheer guts and desperation, the fear and despair, the exhilaration at the end, the mateship binds formed under duress and stress all speak of the world I’ve not encountered. Some have been reticent to share their memories because the pain in reliving is too hard. Others bear the emotional and psychological effects of this hell on earth. Others will quietly share their stories with a tear and a laugh. They will gather with mates and attend memorial services of Remembrance. They will remember and hold before us something of the truth of war. They will recall the grief of lost mates, lives sacrificed far too young. They will recall the high costs of war and offer us a warning that there are other ways to resolve conflicts. There is a time to talk and listen, to negotiate and work together in non-violent ways to resolve our differences. There may be other times when war seems inevitable but we should never enter into this ‘inevitability’ until all else is exhausted.  We will remember and in remembering honour their lives, their sacrifice and their stories. We will honour their warnings and we will resolve to seek new ways of seeking peace and freedom.

In our gospel reading this week (Luke 20:27-38) there is a line at the end that says: “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” When I hear this I understand that God is about life, about living life in all its fullness. God invites us to open our hearts and minds to the memories, light and bright, deep and dark and to allow the remembering of who we are to form us into people of hope, life, freedom, peace and joy – people of love and grace!

By geoffstevenson

Help! I’ve Lost My Way!

Have you ever been lost or had that sudden feeling of discovering you don’t know where you are or where you are going? I remember, as a child, going to Luna Park and there was a mirror maze – Davey Jones Locker, or some such name. In retrospect I don’t think there was much difficulty in the maze but when you’re small it seemed so. We rushed into the maze boldly and then ran around inside taking various paths and options only to keep returning to the same place. At first it was fun but then I felt a sense of uncertainty – what if? What if I couldn’t find a way out? I was pretty sure someone would find us but it was unnerving. We joined other people in the search to escape the maze and continued a circular path, the leading each other astray.

Finally, someone from our group returned, showed us a way out and we emerged as boldly as we entered, so much so that we rushed around to try it again. After a few false starts we found the ‘secret’ pathway out and felt very pleased with ourselves.

It is easy to get lost – I’ve done it many times in the car. I’ve memorised the route but as roads bend around curves I have become disoriented and lost. In such situations the further we pursue our lost path, the worse it often becomes. I have often driven on in the belief I will come to a road or landmark I know but it hasn’t happened and I finally have to stop and look at where I am. If people are with me, sometimes a sense of pride, desperation or sheer stubbornness drives me on until it is absolutely unavoidable to recognise and accept I am lost.

The sense of being lost sometimes comes upon us suddenly in a moment of revelation that hits us between the eyes. It results in all manner of feelings – fear, confusion, desperation… At other times our sense of being lost creeps up upon us. It gnaws away at our subconscious for some time and gradually the realisation materialises in our mind – we are lost. It comes slowly, uncertainly, questioningly and there is a sense of anxiety that builds within us as we realise we are lost. Then the other emotions emerge.

Being lost is a universal feeling – we all experience being lost in various ways. The common experience of being lost geographically, on a journey, in a building and so on, is all too real. Seeking the advice of someone nearby or consulting a map becomes a necessity. There is also the experience of being lost in other ways. Many are lost in relationships, not knowing where they are, how they fit, where they are heading. Others are lost in life’s journey, caught in careers that feel wrong – they feel trapped and can’t get out. We can feel a sense of existential lost-ness, of having lost our sense of meaning, purpose or our sense of being. We are lost in ourselves and don’t know where we are or how we got to this place in life – it all feels wrong.

This latter is pervasive in Western Society. So many people exhibit a sense of existential lost-ness, of being on the treadmill that society has set for them and are running to keep up with no sense of where they are going or why.

This week’s gospel reading (Luke 19:1-10) is a familiar story of the short tax collector called Zacchaeus. He is a short man and is chief tax collector for the town/region. In this capacity he works for the powerful Romans and collects their taxes. He adds his own mark up to the top of what he collects and no-one can stop him. Thus he cheats his own people and is universally hated. Zacchaeus no doubt lives a lonely life in the town, excluded from general life because he is despised.

I wonder about Zacchaeus. When did it occur to him that he may be lost? Did he recognise that perhaps he took a wrong path somewhere, a wrong decision that seemed good at the time but has led to a destination that now seems hopeless?  Did Zacchaeus suddenly wake up one morning and realise he had lost his way but was caught in something he couldn’t get out of or was it still an inner, subconscious feeling of despair, confusion, uncertainty, of yearning for something but not knowing what, how or why? It is easy to imagine the path of Zacchaeus. Perhaps his family had the ‘franchise’ on collecting taxes in Jericho and he fell into line after his father. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to make some money, real money and lift himself and his family out of poverty or into a new sphere of life and wealth. Of course greed will be there somewhere, it is for all of us and hard to resist. Once he had begun the journey down a particular path it became increasingly more difficult to extricate himself. Zacchaeus’ journey in life became lonely and lost. He was caught in the mirror maze of Davey Jones Locker, with all of the distorted images coming back to him and he yearned for something more.

The story we read is about the day when Jesus came to town and people came out to greet him. The short statured Zacchaeus couldn’t see through the crowd and no-one wanted to let him in – he was excluded! He wouldn’t give in but climbed a tree and watched as Jesus wandered through town. What he was feeling or thinking we don’t know. Was he desperate to meet this one because he might liberate him from his existential longing? Was he just curious?

Jesus looked up, saw him and called him down. I’m not sure how that went for Zac. Was he feeling vindicated and proud at being recognised, chosen and called? Was he fearful of what direction this public encounter might take? Was he just plain hopeful that this might bring the possibility of something new in his life?

Whatever he felt, he came down and walked up to Jesus who asked to come and visit him at home. The crowd grumbled because they couldn’t grasp why Jesus would seek hospitality in the home of a ‘sinner’, one who was a traitor, a cheat and outside God’s law. Zacchaeus seems to have been drawn into a place of liberation and transformation in this encounter because he promises to repay everything he has taken dishonestly (with interest) and to give half of what he owns to the poor. The one who was lost seems to have been found, or at least found his way again. Out of an unjust, greedy and abusive lifestyle in a system that encouraged it, Zacchaeus emerges to a new way where justice and love is central.

Zacchaeus found his way again. What about you and I? Do we have the nagging sense of being lost or confused? How might we take up the invitation to follow Jesus’ way and live in God’s grace? Have we recognised that in God we can find a sense of who we are as beloved people and the space to breathe, hope and laugh?

By geoffstevenson