God is Very Close!

There was a little boy who decided that he wanted to find God. It would probably be a long trip and fill most of his day so he packed well – four packets of potato chips and two poppers of juice.  He was set!

He set out on his journey and walked down the street, around a corner and a bit further on until he came to a park.  Sitting on one of the park benches was an old woman, sitting and watching the pigeons.

The boy sat down beside her and watched the pigeons too.  After a while he grew hungry and took out a packet of chips.  As he ate, he noticed the woman was watching him and held out the packet and offered her some.  She gratefully accepted his gift and gave a lovely smile.  He thought that she had the most beautiful smile in the world.  He wanted to see it again, so he opened one of his poppers and offered her the other.  She gave him another very beautiful smile.

For a long time the two sat on the park bench eating chips, drinking their juice and watching the pigeons – and smiling at each other.  Neither spoke, they just sat and watched, eating, drinking and smiling.  Finally the boy realised it was getting late and he should go home.  He started to leave, took a few steps and then turned back.  He gave the woman a big hug.  She smiled a smile that was brighter and more beautiful than anything he had ever seen.

When he arrived home, quiet, subdued but happy and content.  His mother noticed his mood and asked, ‘What did you do today?’ ‘Oh, I had lunch in the park with God,’ he said.  Before his puzzled mother could reply he said, ‘You know, she has the most beautiful smile in the world!’

Meanwhile, the old woman left the park and returned home.  Back in her flat, her son also noticed something was different about her.  He had been worried about his mother as she often seemed vague and not altogether with it.  ‘What did you do today, Mum?’ he asked.  ‘Oh, I ate chips and drank juice in the park with God.’  And before her son could say anything at all, she added, ‘You know, God’s a lot younger than I imagined.’

I shared this story with our congregations a couple of weeks ago and was not surprised at how it touched many people, with its beautiful, simple truth.  Many people often wonder where they might find God.  We wrestle with where God is, how to describe God, make sense of God or even name God.  There is a beautiful wisdom and depth of understanding in this story – God is in our midst.  God is encountered in people we meet and share beautiful moments with – ‘chips and juice’. God is encountered in the wonder of the world in beauty and creativity.  I look out at the garden and am sure I see the ‘face’ of God there in the simple beauty, peace and colour.  In the beautiful, music and song I listened to the other day I am sure I heard the ‘voice of God singing’.  There in the laughter and the tears, the wrestling together over a problem, the reaching out to give a hand up to a troubled person…  God is mysteriously, wonderfully present.

There is a passage I’ve read often, a piece of poetry from the ancient Greek world that Paul quotes back to the men of Athens: ‘In God we live and move and have our being.’  I love that simple sentence that God is like an ocean that envelopes us in soft and gentle embrace, giving us life.  God is like the air around us that we breathe and is in us, through us, around us, but God is deeper, richer, more profoundly present and real in all of our lives – even when we’re not aware of it!

In the passage that this sentence belongs to (Acts 17:22-31), Paul responds to the people of Athens who are very religious.  Walking down their city street he encounters a multitude of statues and idols with the names of various gods.  They are there to honour and seek blessing from these gods.  At the end of the row is one with the strange title – ‘Unknown God’.  Paul speaks to the people of Athens claiming that their religiosity is commendable.  He then speaks about the statue at the end – the Unknown God.  He speaks of God who is not manufactured nor controlled by humans but is beyond, within, through and mysteriously, lovingly, deeply present and very close to each one of us.

In the very first lesson in the local high school Scripture class, Steve, the Christian worker, asks students to draw their image of God.  Some come up with surprising and creative images.  Most, however, draw and old guy in the sky with a white gown and long beard sitting on the clouds.  Sometimes there are wings and a harp as well.  This is the image many have of God – a human form, with human characteristics that we can define and recreate in images and statues, idols and so on.  In the next few lessons Steve gently demolishes this image of God replacing it with a broader, deeper, less sharp, more mysterious and wondrous God who isn’t human and can’t be recreated in our image.

