Unexpected Manifestations of Wonder and Delight

On our recent stay in Nelson Bay I remembered an earlier trip to the region a couple of years ago   We passed a sign just before the town.  It was a simple sign that I had passed many times on trips up this way but I’d never really taken any notice of it.  The sign said ‘Lookout’.  It was off the main road amongst ordinary houses and I never took it too seriously until one day I became a little curious, had time to waste and wondered what was there.  I took the decision and turned off.  To my surprise it quickly began a steep incline, a very steep incline as it zigged back and forth up a high hill.  As we drove my curiosity increased and we could see further over Nelson Bay and surrounds.  Finally we emerged out of the trees into an open space where there was a car park.  The day was hot and sunny but also a bit windy and threatened to blow my cap away.  As I got out of the car I could already see that this provided a spectacular view for 360 degrees.  It was marvellous!  We looked out over Port Stephens and were able to identify the many bays and towns that dotted the waterway.  Suddenly things became clearer; everything fitted together.  There was, in this experience, a revelation or two.  The first was that this wonderful lookout emerged out of an ordinary turnoff with a simple sign that seemed rather innocuous.  The second was to be able to see how the geography of the region fitted together and to wonder at the natural beauty of the area.

Inspired by this pioneering discovery we ventured eastwards to explore Shoal Bay and found some walk ways around the point.  There were signs that explained some of the tracks and one pointed to a lookout on top of the headland.  I decided to try it out.  It was quite high and the well-constructed pathway led me upwards in a steep ascent.  It wasn’t a long track but it took some energy and was a good walk.  The foliage covered the path and was quite beautiful.  There were bird sounds and the scurrying of lizards and other animals in the undergrowth to the sides of the path.  As I ascended, there were glimpses through the trees of wonderful views of golden beaches but nothing prepared me for the spectacular vista that presented itself on top of the headland!  The 360 degree views even surpassed the spectacular lookout on the way into Nelson Bay.  The waters of the bays were clear and aqua blue, inviting and beautiful.  The national park surrounding the small townships was vast and brilliant greens dotted with colour from bushes and flowers.  There were hills and valleys leading down to golden beaches with either the flatter water inside Port Stephens or rhythmic waves with their white heads along the coast.  I marvelled at the view to which I have returned again and again when visiting the region.

These experiences were both revelations, unexpected manifestations of wonder and delight, of something magnificent beyond my awareness and understanding.  Both of these similar experiences could not be contained or captured but must be experienced and lived, allowed to become part of whom I am.  They revealed a bigger world of wonder and mystery beyond that which was immediately present and before me in daily life.

I thought of these experiences when I was reminded that this season of the church’s calendar is called ‘Epiphany’.  It means revelation or manifestation and is particular in inviting us to consider how we encounter and experience God, the Divine, the Sacred, in our midst.  How and where do we encounter that which is Sacred and Holy Mystery in our lives?  More than that, how do we make time and space to be aware of and open to such Mystery in the world around us?   Are we able to conceive the presence and ‘fingerprints’ of the Divine in the living canvass or tapestry of life and the world?

In the Gospel reading for Sunday (Mark 1:14-20) we encounter the beginning of Jesus’ work and his first words – ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ This little verse contains the essence of Jesus’ life and teaching – to proclaim God’s Reign on earth.  This Reign (often called Kingdom) is held up over and against the most powerful kingdom their world had ever known – Rome.  In fact, Jesus’ ministry and teaching was ultimately treasonous towards Rome and the Emperor.  His words here are an invitation to turn our lives around and discover the Mystery and Wonder at the heart of the universe, to allow the flow of Divine Love to embrace us and imbue our lives with meaning, purpose and grace.  This is the Good News of which he speaks!  When all other voices and words demand something of us or lead into submission, even oppressive life, Jesus invites us into liberated living where we find ourselves more fully alive, driven by love.  Our lives are infused with the raw power of Love that lies at the heart of all being.

