Why? – The lingering Question!

The last week has been a difficult week.  Our world has been shocked, stunned and deeply impacted by the terrorist attack on Malaysian Airways Flight MH17 last Friday.  The news has been filled with the stories, people, analysis and shock.  It has hit many people very hard.

Our church community has felt the weight and reality of this awful and tragic event more deeply as we embraced the news that one of our own was on that plane.  Jack was returning from a holiday but never made it home.  We all keep waiting for him and there is a futile hope in our subconscious that he will walk in one day even though we know that will not happen.  There are many feelings that we cannot fully express; a mixture grief, anger, deep sadness, confusion and the endless questions.

Through the many tears that have flowed, people have remembered stories and experiences of this lovely young man who was ready to take on the world with courage, boldness and a self-confidence that emerged over the last few years.  He valued self-discipline and wrestled with faith in its traditional formulations but connected deeply through meditation and reflection.  He valued authenticity and fairness, practical action and rational, logical thinking.  He felt that being positive was vital. He was deeply passionate about well-being and health, diet, exercise and read widely about these things.  He set goals and worked hard to achieve them, loved life and experiencing life in rich, deep ways rather than wasting his time acquiring stuff.  He loved soccer and was a passionate Wanderers fan. Jack had a deep sensitivity in him for people who were vulnerable.  Now Jack is gone.

Through this time we have been left with questions and confusion, wondering what it is all about.  The most profound and pervasive question is simply, ‘Why?’  Why Jack?  Why that plane?  Why those people?  Why did they attack that plane?  Why are they so angry, mad, hate-filled and violent?  Why is there terrorism and evil of such proportions in our world?  Why is human life so disdained? Where is God and why does God allow this to happen?

Why? Why? Why?

That one little question reverberates through the conversations, the tears, the rituals, the pondering and the work of coming to terms with the grief, pain and confusion.  Why?  This little question confronts us at many levels and invites, no demands, of us searching answers.  It won’t sit down and fade into the background but is constantly in our faces – WHY???!!

There are rational answers, even if they don’t make sense, but still our hearts yearn for something more, something deeper. Political analysts, psychologists and others can probably give us answers as to why the conflict is happening.  They may be able to give us insight into the hatred and madness of such evil and violent acts. These may provide answers to some of the ‘why?’ questions but they won’t pacify the persistent, deep nagging, ‘Why?’

Our prayers for insight and understanding reveal little and God seems to choose silence over explanations.  Jesus answered questions with more questions.  Job received nothing but accusing questions fired back in response to his demands of God to explain!  Is there nowhere we can go to receive the answers?  I suspect there isn’t – there may not even be answers.  At least no answer to the longing of our hearts, our aching with pain and uncertainty and confusion. ‘Why?’

God, it seems lets these questions flow and hang in the air.  I think they are held gently and carefully in grace but answered?  Not really, not easily, not without deep searching and reflecting, which is hard, especially in these times.  We are, it seems, encouraged to explore our feelings, our pain and ask our questions in the deep places of our being where we are less likely to rationalise or give in to the temptations of simplistic or quick responses that diminish our questions.  It is in the darkness, in the night time of our fear when coldness hugs our heart, that we lay wrestling with the questions.  When despair falls like mist upon our souls and our minds are full of competing voices reflecting the diverse emotions fighting for prominence in our being, we realise the futility of questions and answers.  Still the question comes, ‘Why?’ At some point it morphs and grows into ‘How?’ How could someone do this?  How could they get hold of the equipment, set it up and press the buttons?  How could a human being so lose their fundamental humanity as to be able to consciously kill innocent people?  It morphs back to ‘Why?’  Why did this happen?  ‘Why?’  ‘How?’

There are no answers, are there?  God doesn’t want me to have a simple answer that puts it all to bed and explains the world simply and surely.  God knows that it isn’t that easy, that simple, that such simplistic answers do not honour Jack or the other passengers, nor do justice to the depth of pain and the reality of our world.