I think Paul was doing this – he used Greek philosophy and poetry to quote back to the religious people of Athens something deeper and more profound about this God who he proclaimed and within whom he lived and moved and had his being.  This God wasn’t ever very far from him or them or anyone of us!

So where do you and I encounter, see, experience God?  Do we recognise God in our midst?  God in the mystery and wonder of life, in the love between us, in the hope that rises in our being through despair or the quiet gentle strength we receive that helps us go on through crisis?  Do we recognise God in those places of life where there is beauty, strange wondrous beauty?  Do we encounter or recognise God in the curious coincidences of our lives where strange things happen and we don’t understand all the connections that bring everything together in a moment of wonder and joy?  Do we recognise God through the evolving of our lives and the life of the world as we grow, mature, gain wisdom, see anew in a moment of sudden clarity?

I suspect, with a degree of sadness, that many people do not ‘see’, will not ‘see’ and do not want to ‘see’.  There is a Divine mystery and wonder at the very heart of our lives that is profound and holds us, drives us, urges us onward into growth and life as it is meant to be – this is where we encounter, recognise God.

Recognition comes easily if we are open to the possibilities that God is here and everywhere and very close to us.

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By geoffstevenson

To Believe – or Not??!!

Sometimes it is hard to believe – I don’t specifically refer to belief in God, although for many even such belief, in the midst of their lives and world-view, is hard.  There are the obvious reasons for non-belief: How can I believe in a loving God when…?  How can I believe in something I can’t see, touch or feel…?  These are hard questions for many people especially when life enters a rough patch where struggle seems to cloud every thought and idea.

What I am really referring to, however, is belief in something bigger and beyond than ourselves.  Sometimes we believe that we can make a difference but everything we try changes little.  We look at the world and see the sacrifice of many good people and wonder if there is hope anywhere because nothing seems to change or make a real difference.  We are thrilled and energised by the rhetoric of great leaders who articulate the hope and passion in our heart but then it seems to dissipate like water hissing off a hot surface in a burst of steam that readily disappears.  So many people wonder why they ought to ‘believe’ in anything good or better because the powers that be seem to dominate and control everything leaving us defeated and helpless.  I sense this feeling in many places in our society.  I hear it in elderly people whose lives are closing in around them and they realise they are less able to fend for themselves or look after themselves.  It is plain difficult and leads to significant questions and uncertainty.

I experience this same helpless questioning amongst people who live with disability or chronic physical or mental illness and wrestle with the added difficulties of life that the rest of us are ignorant of or think little about.  Traveling on public transport, getting onto train stations, trains, buses or ferries is not always possible for wheelchairs, walkers or scooters, for example.  Once on the train it is sometimes impossible to actually know where you are – even with good eyesight, I found it difficult to know where I was earlier this week.  I was sitting on a train at a city station but couldn’t see what station it was and no message was broadcast.  I was fortunate that it looked familiar enough that I took the chance and eventually saw a sign after I’d gotten off.  It would be enough to give up if I had visual or other disabilities.

The aftermath of this week’s budget (like most budgets) highlights the distance between those who have the power to make decisions on a broad scale and those who struggle in the more difficult places of life.  Decisions that save money have repercussions, many of which are not obvious to those who never need or utilise community services.  Reducing resources to various community services may save money but at what cost?  For example, when we reduce legal aid budgets, the very poor are lost in a legal system that they can never negotiate and justice is not done.

Those who can pay or hold some form of power within society will always fair well.  Those who do not have access to wealth and power become lost and helpless.  They stop believing!  They stop believing in a fair or just society.  They stop believing in a society where everyone can have a chance.  They stop believing that anything can change – because it never does regardless of what people say or do.

The same goes for those who work for change in society, whether their concern is justice for the poor or marginalised, elderly or vulnerable.  Those who understand the science and reality of climate change and the environmental crises that we face, continue to fight an uphill battle to bring awareness and change.  The peacemakers, those who seek alternatives to war and conflict, are regularly deflated in their hopes and expectations as political leaders follow the ‘tried and true’ ways of violence and warfare. This is despite the reality that things never change or get better as we continue in along this path.

