Holy Mystery Touches Us Gently

I watched as a pigeon in the garden pecked at the seeded end of a piece of grass.  It then seemed to suck the raindrops from other parts of the grass.  I watched as the muscles in the pigeon’s body raised and lowered the whole head and neck as it pecked.  Later it sat on the fence and pulled its head down and in, fluffing its feathers against the cold.  In the foreground were beautiful and delicate orchids my father gave us – they have just burst forth in flower.  Tiny, delicate flowers with complex patterns displayed on each beautiful flower.  In the background a tree, plants and flowers of various colours, bright in the overcast sky.

I wondered in this space at the beauty, the peacefulness, and the mystery of it all. There was curiosity about these living things and how they came to be, in their radiant diversity, and how they happened to be here, now.  I thought of the current rise of those who want to resist, deny and explain all the mystery and take wonder and enchantment out of life.  They appeal to the sciences and claim that all is explicable, rational and logical – nothing seems sacred or holy in this view of the world.  Humans are omnipotent and capable of all understanding, all-knowing.  Whilst I appreciate science (after all it is my former career) I also appreciate, more and more, the wonder and mystery of life.  There is more to what I see than the rational explanations can provide.

It is in the midst of these ordinary exquisite realities of the world that I also encounter the source of all wonder and mystery in the world, the One we call God. It is in these small moments of wonder that I am filled with the enchantment of living and life in its beauty and mystery – the sun and rain, the night and day, the seasons that come and go and everything that fills the world with joyful diversity.

I realise that I don’t always pause before this beauty nor look through and beyond it to the Mystery at the heart of the universe, the Loving Presence, named God.  Prayer is too often full of words and too little filled with silent listening – listening through eyes, ears, touch, smell, taste and to the inner being of intuitive wonder and curiosity.  The canvas of the world holds a living art installation always new and changing before me.  The tapestry of life is filled with experience and encounter that is rich, deep and meaningful – if I pause long enough to drink in its complex diversity and hold the moments in my being.

I wonder to myself: If all of us stopped and stood in wonder before the world, its diverse beauty and chaos, and beheld the images of people’s faces in all their intense, loving, sad, hopeful being, would we still worship violence and give in to exploitation, destruction and the negative emotions that guide so much of life?  Would we not see the possibilities of living joyfully before the world with humility and delight, sharing friendship and love with each other?  Would we encounter God in a deeper sense and align our paths with the way of Love, justice and peace?

There are other moments in life that lift us to a higher, deeper, richer more intense place that changes something in our essential being.  There are strange moments that are intensely sacred and holy.  We want to remove our shoes, hush our speaking (or use whispers) and bow low before the Mystery that presents itself so acutely and wonderfully before us.  We may not see anything but only sense and feel it.  We may not hear anything except a soft inner voice that compels us towards something.  It is a moment of intense emotion and wonder that fills our being and there is a message from beyond everything we know that speaks into our simple being with wisdom and knowing calling us forth into life.

I have had these intense moments in different times and places.  Sometimes in the silence of pondering, reflection or meditation when all at once senses are alight with a knowing beyond sensory awareness.  Sometimes there is a moment in a movie that touches me deeply in a profound way – a sacred moment!  Sometimes it is in the presence of life and death as we share stories in a funeral, stories of life and love before the body of one we will no longer behold physically in our presence.  There are special places and times, ‘thin places’ as the Celts called them, where the Sacred Mystery stands before us radiant and intense and fills our being with the most potent reality.  In that moment ‘we know’!  We know that there is One beyond us and in us and through us who is Mysterious Love, the creative Presence. This One holds all things in delicate gentleness and tender wonder, delighting in the world that is filled with beauty.  This One calls us forth from the chaos or confusion, the sadness or ordinariness of lives lived into an experience of wonder and life!  This One calls us into places of risk and edginess where our senses blaze and we feel alive and filled with purpose – we have something worth living/dying for!  We are called into courageous response to go into places we never imagined, even feared, to step out of our comfort zones with a new strength and hope.

This week we read an archetypal story of this calling and reality – the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15).  It is through the ordinary that the extraordinary appears.  There is a distortion of reality that becomes the lens through which Moses recognises that he is in the presence of Holy Presence.  The story is told in a metaphorical, archetypal manner such that we understand how to read our own stories and lives when in the presence of such intense wonder.  It is a holy story where we learn to read, for ourselves, the meaning in our own experiences of mystery and the enchanted intensity of Presence.

Moses heard a call to go and be the physical presence of this Presence before his world.  It was scary notion that filled him with fear and pushed him beyond his comfort zone.  It was also an extension of his being, his experiences, learning and giftedness in life.  He had been prepared for this over many years and it was time to take courage, trust God and fulfil his calling.  That is how it is with us.  We are invited into the place where our own learning, experience and giftedness can find fulfilment and expression in the profoundness of God’s creative expression in human life!  God’s promise was that he would not be named or defined but would be a constant Presence in the experience and life of Moses!  So with us!

