The Promised Land Stands Before Us!

“Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there…” 

King takes us on a journey through time and momentous eras of history but stops in the 20th century right where he is.  He spoke of the deep struggle of his people and he spoke with hope – they would not be defeated!  This memorable speech ends famously with these words – not long before King, himself is assassinated:

“I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

This wonderful speech draws on several Biblical images, including Moses’ final speech where he stands upon My Nebo before the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:1-12).  He stands, finally before the land that his people will lay claim to, having been promised long ago that they would settle there.  Moses knows he will not lead them there.  He has seen the Promised Land but Joshua will lead the people into the land and a new future.

King would not lead the people to the ‘Promised Land’ he saw in his vision.  He led them to the mountain but others led the people down and across.  This is a hard story for most of us who have felt the pain and sadness of endings or the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams.  It can be difficult for people to do the spadework and open the possibilities for the future but not experience the final victory and celebration.  Throughout history many people have done the hack work, the hard, persistent work for justice, peace, hope and liberty.  They have fought fights for the rights of people.  They have strived to lead people into a better place – the ‘Promised Land’.  They have laid the foundations in blood, sweat and tears but have not been there to see the fulfilment.

For all of us there are the endings that hurt us deeply, the endings of life, of relationships, of that which we have held dear.  These endings cause deep grief and sadness and we look backwards to what has been.  We remember that which was, and even that for which we hoped.  We think back over the fun and joy, the hard work and community efforts and the hard times.  We look back but in our story and that of Martin Luther King the significant point is the visionary looking forward.  Moses saw the reality of the Promised Land, that for which he had longed for 40 years in the wilderness.  King beheld the vision from the mountaintop of faith and ‘saw’ the ‘Promised Land’ for his people.

Both of these visions propelled the grieving communities forward into a future that God had promised, a future of life that they would embrace.  It was a future of liberty from the grip of struggle.  It was a future of joy amidst painful realities.  It was a future in a new place.  This vision held Moses, held King, has held so many others through the endings they would experience.  They had to let go and, at some point, hand leadership responsibilities over to others who would take up the challenge and the next phase.

We don’t always see this happening.  We often see people cling to power and pursue the way of personal glory until everything falls down around them.  Surely we have seen this in the political sphere when leaders hold on too long until they are defeated.  We see it in the sporting arena, the business sphere and in the church.  Leaders, lay and ordained, hold on to power and positional authority too long and the result is inevitable.

No-one is irreplaceable and no-one can go on forever.  Leaders come and go and hopefully contribute deeply to the well-being of the community along the way but the community and the common good are always bigger and more significant than the individual leader.  The process of leadership demands that we develop others to step into our roles and let them lead.  There is a time when we need to let go of leaders and significant people in our lives in order to embrace another future, a new world.  Sometimes we can’t (or don’t want to) imagine a new and different future and we want to cling to the past.  The past was no doubt good and worth celebrating but it must remain the past, inform the future, not be forgotten, but allowed to remain in the past.  The present and the future demand we have the courage to let go and claim a new reality in the light of our past memories and experiences.  Often we cannot envisage a new future, certainly not a positive, new future, when we feel the weight of grief and loss or the fear of letting go.

This story invites us to climb the mountain of God and look, to allow God to open our eyes and let us see.  We can cast our sight back over the vistas of beautiful memory, the journey of our living.  We can look forward from the moment into a new future that God will unveil before us.  With faith and grace we can find the strength to take the first tentative steps towards the Promised Land.

By geoffstevenson

God’s or Caesar’s?

I learned, this week, about Mirror Neurons.  The discovery came about in the 1990’s when Macaque Monkeys had their brains wired so they could be observed.  They brain rhythms were recorded as the monkeys performed various functions, such as reaching for food and eating.

After a period of studying the monkeys the researchers took a break.  The monkeys remained wired and ready for the next phase of testing.  One of the researchers was in sight of a monkey who watched as he reached for his food and ate it.  The technician capturing the computer recording of the monkey brain patterns recognised the same pattern in the monkey watching the researcher as when the monkey had performed the same actions itself.  How could this be?  How could the monkey’s brain record the same patterns whilst passively watching the researcher’s actions, as when actually performing those functions itself.

This observation led to a different understanding of how our brains function.  These neurons actually mirror the activity and response we observe – we don’t just look, see and analyse what others do and feel, we experience it.  When we observe someone stub their toe, we often cringe and sense the pain because our mirror neurons fire up.  When we observe someone eat food and recoil at the taste, we can feel the same thing – even I in our stomach.  We feel the response we observe – it is mirrored within us.

