To Those Who Live in Darkness…

One of the games I enjoyed watching as a youth leader was when we put a blindfold on young people and got them to do things. One version had a group of them blindfolded and they had to catch another person who could move around in a set area with a bell attached. It was fun to watch them walk (stumble?) around tentatively with arms outstretched trying to feel their way. They had to listen hard and concentrate on where noise came from and try to move towards it. Inevitably they collided with each other and fell over in piles of raucous laughter, usually without catching the ‘sighted one’. It was fun to watch these young people stumbling in their darkness.

It is not so much fun to watch other people stumble through the darkness of their lives – so many people stumbling through the darkness of grief or guilt or loneliness or alienation in their lives. So many people are caught in the darkness of despair and pain that arises from the harshness of life and they feel lost and overwhelmed. Many people stumble through the darkness of poverty or injustice, struggling under the weight of oppressive forces acting in on them. There is the darkness of ill health and addictions that plague the lives of many.

Darkness is a metaphor for that which causes fear, pain, anxiety, and overwhelms us in our lives. This is captured in the image of being afraid of the dark – especially as children. Interestingly ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’ have become synonymous with that which is fearful, disturbing, painful, or of a lower nature. We speak of being ‘enlightened’ or ‘seeing the light’. Those who have darker skin colour have been oppressed as being less civilised and more ignorant than those with light coloured skin.

Dark and light are also Biblical metaphors and our reading this week (Matthew 4:12-23) picks up this metaphor:  “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” It points to people whose lives were filled with struggle and who yearned for something more – the time, perhaps, when God would come and liberate them. They yearned for release from the growing economic hardship that they experienced under the weight of Rome. It is the darkness of the system that weighs heavily upon people and from which they do not feel they can escape.

I don’t know about you but I often feel the weight of the system around me dragging me relentlessly forward whether I want to go there or not. I had a computer that worked very well, a bit slow but okay. The software was older because it couldn’t handle the newer stuff. Though it was okay I had to set it aside and purchase a new one because it was no longer compatible with anything anyone else was using. In the office one of our printing machines, only a few years old, has no spare parts available and the company want us to buy a new machine, even though this one is essentially fine, except for one small bit.

Of course the system is broader than this. A house around the corner from us sold for around $600,000, which was considerably higher than expected and raises the question of how people afford to live in Sydney, especially as they start out. The system presses in on us to work harder, earn more and aspire to higher standards of (material) living because that is what is important. The system pressures us with mortgages, loans, acquisition, investment and busy-ness – but at what cost to our well-being, relationships and loss of meaningful existence. The system can feel very dark!

Beyond the system, which can be very oppressive, is the experience of darkness in other areas of life. We feel the weight of ill health or the uncertainty about something that doesn’t feel quite right but we can’t put our finger on what is wrong. There is uncertainty surrounding changes in work or economics or life stages. We feel concern for our children or our parents or others close to us. In the wider world we feel the anxiety as we hear stories of violence and conflict in our streets. Of course the issues of those seeking asylum here and across the world, those caught in human slavery or intense poverty overwhelm us with the darkness they cast across life.

So we hear Matthew announce that those living in darkness have seen a great light. He goes onto recount how Jesus entered the region preaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven (God) is near.” This word ‘repent’ indicates a turning around in life, of getting on board with God. It means we are to get our minds focussed on what God is on about and get into line with what God wants to do. It is a radical call as the Kingdom/Reign of God that Jesus speaks of stands over and against the system that so darkens the lives of the people. It speaks of an alternative to the system that excludes and dominates people’s hearts, minds and lives.

Jesus goes on to call people – fishermen – to follow him on this new journey. They are called out of their lives and out of the system to live in a new way before the world. Fishermen were a lower class of people who were often owned by wealthy businessmen or at least, whose catch was purchased under harsh conditions that favoured the rich. Jesus invited them to stand outside a system of injustice and exclusion to be part of the Reign of God – a Reign of justice, love and peace in the world.

