Sacrifice…???!!

There is a very ancient story that goes back 3-3,500 years into the ancient world of the Middle East.  It speaks of Abraham, the legendary figure who is father to the 3 major monotheistic religions of the world today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  This ancient and enigmatic figure has stories of great faith and vulnerability told of him.  The particular one that we encounter this week has always puzzled me – what is it this man thinks he is doing and what does this God he follows expect or even demand of him, of us?.

This Abraham has journeyed a great distance in response to this unknown God’s call upon his life.  He is promised much in response to his faithfulness and trust – he will become the father of many nations and his children will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and of the stars in the sky.  A beautiful and rich promise and hope that seems hollow because his wife cannot conceive.  In the terms of their culture he (they) seek to circumvent this obvious obstacle by conceiving a child, an heir, to his wife’s servant-girl, Hagar, and Ishmael was born.  Finally Abraham’s own wife fell pregnant and he had a legitimate heir, Isaac, through his wife.  This is the background to this strange story in Genesis 22:1-18.

At a point after Isaac is born and grows, God seems to have suggested to Abraham that he is to take this precious son and go to a particular mountain and offer this boy up to God.  If you didn’t get the subtlety, he is to sacrifice the life of this precious gift to God to prove his faith.  This seems like a somewhat barbaric requirement and I wonder what it means?   Is it something in their culture that seems to normalise such a requirement or is it something in our culture that rejects or denies the notion of such sacrifice to a God we cannot see or easily hear?

Anyway, Abraham, heavy of heart goes about an obedient following of God’s demand and goes out with his son.  They find the mountain and leave the servants behind.  They climb the mountain and build an altar for worship, for the offering of an animal to this God.  Young Isaac wonders where the animal is but dad tells him that God will provide – which is ironically true as he and Sarah have understood Isaac as a gift from God.  When all is ready Abraham lowered his beloved son onto the altar and began to tie him down and prepare to sacrifice him to God.  I find the reading of this story bizarre – that there is no indication of struggle from the boy… It is simply told in matter-of-fact terms.  As Abraham is about to reach for the sacrificial knife, a voice calls out to stop him and the angel praises him for his faithfulness, telling him to let his son go.  Abraham’s action has demonstrated that he is deeply faithful and trusting of this mysterious God whom he has chosen to follow.  It seems, at times, like blind faith and blind faith, as we know can be dangerous.  When Islamic terrorists fly planes into buildings to kill people to please Allah, we know it to be an incredible evil and this ‘blind faith’ is naïve, stupid and dangerous.  But Abraham is blessed and God provides an alternative, a ram in the thicket.  We are left with an odd feeling that this man, this great man would consider sacrificing his own dear son in the name of what?  For the sake of what?  It seems empty, devoid of meaning even if this ultimate test of faith and loyalty proves Abraham to be committed deeply to this God who owns everything and provides, as gifts, all we have.

We look somewhat condescendingly upon Abraham and his God who would require such commitment and sacrifice.  We consider theirs as a world of strange mythology and superstitious fear, especially towards this God.  They do things that we enlightened people would never dream of in our sophistication – or would we?  We would never sacrifice our children to strange, mysterious gods, would we?  We would never kill in the name of religion, God, faith or whatever we would like to name it?  We would never agree to lives sacrificed in the name of faith or God or anything so menial as revenge, would we?

There was a somewhat naïve minister who ran a film of this story as the prelude to a Bible Discussion. He took the adults and his wife, the children.  After a brief discussion he caught the drift – sacrifice and struggle are very real parts of our modern world of faith and life.  Parents sacrifice their children on the altar of their ideology all the time – also on the altar of their fear.  People sacrifice themselves and their families to the life of faith, service and justice often.  Nelson Mandella sacrificed any normal family life or sustained marital relationship to fight the fight of justice.  Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King jr, Romero… sacrificed life to serve the purposes of God’s Reign and fight injustice.

Beyond that, this young American pastor sat back and thought about how strange it was that we are willing to sacrifice people of the world in extraordinary ways on a daily basis but deny the story as anything significant to offer us.  He says: How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost.’