For those who heard/hear these words and grasp something of their promise, there is revelation, manifestation and epiphany!  I can’t imagine how the poor multitudes of the dominant peasant class in Jesus’ time heard these remarkable words.  Jesus promised these people a Kingdom of inclusive life, of hope, joy and peace.  In contrast to the world of Rome where their lives were weighed down by heavy taxation, endless work to barely scrape enough for their family and oppressive rules and structures that sucked life from them, Jesus’ promises were delightfully refreshing and liberating.  Jesus also revealed that God loved these and all people!  This wasn’t always the message people received from the religious authorities then – or today!  In everything Jesus did and said there was the implicit and explicit message that God loved and loves!

In the rest of this little passage (beyond these verses) there are the simple accounts of disciples being invited into this life and way, to learn and follow, to believe and live in the way of Jesus.  He invites fishermen to leave what they’re doing and to follow, to join this revolution of love and life.  They hear, they see and they are moved – there is a real epiphany and a courageous response to follow Jesus and live in a new way.  They want to embrace this marvellous Kingdom.  As I was filled with wonder and delight at perceiving the Fingerprints of Love in the beautiful vistas around Port Stephens, these disciples (then and now!) perceive God in their midst and such revelations change people and transform lives in profound ways.  This is hope for our world.  Amidst the shocking violence, terrorism and hatred, along with abuses of power, greed and oppression, the Kingdom and Reign of God quietly emerges as the powerful, hopeful alternative of Love.  The disciples encountered, believed and followed.  What about you?

(I also wonder what this might say to us as our nation ‘celebrates’ Australia Day?  What might we hope for?  What do we grieve and find disappointing in our nation’s life?  What do we believe needs changing in our national conversation?)

Geoff Stevenson

By geoffstevenson

We Are Known and Loved In God!

One day a New York Times journalist visited the well-known author, speaker and practitioner of Christian Spirituality, Henri Nouwen.  At the point he was at Yale Divinity School, where he lived and worked.  Nouwen was a Catholic Priest whose writings and teaching touched millions of people across the world.  Fred Batman was a young journalist given the task of doing  small interview for the Sunday edition.  They met ad spoke for an hour or so and their interview didn’t reach any great heights.  Nouwen was frustrated because Fred seemed to have something deeper within him but he appeared dis-interested and keen to be away.  As he packed his things to leave, Nouwen asked Fred, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘What do you mean?’  ‘Why are you going through the motions, dis-interested and seemingly bored?’

Fred stopped packing and looked at Henri.  He said, ‘I love writing.  I want to write but I have to work to pay bills and what I have is this job.  They send me to talk to you and give me 750 words to say something meaningful about you and your ideas!  It is impossible!’  ‘What do you really want to do?’ asked Nouwen.  ‘I want to write a novel but I don’t have time and I don’t really know if I have the talent.’  Henri became animated and told Fred that if he didn’t believe in himself, if he didn’t follow his passions then how would he ever know – and what would happen to his dreams.  He pushed and pushed until Fred agreed to give up his job and come to live at the seminary where Henri would provide a residence and funding for a year as part of his research.  All Fred had to do was to try and write his novel – fulfil his dream.

It didn’t happen – the novel, I mean.  They shared a year at Yale in which they became deep friends and engaged each other deeply through that friendship but Fred never completed his novel and went back to journalism, a deeper person ready for its challenges and with a significant friend in Henri.  Over the next years their friendship continued across distance and time and through the joys and pain of life.  Fred married, divorced and re-married with a child.  Henri left academia, spent time in Latin America and became the chaplain to L’arche Daybreak, a community for disabled people and their carers in Toronto.  After a time, Fred, who had read Henri’s writings and discussed much of it with him asked Henri to write something for he and his friends, some secular Jews, who lived in urban New York city.  How could the things Henri spoke of, the spiritual life and all of its deep and wondrous meaning, be made relevant to people who didn’t live in religious communities but in the daily grind of secular life of the big city?