Matthew also recounts that Jesus was a light in the darkness of people’s lives through a ministry of healing and inclusion throughout the Galilean region. The Romans did nothing to help them. The Temple and the religious leaders did nothing to help them and the system kept them oppressed and silent. Jesus went to them and engaged with them. He listened to them and responded in love and compassion. The crowds were drawn to Jesus because he spoke another language, one of life and hope rather than the systemic language that silenced questions, maintained the darkness, intensified the pressure on people and kept them struggling for life.

The specific conditions of their darkness may differ from that which we experience (perhaps some commonalities) but the essential reality of darkness in our lives is real and pervasive. Jesus invites us into the light of God, another way, another reality that leads to peace, justice, inclusive community and a belonging in God that transforms human life.

A good message for Australia Day?!!

By geoffstevenson

We Will Sing A New Song…

In our Jazz Band it is always both exciting and a challenge to learn a new song. First we need to choose a new song(s) from the infinite variety available. It is usually a song or tune we know from somewhere else – a popular song, a jazz standard or something from the swing genre. Do we want to copy it as we know it or do something else with it? What instrumentation do we use? Is there a particular rhythm or style we want to employ? What sort of instrumental break do we want if there are vocals?  How do we play a new song and how does it fit into our playlist? What drops out? What song do we give up?

After a while the songs we sing become old and we need a new song. This is a wonderful metaphor for our lives. Are the ‘songs we’re singing’ becoming old? Do we need to sing a new song? Are we in patterns of life and work that are growing tired – old songs? Do we need a new song in our life?

Many of the conversations I engage in with people are really about their need to sing a new song in their lives. The song they are singing is growing old, is shallow and has not fulfilled its hoped-for expectations. The ‘song’ is perhaps a little like a successful pop song that attracts us quickly and gets us in. We hear it a few times and it grabs us. We buy it; listen to it and after a few weeks we have grown tired of it. It no longer grabs us but begins to bore or irritate. The song in our lives can be like that and we need something new and vibrant, something that enlivens us and sustains us in life. I have observed many people who continually swap their ‘songs’ for new ones but each time they choose something equally superficial that gives them a buzz for a bit but doesn’t satisfy – they sing a new sing but not a good new song. Other people are in a rut, an emotional, physical, spiritual rut and can’t see their way out. They keep singing the same old song only changing the tune from time to time. The song keeps going, dragging them along, holding them in the grip of sameness that never changes. Sing, sing a new song!

There are moments in life when the song we’ve been singing to abruptly ends and we experience the grief and loss associated with endings. The song dies and is replaced by the song of sadness, a dirge that echoes through our hollow soul, sombre and intensely emotional. This song is important – for a time. We need to sing through loss but for how long? How long do we need to sing this song? At some point we need to sing a new song!

In the world around us there are dominant songs that hold us with their tune and their lyrics. They are sung loudly and proudly, like nationalistic songs that gather people behind flag and anthem to stand against the world. Other songs are imposed on people, songs of oppressive regimes that remind people who they are and what they need to be and do. There are songs that get into our being and seduce us. These are the songs of economic prosperity, fear of the other, peace through violence and conflict, greed and ignorance. There are songs that are unjust and help us to maintain and unjust national lifestyle.

This week’s psalm reading is Psalm 40 and in reading it I was reminded of the song that U2 wrote and recorded in about 40 minutes at the end of the ‘War’ album. This album from 1983 received its name because lead singer Bono claimed that in the early 80’s war seemed to be the dominant world theme. The album contains protest songs and songs that explore the emotional and spiritual implications of war. They needed a final song, something hopeful that transformed the theme and turned to the Bible – Psalm 40. In the song Bono sings: ‘How long, how long to sing this song…’ How long will we continue to sing the old songs? When will we sing the new song that God gives us.

Psalm 40 is a psalm that speaks of waiting patiently on the Lord from the place of despair, struggle, pain… The author waits patiently, crying out to God for deliverance. God lifts him out of the miry pit and places him upon a rock, a firm foundation. God puts a new song in the psalmist’s mouth, a song of joy and praise, a song of hope and life.