I wonder when we decided that faith has no cost – nor, for that matter, a life well lived?  When did we stop recognising that sacrifice is not part of the deal?  Of course sacrifice is an essential part of life and living.  Partners sacrifice for one another.  I have a plethora of stories of loving spouses who sacrifice much time, energy and love in caring for husbands or wives greatly diminished by illness, dementia or mental illness.  I have observed the deep and profound sacrifice many parents make to offer their children every chance at life.  I have observed the sacrifice of friends who care for each other deeply.  We honour ANZAC’s and returned servicemen and women for the sacrifices they have made and we honour others who sacrifice life or safety to protect or save others.  Why do we cringe when faith calls forth such sacrifice and energy in the name of love and justice for the sake of God and the world?

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By geoffstevenson

Observing God in the World Around

One morning this week I stood in the sun and felt its warmth.  A gentle breeze rustled leaves in the tree above me and I listened as they stirred.  I watched a ladybeetle walk along a leaf, its bright yellow stripes standing out against the black body.  It was a small speck of brilliance on the green and brown backdrop.  I wondered about its beauty, its colour and why it was so bright.  The cat came and dug in the garden, gently scratching soil and searching.  Sometimes it stopped and stood still listening and watching before going back to digging.  The dogs watched on from a distance and they made the sounds of dogs against the peaceful silence of the world.  Looking at the blue, brilliant blue sky through the trees with the filtered sunlight drifting down onto potted plants lining the garden I was filled with wonder.

Flies buzzed around and then flew off in search of something they didn’t find near me.  Birds glided over the treetops gracefully catching air currents and occasionally flapping their wings to gain height or speed or steer their path.  I noticed the newly planted pea seeds in the garden, small fragile shoots breaking through the soil towards the radiant sun.  The sun was beautiful and brilliant, low in the winter sky and filling the world with gentle warmth and light.  I stopped for a while to see, to hear, to feel and to touch and was filled with wonder.  I wandered over to where a patch of concrete sits against our fence.  There are a few slight cracks and through them weeds are growing. I looked at the weeds and wondered how and why?  I have often thought that green weeds growing through sterile concrete patches in paths or roads or even on the sides of buildings are signs of life and wonder, of something almost impossible.  Of course I know that they aren’t ‘impossible’ and a perfectly plausible scientific explanation exists for their presence in such arid spaces but that doesn’t diminish the wonder and fragile hope they express in their very being.

The simple world of the garden is filled with wonder and delight, enough to fill one’s being with peace, hope and joy in even the worst of times.  As I wandered in wonder I asked myself where God was in this?  How might I name God in this beautiful place?  Is God in the flies buzzing annoyingly in my ear and landing on my arm creating a tickling sensation that makes me swat at them?  Is God in these weeds that I plucked out of the garden and from amongst the lawn; the thousands of green stems of Buffalo grass occasionally disturbed by kikuyu or winter grass?  Is God in the bird song or the wind ‘that blows where it will’ creating a rustle in the leaves and a breeze on my cheek?  Is God in the gentle gliding of the birds or the crawling lizards, the curious cat or sleeping dogs?  How do I name God in this place or amongst the hundreds of human faces I recall from a recent visit to Westfield Parramatta, all shades, hues, ages and expressions?  God is none of this and yet all of it; in the spaces between us and in the faces I meet.  Something real, vibrant, peaceful and wondrous – of God – fills this garden space with its creatures and wonder, its beauty and life.

In this is God!  I want to take this name, this word in which I have imbued meaning and definition, a name filled with an abundance of theological concepts, simplistic, simple and profound – and yes, nonsensical – and lay it over my experience this morning in the garden but I can’t.  God doesn’t fit my neat defining nor does God want to be squeezed into my structured and ordered  comprehension or formulations.  God is free to be God and if I open my eyes, my ears, my heart and even my mind, I may be free to encounter and experience this God in my midst.