After so back and forth provoking, Henri agreed and spent the better part of a year meeting with Fred and his friends, thinking, praying and reflecting and then writing a short book in the form of a long letter to these people.  As the work evolved in his mind and heart a word emerged I his consciousness – ‘beloved’.  Henri felt deeply that this word is one that needs to be heard in the hearts and minds of people living in the midst of daily life – ‘You are the Beloved!’  This became the central focus of his letter to Fred.  The word is first recognised in the early parts of the Gospels stories when Jesus is baptised.  Coming out of the water, Jesus experiences the presence of the Spirit of God upon him and hears the words:  ‘You are my Beloved…’  As Henri explored this word and its deeper meaning he recognised its resonance throughout the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.  God created the world and it was good – there is a deep and powerful sense of the Divine love at the heart of the creation stories, of God ‘loving’ creation into being.  Through the Psalms and other literature of the Jewish Bible, there is this same impetus of Love directed towards humans.  Divine Love embraces us, holds us and sustains us.  Psalm 139, for instance recites how we are intimately known in our inner-most being from before our emergence into the world of time and space.  It speaks of the Divine Mystery at the centre of all being knowing us intimately and forming us in our mother’s womb.  Nouwen proclaims that we are each known and loved from before time and into eternity by the Love at the centre of everything – God.

In the book, ‘Life of the Beloved’, Nouwen speaks of this belovedness as the essential reality of each human life – we are loved intimately and profoundly in, through and by God!  There is nothing deeper or more profound and its applies to each of us.  The reality, though, is most of us are oblivious, even many spiritual people fail to grasp the depth and power of God’s unique and gracious love for each person.  Hence we live beyond its power to inform and transform us.  We live beyond the recognition that we are known and loved in the heart of God.

Nouwen believes, and I with him, that understanding our ‘belovedness’ in God is the beginning of our healing, spiritual and emotional, and finding the path to deeper living that has its peace and strength in this love and the presence of Love within us.  For much of the time we in our world live out of the struggle to prove ourselves of worth.  We strive against one another.  We feel envy and jealousy regarding others, how they look, what they can do, how much they have, the work they do…  We compare ourselves with each other, trying to find a way to make ourselves feel worthwhile, significant and special.  This is a mass experience that is a daily event in families, workplaces, schools and colleges and universities, sporting teams an everywhere we engage life.  Of course there are people we feel more comfortable with and feel less in competition with but more or less, one of the most essential issues for our world is the problem of self-worth our feelings of insignificance.  Fear and all of its tentacles of expression derive from these inner demons of despair at who we are or aren’t.  Our desire to make people believe or think the same as us or act in similar ways or look, have and be the same find their genesis in our own lack of awareness of who we are in our primal and essential being – the beloved of God!

This week churches around the world will read the story of Jesus’ baptism from Mark’s Gospel.  In this strikingly simple story, we experience Jesus in his own becoming, the dawning awareness of who he is and what his life is about – ‘You are my Beloved…’  This story’s deep meaning echoes through history as the words given to Jesus reverberate into and through the lives of all who hear them.  Jesus didn’t hold these words or this truth for himself alone but proclaimed this as the essential truth about God for all people.  His ministry of hospitality, welcome and inclusion engaged people in a practical understanding that they are God’s beloved and that despite what anyone around may say or think, the essential reality is that they are know and loved in the heart of the infinite Love and Mystery at the heart of the universe who holds all things in love and grace!

This is how the story we read on Sunday touches me – I am loved so profoundly, deeply and eternally in the heart of the infinite God and this gives me eternal and existential worth.  From this I am able to give and receive love and am freed ‘to be’ that which I am created in love to be.  What about you?  Do you recognise yourself as one who is beloved in the deepest way by God?

Geoff Stevenson

By geoffstevenson

The Disruptive (Subversive!?) Story of Christmas

I sit here on a hot, humid day with cricket in the background and the enticing pool outside.  This is Christmas, the forgotten days following the day.  I heard this morning that 7 tonnes of fireworks are being prepared for the city on New Year’s Eve.  I don’t place as much emphasis on New Year’s Eve.  It always seems amusing with the resultant let down as if it was good whilst you were there but the promised build up is soon forgotten and life goes on.  After all it is simply a marker along the way, an artificial divider on the timeline of our lives that marks a relatively meaningless point.