This psalm is a poem of deep and profound hope built on the faith and trust the author has in God. He cries out to God in the time of need, when the song he’s singing is old, worn and wretched. He doesn’t cry out to the other possibilities, the other gods that people push before him. He cries out to the God who created all things in love and will save him. It is in God, alone, he trusts.

One of the things I find most difficult to deal with is when I can see that a person will only find hope and peace if they give themselves to God and trust in God alone, but they can’t or won’t. Most of us want to go it alone for as long as we can. I talk with people on and off over years and nothing much changes. They let God in a bit and then go back to some other fad or hopeful promise. They move around between this idea, that path or some new hobby or addiction hoping that they can find Nirvana but it doesn’t come through for them – not in the long run. In all of this they avoid God. God seems too hard because they may have to deal with the stuff hidden beneath their lives? God seems too easy and they look for something challenging? God seems too ordinary, traditional, boring and surrounded by images of irrelevance.

So they sing the same old song – different tune or slightly different words but same old song, nothing changes.

Other people become tired of the song they’re singing and, exhausted, give it all to God and wonder where it might lead. Gradually a new song emerges on their tongues; a new tune that goes deep and touches their spirit. It is a song that is bursting with life in all its fullness and resonates within their inner being because God knows us in our deepest parts. It is a song of love that captivates us but doesn’t grow old because it is new every morning.

We will sing, sing a new song but what will that song be? Who writes the new song we sing and where does the music arise? Will it echo the dominant themes of the world around, themes of violence, addiction, greed, exclusion, injustice… Or, will it arise from the just, gracious and loving heart of God, deep and resonant? Will it be a song of peace for all, justice for all, inclusive community; a song of love for the whole world. Sing a new song – the song that God puts in our mouth when we trust God with our whole life.

By geoffstevenson

A New (Old) Way…

It is very easy for us to look at life through the lens we have from our own experience, education, status, occupation, family background, ethnicity, politics, religion… Life and ideals become focussed through these lenses until there seems to be a certain clarity and certainty about the way the world is. Of course our views are also manipulated through media, stories, music, movies, advertising and the particular culture that arises from these things.

This view of the world can be broad (wide angled lens) or narrow and focussed on one particular facet of our lives (telephoto lens). They are all part of one picture but the close-in focus narrows our world view onto particular facets of life – how we perceive other people and respond to them; what we think of the earth; whether there is a God in the sky (or in the world…) and how that God relates to us and others; what is important for us and our families…

Our world view holds these and other things together as a whole and helps us to make sense of the world in which we live. It provides meaning and interpretation of events, people, economics, politics, religion and faith and helps us answer questions that challenge us. Neatly contained within our world view is a whole set of rules or truths that we rest everything on and build up our picture of life and the world around. If we grew up with the firm understanding that there are differences between people of different skin colour, for example, that will form part of our world view so that we may never have the need to ask questions about racial justice, slavery, immigration policies and so on. If our experience has only been a well-off existence where everything we have needed and wanted has been available easily that will influence how we see the world. We may expect that everyone has this potential but hasn’t worked hard enough or hasn’t done enough to justify a good share of wealth. Conversely, if we have lived amidst the poor and struggling people of society that will influence how we experience life and understand justice and other issues. Despite working hard we may still be poor and this will lead us to ask different questions. If we have experienced belonging, acceptance and gracious love through family, friends and other groups, we will more likely expect to be generous and welcoming towards others and inclusive of people into our groups and organisations.

In essence our world views, although a little fluid at the edges, form a solid core of belief, expectation and understanding of our world. They determine how we respond to the world in which we live and how we answer questions – indeed which questions we even ask. Our world view conditions us about how to live and respond in our lives.