It can be hard to believe when you are not in a place of strength or hope or don’t have the resources that give you some control over life and its direction.  In some ways we all feel this helplessness as we wrestle with the issues that are broadcast on our evening news.  We desperately want something to change and place our hope in people with some power to make decisions, often to no avail.  Many in our community have given up belief.  Others feel they walk in circles, their efforts leading to little change and no real difference.  So is it worth it?  Is there hope?  Can the world change and can we be part of the change?

This week we will read a couple of stories from John’s Gospel (John 14:1-10) and Acts (Acts 7:55-60).  These 2 stories offer an encouragement to keep going.  In John’s story, Jesus speaks of not letting our heart(s) be troubled nor afraid.  We are to embrace the adversity of life together and affirm a radical trust in God to be with us.  This trust is about a radical sustenance and profound presence that indwells our being and induces within us a strength, a hope and a peace that can stand against the powers we confront.  He goes on to say that he is the way, truth and life and that God is known and experienced through this way and truth that brings life.  The way of Jesus is, of course, the radical way of the cross that stands against everything that is unjust, violent, abusive and unloving.  His way is a way of embracing the one who is different, a stranger, vulnerable or excluded and welcoming them into a community of grace and compassion.  The truth is that death and the powers cannot destroy love or justice because death itself is overcome and there is hope!  This is life because it is for now, an eternal hope bursting into every place of darkness and hopelessness in the power of the Spirit of God. Way, truth and life – in God.

The second reading is about the martyrdom of Stephen, the church’s first.  He was killed for his ministry of caring for the poor – both Jew and Gentile, anyone who had need.  He tended to the poor, distributed food and lived in this radical way of Jesus but this stirred up conflict and anger from those who felt the erosion of their own exclusive place in the world.  They felt their own superiority or pre-eminence threatened and they acted from anger and fear.  Stephen responded with a depth of faith and trust that is inspiring, a belief that though they could destroy his body they could never destroy his being or the eternal embrace he experienced in God. This is hope for our own belief!

By geoffstevenson

An Alternate Budget Possibility?

I confess that I am lost in the multitude of debates and commentary on the upcoming Federal Budget.  There is the usual game-playing between Government, Opposition, journalists and commentators.  We have the prophets of doom proclaiming that the economy is in a deep black hole or desperate misery and those who point to a different reality whereby Australia is doing reasonably well.  There are the hopeful groups who deeply want or need funding and some sort of fiscal break.  There are the inevitable cuts to services, funding and the additional taxes that ‘aren’t really taxes’.

I imagine that co-ordinating such a budget is an immense program and not one that comes easily – and certainly not a task one person does alone.  Many public servants in the Treasurer’s Department will have been working overtime to bring this into line.  Many others will have been analysing the complex interactions of expenditure across the government, trying to develop a ‘true’ picture across billions of dollars.  There will be intense struggles within cabinet as ministers compete for more of the budget pie for their portfolio.

I suspect that apart from seeking to develop a budget that fits neatly into their ideological agenda, the Treasurer and Government has their eye on the electorate and seeking to keep the various factions as happy as possible. Don’t take too much from the rich and don’t overburden the poor; keep the business community happy and pacify the powerful lobbyists who represent competing interests.  Look after the families and the older Australians, those with disabilities, the unemployed and so on – it is definitely a huge task.

I actually find it a frightening task because it is so easy to get things wrong, little things that impact communities in ways that can be tragic.  A teenage girl on the news last night is desperate to have a life-saving medicine applied to the government’s free list for her life-threatening disease.  It is there for another disease but not her extremely rare illness.  A slight change will save 70 lives.  This story is repeated many, many times over as particular stories in our society make particular calls upon us as a ‘community’ to provide specific care and financial support because their need is so much greater than the rest of us – can we all chip in from the common purse and support others?