I continue the journey through my questioning and wander into the stories of faith.  These both clash with and walk hand in hand with the world in which we live.  There is pain, struggle and violence in the stories of our faith.  There is violence and in much of Scripture the authors seem to connect God to the source of this violence, or at least the One who gives approval.  Perhaps it is easier to put the blame for violence and death upon a Deity who doesn’t seem to defend ‘himself’ than take personal responsibility.  It still seems to happen – Crusades, Holy wars and the like.  Claims of ‘God’s will’ and so on are so much nonsense but those who prefer literalisms will not be dissuaded.  God is most normally revealed as non-violent, preferring justice and love over sacrifice and warfare.  In Jesus, the One in whom we experience the deepest revelation of God, we find a non-violent, gracious being who welcomes people and tells stories of Divine acceptance of people who are created in the image of God.  So it seems that we put violence and killing onto God who has commanded us ‘Do not kill!’

So where do I get to and what does it all mean when I think about Jack?  How do I respond to mad, crazed murderers committing grotesque evil in the world?  How do I respond to men (and women?) leaders crazed with power and are abominably horrific and evil in their actions?  How do I think about all of this when the little question ‘Why?’ keeps coming back to haunt me?

I’m reminded of Martin Luther King Jr and his constant refrain of love.  King warned his followers that in the fight against injustice and for civil rights, they must maintain their focus on the issues rather than the people.  If they used violence against the people then they were only providing excuses for retribution and further violence against them.  They would also be no better than those they struggled against.  The ignorance and stupidity of people, the hatred that rises up within them from an unknown source and floods their being with irrational and distasteful (EVIL!) acts, was what thy had to change.  Somehow the answer was not in using more violence to overcome violence and bring peace!  It is so logical but so profoundly difficult because society has been nurtured in the use of violence and everywhere there are the examples of violence taming violence for the hope of peace.  I grew up with Batman and Superman who both fought the evil enemies and tamed their violence and brought peace through victory and terrible violence.

There will be talk about justice and often that is a thinly veiled word for revenge and retaliation.  Of course those who perpetrated this horrendous evil that is causing us and so many others such deep pain, that has taken our son, brother and friend away, must be brought to account.  There is room for such justice that proceeds through proper channels; although in this complex world such justice is difficult to administer.   Surely there must be some response to nation-states who act as terrorists and terrorist organisations who cause innocents to suffer in their ‘righteous’ cause.
But How???

Will the international community have the courage to confront this and deal with the heart of violence, hatred and evil?  Or, are we all so immersed within the tendrils of retaliatory action that we condemn ourselves as well?  Who has the power, the will, the way to proceed and deliver justice in truth?  Who has the wisdom and strength of character to stand for change?  Do we need a Ghandi or Romero or King or Mandella?  Do we need a Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa…?  Wisdom, courage, love and faith drawn into the being of a life.

The ‘Why?’ question leads me into hard places where I am challenged to act differently and think differently.  I don’t want to be peaceful and loving towards these hate-filled evil strangers.  I don’t want to give up the ‘right’ to be angry and to want to inflict some degree of ‘pain’ upon them so they can feel as we do.  I want them to hurt in the same way we do, well in my darkest moments that is what I feel.  I want to shout and scream at Vladimir Putin and whoever is leading this disgraceful group.  I want to tell them what is what and what is wrong with them.  I want to shout out my ‘WHY?’ I want to hear them answer that, knowing there will be no satisfactory answer.  But I can’t and I know it wouldn’t achieve anything.  I know that in my heart and hope that would be how I would respond if ever the opportunity arose, but that takes great courage! More courage than retaliation and revenge.