This week is the 37th anniversary of the Uniting Church and I pondered the church in the midst of the garden and I glimpsed God there too.  This young, indigenous church built upon the foundations of earlier churches (Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational) seeks to be a presence of God in this multicultural, diverse community in which we live.  I thought about the images and experiences of the Uniting Church I have had and recognised God’s face.  The space where elderly people come to sing hymns, ancient and traditional, their faces alight with remembering.  I remembered fondly the little children who are brought to be baptised and wonderingly reach out to pull my beard and looked shocked when water flows over their tiny heads.  I thought of the children filled with wonder at stories of Jesus and his gentle, all-embracing love for people.  Young adults and youth ask me questions in the absence of other people, questions filled with uncertainty because they have moved beyond child-like faith but aren’t sure what elements they can jettison from their belief system – will God ‘zap them’ if they get it wrong?  The faces of people from all over the globe present in Uniting Church gatherings, with their glorious food and joyful music coalescing into joyful cacophony of praise and wonder in the God mysteriously present between us, in us and around us.

I think of the pain in whose presence I am called to sit as a minister, the pain and struggle of human life with the questions, the grief, the anger and confusion.  Where is God in these places?  Well, right there in the midst of human agony holding us in gentle love and filling human life with courage and hope to continue on despite our experiences.  This is where the church is as we stand together in the hard places and simply hold each other and God is there in us and between us.

I feel the wonderful hope expressed in the broad array of welfare services offered up by the Uniting Church across the breadth of this wide brown land.  This largest provider of such services does so with quiet grace and simple, faithful service.  There are thousands of beautiful stories of people’s live transformed and filled with love and hope in the midst of life’s joy and pain.

The Uniting Church was born after the turbulent social revolution of the ‘60’s’ and the breakdown of Christendom, modernity and in a new world view that fed into the 21st century.  We wrestle with what it means to be the church and to name God in our midst amongst a society that is increasingly distant from traditional faith and church life.  We seek to engage with the God who is everywhere present in and through and around and between us; the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

By geoffstevenson

An Ordinary-Profound Life!

Earlier this week I attended the funeral of an old friend.  Graham and I attended the same church many years ago and were in a small group together.  We spent many hours fixing the problems of the world – and other people’s lives!  Graham was quite a philosopher and used to hold court on his front veranda in Panania.  With a coffee in hand (usually International Roast with loads of sugar, something that makes me cringe today), we used to sit and chew the fat. Graham always had a view on something and being a few years older than I and having a more expansive experience of the world, its triumphs, joys and struggles, I deferred to him.

Graham had been a plasterer, owning his own business until a couple of injuries and the effects of carrying plasterboard on his head for years took its toll.  He endured spinal damage that limited movement and ultimately became a progressive disease in his nervous system.  A few years ago, Graham had a serious fall and the damage was exacerbated such that he was effectively quadriplegic. After months of therapy, he regained some small movements in his arms but was extremely limited.  Despite all of this, Graham continued to work.

After he was forced to give up his plastering business Graham went to TAFE and did his HSC and then studied courses in counselling at TAFE then university.  He gained degrees in social welfare and psychology.  He went on to work as a drug and alcohol counsellor, dealing with people whose problems he well understood from his own early life.  Over the last 25 years Graham worked with Corrective Services and especially with sexual perpetrators.  He became an expert in the field and contained a wealth of knowledge and experience that was often called upon.  His colleagues had a deep respect for Graham and referred to his expertise often.  He also consulted for the group that is hosted in our church when Rev Dr Peter Powell was on long leave a few years ago.

Graham always showed deep respect for human beings no matter how low they may have sunk in their behaviours.  He spent many hours travelling to prisons to lead groups, meet prisoners and consult for the institutions.  He stood up for justice with both prisoners and institutions and ‘told it like it was!’  He could be blunt and sometimes abrasive but was always compassionate and stood up for what was right.  He believed in people and that they deserved a chance to change and redeem themselves in life.  He was also realistic.

As I stood in the chapel celebrating this simple, uncommon life, listening to stories and viewing images, I recognised that this man who had a love-hate relationship with the church expressed grace, justice and love in his being.  More than that he embraced the wonderful quality of hope that gave him the courage and drive to keep going despite the odds.