By geoffstevenson

Finding Our Humanity in Pain

I read this story today. It speaks of another reality within the hot news stories of the Palestine-Israel conflict: The families of murdered Israeli teen Naftali Fraenkel and murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir are drawing comfort from an unexpected source: each other. Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat took to Facebook on Sunday to write about an “emotional and special telephone conversation between two families that have lost their sons.” He said that during his visit to the Fraenkel family home, he had a chance to speak to Hussein Abu Khdeir, Mohammed’s father, and express pain at the “barbaric” murder of his son.
Barkat then suggested that Abu Khdeir speak to Yishai Fraenkel, the uncle of Naftali Fraenkel who recently told the press that “the life of an Arab is equally precious to that of a Jew. Blood is blood, and murder is murder, whether that murder is Jewish or Arab.” The two men took Barkat’s advice and comforted one another by telephone.
In a separate visit organized by Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, chair of the religious council of Gush Etzion, Palestinians from the Hebron area showed up at the door of the Fraenkel family, looking to comfort the bereaved. Asked why they had come, one Palestinian said, “Things will only get better when we learn to cope with each other’s pain and stop getting angry at each other. Our task is to give strength to the family and also to take a step toward my nation’s liberation. We believe that the way to our liberation is through the hearts of Jews.”
He later said that the visit went very well from his perspective. “They received us very, very nicely. The mother [Rachel Fraenkel] was incredible.”
“I see before me a Jewish family who has lost a son opening the door to me,” he added. “That’s not obvious. It touched my heart and my nation.”
This is the story of people whose hearts are breaking beneath the weight of their own grief and the pain of those around them as they live in the midst of fatal and horrific conflict. We look on from afar and hear the ‘missiles of rhetorical anger and blame’ hurled back and forth. We hear the arguments and recognise that there is truth and blame on both sides. We recognise the enormity of the suffering of these peoples and have sympathy for both sides. We also look on horrified by the violent and horrific acts of violent hatred and retaliation displayed before the world.
We have the erroneous sense that there is no connection and no signs of hope within the conflict. Here is a beautiful story that emerges amongst many others where humanity and compassion prevail; where people recognise the shared humanity between them and the shared experience of grief. All people bleed and hurt. All people feel pain. All people seek hope and life and freedom but for some reason we too often condemn those who look or seem different to us. We see not the common humanity but the difference and, fuelled by anger, fear, jealousy… there is violence and evil perpetrated in the name of ‘freedom’ and, worse still, ‘justice’. Revenge and retaliation all too often become confused with justice.
This story reminds us that when we cut back the political issues, the ancient hatreds and divisions, the cultural agenda and other barriers, when deep pain drives us deeply down into the place of our humanity, we may see the other as brother or sister. When we look at a fellow sufferer of evil and pain, we connect at a deeper level and the more superficial differences seem not to matter. The building of deep relationships between people, providing the opportunity to recognise a human face amongst the differences in colour, creed, ethnicity, culture, language and ideology is vital for our world today.
This week we read an ancient story from the Jewish people, from the ancient book of Genesis (37:1-4, 12-28). It is a familiar story about family conflict arising through jealousy. The brothers of Joseph grow to hate him and his sense of superiority. They hate that he seems the favourite of their father and when they have an opportunity they want to kill him but are dissuaded and instead sell him into slavery. The rest of the story reveals the redemption of this act of evil as Joseph is conformed in mind and spirit to the way of God and becomes an important instrument in the salvation of his family and people.
I was struck, though, by this act of evil that was borne of jealousy and festered into familial hatred, such that these brothers wanted to kill him. I was struck at how simple this story is and how basic in its reality. The news is filled with stories where violence is perpetrated within families and homes. So much hatred, jealousy, greed, anger… and it festers, grows and erupts into fatal, evil violence. In the history of world conflicts the origins of conflict lie in some such fundamental place. Gestures of violence grow and mutate into forceful violence, hatred and become traditions of violence with a life of their own. Relationships are destroyed and humanity denied. We are prevented from seeing the human face in the other and they become a symbol of evil – the enemy.
In this story, it is the intervention of one brother, Reuben that prevents the murder and keeps Joseph alive. His simple action opens up the possibility of life for Joseph and changes the story’s inevitable outcome. I wonder how we might be placed within various contexts to offer a word, an intervention, a possibility that provides an alternative outcome?
In the Gospel story (Matthew 14:22-33), the disciples are on a boat crossing to the other side of the lake. The significance here is that the ‘other side’ is gentile or pagan territory – the dark places of the ‘other’. Jesus was praying in a quiet place as they travelled through growing turbulent weather and waves. In the early morning Jesus walked towards them on the waves and told them not to be afraid. Peter, filled with enthusiasm and possibility, got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus until he realised where he was, lost his nerve and began to sink. Jesus reached out and drew him out of the water, stilling the seas and setting them on their course.
It’s a wonderful story filled with images, metaphors and possibility for us as we live amidst chaos, turmoil and the evil of violence. When we find ourselves sinking beneath the enormity, the pain… perhaps we may reach out to the vision of Christ in our midst and trust in God’s peace, comfort, courage, grace and love.