At some point all this hatred and anger and meaningless violence that spirals up and out of control must end.  It must stop and we must learn to be human at deeper levels.  We must draw strength and imagination from our faith and the stories of an alternative to violence and hatred. I have two colliding images that are sitting together in my mind.  The first is the ‘crucifixion’ – it is a painting hanging in our church.  There is no cross just the figure, the submission of Jesus, sacrificing his life for the sake of God’s Realm and its hope for peace through love and justice. This is strongly conveyed in this painting.  I understand the vulnerability of love and the challenge to stand against evil without armaments or violence – it is powerful!  The second image is another painting, of a chalice.  I think of food, wine and hospitality, welcome and inclusion.  I think of relationships and listening to the other, the different one, the one we don’t like or understand but share the world with.  This act of Jesus changed people’s lives and drew them together into a loving but diverse community.  That is what I yearn for, especially after Jack’s death and I yearn for it, for his sake.  I don’t want more hatred and violence.  Surely enough is enough??! Haven’t we lost enough innocent people over the years and across the world, sacrificed on the altars of ideology and hatred?

Jack just wanted to live life to the full and he did until someone chose to end his journey prematurely.  Can’t we hope for and work for this for all our children?  Can’t Jack and the other passengers remind us of the precious and vulnerable beauty of life?  Can’t we honour them and their lives by choosing to live more simply and peacefully and seeking the way of peace, justice, love and grace towards all people?

I still ask ‘Why?’ but my why comes back to me, inviting me, challenging me, confronting me with how I live life and respond to other people?  Why do I give into hatred at times?  Why do I lose patience and do violence?  Why don’t I love and seek peace?  Why don’t I seek to understand others and do the hard tasks of listening patiently?

‘Why?’ still stands before me, the answers still far off and confusing but perhaps I am invited more deeply into grace to ponder, explore and live – in the Holy Presence of gracious love.

By geoffstevenson

The Ambiguity of Life…

Have you ever looked at one of those pictures, optical illusions, where there are a couple of possible realities co-existing?

Is this an old woman or a young woman?  Or is it both?  It is ambiguous.

Ambiguity is a word I don’t often use but it seems to be one that describes, well, the age and times in which we live; the context of the life in which we find ourselves.  Things are ambiguous, they are not always as they seem or have different possible meanings from different perspectives.  Life is ambiguous, despite our best efforts to force clarity and certainty upon our experience and world.

Family life is ambiguous as the various generations bring differing world-views and experiences of life to the table.  There is not always agreement and what was ‘right’ in one generation is not necessarily true for the next, or next…  My world, growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s is not even close to the world of my children and they look at me strangely when I say things about what was important to me then.  I don’t necessarily get it when they make assumptions based on the world in which they are negotiating.

The corporate and business world is highly ambiguous as people have to make choices that are hardly black or white but live in the messy middle.  How do employers, especially those of small businesses, balance the need to be profitable and keep the business alive with keeping on staff who need a job when everything runs close to the line?  How does an employee choose between having to do things that they are uncomfortable with in the workplace and needing the job?

A patient may be caught between the alternatives of treatment – radiotherapy vs surgery, for example. There is ambiguity for parents and their children’s education – which school?  More tutoring?  What subjects to encourage them to study?  How do we balance an ideology with the perceived fear or uncertainty about particular schools…?  How does one choose between two different invitations for the same time?

Ambiguity also goes deeper into our own sense of being and the lives we live.  We are ambiguous people.  We live with light and darkness within us.  We choose and do things that are gracious, loving and kind, that make the world a truer and better place.  We also choose and act foolishly, stubbornly and without love or grace.  We are neither one nor the other but both.  We feel the complexity of choices, decisions and the good and bad in our being.  Guilt and shame fill our being even as pride and fulfilment may coexist in that same heart, soul or mind.

The story of Oskar Schindler, portrayed in the book Schindler’s Ark and the film, Schindler’s List.  Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist who was a German spy and member of the Nazi Party.  He exploited his Jewish workforce, using them as cheap labour.  He had many vices and enjoyed the good life of cigars, wine and women – unfaithful to his wife.  He was a Roman Catholic but really in name only. Schindler was no saint.

