Seeing Deeper in Love…

A few months ago I conducted a funeral for a woman whom I didn’t know well.  I saw her at the nursing home each month at our services and spoke a few words to her afterwards.  Sometimes I dropped in to say a prayer if she was sick.  I knew this woman in one time of her life – an old lady whose memory was slipping away and who was fragile and confused.  She was gentle and had a lovely smile but was very dependent upon others for her life.  This was how I knew her!

I met with her family to plan the service and they showed me photos of their mother.  She had been young once and very pretty.  She had been a mother of young children, a wife of a young husband.  They had all manner of adventures through their lives.  She had worked and been involved in community organisations and the church.  I suddenly saw a woman, loving, fun and filled with energy and life but couldn’t recognise her as the same person.  Surely these weren’t the same person, the same one?  It took me a while to merge the images I had and had now received of this one that the family knew and I had known – they were different and the same.

It is a hard process to encounter an image of a person and then reconcile that image with some deeper reality that we don’t initially have.  On Wednesday evening I attended the Sydney Alliance Assembly, along with 1500 people from across this city.  These were people of all backgrounds, faiths (and no faith), workplaces and community organisations.  There were representatives of the business community come to pledge co-operation in working together for the common good of all in this city.

Onto the stage walked a young man.  He was dressed in jeans and a shirt, a non-descript young man.  He told his story of growing up with his father who was chronically ill and unable to work.  They lived a simple life and scraped by in relative poverty.  All he wanted, he said, was a job!  His father had not worked in this young man’s lifetime and he wanted to change that.  Finding work for a young man from a disadvantaged background is very difficult because people look at you and wonder.  They do not see the hope and dreams inside you – and the fear of failing yet again.  They see the lack of confidence, the vulnerability and the lack sophistication.  They see the clothes that don’t fit well or are scruffy and worn and think badly of you. They don’t understand that you can’t afford to replace them. ‘All I want is a job. Will you work with the Sydney Alliance to help this happen for me and the thousands of others who simply want to work?’

A bit later a man, around 30, walked onto the stage.  He was nervous and read from his notes.  His voice was strong and he was articulate.  He told his story of having been a homeless youth, kicked out of home by a stepfather who took over and didn’t like him.  He struggled to find a home, a safe place to live.  He felt fear and confusion, alienation and a sense of being lost.  Finally he was able to find a place to live – off the streets he got life under control and in order.  From a home base he could begin to straighten his life out and learn and grow – and be safe.  He spoke of the importance of having a home.  I tried to imagine this young man a decade ago living loose on the streets with nowhere to go when the nights grew cold and wet.  I tried to imagine this young man in the image of those I’ve met wandering the streets of Parramatta, dirty and gruff, covered in the grime of life and realised that they too were people.  There was someone else in there I had never known, a human being, unique and loved by God, if not humanity.  This man asked if we would work with the Sydney Alliance to help make housing available to all who needed a place to call home?

There are so many others I now think about, people whose outward appearance or demeanour I see but whose fundamental humanity I am blind to.  I know something about them and their circumstances but I don’t really know them because I haven’t really seen or listened to their story.  I see aboriginal people on dirty city streets lost and covered with life’s grime but don’t understand that these are people wounded by circumstance and injustice, broken and alienated.  I wonder who they are inside.  I see asylum seekers and hear some of their stories but wonder who they are and how they came to be here.  Why are they here?  Why did they come on leaking boats across dangerous oceans?  Do I see and hear the fear and desperation in their simple stories confused by language and uncertainty about what they should say or limited by the pain of their story?  So much I never see or hear or understand but still I judge on the basis of my own ignorance and that of others.

The gospel story (John 9:1-41) this week is one in which we encounter a man born blind.  In his culture people believed this must be a curse of God and wondered who was to blame – the man or his parents?  He becomes a dilemma and more-so when Jesus heals his blindness.  Those who knew him are no longer sure because all they saw was a blind man who was helpless and begged.  How could he ever be anything else?  Surely he was at fault and his life determined for him – a blind beggar?  The religious leaders get involved and are angry that Jesus upsets the status quo of the world where crippled, blind and poor know their place and everyone keeps them there.  He does this on the Sabbath and that only makes it worse.  They quiz those who know the man and they are confused because he is different, stepped out of his box and they can’t see him differently.  His parents are confused and tell them to speak to him – he’s a man.  They speak to the man and each time he gets more frustrated – ‘This is me!’ he seems to say.  ‘Look at me I see – I couldn’t but now I do.  Jesus did it and I praise God!! Get over it!’

But people find it hard ‘to get over it’ because we see people as we see them not as they are or can be.  We see them with the grime of life on their faces and in their words and attitudes.  We see them through eyes of fear or prejudice or a kind of knowing that keeps truth out.  We hold them at arm’s length not wanting them in ‘our world’.

