Alive and Loved in God…

There’s a story that I have shared in the nursing home services I have done over the last 3 weeks.  It is about a father and daughter at home one night when a thunder storm blows up.  The man is sitting downstairs when the first flashes of lightning light up the night and rolls of thunder echo through the house.  He immediately thinks of his young daughter in bed and how she will be scared.  He runs up the stairs to her bedroom expecting her to be anxious and afraid.  He looks to her bed and it is empty.  As lightning flares in the sky he realises that his daughter is standing on the window frame, spreadeagled across the glass pane.  He shouts, ‘Jennifer, what are you doing?’ She excitedly glances over he shoulder and says, ‘I think God wants to take my photo.’

I think that this girl has a really healthy sense of who she is before God – loved and adored.  For her to think that God wants to take her photo is for her to know God as one who loves unconditionally and generously.  She has no doubts about how God loves her!  I think this something quite profound and even unusual.  I wonder if you and I have such a high view and understanding of God’s complete love for each of us, personally and individually, and as a people together.

I wonder, if we all had this sense of being so deeply and profoundly loved by the Love at the heart of the universe from which all else flowed; how would things change for us?  How might we be and live differently?  How would we hear the news of the day or engage with other people?  Would we continue on in self-doubt or with those twinges of envy or even pessimism about life?  Would we find ourselves stressed by the need to get ahead, achieve, be successful (however that is measured) or by a sense of competition with others?

Perhaps, in recognising we are so deeply and profoundly loved by God, there is nothing else we need because everything falls into place under that.  Of course we need the fundamental things in life – food, water, shelter, relationships…  In the broader reality of life, perhaps the recognition that we are God’s ‘beloved children’ might lead us into a new freedom that enables us to rise above our fears, our uncertainties and insecurities.  It will deliver us from the need to compete or compare ourselves with others.  I am me and you are you and we are both significant people, gifted by God and beautiful in our own right.  I don’t need to dominate you and you don’t need to dominate me – if either of us tries, it will be like water off a duck’s back.  But only if we have our own sense of security in place, where there is depth, truth and Love at its purest reality.

When we are released from the sense of having to prove ourselves – to ourselves or others – and can enjoy our sense of being we become more attuned to the world around and its beauty and wonder.  We will be able to see and breathe and live amidst the beauty of God’s world and recognise the sacred and holy in our midst. In a world where commercial realities and material values dominate, the spiritual and larger reality of love is often subdued or rejected.  We live as if the immediate and physical is all important and that results and success are vital to our well-being and the life of the world.

There is another reality, one we have explored through these reflections.  Over the last few weeks we have explored parts of Matthew’s ‘Sermon of the Mount’.  Surprisingly, this eloquent teaching of Jesus lifts us into a new place where virtues such as poverty of spirit, mercy, mourning, peacemaking, purity of heart, hunger for that which is just and right, humility and even persecution for doing the right thing are lifted as virtues that are blessed by God.  The little ones of the world – salt of the earth people – are lifted up as examples of those who live in the way of God.  Over and against the powerful, wealthy elites who are usually lauded and praised, the little, impoverished ones are those who display this new set of qualities that arise from the heart of God.

In this week’s continuation of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48) invites us to live into a new and higher way than that which dominates (and has dominated) our world.  Where violence and retaliation impose themselves in human life, Jesus invites us to rise above that way of being.  Instead of living in the stressful, overwhelming and restraining state of bitterness and hatred, we are invited to love enemies and pray for those who hate us.  In confusing earlier verses Jesus invites us into a way of standing up against injustice and those who would dominate but to do it through a non-violent stance that exposes the reality of the injustice.  Turning the cheek, walking the extra mile and stripping naked are ways of exposing the bully – in first century culture.  Turning the other cheek means that the bully will not be able to back hand you as an inferior with the right hand.  An open-handed strike, which it invites means he is treating you as an equal.  Being forced to carry a Roman soldier’s pack for a mile was allowed but further was not legal and he could get into trouble.  If someone sued you to take the outer cloak used to keep warm at night, take off everything and make the claim they are taking all you own.  To make another naked was shameful (see http://www.cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus’%20Third%20Way.pdf for more insight into these meanings).