As the war moved onwards and the horrific nature of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ reached its awful heights, Schindler found another part of himself emerge.  He saved the lives of over one thousand Jewish people who were employed in his plant.  He was arrested twice but the goodness that coexisted with the evil, prevailed towards these people whose lives were in his hands.  They spoke of him as, ‘Our father, our mother, he never let us down!’  He was an unexpected hero who, like each of us lived in ambiguity and between the tensions and choices of life.

This week we read a story Jesus told (Matthew 13:24-30).  It is a story of a farmer whose servants sow the seed carefully in a field but through the night an enemy sows weeds amongst the good seed.  When it is discovered, the servants suggest pulling up the weeds so that they will not grow up amongst the wheat.  The farmer tells them to leave the crops to do their thing and when the harvest is ready they will be able to more easily remove the weeds and leave the wheat.  If they try now, they may well remove both weeds and wheat!

It is tempting to read this story and try to give meaning to that (those?) who are good seed (wheat) and that (those?) which is weed.  We look around ourselves and cast judgement or critique upon those who we feel are the weeds in the garden of our lives, knowing that we must be wheat.  Some, of course, have a poor self-image and can only see themselves as weed to begin with.  Both processes are contrary to the story, however.  Jesus invites his hearers to recognise that life is ambiguous and we are ambiguous.  Perhaps we are the garden in which there is both wheat and weeds?  Perhaps it within the reality of our own lives that the ambiguity is most strongly observed and the power of Jesus’ story is revealed.

If Schindler was judged only by his vices, the particular vices of his early life, then the beauty of his gracious, loving kindness towards his employees would not be seen or recognised.  Perhaps it was through the experience of having weeds and wheat coexisting that Schindler was able to come to the point of being where goodness emerged so strongly?

We are people in whom the deepest beauty and wonder of God coexists with the grubbiness and harshness of life and the vices of humanity.  We are created in God’s image, unique and wonderful but also seek to mould ourselves according to other values of other heroes and voices that have influence in our lives.  We have weed and wheat within our being but how will it grow out?  What will the weed and wheat look like when it comes to maturity?  What choices will we make as we engage with life in its murky uncertainty and paradoxical ambiguity?

Life in the Spirit of God has no guarantees beyond the presence of God in our lives to nourish, nurture and invite us into a way that is true and good.

By geoffstevenson

The Mystery in Our Midst…

The band, a jazz combo arrived at the venue – a large concert hall. They set up instruments. The drum kit was brought in, along with the large double bass. The saxophonist set up saxophones and clarinet whilst the pianist tried out the piano and the vocalist warm her tonsils. They did a sound check and prepared themselves. The time arrived, they walked out on stage and played their hearts out, a performance for all who had come. They let their music float out across those gathered. There were some classical tunes, jazzes up with solos and walking bass. They played some well-known pop tunes made into something more complex and engaging. They played some jazz standards. For 2 hours they played. When they were done the audience applauded loudly and there was a great feel in the room. Most had enjoyed the show.

If the band could have looked and listened into the minds and conversations they might have heard some interesting responses. There were those dragged along by spouses and parents, friends or significant others who really would prefer to be anywhere else. Some of these even had earphones in through the concert. Others enjoyed the show in parts – they recognised some of the classical themes from TV ads and knew the pop tunes. They didn’t get the jazz stuff or appreciate the solos. Others enjoyed the show and talked effusively about it until they got to the cafe and other topics crowded in so they let the experience fade. Still others were moved and wanted to hang onto the experience, they were inspired and wanted to take-up their musical instruments more seriously – they did for some weeks until life overtook them again and the instruments went back into cases in the corner and the concert a fading memory. There were others who were touched deeply and moved by the music. They did take out instruments and play. They also sang the tunes and bought the music and listened time and again to remember and allow the music to flow through their lives. They recognised something deeper in the songs and music and heard something of life and hope and joy and wonder and they were changed in some wonderful way.