Jesus looked into the heart, beyond the superficial bruises and pain, without the fear of others and offered love, simple, pure love.  It made all the difference.  He looked with love not judgement and God was in this healing, reconciling and opening people to new hope.

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By geoffstevenson

Known and Loved…

A colleague once told the story of moving to a new congregation and meeting a man.  The man was pleasant and smiled as he told the new minister that he had a reputation for discovering and knowing the faults, failures and vulnerabilities of people.  It was only a matter of time before he would also know this new minister’s weaknesses and failings.  The minister felt his stomach turn and wondered what he had gotten himself into.  He must have had a very worried look on his face because the man patted his arm and reassured him: ‘I will know your weaknesses and vulnerabilities and I will pray for you!  I will not discuss them with others nor berate you for them but I will pray for you.’

The minister confessed that he didn’t know what to do with all of this, what it meant?  What was this man on?  Over the few years he was there the man proved true to his word and never once condemned him or held any weakness before him but merely reiterated that he was praying for him.

There is a sure paradox here in that each of us but wants to be known and doesn’t want to be known at our deepest level.  We want to be known, to be free of the fear of what others think or might think about us.  To be known can be a freeing thing or it can be seriously awful when someone uses that against us.  So perhaps we might say that we want to be known and loved.  Known and loved. To be known at our deepest level and still loved and held in respect and not shunned or laughed at or rejected for some vulnerability that we have or feel within.  To be known and loved is a beautiful gift that liberates and sets free.  It is a healing gift that enables us to become the person we are created to be, to allow the innermost being to emerge in the midst of our life.

Most of us live in fear.  We live in the fear that we will be found out for our thoughts, prejudices, failures, addictions, and even the things we like but aren’t ‘cool’ or popular.  It’s amusing to watch and listen to young people at school as they carefully pick their way through the minefield of acceptability.  ‘Do you like this or that band?’  ‘What do you think about that style of clothing?’  ‘What about this or that sport, or car or activity…?’  They listen carefully to other responses before committing themselves one way or another – even though in their private world they may have different views.  It is important not to reveal weakness or vulnerability because we may become the object of derision or rejection.

Occasionally someone will come along who has enough self-confidence that they don’t care what others think and carelessly (or is it carefree?) reveal some of their private views.  Their confidence wins others over who want to belong or get along and be part of whatever is happening and they agree with this one.

It is possibly this fear of rejection or not belonging that causes people to hide their true selves from the world and cover over any weakness.  Fear of derision or alienation leads us to hide who we are – all of our strengths and vulnerabilities – before the world.  Those close to us will know something of who we are at a deeper level and the greater the experience of trust, the more we may reveal.  It is liberating when we can.

In this week’s story (John 4:5-42) we read a story of a Samaritan woman who comes to her local well, the traditional place of Jacob’s well –  a sacred site.  When she gets there, Jesus, having journeyed long through the morning in the heat has stopped to rest and quench his thirst.  His disciples have gone into the village for food.  When the woman stops he speaks to her and asks for some water.  The woman is stunned because he should not speak to her.  There are several layers of reasoning why he should ignore her and she him.  He is a Jew, and a rabbi, and she is a Samaritan – despised enemies.  She is a woman and he is a man and she is unaccompanied by male relatives.  He is not supposed to speak with her, nor she him.  She is a woman of lowly estate who seems to experience some degree of ostracism.  She comes to the well alone at midday.  It is more usual for women to come together to help each other and earlier in the day.  As the conversation progresses we discover that this woman has had five husbands and the man she lives with is not her husband.  Whilst there may be a variety of reasons for all of this – divorce by her husbands, death… – she seems to have gained some poor reputation amongst commentators and preachers.  It is assumed that this woman sleeps around and is looked down upon by her community.  Whatever the case, this woman exudes all the signs of feeling less than worthy – of anything!  Why would someone want to talk with her, let alone ask for her help?  Surely she will be accused of loose living if it is discovered she has spoken to this man and broken all the cultural taboos.  Never-the-less, as the conversation continues, Jesus reveals and discovers more about her but only offers her love and life.  Jesus ‘knows’ this woman, what she thinks and feels and who she is.  He knows about her and he knows her – and he loves her!  Jesus offers her grace and life that is free of the things that trap her.  He doesn’t condemn or judge or hate or reject – he loves and offers grace!

She encounters God in this and   the process of transformation begins within her – Jesus calls it the Living Water of God that renews, quenches and heals.  The woman ran off and told everyone in her village and despite any ostracism she may have experienced, they all listen and discern something different in her and come out to see for themselves.  Everyone receives this loving and gracious acceptance of God and the village rallies around Jesus to learn, to grow and to experience God’s grace in their lives.