Jesus concludes this section by inviting us to ‘be perfect, as God is perfect.’  This is not actually an injunction to perfection but to live into our God-given identity.  Another translation reads: “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”  In other words, we are to recognise that we  are created in God’s image and are profoundly loved by and embraced by God.  This identity is a higher and deeper calling and a liberating way in a world of that seeks to reduce us to something smaller.  Instead of being dominated by other expectations, discriminations and fears of failure or guilt, we are to lived lives grounded in love that sets us free.

We are free to love others, whether they are friend or foe because they have no power over us.  We are free to see through the lies and deception of the powers and find ourselves alive in God.

By geoffstevenson

Living in Peace With Each Other…

A minister was walking a city street when a homeless man stepped into his path. As the minister was about to step around him, their eyes met and he saw a smiling face looking at him in anticipation.  He stopped and the man flung a cup of coffee towards him invitingly and with a gleeful smile.  The minister looked at the homeless man, his filthy clothes, long, food-caked beard. Then he looked at the cup, with its grime on the rim from dirty hands and lips and the last thing he wanted was a drink from this cup!

He stood, torn between the ‘right thing’ and the ‘comfortable thing’ – that which he felt, deep down, he ought to do and that which he really wanted to do.  Finally his conscience won out and he accepted the dirty cup and took a small sip of the coffee. It actually tasted quite good – a little sweet but okay. As he handed the cup back he thought to himself that this was now going to cost him a few dollars – and that would be okay. He said to the homeless man, ‘You are being pretty generous today, aren’t you?’

The man replied, ‘Well the coffee today was pretty good and I thought that if God gives you something good, you should at least share it!’

Here it comes, thought the minister and  asked, ‘I suppose that there’s something I can do for you?’ The man’s smile widened and he nodded.  Here it comes, thought the minister as his hand slowly moved towards his wallet but the man’s reply stopped him – ‘You bet you can give me something.  You can give me a hug!’

The minister was surprised and quietly would have preferred the five dollars as the man stepped closer and threw his arms around him.  It wasn’t just a slight hug but a full on bear hug and when the minister realised he wasn’t going to let go in a hurry, he felt the embarrassment of the many eyes on this respectable man being hugged by the filthy street person.

As he stood there feeling these emotions something happened to him.  He gradually heard the words of Jesus echo through the ages – ‘When I was hungry you gave me something to eat.  When I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. When I was sick or imprisoned you visited me. When I was a stranger you welcomed me.’  He thought perhaps, ‘When I was a homeless man on the city street you hugged me,’ and he realised that this was a sacred moment of blessing and grace.

When respectability confronts humility and vulnerability and the grime of a life lived in the midst of the physical, emotional or spiritual struggles looks to rub off, we feel discomfort.  We want to retreat to the place of comfort and distance.  We don’t want to be involved or have the grime or pain or helplessness rub off or overwhelm us.  Yet, it is here that God resides – in the midst of the lowly and struggling places of life where blessing is invoked by a Divine voice to those who are seriously not blessed of the world!  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the humble, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who hunger for righteousness and justice, the mourning ones and all who feel weighed down by life’s pain and struggle.  The blessing is of God into this place and when we allow ourselves to become vulnerable before this place, the blessed embraces us into a sacred moment.

We continue to journey through the profound teaching of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7 – this week Matthew 5:21-37), which so motivated and inspired Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr in their struggles for justice, liberation and hope. The essence of Jesus’ words is of love towards one another.  It is a life of non-violence before everyone and in a world that worships at the altar of violence it is a radical and liberating message.  Jesus’ invites us to live courageously in generous love that stands against injustice, violence, hatred, exclusion, abuse… This stand is made by confronting wrongs in a manner that reveals them for what they are and non-violently opposing them.