These last few years have been very difficult with his extreme health problems on top of the various levels of pain with which he has lived for over three decades.  In the electric chair in which he rode, Graham navigated his way to various places by train or taxi to do his work.  He used the phone to offer advice and expertise.  Despite everything he kept going until his health took its toll on him.

Graham is in many ways not an exceptional person.  He was not someone that everyone knew or who stood out in a crowd – he would go to extremes not to stand out in a crowd.  Graham was in every way an ordinary person, a tradesman and small business owner who had to traverse the obstacles of life.  He did so with courage, hard work, grace and faith.  In so many ways, he was one of us – ordinary, simple, unique and wonderful when he found his voice, his skills and his vocation.

I had forgotten Graham’s love of pelicans.  He saw these strange gangly birds as paradoxes.  Such clumsy, strange-looking creatures on land are so beautifully graceful in flight.  In looking at them waddle, one could be forgiven in believing they should not be able to fly – at least so gracefully.  But they do!  So did Graham.  He was like a pelican.  His body slowly closing down, awkward in his gait, dealing with pain and limited movements, Graham was like the ungainly pelican waddling down the path.  When he found his wings, Graham flew gracefully and soared into places he had never dreamed of until he was pushed to think of new possibilities.  He worked hard to find his way, to ‘learn to fly’ and engage his God-given skills, gifts and vocation in life.  When he did, his impact was tremendous and he did it so gracefully, so effortlessly it seemed.  Counselling anyone who sat long enough before him or asked a question that triggered his imagination, Graham was a source of wisdom to many.

I thought of Graham when I thought about the crisis in leadership we seem to be experiencing in our broader society.  I thought of Graham when I thought about the various issues that we confront and often overwhelm us.  I thought of Graham when I thought about the confusion many of us feel about what we can or should do in response to all of this.  I thought of Graham because Graham represents one who did what he did the best he could and didn’t discriminate against people or hold crimes, sins or brokenness against them.  He showed rough grace and love towards others in his own gruff and grumpy manner.  He dispelled wisdom and advice when asked and went out of his way to listen, to talk, to be present to other people.  Did he change the world?  Did he make a difference?  Perhaps not in some people’s estimation but ask those who worked with him or benefitted from his care or blunt words.  We were reminded, in his funeral, that God was profoundly present in Graham and what he did, who he was and how he lived.

This is the essence of what Jesus was on about and this week, in many churches, we will hear his words inviting us to go into the world and teach people the ways of God (justice, grace, love compassion…), to train and instruct them and his presence will be with us always!  We are encouraged to believe that our little lives are significant and can make a difference in this big and strangely wonderful world.  There are many obstacles to confront but with faith and courage, hope and love, we can find our way.  Our lives will be significant as God imbues them with purpose and beauty – as God did through Graham! We can be the difference we hope and dream about!

By geoffstevenson

Mystery, Wonder and Words …

Have you heard God speak to you? When asked this, most people look a little confused, some assume a look of guilt because they feel they’ve failed at something important and others look at me like I’ve got two heads and taken leave of my senses. It seems that whilst many people have a sense or belief about God most don’t have a language to speak about God or engage with their experiences to make sense of them. When they turn to the church they are confronted with such a plethora of words, jargon, dogma and collapsed metaphors that nothing makes sense. The Church seems nonsensical because in order to understand their experiences they need not only a new language but to set aside much of their world view. It gets worse because the church often expects of them the wholesale rejection of their culture, everything that has formed them and is essential for their lives. This is especially true of those in the younger generations, particularly the so called Millennials whose cultural world view is staggeringly different from that of their parents.

A couple of things this week have highlighted this for me. The first was a group discussion I was involved in. We read some notes from Marcus Borg on what the Celtic Christians called ‘thin places’. These are those places where the realm of Spirit seems so close it breaks into the realm of the material world. We gain glimpses of the Sacred, the Holy, of God in our midst. This experience is in us, around us, through us and moves us deeply.  Such experiences come through many different media and moments. They may be part of a deliberate pilgrimage, a search for the Holy. Some travel to Iona or Taize or the Holy Land. There is the encounter with the Sacred in the space of the natural world, in the vast wilderness regions that are filled with immense beauty, wonder and the mystery of this Holy One in our midst – the ‘One in whom we live and move and have our being.’ Music, art, literature, movies, story, poetry are filed with the potential of encountering wonder, mystery – God. The relationships we have with people who share life with us and touch us, move us, love us and whom we love, are the media through which ‘thin places’ reveal the Holy in and around us.