To be known and loved is a deeply profound gift that is life-giving.  Perhaps you can think of an experience when you have received the gift or perhaps you have given the gift.  When a person is known at a deeper level and loved for who they are, warts and all, the possibility of new life and hope emerges.  Jesus never seems to condemn or reject people – sometimes he rejects behaviour or injustices or institutions… but not people.  He holds onto people in love and offers a new way of living.  Jesus knows that there are many reasons we act as we do but these are often a disguise for what we want to hide.  God knows us and loves us!  Perhaps we can do the same for others?

By geoffstevenson

Justice for the Powerless…

Recently I watched a repeat of the movie, The Castle.  It is a quirky and funny comedy about a loveable and simple family, the Kerrigans, who live beneath the flight path of an airport.  The Airport Authority want to expand their runway and set out to acquire land – they choose the houses in this small street.  They offer relatively small amounts for these houses and seek to force the occupants out.

This one simple family leads a fight on behalf of a hodge podge of other residents who are vulnerable and powerless before the large corporation.  We gain an insight into the family’s deep care and love for one another and how their house, simple and odd as it seems from the outside, is a home; a place of love where people share life together and care for each other.  It is a place where dreams have been made and lived out; where the highs and lows of life have been experienced; where they laugh and cry together.  It is, in this sense, a sacred space.

All looks doomed as they battle the powerful corporation with their only help a very ordinary lawyer who does local conveyancing.  His defence that the corporation’s grab for their land is against the ‘vibe’ of the Constitution of Australia, gets nowhere.  They are lost until a retired constitutional lawyer hears about and takes up their case.  He wins the case based on an understanding of what the phrase, ‘just cause’ in the Constitution means.  What does justice look like when a small, powerless family who have made a home are being evicted by a large corporation who wants their land?  What does justice look like when the powerful take on the powerless and want what they have, the very thing that gives them security and life?  What does justice look like when the powerful take on the small and defenceless and leave them without hope, vulnerable before the world?

There is a point in the movie when Darryl Kerrigan feels the full weight of loss.  He has done everything for his family and their neighbours but has lost and is completely helpless before the decision of the court.  He is guilt and grief-ridden and cannot move.  He is stuck in a moment he can’t get out of (to quote U2).  He is caught in a nightmare that threatens to consume him and drain the hope and life from him.  The humour and fun he normally exudes is all but gone and he has no appetite or interest in life.  His depression is all-consuming as the sense of loss and hopelessness filters into his understanding.  Darryl is lost.

What is it like to be caught like a wild animal in the lights of the hunter – vulnerable before the one who has the power of life and death over you?  What is it like to have no recourse to decisions of others who take everything you own or believe in away from you?  What is it like to feel absolutely powerless in the nightmare of life turned upside down where you cannot comprehend or act or find liberty at any point?

Through the story of this movie there are references to High Court ‘Mabo’ Decision that reversed the commonly held view of terra nullius whereby the British colonisers decided that Australia consisted of land that was clearly not owned and therefore free to take.  It left the Aboriginal people lost in a land that they called home, a land they knew as sacred and filled with beauty.  They lived differently to the Western invaders who sought to divide and own parcels of land.  The Aboriginal people lived on and with the land, moving freely across its breadth, at one with it.  They had their own laws and customs that differed from their British brothers and sisters.  They lived more simply and were coloured, so were believed to be less developed and lacking the ‘sophistication’ of their conquerors.  These differences were enough to justify the power that was used to remove Aboriginal people or to treat them with contempt and slaves in their own land.

Although we do not like to look at the darker side of our history (John Howard’s ‘black arm band view of history’), it is there and it is real.  The Castle is a metaphorical story about all dispossessed peoples who are abused by the powerful and experience injustice.  It is a metaphorical story that captures the grief and pain of the powerless who are at the mercy of the powerful, whether individuals, corporations or nations.  It gives us an insight into the emotional and psychological struggle of such people and their sense of alienation and hopelessness.  We see the lethargic hopelessness of Darryl Kerrigan in so many people caught in the place of overwhelming power over and against them.  We can feel the helpless sense of loss they experience. We might also experience something of the anger that emerges in moments as they lash out against those with power.

We can see much of this sense of being lost and without hope in Aboriginal Australia.  We also experience something of the anger that Aboriginal people feel when they consider their own sense of helplessness and loss in their land.

Whenever this issue is raised non-Aboriginal Australians exhibit a range of views.  Some feel the pain and grief and want to act in support of their Aboriginal brothers and sisters but often feel just as helpless.  Others are confused by a range of statistics, stories and myths surrounding the issue – for example, don’t they receive more money and support than anyone else?  Some are angry and reject any sense of injustice as they believe that it has nothing to do with them because they weren’t around when all of this happened and it is all in the past.