More than that, Jesus calls us beyond the legalistic requirements of faith or society to a place where we engage with one another with genuineness and integrity, treating each other with respect and understanding.  Are we willing to listen to each other’s story, to engage one another as a fellow human created in God’s image?  Do we live with hatred, bitterness, jealousy or fear towards someone who has done us wrong or intimidates us?  Does it eat away in our being causing inner turmoil and anxiety?

In this week’s passage Jesus invites us into the place of reconciliation, respect and of treating one another with integrity rather than hiding behind legalism or descending into blame and justification for our hatreds and fears.  So many people live in a constant state of anxiety, anger and bitterness towards others that turns itself inwards and culminates in pain and turmoil in our own being.  We can be consumed by other people’s insecurities and live in fear or we can choose love.

When we allow ourselves to live in the place of fear or anger towards other people, it inevitably evolves into violence.  There may be violence in our thoughts, of what we would like done to this person. Words emanating from our mouths, privately or publicly, are filled with violence and hatred and sometimes, violent actions towards others.  Violence emerges in ways that are psychological and emotional, physical and/or spiritual and abuse people. So much pain and suffering arises out of violence done towards others, especially the vulnerable and gentle. What might life be like, for others and us, if we turned from violence and opened ourselves to grace and the blessing of being embraced (hugged) by God in our midst?  What if we saw in others the face of Jesus and allowed ourselves to engage with the little ones of the earth, whose beings are covered with the grime of life lived in hard places?  What if we were willing to receive a cup of coffee from the other, the one whom we may despise, fear, hate or simply not understand?  What if we were the one to hold out a cup of coffee to that other?  Would worlds collide or peacefully come together in the city streets of our lives if we were to engage in the courageous act of loving generously and being reconciled?

A note: Those who have endured abuse or violence aren’t expected to make the peace or reconcile but to find the support to be healed and restored.  Justice may require others to make a stand for them against the injustice perpetrated.  Love may find a way in some cases for reconciliation and forgiveness but maybe not – peace of heart, mind, body and spirit is the hope.

 

By geoffstevenson

You Are the Light of the World?!!

In a world redolent with bright shining lights, the radiance of fame and glory that illuminates the lives of the few over the rest of us, we often feel like extras, bit-part actors in someone else’s play.  We often feel inferior, paled images before the brightly glowing ones who light up rooms, red carpets, screens – the world.  Who are we before these bright lights?

Do you ever feel that you are just another ordinary or lowly, insignificant one in this big world?  It’s easy to lose ourselves in the midst of a few people’s wondrous contributions to life and the world.  Big voices, big ideas, high energy and lots of achievements.  We read another biography and have the strong sense that we were never destined for greatness, for the big time and accept out place of ordinary insignificance before the shining lights of the world.  After all, the world needs the ordinary, little ones to keep going, to fuel the fires and clean the mess, and serve at table, to cheer and ogle and idolise and to pay the way for the big ones to achieve their status and wealth.  That’s our lot and we have learned our place.

It’s easy to look down upon those who have big ideas and want to rise above their lot, to achieve the unimaginable and break into the world of shining lights.  We try to rationalise with them or pull them back to where they belong, fearing their failure or collapse into egocentrism – they call it the ‘tall poppy syndrome.’  But who likes the one who turns their back on the common ones of the world, the coalition of the common amidst the powerful great?

As we watch TV screens or mobile devices conveying the important news of the world, it is generally the big ones, the luminous names and faces that greet us.  Alternately there are those whose very ordinariness subverts a social order to such an horrific extent that they become the anti-heroes and by virtue of our fascination, luminous creatures in the darkness of ordinary lives.  The bikie who shoots his enemy.  The narcissist who throws his girlfriend over the balcony and claims she suicided.  The girl whose body board warmed the weed for an hallucinogenic-fuelled surfing holiday in far off lands – but got caught.  The plethora of the ordinary who reject the system and the law and do the unthinkable, they light for a bit before their glow diminishes.