Jesus might have said something like: “That’s what the Kingdom (Reign) of God is like.” The people around listening to his story would scratch their heads or look confused. Some would wonder what he was on and others would knowingly nod but then just as quickly forget what he said. Some would think: “That’s it!” and go about life changed by his story.

Of course he didn’t speak about a band but used other stories – a farmer sows seed and he throws it around. Some of this precious seed falls on the path and is trampled. Some falls amongst weeds and grows but then is choked by the weeds. Other seed falls on the ground but the birds eat it. There is also some seed that falls into good soil, takes root and grows into fruit producing plants. That’s God’s Kingdom or Reign for you.

How do we explain this? We don’t! We have to sit with it and let it slowly materialise in our lives, and experience what this strange truth is all about. Jesus didn’t use lectures or even normal sermons. He told stories that had a sense of mystery and uncertainty within them. They were mysterious and pointed to something that couldn’t be easily held or defined but only lived and experienced. This mysterious, wondrous Kingdom or Reign of God is all around us and touches us in wonderful, unexpected ways. It is there for all who will look and see or listen and hear and open themselves to grace and love.

This Kingdom was/is experienced in the places of human life where people embrace other people, where differences and prejudices are set aside and a community of gracious inclusion grows up around us. There are no rich and poor, young or old, acceptable or unacceptable. This Kingdom is a place where all find a community to belong to. It is deep and looks into the heart of people, inviting us to find a deeper sense of wholeness and to know we are loved by the Love at the very heart of the universe. It is a Realm that is all around us and one we catch glimpses of in the wonder and beauty of life. Sometimes we hear it in a song that moves us or a movie that makes us cry. Sometimes it is in the breathtaking beauty of a vista laid out before us or the wonder of the world and its creatures. Sometimes it is in the depth of a relationship where we love and are loved and feel we belong and have a place and significance. It is in the simple actions of people who are kind and gentle towards others. It is there in acts of compassion and grace, or justice and peace. It cries out when a person stands against the crowd for the sake of those who suffer and need special care and support. It is there in the simple smile and acceptance of people when they meet another human and recognise, there, the presence of Christ in one another.

This last week has been NAIDOC Week. It seems odd, strange that we should need a week to remember and recognise the Indigenous Australians and their contributions to our society.  Why is it that we have failed to accept the Aboriginal people and have confined them to lives of enduring struggle where there are more obstacles and suffering, loss and grief in their lives than mainstream Australian society?  Why is it that we have failed to understand their complex and wonderful culture and the society that was/is far more relational than our individualistic and materialistic world? Why is it that we have, as a culture, done everything possible to destroy, or at least squash into the background, Aboriginality?  The Kingdom of God mysteriously appears in this ancient culture and amongst these ancient people and cries out for justice and love.  It opens our eyes to their beauty, wonder, diversity and we see the face of God in the faces of Aboriginal people.  The Kingdom calls us to deeper sense of justice, reconciliation, peace and inclusive community.  What does the Kingdom look like?  Well perhaps it will be Anglo-Australians sitting on the ground listening to stories of wisdom from an ancient culture who knows this land intimately and who can point to the Spirit of God in their history, culture and life – the God who is abundantly, lovingly and generously present in our midst.

The Kingdom of God is all around but we will need to open ourselves to wonder, mystery and a re-enchanted world filled with God’s grace.

By geoffstevenson

The Times Are Changing…

Do you feel sometimes tense for no obvious reason?  Do you often have the feeling something is happening in the wider world but you can’t see it, only feel or sense it?  Do you feel out of control and concerned, even fearful of the dramatic changes that are occurring around you but you cannot stop them?  All of this makes us feel tense, stressed and confused because there is something going on but we cannot see it nor control it and we feel the edginess of change.