By geoffstevenson

Sustenance to Continue!

As I write this I am preparing for a private service to remember and celebrate the life of Jack O’Brien who was killed on board flight MH17.  I am also working out a public service where many more can gather to remember Jack and the other 297 passengers drawn together in this act of horrific evil.  These services are hard.  They are services that require much careful thought and wisdom.  There are, as I suggested last week, so many questions and emotions that run riot within each of us as we contemplate this new reality in our lives.  More than that there is the deep, deep grief of those who sit at the heart of the tragedy and feel to darkness of loss and brokenness of despair that reverberates through their being.  Around this inner circle of family and friends lies a concentric circle of crowds who fan out according to their connections and the immediacy of their own painful emotions.  The ripples are broad and ongoing.

In the midst of this critical event there is the deep need for sustenance of body, mind and spirit.  We are people who wear down as the intensity of this situation crowds in and around us.  The level of intensity for those at the heart of the ongoing decisions and news that complicate the grieving process is enormous and, at times, unbearable.  In an age where atheism and the rejection of spiritual realities is argued ad nauseum situations such as the MH 17 tragedy, with its evil causation, cry out for meaning and hope that is beyond science or psychology.  Prayer becomes an automatic response of even the non-religious as we reach out beyond ourselves for something, someone, who can provide something true and rich and hopeful in the chaos of confusion, anger and hopeless evil and horror.  We are moved beyond the ordinary language and boundaries of faith to reach out for deeper truth in a richer mystery of grace.  We approach God in a new and raw manner as one in whom we find life and meaning, hope and courage – an ever-present reality, mysterious and holding us in grace and love.  God is not ‘out there’ somewhere, awaiting our refined prayers or desperate cries for help.  God is within, around, through and between us, connecting us into the possibilities of new life and hope – even within the midst of dark evil and its terrible consequences.  Even when we feel that evil has dominated our world and covers us in its cold, dark tendrils, there is the reach of love that penetrates our reality and infuses us with a renewed hope.

This is exactly what we need in this and the myriad experiences where chaos, confusion and evil threaten to take us down into the dark places where life seems vulnerable and hopeless.  We need to be fed with that which imbues hope and vitality, life and peace, love and courage, grace and justice.  We need to be fed from the heart of compassion and held in the embrace of love that allows our pain, sadness and anger to drawn up into the Divine Heart where it can be heard, felt and dealt with in the mystery, wonder and power of this Love. We need to be fed and nurtured, and enabled to breathe again until we can stand strong against the evil that threatens life and hope.

Today I read the gospel reading for Sunday.  It is Matthew 14:13-21 and is about the feeding of a large group of people with bread and fish.  It is a wonderful little story of food that expands to feed a large crowd.  In this version there is a story that precedes and informs it.  The story is of the untimely, horrific death of John the Baptist, a contemporary of Jesus and known to him.  John is killed by the King whose wife is jealous and wants this prophetic person dead in revenge for his words against her.

In the hearing of this news Jesus retreated into a lonely place to pray and think and grieve.  Sound familiar?  Jesus’ life is under threat as well but it is the grief and pain that fills his heart.  It fills the hearts, minds and being of people who discover where Jesus has retreated to and follow.  Together they sit and talk and he feeds them in their spirit.  Grieving takes much energy and fighting the fear of evil depletes us in our being.  Jesus saw and felt their deep need and his compassion overflowed into ministry towards them – healing their illness, their pain, their lost-ness.  They found themselves embraced into grace and life in this community of God’s people and their lonely pain shared with others who could hold it and dilute its power over them.  John’s death would not destroy them but fill them with a new courage and hope to stand against the evil and hatred in the world, their world.

As the day wore on, Jesus recognised that their hunger was in their body as well as their mind and spirit.  He took all the food available, a small amount, and prayed over it.  He broke it and shared it and it fed the crowd until they were full and there was food over.  It is a beautiful story that speaks of the mystery, wonder and life generously provided in God!  We often get caught up in trying to explain or defend such stories and miss the beauty of food freely and abundantly offered in grace.  There is enough!!  There is always enough for our being to find rest and life, even in the deepest darkness.  A light shines through the anguish, a morsel breaks our hungry longing, a sip of water quenches our dryness.  This food is about being in community together where there is always enough when we share – food, love, grace, compassion, peace…  These people were bound in love, held together in common grief and desperate hope.  They were drawn into the place where they could find together, the resources of God that would renew, sustain, strengthen and embolden them to live with courage and hope against the forces of injustice or evil that sought to threaten and overwhelm them.

In our own times of despair and longing, sadness and pain, we also need this vital sustenance of generous, gracious love alive in God.

By geoffstevenson