The group went on to name, in a holy space, some of the beautiful ‘thin places’ we have experienced. Some were simple moments filled with Loving Mystery, others  quite deep times in which God was a present reality in the wonder of profound, difficult and joyous moments. It was a language that we each learned and through which we were able to speak of encounters with and hearing from God.

The second experience was to pick up a book on Millennials to listen to how the church has failed to both understand them and their native, indigenous culture and language. They look like us, sound like us, live with us, speak English and so they must understand and experience as we do – but they don’t! That is evidenced by their journey away from typical religious experience of their parents and elders – they don’t make sense of our Christin culture because it doesn’t connect with the fundamental way they experience life. They speak a different language and make very different assumptions about life and therefore, God, ‘in whom they live and move and have their being’ will be experienced, spoken of and celebrated differently. In fact the differences between generations are greater than at any previous time because of the vast changes in the world that this generation have grown up within. They are digital natives living in a readily accessible digital world – if you don’t understand what this means, welcome to their experience of you. Millennial (and, I suspect, many others) feel deep disconnect from mainstream church because the fundamental issues and ways they engage the world are so different. When the church rejects science they shake their heads because their world is understood predominantly through science. When the church fusses over sexuality they don’t get it – their world is very different and this division becomes a strangling point. When the church is exclusive and narrow they are confused because they understand Jesus as engaging all people, welcoming strangers, outcasts, and the vulnerable. They are connected with this diverse array of people through Facebook, Instagram and other social media. They feel let down by institutions and are wary of committing to them – Jesus is fine, but the church?

This Sunday is the Festival of Pentecost and it is the story of the Spirit of God revealed in the flames and wind whirling through the followers of Jesus, transforming them and reaching through them into the world. The amazing and disturbing thing was that everyone heard the mystery and wonder of God in their language! This is part of Pentecostal reality – we are able to engage with God in our own language, culture and experience because God is not limited by or even mediated by the Church. Our mission is to bear witness to the world of our experience of God.  This mission, this witness, needs to be translated, not only linguistically but culturally, into the language of the world.

The ever-present, Mystery and Wonder of God will speak into the languages and cultures of the world with or without the church.  Art and music, film and literature, pilgrimage and spirituality all engage with the Sacred and Holy in our midst.  They engage with God in their own ways and language, sometimes cumbersome, sometimes prophetic and sometimes confused.  The church can get on board and be where the Spirit blows, speaking into the cultural milieu of a complex, diverse world or we can be left behind and lost in a wilderness of irrelevance.

Pentecost ultimately took the little church out of narrow Judaistic ways to encounter and speak of God in the big, wide world.  It was a Big Bang explosion of love, power, hope, joy, faith and life that fired out into the world through loving expression, multi-lingual exhortation and witness and total Spirit-loaded chaos.

Are we able to let go of our neat, confined structures, secure dogma, fear of the deficit bank balance or approval of a society to be the radical witnesses to God’s gracious presence that holds, sustains all creation and gives us life, hope, peace and palpable joy?

 

By geoffstevenson

Inclusive Love…

I remember two stories from high school.  The first was the selection of the school tennis team in about Year 9.  Six players were needed and five were obvious.  The last place came down to me and another boy, neither of whom had been playing much lately but were okay.  We had a play off on a cold, windy Wednesday afternoon on courts that were awful, asphalt with bumps and cracks.  The net sagged severely in the middle but was too high on the sides.

The game commenced and we played the most awful set in the history of the school – I’m sure.  Eventually I won this appalling match and was named in the team although I’m sure the coach was dejected at the prospect having watched this display.  Anyway, I was selected and the other boy missed out.

At another time, a couple of years later, things went the other way for me in the school prefect election when I was in Year 11.  I missed by a vote or two to another fellow.