Mirror neurons seem to have a function in socialisation and empathy, learning language and so on. In learning of these I thought about how we are all formed in the image of God, that we all have this image that seeks to find expression within and through us.

This image of God grows from within us and forms us in the essential reality of who we are and can be.  Of course we can choose to live at odds with our essential being and deny the reality of who we are.  I often think of this when I baptise young children.  They have no idea what we are doing and know nothing of the reality of God or God’s presence in their lives.  This does not change the essential reality of God’s presence in them and the image of God into which they were formed and have their life.  After dropping water onto their heads and naming them as God’s beloved children I say: ‘Always remember who you are and to whom you belong.’  This blessing and invitation to remember who they are is essentially a naming of the child as one who lives and has their being in God, in whose image they are formed and made and live and grow.

We are people created and living in the image of the Divine.  This is the image of love, of justice, of peace, of grace, of generosity, of creativity…  This applies to all people, which is often a bit of a shock for people of various religions who seek an exclusivism of God’s favour and love.  We are all created in the image of the Divine and invited to live into it – whether we choose to or not.

Where is all this leading?  This week’s reading from Matthew 22:15-22 is a familiar one.  It is the story of religious leaders trying to trap Jesus in the Temple forecourts.  They ask him to whom they should pay taxes – Caesar or God?  It is a simple trap.  If he says Caesar, the people will turn on him because he has denied the reality of their Scriptures, which claim everything as God’s.  If he answers ‘God’ they will turn on him as a traitor to the Roman Empire, their overlords and Imperial Rulers.  Either way he is in trouble.

Jesus, reflecting the deep creativity and wisdom of God, replies by asking if they have one of the coins of the realm – he obviously doesn’t!  They hand over one of the Roman coins used throughout the Empire.  ‘Whose inscription, whose name, is on the coin?’ he asks.  They replied that it is Caesar’s.  He then tells them to ‘give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.’  They walk away marvelling at his cleverness and not sure what to do next.

This simple passage has been used variously to sustain separation between church and state, religion and politics. It is suggested that things like taxes have nothing to do with God or faith. Some suggest that, according to this passage faith is purely a matter of the heart and Jesus cares not for mundane things like what we do with our money.  Some believe this passage teaches that the law is the law and we are to support the government of the day regardless of anything else.  In Nazi Germany it was a passage used to affirm Hitler’s authority as the State leader and his murderous regime.  In the Civil Rights Movement it was used to condemn those who supported Martin Luther King and withheld taxation as a protest against unjust policies.  The passage does no such thing!  Quite the opposite! In the Jewish homelands of the 1st century, Caesar and his regime were largely unwanted rulers.  They took the lands by force and demanded support in every way, including high taxation.  Of course there was some benefit to many people but there was predominantly struggle as the majority were poor peasants and felt the unjust weight of Roman Imperialism.  Caesar ‘owned’ Israel and demanded to be worshipped and revered.

The people understood that everything belonged to God and came from God and was given to the world, not the wealthy, powerful few.  God provided land and crops, rain and sun.  There was an inclusive community in which there were structures that included temporal government or leadership to which people contributed out of their blessings.  When crops were harvested and flocks reproduced, they provided gifts to the Temple, to God as acts of worship.  The priests had food to eat and shared the offerings with the poor.  Wealth was distributed justly because everything came from God and belonged to God – humans were entrusted with the care and just distribution of everything.

To give to Caesar that which was Caesar’s was as confronting a question then as now.  If everything is God’s what belongs to Caesar, who takes things by power?  This does not mean dividing the world up between God and Caesar because everything is God’s and all are created in the image of God.  Caesar’s coin bears his image but each person is in the image of God.

Perhaps there is an invitation for all of us, including Caesar, to give ourselves to God and live into the image in which we are created??!