I picked up a book recently.  I got it predominantly for one of our groups.  It has taken me sometime to actually get this book that I have heard recommended to me from various people over the last couple of years. The book is called ‘The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why’.  The book is every bit as fascinating as I was promised it would be.  Essentially the author, Phyllis Tickle, surveys the history of the church in broad brushstrokes.  But it is about more than the church.  It is a book that paints the picture of change and transition in society across 2500 years.  Phyllis Tickle has observed (she isn’t the only one) that every 500 years or so, everything changes.  Whilst she is surveying change and transition in Christianity she points out that these changes are in response to and alongside massive changes in the world around, the society in which the church exists.  She names the eras of the Babylonian Exile for the Jewish people around 2500 years ago and how this brought in huge transformation in the form and faith of Jewish people.  Of course Jesus and the ensuing Christian church wrought further transformation to Jewish faith in the 1st century.  The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 6th century, the separation of east and west in the 11th century and then the Reformation and the wider societal transformation in the 16th century are part of this pattern.  We are now in a time of transition or transformation in our society – predominantly the Western World.

We can feel it in our bones and know the intensity that life can bring and the unprecedented change that is happening all around us.  Many of the changes seem inexplicable, even unnecessary but they are relentless.  An older member of the congregation was reflecting with me this week about the changes in politics over the course of his life.  Authority in the various offices of the land has eroded.  We no longer take our national leaders as seriously as previous generations.  The power of parliament seems to be questioned somewhat – there is a change and we can see some signs of it and feel it but can’t put our fingers on it fully.

This question of authority is an essential question in these times of transition.  The place where authority finally rests shifts around until it settles.  Through the Reformation era there was the dying of the serfdom/fiefdom structures with authority moving from local Lords to the distant King.  In the Protestant reformation, authority moved from Pope to Scripture – this was aided by the invention of the printing press.  People suddenly had access to printed material, learned to read and new ideas were promulgated more readily than ever before.  In our time, information is accessible more readily than in history through the internet.  More than that, communication is instantaneous and in our hands 24 hours a day.

Through the Reformation era the basic unit of society, the clan structure, broke down and the nuclear family became this fundamental unit.  In this time, that is changing and we are struggling to work out what it means and why it is so.  It creates tension as we experience these changes and try to hold onto what was.

Many old rules and institutions are being called into question and being ‘thrown up in the air’ to see how it will all fall.  Phyllis Tickle suggests that, apart from the issue of authority (in wider society and the church), there are three other essential elements where change impacts us:  morality, corporeality (the symbols, structures, rules… for corporate existence) and spirituality.  These three elements are all under review.  The bright lights of transformation have them in their glare and society is wrestling with how they will change and where they will move to.  This means that the world around is shifting its foundations and we are feeling the tremors in our very bones.  Those of us who belong to various institutions, including the church, are feeling additional pressure and stress as these foundations shake all the more.

There are two predominant responses, apart from those who simply freeze in place doing nothing but pretending all is well.  The first is from those who are riding the waves of change because they know nothing different.  The younger generations were born into this and do not know anything different except in the ‘ancient’ stories of their parents.  The second response is to resist and the level of resistance grows more intense as the changes become more profound.  In the church we stand firmly in place, determined not to let the world dictate our faith or values.  That is normal and also an important counter-balance to the changes in the air.  Inevitably, though, change will manifest itself despite our efforts of resistance, every bit as much as Jesus transformed 1st century Jewish and ultimately Roman, life.

There is much more to be said of this fascinating and stressful process but that is for another time (unless you read the book now??!).  The question, for me, is how do we survive this intense and stressful age?  How do we negotiate life when the firm markers of yesteryear are shifting and uncertain?  I want to leave you with the words of Jesus to us in this week’s Gospel:  ‘Come to me all you who are and weary and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

Jesus’ words are about finding a ‘place’ in which lies our peace and security – in the way of God.  Despite the shifting ground beneath our feet, the way of God gives direction, hope and life.  God is a ‘place’ in which to find our rest and our peace in this changing world.  More than that, we learn how to negotiate our way through the changes and to work with them for the sake of God’ Reign of love and grace in the world.  Find your rest in God, alone, not the ‘certainties’ of belief systems or culture of yesteryear.

By geoffstevenson