The issues are often emotional and difficult and can be divisive as people takes sides.  We need to move beyond all of this and find ways to be reconciled to one another and work together for the benefit of all people. All people are unique individuals beloved by God and deserving of respect and justice.  In fact Jesus’ way demands that those who have power care for and protect the weak, vulnerable and defenceless.  Justice is not an option in the Christian life – it is an absolute requirement!

The Uniting Church, along with other churches and community organisations are committed to reconciliation between all people, but especially in this time between indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.  The Uniting Church National Body, the Assembly, has called for a week of prayer and fasting for justice for the first people’s of this land. It runs from March 17-23. It is called:

A Destiny Together.

A Destiny Together is a call from the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia to all Church members to participate in a week of prayer and fasting for justice for First Peoples. It is a reflection of the Church’s commitment to work together for justice, recognition and reconciliation and to bear witness to the genuine transformation of relationship that is possible through God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Where did the Week of Prayer and Fasting  originate?

In July 2012 in Adelaide, the 13th Assembly of the Uniting Church listened to members of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress tell stories about the effects of the Federal Government’s ‘Stronger Futures’ laws (and the ‘Intervention’ before that) on their lives and their communities. Those present were so moved by these stories of harm and exclusion that they resolved to call all Uniting Church members and congregations to participate in a week of fasting, prayer and reflection.

The theme for the week, ‘A Destiny Together’, is a phrase from the Church’s Preamble to the Constitution and speaks of the Church’s belief that it is all of us together who are responsible for building a reconciled nation.

A Destiny Together
– Justice for First Peoples
What Injustice?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia are the repository of the oldest living culture in the world, having inhabited the land for over 50 000 years. They have survived, despite what the United Nations has described as “oppressive treatment, including acts of genocide, dispossession of lands and social and cultural disintegration, as well as a history animated by racism.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, both remote and urban, experience heightened levels of disadvantage across a range of socio-economic indicators. Aboriginal people have worse health and education outcomes across the board than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. This is linked to the effects of racism on people’s lives, unchecked intergenerational poverty and reduced access to basic services that other Australians take for granted.

Some of the indicators of the issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities include the following:

  • a lower median weekly income: approximately $76 lower than the median Australian income;
  • higher unemployment rates: 20% compared to 7% for non-Aboriginal Australians;
  • lower educational attainment: 37% completing Year 12 compared to 74%;
  • more crowded and inadequate housing;
  • children six times more likely to be removed from their families;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 21% of the total prisoner population and 70% of the Northern Territory population (higher by 16 times than non-Aboriginal Australians);
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the poorest health status of all Australians;
  • an average life expectancy lower by 20 years; infant mortality three times that of the non-Aboriginal population;
  • the mortality rate in the peak of adult life is 3 – 4 times greater
  • rates of depression, suicide and self-harm are much higher;
  • higher rates of mental disorders, correlated with higher rates of substance misuse;
    • over twice as many deaths associated with mental and behavioural disorders; and
    • 75% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have inadequate access to visiting or resident mental health workers.

Issues of ill-health, unemployment, disadvantage and poverty in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must be approached with respect and any solutions must maximise self-determination.

Stronger Futures legislation

The Stronger Futures legislation is a series of Bills passed in the Federal Parliament that determine what programs the Government implements for Aboriginal communities. The Bills are an extension of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007 (the Intervention), which expired in mid-2012. The new Bills saw many of the discriminatory measures of the Intervention extended by up to a decade.

A key criticism of the Stronger Futures legislation is the lack of genuine consultation with Aboriginal communities. The Government points out that over a three month period they conducted 100 meetings in Aboriginal communities. This is not an indication of successful consultation in genuine partnership with First Peoples. Interpreters were only booked for 91 of these meetings, and not all materials were printed in the relevant Indigenous language for each community. There were also no official recordings or transcripts of these meetings, which makes it difficult to verify the Government’s claim that they are acting according to the wishes of First Peoples.

The Government visits to communities were generally ‘fly in – fly out’ meetings, which means that Parliamentarians would spend less than a day in remote communities. This is not enough time for those living on homelands, which may be a great distance from the growth centres that were the location of most meetings, to travel to attend the hearings. Genuine consultation with Aboriginal communities must be the cornerstone of any legitimate policy to address violence and disadvantage.

Key aspects of Stronger Futures?

Some of the discriminatory measures that exist under the Stronger Futures legislation include:

  • suspension of social security payments for parents whose children do not attend school regularly;
  • up to six months imprisonment for breaching alcohol bans in communities;
  • a continued ban on the use of Aboriginal customary law in bail and sentencing decisions; and
  • income management programs to be extended to five new regions.

More info is available at: http://assembly.uca.org.au/adestinytogether

By geoffstevenson