There are lights who brighten our little lives with their ability to imitate life on a screen or endure the rigours of strict training.  There are those who music is sublime, or ordinary, but they have something that popularises them and they shine – at least for a while.  Too much light in anyone’s life can be a burden and weight to heavy – the one whose depression and weight of fame was endured only through substances abusing his system. Heroine of the wrong type – not the leading lady but a powder too pure and destructive that burned in a flash and extinguished itself in a life lost to the world.

Into this world of ordinary delights and painful endurance, of wonder and despair and seeking for something that glows with hope and justice and peace, we hear the words of a strange prophetic voice.  This week Jesus tells us that we are salt and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-20).  That is, we are the salt of the earth and light of the world – it isn’t a can be or should be or will be, if…  It is an emphatic YOU ARE the salt of the earth and light of the world.  Not when you achieve greatness or perfection or some luminous state but YOU ARE the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Jesus was talking to life’s little people, the ordinary 95% who did the work, endured the harshness and paid the way for the big ones to be big.  These ones, he knew, cared for each other, mourned the way of the world and the struggles that were hard.  They were people who sought hope and a better way, for them, their families, their friends and community.  They were ones that the world trod on and abused when the necessity or desire came to the powerful elites, oblivious of justice or injustice done in the name of people or God.

You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world!  Go, live fully in the presence and wonder of God who knows your name, your face and embraces your experience.  Shine the hope and call for fairness, justice, in the world.  Tell the big ones, the luminous ones that their light is artificial and will go out because it doesn’t radiate from God within, from justice and love.  It is a self-radiating light that shines for the one and not for the all.  It’s a personal success fuelled energy in a success-oriented world, whether effective or not.  Success comes gift-wrapped in appropriate attire, correct trappings, gilt-edged lifestyle that glows in ego’s pride.

These words of Jesus convey an alternative truth, that the little ones of the below world, are the important lovely ones.  Their simplicity of life and embrace of the wonder of God’s good earth holds a trust and hope that God will have mercy and see their cherubic faces beyond the glowing ones the overwhelm.  Jesus affirms that God does see!  God does love!  But more than that, God’s imperative announcement to all is that they/we are the salt of the earth and light of the world!  In our simple being, with our simple hope and simple faith with its questions and doubt, we are salt and light!!  Don’t wait until it’s all sorted out and you know the truth and have everything straight.  The time is now in the midst of your ignorance, naiveté or your uncertain wonder and search, you are salt and light so let it all ring out in wonder and beauty.  Like the child who knows no shame or embarrassment, singing or dancing, proclaiming their great song to a world that watches on amused until they become childlike again and join the fun.  I sang with the people in the dementia unit and they don’t know these things that we feel – well not in the same way.  They are shameless and everything is writ large, bold and in your face, saying or doing what they like when and where they like.  They subvert all respectable conventions and there is a fresh fun in their presence.  They light the world, these tiny ones, like no Hollywood, Tinsel-world type ever could.  They proclaim in their being a vulnerable, God-filled way of the clown or the fool on the hill, laughing at the world and its convoluted luminosity of artificial radiance.  God’s light shines and it fill us and radiates through us to enlighten a world grown dim or dark. You are the light of the world!

By geoffstevenson

Whose Blessing Do We Want?

I read a story/reflection the other day – it spoke to me:

A discarded bottle lying on the ocean floor is, it seems, an irresistible temptation for a baby crab. The little creature glides easily into the bottle to discover an enclosed world that offers everything it needs: plenty of organic debris to eat, shelter from strong currents, and, best of all, protection from the countless predators who feed on young crabs. Delighted, it makes itself at home, and begins to thrive in the cosy surroundings. After some weeks, however, when instinct tells it the time has come to migrate, it crawls confidently to the opening, expecting to swim back out the way it came in. That’s when it discovers the ghastly price of that time of perfect security: it’s grown too big to fit through the neck of the bottle! In a terrible ironic twist, that safe shelter now becomes a death chamber; its protective shield will be its coffin.        Albert Holtz – Street Wisdom

 

It occurs to me that we all find our own ‘bottles’ to hide in and find security and comfort. We are often nurtured there, safely, until we find that growth and life requires something else. We find comfort and security in the things that we are told are true – truths of life, faith, philosophy and economics. The market, democracy, military budgets, political leadership… will protect us and keep us well. We have various systems that control our lives and we are bred to believe in them because they provide a modicum of security at least for a time. One day, when we are tired of toeing the line and feel anxious, distracted, and edgy or are ready for something new because we are tired of the same old, same old, it appears too late. We have grown dependent upon the system – the ‘bottle neck’ is too small and we feel trapped!