This is all good whilst our lives can comfortably exist within this construct and our world view answers particular questions or issues that confront us. It is good whilst we are not exposed to situations that challenge the essential tenets of our world view. It is good until we are confronted with the reality that perhaps our hopes, expectations, beliefs and actions are not always in the best interests of other people or the Earth itself. What happens when we experience something that takes us out of the confines of our experience, expectation, belief – our world view? What happens when we encounter something that challenges the very core of our essential belief system? What happens when our neatly ordered world is challenged? What happens when we encounter someone whom we have stereotyped and placed neatly into a box with a label and they step out of the box by doing something that confounds us? What happens when we have believed that young people of different ethnic backgrounds with tattoos, or dreadlocks or strange clothing and bad speech, people we’ve defined as ‘bad or dangerous’ do something lovely and gracious to us? What happens when we encounter asylum seekers, for example, who are lovely people, grateful for an opportunity to experience freedom, education and peace in their lives and effusively thank us, despite being locked away in detention centres? What happens when Muslims or Hindus or people of another religious or cultural background move in next door and we find that despite our expectations they are lovely human beings very much like us? How does our world view cope? What do we do?

When we are presented with an alternative to that which we have believed, embraced and held dearly it can be a very confusing and confronting experience. It can result in anger, resistance and rejection or it can open us to a new reality, a larger world-view and a new way.

I remember an experience at a youth camp many years ago. Our rather conservative, naïve youth group were exposed to a speaker who told us stories of injustice in the world. These stories came gradually closer to home and the implications more personal. She undergirded these stories with Biblical stories and references that grounded them in God’s justice. These were passages that we had not really read or understood in this way before, preferring to read them through our narrow world view. All of us were challenged and uncomfortable. Some became very angry and began to reject what the speaker was saying, looking for all manner of Biblical counter references to refute her teaching. Others of us felt a little exposed because our theological world-view had not been broad enough to encompass what was a deeper truth about our world. Some of us would have been pleased to leave the camp and forget this speaker’s words but she had done sufficient to shatter parts of our world-view and going back was not possible. Others did shut it out and ignored her,  happy to live by pretending their world-view was true and right.

I remember that experience as opening me to something deeper, something I knew in my heart and from experiences of my life, my family… I needed a broader theology to help me make sense of this and live it and reconstruct me world-view.

This week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 3:13-17) is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptiser. John is a strange character who appears out of the desert around the Jordan River near Jerusalem. He has a vision of something new under God, a reformation movement of Jewish faith. He calls for repentance and baptism as a sign of change in the direction of life. He calls people to get on board. His invitation is to get on board something new and to walk in a different way. It is a very radical invitation because it invites people to stand for something different in the world, something that opposes the way of the dominant society, both politically and religiously and walk in a new (old) way of God. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much until we recognise that John stands in the Roman Empire and calls for a change in direction that opposes so much of Roman Imperial theology, politics and culture. In a real sense he is asking the people to reject the Emperor and follow God! More than that he is saying that even the worship and religious life in Jerusalem has become skewed and messed up and so this new (old) way is a return to the true way of God in the world. This way is to grasp the radical justice of God and to be people who are generous, gracious and compassionate towards one another. It involves a change in our heart (and world view) to hold God and God’s way as central to everything.

In the midst of the Roman Empire, John is calling people to get on board with God’s way, a radical departure from Rome or even Jerusalem. The crowds surge forward because John speaks to their hearts and minds, and challenges them to take up that which lies within – in their yearning, their dreams and hopes. He appeals to what they feel in their inner being. He appeals to the yearning and hope within them and the questions that have lain dormant, disallowed within their faith or political system. He challenges their world view and opens them to new possibilities, a new way. Jesus, watching on submits himself to this new way of God in the world. He affirms that this is the way of God and joins the movement. Jesus takes this very movement beyond where John left it, proclaiming a new reality of love and justice in the way of God.

Jesus takes it up to the world order at the very highest level – the Roman Empire and confronts the injustice, violence and isolation it creates. He proclaims that there is another way and though the powers that be will laugh and reject them, God will be with them and the movement will grow. This movement drew in the most unlikely people to challenge the powers of the world. These were people whose experience of life clashed with the world-view thrust upon them and they had no option but to accept the status quo. Jesus rejected this passive acceptance of what was wrong in the world and led a movement of the Spirit to embrace God’s vision of a world reconciled, healed and restored. It is of a world where all have enough and no-one too much; where we live peacefully with one another and our diversity enriches our lives. This is a world of justice, hope, love and life – for all!