The element of Federal/State budgeting that is the source of my fear is that we are conditioned to view everything through individual eyes – what belongs to me.  I work hard, save etc therefore what I have is properly mine and mine alone.  If I have the good fortune to have particular skills or capacity that are deemed more valuable, I will be wealthier and I am conditioned to understand that as my right.  If I can study particular disciplines at university I can earn significantly more than other disciplines.  If I work in particular industries I am seen as more valuable and earn more money – and it is mine.  What I have is mine and mine alone – it is drummed into us across our society (the opposite, surely is communism???).

The trouble with this mode of thinking is that it isn’t satisfying nor natural.  I am not intrinsically tuned to be a loner, existing in isolation from others and devoid of responsibility for their needs.  The natural being of humans, that which is programed into us, is to be connected and communal.  The deepest and best expressions of our humanity, those we cherish, celebrate and become emotional over, are where people go out of their way to embrace another into life and compassionate caring.  We are deeply moved when we hear stories of people going the extra mile to care for, save, reach out to and love another – especially if they are a stranger!

I think we come close to the Divine, the Sacred, the Holy, when we are deeply connected to other people in caring relationships of sharing and mutuality. When we celebrate ANZAC Day, for example, it is predominantly sacrifice, comradeship, relationship that we think about; self-giving for the sake of other people moves us, stirs us and draws us down deeply into a richer understanding of what it means to be truly human.

So, I am wondering how a Federal budget can reflect that which is so deeply embedded within our being, that for which we deeply yearn?  I am wondering how we can unlearn and overcome that individualistic longing brainwashed into us and allow ourselves to be generous?

There is a great story that we will read this week in church from the book of Acts in the New Testament (Acts 2:42-47) that speaks of the early church.  After the great revival that gave impetus to the fledgling church, things seems to have settled down into a pattern of communal living.  This little community of Jesus’ followers required community to live in a radical manner before the world of the 1st Century and the Roman Empire.  For them, sharing everything became a norm so that everyone had enough and no-one went without.  All people contributed as they were able and there was joy without greed (at least for a time).  They gathered around their story to remember who they were and what they were on about.  They listened to the stories and teaching of Jesus as he pointed to the radical (meaning the roots of) life that was meant to be, the life of justice, love, equity, peace and community that was built into life and humanity – the life of God.  They shared around meals that were transformed into holy feasts as they remembered their story and held the symbols of bread and wine as the feast of God’s Realm in the world.  They found space to go deep through prayer and meditation, to find the strength and power to resist the ways that oppose our deepest humanity in God and to fight the lies of violence, exclusion, injustice, greed, fear and ignorance.

I wonder how we would respond to a government who proposed a budget that reflected such ideals?  I wonder the response a budget that supported basic education and gave more to those on the bottom, who struggle against the odds to learn?  Or, provided support for those who live with difficult disabilities, chronic illness, extreme poverty, social isolation, mental illness, racial intolerance, hunger, fear, oppression – how might we respond if our  money went to help these others rather than more military weapons, lower taxes…?  There is a Biblical vision that seems to embrace all people into the life of sacred love and joy and deep grace.

By geoffstevenson

Where is God?

The ringing of the phone heralds news – good or bad.  I never know unless it is the middle of the night.  Its ring often announces a sacred moment, a space where God will intrude into my consciousness and experience, expected or not.  This ring was the prelude to a request to visit the hospital.  A man lay in a bed distressed and dying and by his side his elderly mother.  She had called for a minister to sit with her through this sacred journey with her and her son.  She had the questions that death, especially an unexpected death, always brings – where is God in this place?  Why did God choose this time?  Why now?  Why him?  Why me?  If God is love…?  If God is powerful and caring…?

The questions betray the reality that God is in this place, holed up in bed struggling for breath, weeping in the chair for a love that is fading, in the gentle caress of the nurse administering care. In the steady beeps and ticks of the machines helping this man to gently let go into a realm of unknowing, the place beyond all we know… God is in this place but in strange and mysterious, ever-changing, evolving spaces that challenge our thoughts and play havoc with our sure and certain knowing.