By geoffstevenson

When Joy Replaces Violence…

When I was younger there were two television shows that I loved to watch – Superman and Batman and Robyn.  The first, as I remember, attempted a more ‘serious’ drama whilst the second was clearly a spoof.  When Batman and Robyn got into a fight (every episode) there were words appearing on the screen such as ‘Kapow’, ‘Bam’, ‘Boof’ and so on as punches were thrown and connected.  Both programs had a similar format that was endlessly repeated.  A baddie, or several, attempted some serious crime that threatened the well-being of their respective city.  When ordinary mortals were overcome and could not save themselves, they cried out to the mysterious, unknown superhero who lived somewhere in their midst.  Clarke Kent entered a phone booth and removed his flimsy disguise, emerging as Superman (what actually happened to his clothes?).  He went on to confront the baddies who would gain some upper hand before Superman broke through and saved the day.  Batman and Robyn did similarly in Gotham City, liberating this most unfortunate city from all manner of dangerous criminals that threatened the city and all in it.

The common denominator to these stories and the many like them was of the need to confront and violently overthrow the bad guys and girls.  The only way to salvation was through counter-violence and only these superheroes were powerful enough.  Despite their power and their liberating influence, the pattern repeated endlessly.  No matter how many times they conquered and vanquished the foe, there would be another to take their place or the criminal would ultimately return to inflict more chaos.

This week I thought of these shows, along with Get Smart, Roadrunner and Coyote and various others.  I have remembered them several times as I’ve listened to the news.  Australia, with great pride and even joy in some commentators eyes, has entered the latest war on something or other.  We have sent our 6 planes to join in efforts to drop bombs on some part of Iraq to destroy yet another enemy who has all the hallmarks of evil.  There is no denying, of course, that the Islamic State, whoever they actually are, are bad news and doing bad things.  What I fail to understand is where all this bomb-dropping is getting us?  We were promised a dozen or so years ago that a quick swoop on Iraq would destroy Suddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction quickly and bring law, order and peace to the Middle East.  The war dragged on and on.  There was no quick fix (nor weapons of mass destruction).  Chaos reigned and more baddies emerged from the vacuum we created.  Osama bin Laden was killed and everyone cheered but al Qaeda seems to have kept going and other worse groups emerged and we are going in with our friend, the superpower.  It feels a little like a modern day script for Superman or Batman.  There is an endless array of potential battles to make this war go on longer than a series of MASH.

I confess that I grimace and groan when I hear the bipartisan rubbing of hands and frothing at the mouth over Australia’s contribution.  On the lunchtime news there was relief that we have dropped our first bombs!  Let me confess – I am fed up!  It isn’t working but we won’t see that.  More war leads to more war and more innocent people (military and civilian) sacrificed on the altar of redemptive violence – the belief that violence can overcome violence and deliver peace.

As too many parts of the world have proven over the last couple of centuries, non-violent resistance, conflict management and transformation, listening and understanding have gone a lot further in restoring peace and bringing transformed society than blowing one another up.  There may be times when we need to stand up and defend ourselves but I’m talking about situations where we blatantly choose violence as our primary (only?) response.  Surely we saw the results of this in the school playground where ‘I hit you – you hit me; I hit you harder – you hit me harder’ and so on.  It escalates and breeds deeper conflict and hatred – and often more violence.

I thought of all of this also when I read this week’s New Testament reading from Philippians 4:1-13.  It speaks with great enthusiasm about joy and being joyful.  This is not about ‘happiness’ or being bright on the outside, it is about that deep contented joy that a few experience and many don’t know.  Joy is a state of being that transcends the immediate experience of life or the inevitable crises that come our way.  The author of this letter points to God’s love and grace, as our deepest source of joy.  Our source of joy is in knowing that we are loved and known in God, that we are acceptable and loved in the One who created us and won’t let us go.  Nothing can remove God’s love and grace from us or our lives!

Further on in passage the author says: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

I wonder how things might be if we and our world leaders tried some of this simple advice.  What is true? What is just? What is pure?  What is pleasing or commendable?  I wonder how much of our international conflict is built around injustice and the feeling that things aren’t fair?  People are squashed into poverty and desperation until they explode in violence and chaos ensues.  The vacuum that results gives rise to all manner evil individuals to fill the space and draw people into their horrid ways.

What if we stood back and took stock?  Are we really happy with what we’re on about?  Are we joyful?  If so, how can we share that joy, spread it to others and grow joyful people, satisfied with life and having enough?  If we aren’t joyful, why not?  What do we need to change in our lives, our national life?  Where does justice fit into our equations because this  funny word is usually misrepresented in the public forum as a synonym for revenge and punishment rather than an equal and fair share for all?  Where does trust and faith in God who is justice, righteousness and love fit into our conversation?  Be joyful, loving and just!

By geoffstevenson