This week Susan and I and various members of the congregation have visited the National Christian Youth Convention (NCYC), which is a biennial convention for young people (16-25) organised through the Uniting Church. It attracts people from across Australia and the Pacific. This year 1000 people have gathered in North Parramatta for a festival of music, teaching, community, multi-culturalism, worship and celebration. There have been Bible studies on broad themes and in diverse styles, varied worship experiences, seminars on themes of faith, justice, peace, ecology… They have largely lived together in communities on-site and in various church halls around about the area. They have sung, laughed, prayed, studied, worship and danced and eaten together.

We have been involved in helping to prepare and cook some of the food for lunch and dinner. We have been able to experience something of the wonderful atmosphere and the sense of fun and challenge presented at NCYC. It has been wonderful to see so many adults and young people give so much of themselves in serving this event to make it a significant experience for those who have come along.

I was invited to play with the OneHeart worship band and contribute to a horn section (including Josh and another trumpeter). I was pleased to join in and be part of the worship. It occurred to me as I witnessed 200 or more people, young and older, worship, sing, dance and pray that this is a radical act. This was only one such worship experience that the 1000-strong gathering engaged in through NCYC.

In our world there are very many possibilities to give our lives and hearts to – many things to worship. Everyone worships something in that we give ourselves to it and trust it in some way. For some there is an ideology or philosophy; for others it is economics and the market, or political ideology; for others music or culture, sport, work, accumulation of material things. For some there is the worship of self or the obsession with appearances, clothing, lifestyle and so on. All of us submit to a world view and give ourselves to a belief system. The default one is that which is found in the dominant culture in which we live with its agenda and priorities.

These young people sang songs about the faithfulness of God and their desire to stand with God and follow Jesus through their lives. They were consciously giving themselves to a particular way in the world. This is a way that we are told is becoming less popular and less meaningful to our society. This is a way that many have rejected and others not heard of. This is a way that will lead them to walk against the societal priorities as they follow Jesus on the road. It is a path that will not necessarily be easy nor popular but one that they have recognised as life-giving.

Like Jesus before John the Baptiser, they have given themselves to a new (old) way in the world that is grounded in the justice and love of God. It is a non-violent way in a violent world. It is a way that challenges the dominant culture and rejects unjust policies of governments or violent responses to conflict and difference. It is a way that seeks to see the very best potential in each person as one created in God’s image. It is a way that accepts and includes all people, regardless of who they are or what they do. It believes that God in our midst can transform all of us into the people we were created to be.

These young people are standing up and saying that they will follow God’s way in Jesus rather than the other options of the status quo in our world. Their world-view has been broadened and they have experienced a diversity of people with a diversity of backgrounds and they have understood God’s deep and profound love for all people.

What about you? Will you take up the offer of John and Jesus and join in?

By geoffstevenson

Come to the Light…

As I begin this reflection it is the afternoon of the last day of the year – New Year’s Eve. The world about is preparing for festivities – food, fireworks and drink. It is a festival of excess to delight the senses, if not the memory. People have been camping out at key city viewing sites since yesterday morning. Others have invested significant sums of money to secure rooms with exceptional views.

Whilst 1.5 million people are expected to ascend on ‘celebration point Ground Zero,’ many others will fill clubs or restaurants or suburban homes to see out the old and in with the New Year. It is quite an event!

I am pondering, as I sit here on this warm last day of the year: What has happened to Christmas? There is still the vestige of lights and decorations and a few left over chocolates and nibblies. There was such a build-up – ‘Love was in the air!’ There was such a hope, such an expectation, as there always is. Then, nothing. Boxing Day was the last I heard anything of Christmas in the wider world as the news reported the Christmas Messages of world leaders and other key people. Beyond that Christmas has quietly been packed away until next year.