Being chosen and selected in the ordinary ways of our world is about inclusion/exclusion.  When we are chosen, someone else misses out.  When they are chosen we may miss out.  The whole experience becomes a competitive experience that pits people against one another.  In extreme situations you get something like the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan situation in the US.  Harding was involved in seeking to disable Kerrigan, her competitor for the Olympic Ice Skating team.  There can be high stakes when competition becomes extreme and violent conflict part of the response.  This is not to suggest that all competition is bad because competition can push us to become better, strive higher, dig deeper…  Competition, when it is healthy and not exclusive, can be effective.  When competition becomes exclusive it often becomes unhealthy.

This sense of selecting who is in and who is out, competing for positions on the pecking order is pervasive.  It is readily identified in the school playground, sporting clubs, workplaces, and basically wherever people gather.  There is the ‘in’ crowd and those who exist on the ‘outer’. Throughout our society this selective mechanism is in effect and we all, consciously or sub-consciously, are engaged in the processes of selection, choosing and therefore finding and/or giving a sense of belonging.  Because we think of being chosen as an exclusive process whereby only a few can be chosen or included, we strive against others for the few places.  We are encouraged to see other people as competitors who want to take ‘our place’ in the selection process.  Fear of missing out, of being excluded, is an important driver in so many social interactions. So much anti-social behaviour is exacerbated when people raise the stakes to prove themselves and fit into a gang or group of people.  The story of Nicky Cruz in the Cross and the Switchblade tells something of this.  Nicky desperately wanted to belong but he was an outcast and rejected from normal groups.  He linked up with one of New York’s most notorious gangs because this was a place where misfits and wounded, angry young men found a place to belong – only if they were hardened, violent and fearless (well fearless in terms of the law and hurting other people, even being harmed in the process – they were afraid only of not belonging!).  He tells of the extraordinary lengths to which he and others went, to prove themselves tough, fearless and worthy of selection into this gang.  Many others were not chosen.

In wider, ordinary society there is a sense of competition for places in so many areas of life.  For example, we somehow have the belief that receiving refugees and asylum seekers will result in us losing out somehow.  We see them as ‘other’ and fight to keep them under control and locked away lest we miss out on something because they receive it.  Inclusion of other people in receiving support or care or resources to help them engage more fully in life seems to antagonise large segments of society, as if we are all competing for resources and have desperate needs.  National leaders then hold the competing groups in tension with each other and seem to use competition to keep people ‘under control’.  It is fascinating to look around at how so many community organisations are working for the same ends but compete for common resources and duplicate services rather than working together for a common goal.

In our reading this Sunday (John 17:1-11) we read a prayer of Jesus for his disciples.  One of the significant points is where Jesus prays that his followers will be one as God is one.  This is a profound notion – that we may be one!  Certainly the history of the church reveals that unity and oneness are not a significant characteristic as churches divide and fight much like every other human organisation.  We fight over belief systems, styles of worship, what we should/shouldn’t do…  We compete with each other to belong and for significance before God – God doesn’t care for exclusion anyway!

Jesus’ prayer is a profound idea for the church and our world – that we may be one!  It invites us to step back and see ourselves as human beings and part of the human family.  We aren’t greater or lesser but all part of humanity.  Look into the face of another and see that they are the same as I am – they hurt, bleed, feel, hope, dream, love and live.  God has welcomed us all into this family of humanity that is blessed with rich diversity and experience.

Together we can make a great difference for all people and the resources available are sufficient for everyone to have enough and to live well.  There is a way of equality and commonality in this vision that seeks the well-being of all people – and the earth!  When we work together and live peaceably the potential is enormous and energy is given to positive things rather than defensively maintaining our ‘borders’ and keeping others at arm’s length.

John speaks of the essential unity of God that pervades the created order in its natural state.  Systems of nature, bodily systems and mechanisms all have a unity of function.  It is when these natural systems are disturbed or broken that problems arise – such as illness.  In the human community, division and competitive exclusion are a violence that creates illness within this ‘body’.  Jesus’ prayer is a radical vision of inclusive love, grace and justice for the world!

By geoffstevenson