It is an awful experience to feel trapped. We may feel trapped in grief, guilt/shame, financial dependence, work, lifestyle, addictions, expectation… We feel trapped in a system that makes decisions we feel are unfair or unjust but can’t change them. We feel trapped by a society that seems to be headed in one direction whilst we feel the intense need to go the other way – but we can’t break out of ‘the bottle’ we find ourselves in.

These experiences can be intense feelings that arise out of particular situations that affect us internally or ongoing experiences that manifest themselves upon us from outside and impact our inner being. They can be issues of health or fear, worry about another (or other people who suffer and we feel their pain but can’t change anything). This can be work or the expectation of family, friends, church, organisations of which we’re part, and we feel trapped in a path that feels like it is killing us – or at least causing deep distress and anxiety.

We long for peace but what do we mean? What is the peace for which we long? Do we mean the sense that everything will go away and leave us free of the fear, anxiety, worry, stress…? Do we mean a life free of turbulence and conflict of any sort? Do we really believe that such a Nirvana world exists – at least on this earth? What would happen to us if all turbulence was removed from human experience? What might we imagine this ‘peace’ to actually be like? Sometimes the ‘peace in the bottle’ is not as good as it may appear. Usually growth and new life comes from a bit of turbulence, ‘pruning’ and having to work through conflict or struggle.

This week we read the profound passage from Jesus’ teaching that is called the Beatitudes – Matthew 5:1-11. In it Jesus speaks to the ordinary people of Galilee and offers an alternate vision of what it means to be blessed.

Under Rome’s Imperial theology, blessing came to all people when they submitted to the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. The violent power of Rome maintained order and kept people submissive but there was little peace for those who were poor and disenfranchised – the vast majority.

Jesus proclaimed a different kind of blessing that came from God and God blesses according to different values. God blesses those who are poor in spirit, those who realise their need of God’s grace because they can’t do it themselves. Blessing comes to those who mourn and grieve, who are humble and merciful, who seek justice and righteousness, who are pure in heart and are peacemakers! In other words, God’s blessing comes to those who opt for a different story, a different narrative for life. In Jesus’ world, it meant choosing God’s Reign over the Emperor’s. The values of Rome were grounded in violent power that controlled people and gave them little in the way of freedom, choice or hope. God’s way opened people to the possibility of God’s grace and strength sustaining them in the midst life. Freedom, it said, comes from being liberated within by the power of God’s love for each person. It stood beyond the powers of the world that sought to impose themselves upon people and keep them controlled through fear. In place of fear, there is love and delight and joy – this is the way of God! When the world crushes our spirit and denies us joy and life, God offers the possibility of transformation within – we are loved in our deepest being by God and that is our freedom! It will mean peace within and that we are able to live peaceably with others. We will grieve the pain of the world, be merciful, yearn for righteousness and justice and humbly (but courageously!) live before others.

It is important to note that this blessing comes from God – but may not come from other people! When we seek peace we will, by logical consequence, ruffle feathers! When Martin Luther King Jr sought peace for the community through his Civil Rights Movement, it caused major ructions in the white community and amongst racist America. He may have been blessed by God but he wasn’t blessed by those he stirred up! Peacemaking will rarely be peaceful and the blessing for those who seek peace comes from God, not necessarily other people!

Jesus also warns of having to endure persecution if we seek the blessing of God. When we try to do the right and just thing, we may suffer because of it! There are those who will abuse and reject us and our values. This way of God, is the blessed way of freedom, hope, peace and love but it may come with a bit of struggle as well.

By geoffstevenson