It is always the way – Christmas assaults us on numerous levels from its commercialised significance to the pop-philosophy espoused at ‘Carols by Candlelight’ by the various media personalities vying for public attention. Christmas, with its startling stories and other-worldly connotations, excites the imagination or plain softens the harshness of the world for a bit. Its bells and ringing excite the economy and echo in cash registers. The frenzy of parties and end of year drinks, gifts and cards, cooking and shopping fills our lives and tires us needlessly as we celebrate a simple story of life, peace, hope, and joy.

Of course inflicting devastating defeats upon the Poms in cricket surpasses all else and who can miss a minute of the Sydney to Hobart? Now the endless summer of Tennis has arrived and the last cricket Test commences in a few days. The Post-Christmas sales are a frenzy of desperate greed and irrational behaviour.

My point in all of this is to say that Christmas has come and gone and the world has moved rapidly on without its deeper offerings. We have missed the point! What we yearn for is in fact before our eyes – at least in the stories that Christmas throws up to us. The peace and hope that so many yearn for, the answers to the violence and despair that rack the world lies within these stories. The sense of fairness (call it justice) and a fair go for all lies at the heart of Christmas stories but they slide ‘through to the keeper’, lost in the festivity and day-after stupor.

When all is said and done, what remains? Has the world changed through the wonder of Christmas? The radio today bleated on about how Australia is losing its religion and fewer believe than once did. If so, then why is Christmas held up so high? Why do we dare celebrate the birth of Jesus, even if his name is somewhat lost or we cover it all over with tinsel and lights? Everywhere I look through the pre-Christmas season there is a sense of longing. In the despair of the same old news stories there is a longing for a new narrative. When political leaders of all colours bleat and rabbit on there is a longing for something new and bold and right and true – something different that we can trust. There is a longing in the human heart that rises at Christmas and falls just as quickly when Christmas passes by leaving us empty (well full of food and drink but empty in our spirit).

It isn’t too late, however. If you missed the lead up to Christmas and exhortations to stop and find a moment to reflect and ponder the mystery of God, there is still time. We are still in the season of Christmas and the story continues. This week 2 Gospel accounts converge over a couple of days. Sunday’s Gospel is from John 1:1-18 and presents a broad overture to his story of Jesus. It is about light and darkness in life and the world. He speaks of God’s Light emerging through the darkness of the world in Jesus’ life and teaching. The invitation to open ourselves to light and hope is compelling and in our weariest moments something we may contemplate. When all is going well and life is busy and exciting we ignore the inner tensions of our lives and pursue that which is predicated by the world around.

The second reading is set aside for the festival of Epiphany, the end of the season of Christmas and the day when we celebrate the manifestation or revelation of God, especially in Jesus. It is the familiar story of the Magi (Wise Men) coming from afar to worship the new-born king. In real terms this has been described as an ‘A-ha’ moment when our eyes and understanding are opened to something deeper.

This story is part of the overture to Matthew’s Gospel and contains elements of traditional Hebrew writings and the stories of the ancestry of Caesar Augustus. Matthew subtly contrasts the power of Rome and the power of God’s Reign. Herod wants to be King of the Jews but these pagan kings from afar come to worship a new king born to be King of the Jews – Jesus.

In this story of dreams and journey, of curiosity and faith, of searching, longing and finding, we are challenged with the questions of our own lives. Will we believe enough in the glimpses of God’s Reign, of love, justice and hope to follow? Do we have the courage to leave the secure, familiar place and journey into the unknown seeking the light that will reveal the deeper truths of life? Finding this light, will we stop to worship, to embrace into our own being this new and marvellous way? Will we embrace a new life even if it means ‘business as usual’ is set aside and a new list of priorities is written in our lives? The way of Jesus, as I’ve often suggested is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage and determination and it requires depth of spirit. We cannot walk the counter-way of Jesus without drawing deeply from the Spirit’s life-giving nourishment. We need to go deep within ourselves in order to live deeply in the world of our lives.

The yearning of our spirits is a yearning for a deeper life in God – this is not to be confused with believing things about God but living quietly and deeply in the presence of God. In this season of light and ‘A-ha’ moments we encounter many disguises of God in the ordinary and mysterious moments of our lives.

By geoffstevenson