In the moment of dying, a peaceful hush and a gentle letting go and then the cool, soft, silent staring of a man now gone into another place.  In the silence, for only silence can hold this moment, there is the presence of gentle, powerful love.  The mother weeps for her son and an image of Easter breaks into my mind – a mother, a son and death – his brutal and horrific but now gentle and peaceable beyond the pain and horror.  Holding a hand and stroking his head, she weeps and remembers.  It gushes out – the little boy she held and nurtured; the man he became and the struggles they shared.  The questions she asked about God and God’s presence, will, activity and so on remain hanging on an intellectual level but they are answered in the experience of the mystery at the heart and depth of life.  We name it God because no other name will do.  Nothing else comes close to the profound encounter with the sacred in this moment.   These questions can be engaged with through philosophical and theological processes but do they ever get to the essence of the reality?  Where is God?  How do we experience God – especially in the darker moments of life?

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, expresses the reality that out of darkness God emerges creatively and truly but with fleeting glimpse and evolving extravagance in mysterious ways.  We can conjure God through our glorified dogma and belief systems, condemning this image of God to a static, ever-settled imagined reality – but is that God?  Can God, will God, ever be tied down to what I can conjure in my imagination?  Can God ever be limited to my experience or my ability to understand and know?  Can I grasp God in a defined manner that is true beyond all else or will God die in my grasp, reduced to something only partly true and real?  This metaphor God fleets in and out of my reality until I begin to perceive God in unexpected places and at times surprising but wondrous.  There is a gentle rippling of the leaves in the garden, reflecting sunlight and greens of all shades.  The bright red chillies shine through.  The clouds float through the sky and the sun warms and enlightens the world.  There is a gentle bird song that echoes through the snoring of dogs and the fish tank filter.  In the thoughts and ponderings of people I know and have engaged with over these last days, in all these things, there is a presence that holds me and all life in mystery, wonder and hope.

Where is God?  In the midst of life and death, where is God?  In the middle, in the space between us, in the midst of the struggle or the laughter and joy – God is there.  But don’t try to hold onto God, to reduce or define or materialise God because God won’t be stilled or held or captured.  The Spirit blows where it will, says Jesus.  When you try to hold onto life and God and everything, to cling to it, you lose it.  When you let it go and experience it, live it and allow it to be, you will find life – and God.

There is a story we read this week (Luke 24:13-35) about some disciples who asked this same question about what was happening when Jesus died.  They were wandering home aimless and lost because of grief and lost hope.  Their lives were lost in the suddenness of Jesus’ death and the confusion about what should be and what was in reality.  Where was God in this?  Why was God doing this this and what next?   Silently a stranger met them on their way and spoke of things that they didn’t understand, the mystery in their story and the place of God’s grace in their midst always, and always.  They felt a lightness in their grief and a hope in their despair.  This stranger spoke wonderful words that brought them to life and they glimpsed a light – God?  They went into a home and he walked on until they beckoned him to share their meal and more stories.  They ate together and when he broke bread and shared wine they saw and knew and believed.  The Risen Christ, the presence of God was there in this act of remembering, sharing and community.  When they ate and drank together around stories of life and death, hope lost and found and the existential questions of life, God was there in their midst.

When they realised and tried to define, hold, grasp this presence of Christ, he disappeared and they were left alone but not really alone – the mystery and presence was there with them but beyond them in ways they couldn’t hold or control.  This is the way of God, the presence in our midst when we least expect it and in ways we try to describe but cannot fully comprehend, a presence beyond us but in us and through us and with us.  This God we reach out to in desperation or yell at in anger and despair or question in grief and hopelessness, this God is ever-present in profound wonder and mystery absorbing our wondering, questioning, ignorant uncertainty..  Through conscious or unconscious realisation and awareness, God is there, in and around and through.  God blows like the wind and we see a presence but only where it has been on the creative passage through the worlds we glimpse and know but don’t know.  This is God, also like an ocean holding us in embrace, rich and deep, gentle and scary, cool and vast.  God is love that flows out of the centre of living to embrace the world in a resurrection hope and life.

By geoffstevenson