Whilst it seems that most of our society has moved on from the Christmas cheer with its short-lived hope and promise, I rather like sitting with Christmas – after all, we remain within the season of Christmas until January 6.  The heat and bright light of the world around almost decries the sense that this really is Christmas.  The misplaced songs with their snow and fires, sleds and reindeers, jolly men in red suits and all the rest seem so far out of place.  In fact most of the superficial overlay of Christmas doesn’t connect with the stories I read, nor the meaning I invest in this season.  It is almost a relief when our weary world marches onward to NYE celebrations and leaves me to quietly ponder the deeper realities that lie beneath the 2 exquisite stories we have in Matthew and Luke.  When I look out upon sunshine and warmth, green gardens and blue sky; when the last stirrings of snow have evaporated from the TV screens and the songs and decorations gracing the world suddenly change into something else and the commercial sensitivities move onto ‘Boxing Day Sales’ I can sit with this deliciously subversive story and wonder.  I wonder what might be if we took this story seriously and yielded to the power of an upturned world where justice comes in bucket loads to the underclasses and there are treasonous rantings in the air.  I love little Mary’s singing, so sweet and innocent, filled with subtle venom for the powerful who run roughshod over the little ones.  That God would side with little people and find delight in being revealed in and through them, over and against the bigwigs causes me no end of amusement – and I wonder with a smile!

So here are a few of my ponderings that draw upon this subversive way of Luke and Matthew:  Christmas is a distortion of reality – a/the reality that the powers would  like us to believe and embrace, a reality of the world as it is.  The Christmas story(s) is, it seems, a parabolic narrative that subverts the world as we know it!

  • The Political Reality – The word we hear suggests that human powers control the world and exercise complete authority in truth and wisdom. The belief in these human powers that exercise raw power for power’s sake, that seek to accumulate wealth for their own sake, or fail to exercise distributive justice is contrary to God’s Reign. The Christmas story of Luke subverts this belief system and turns our world upside down!
  • The Economic Reality – ‘Economics’ derives from the Greek work for household (oikos) and pertains to the wellbeing of all who belong to the household. This is the point of economics – the well-being and common good of all who dwell in the household.  This, whether the household of a family, a community, a nation or the world – God’s world!
    When economics becomes individualistic and accumulative, and is worshipped as an end in itself, it becomes unjust and unbalanced.  Some householders suffer whilst others have too much.  This is contrary to the Reign of God and opposed directly in the Christmas stories, where God evens the way for all and brings justice!
  • The Social Reality – God’s Reign builds the social reality around justice, peace, inclusion, grace, mercy, love and compassion. When the social reality of the world dominates through exclusiveness, persecution, ‘mere tolerance’ of the other, warfare and violence, conflict, then it is very clearly contrary to the reign of God.  Look for these themes in the simple stories we read around Christmas – they’re there!
  • Love – We are invited into a life that loves God with all we are in and through every particularity of our lives, including through loving the one who is neighbour and stranger in our midst. When we don’t live from love’s deep and just reservoir that is contrary to God’s Reign!  The Christmas Stories are filled with love.

 

The distortion of Christmas is that the story of the baby born to lowly parents of dubious matrimony in a town of no distinction (except to be the least) is a parable of the Reign of God!  It is an ‘anti-world parable,’ that turns everything upside down!  Christmas is a parabolic discourse that turns our whole world upside down and inside out by lifting up and naming the lowly, unnameable before the powerful, egotistical and exalted ones. (Note: When we leave Caesar etc out of the story, the cards, the carols, we lose the meaning – they are the counter to the simple parents, the angels as the voice of God and vulnerable revelation of God).

Christmas confuses us and causes anxiety as we tell a story that contradicts who we are in the world.  Christmas is actually a bad news story if we are so conditioned by our world that we fail to see – to especially see God in our midst in the faces of stranger and neighbour, the poor and lost, the struggling and weak, the vulnerable…

This week we will read from either Matthew’s Story (Matt 2:1-12) of magi coming from afar to worship this new king and find everything as unlike a royal birth as possible but offer gifts.  This is ‘God With Us’ who comes amongst us, dwells in and through us and is revealed in the goodness and love we express.  This is the mysterious presence of God revealed in strange and wondrous places that challenge everything.

The other reading from John 1:1-18 speaks of the beginning and the Word that dwells amongst us, the Word of God that is just, peaceful, loving, inclusive and hopeful.  This Word is a soft but powerful word that is surrounded by light that breaks into the darkness and bursts forth with life.  John says that most people prefer the darkness and so avoid the light but the Light will not go away! God is Love and pervades our lives with hope and the promise of new life!

 

By geoffstevenson