The Wilderness (of life)

I have meticulously avoided the stories around the two young Australian men who face death in Indonesia.  I have not avoided the stories out of disinterest but because they are too awful.  The concept that it is okay to take a person’s life as punishment for a crime is so hideously awful and comprehensively inhumane that I feel sick thinking about it, let alone listening to the latest news and justifications around the event.  It’s not that they are Australians and ‘we are better’ than them…  It is because they are human beings and they are created in the image of God.  That image may distort or fade as they make poor choices and deny the inherent goodness of God within them but that is no reason to kill them.  I am unable comprehend or imagine what they are feeling or going through.

Their situation is ultimately not that different from so many people across the world, vulnerable in the face of greater powers that threaten their lives.  Sometimes those powers are state controlled and act under the guise of ‘justice’.  Other powers are controlled by organisations both legal and reactionary, such as guerrilla and jihadist rebels who will abuse and violate vulnerable human beings.  The story of Kaya Mueller, the US human rights activist and humanitarian aid worker who was abducted when returning to Turkey from Syria after working with an Aid organisation, is one such horrific story of evil.  Kayla was held captive for months before she was killed – the circumstances of her death aren’t clear.  The time of waiting for the future to unfold must have been awful and is beyond the comprehension of most of us.

I am encouraged by our Gospel reading this week (Mark 1:9-15) to refer to these experiences as being in the wilderness.  To call these situations a ‘wilderness’ experience is probably an understatement but what else are they?  They are deeply profound experiences of aloneness and emptiness, in the midst of dangerous forces and powers that threaten them and overwhelm their immense vulnerability.  These people are absolutely powerless before the world that surrounds them and the people who hold them captive.  They come face to face with death, their own death, and that is very confronting.  Perhaps the wilderness is ultimately about such vulnerability and as all of us enter and confront our own experiences of wilderness we are faced with our own mortality, vulnerability and humanity.  There are moments in our lives when we understand that we are powerless before the world – whether to save ourselves or others or to change the world in our own strength and wisdom.  There also comes a time when we recognise that everything we have believed and trusted will be called into question – it will stand or fall in the cold light of real life.  Are the things we have invested our lives, our faith, our hope and time in able to sustain, and hold us up when the bottom falls out of life?  When the wilderness surrounds us in its deepest, loneliest way, will we live?  Will the wilderness overcome us or will we have the resources that can keep us afloat and sustain us through the valley of the shadow of death?

The wilderness is place that we all know and will know again and again.  Sometimes the wilderness is mild and puts some strain, uncertainty or confusion upon us.  Other times the wilderness is so deep, dark and cold that we flounder in grief, despair, depression and aloneness – and it seems to go on and on with no end in sight.  The wilderness is a dangerous place with wild animals that threaten us.  In other language, these are dark forces and powers that overwhelm us and challenge and threaten us.  There are also angels, messengers from God, who accompany us and minister to us in our darkness and fear.

In the story from Mark’s Gospel we hear of the beginnings of Jesus time of ministry.  He was baptised by John and received the Divine affirmation of approval and love as the Spirit of God descended upon him and the Divine voice claimed him as beloved.  He was then thrust, driven, pushed into the desert, the wilderness by the Spirit.  It is not clear if this was purposeful or the sustaining challenge to ‘do what he must do’ and endure what has come his way.  God doesn’t force ‘wilderness’ upon us but we are often faced with experiences over which we have no choice, things we cannot avoid.  The death of a loved one or the onset of illness, mental or physical come upon us whether we like it or not.  When we face unemployment, poverty or violence at the hands of those of who have power over us, we face a wilderness thrust upon us.  There are, of course, experiences of wilderness that come as a result of our own decisions.  These decisions may be poor choices that bring struggle upon our lives or decisions that are courageous and bring us into conflict with powers that make life hard.  The confrontation with injustice and suffering that challenges us to act on behalf of or alongside of those who suffer is such a choice.  There are those who choose to enter limited periods of wilderness where they live without food or in isolation (solitude and prayer) as an act of religious discipline to cleanse their being and remove the corrosive build-up of addictive compulsions, illusions (delusions?) and attachments.  Such experiences of wilderness are cleansing, renewing and bring deeper insight into who we are before God and the world.

In the story of Jesus it describes, in very brief and simple terms that there were wild beasts in Jesus’ wilderness – literal and metaphorical dangers that presented themselves and threatened Jesus.  He was tempted in deep and challenging ways by the ‘Temptor’.  Henri Nouwen suggests that the wilderness, whether chosen or enforced, is filled with temptation and desire as we will do anything we can to get out of the state we are in.  The long road of depression that many pass through often yields into the temptation of suicide as a way to end the ongoing struggle and mental turmoil.  Similarly, terminal illness that reduces life to a nothingness embraced in a cloud of pain cries out for an end.  These are the more extreme ends but in the normality of our wilderness there are temptations to distract, remove ourselves, rage out at others or give in and choose other pathways that feel easier and lessen our weight.  Not all of these choices are healthy or lessen the weight long term.  Drugs can offer an escape (as can other paths) but replace one wilderness with yet another, perhaps deeper and more difficult long term wilderness.  The wild beasts will come and we will have to face them and the temptations accompanying their presence.

In Jesus’ 40 day wilderness journey there are also angels who minister to him.  We aren’t told what these are, just that angels are with him throughout this experience.  The sense in this short story is that they sustain him and strengthen him in the midst of struggle and temptation.  It is vital that we also recognise the angels in our midst, the God-given messengers in human or other form (they could be animals who share life with us, music, poetry, exercise, the beauty of nature, friends and family, books, art…) and draw strength from them – as Jesus did.

The last thing to comment upon is how Jesus went into the wilderness having received blessing and affirmation in God.  He was baptised and blessed, affirmed and living in God’s love.  He entered the wilderness in a state of being in deep relationship with God.  What do we enter our wilderness experiences with?  What is it we trust in or put our faith in?  Is it God?  Our money or education or power or position…?  Where is the hope and centre of our lives?  Will that hope and centre sustain us and provide the essential disciplines, tools, skills and path when wilderness arrives?  We have entered the season of Lent and this season, of 40 days, is a time to reflect more deeply upon these things and make some concrete decisions about how we will live life and what foundation we will build our lives upon.

Kayla Mueller was led into humanitarian and aid work as a response to her faith.  Her life was built upon faith in God and in her last months she managed to smuggle a letter to her parents.  It said, in part:

“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in my experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no one else… by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall.  I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free.  I am grateful.”  

Kayla’s wilderness was her last on this earth, a deep and profound finality.  It was filled with beasts that tormented her but there were angels who ministered to her.  It was surrounded in the affirmation and hope that God was there, whatever may come, God was there – for her!

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By geoffstevenson

Face to Face With Sacred Mystery

Some years ago I played in a band with some others in our local church.  It was an acoustic band – 2 guitars, a bass, 4 voices and me on sax, clarinet, flute and occasionally keyboard (very simple keyboard!).  We did a lot of harmony songs, folk/gospel, some pop and acoustic rock and roll (we were unplugged before there was unplugged!).  We played in various places, usually church groups, worship services, special evenings, fundraisers…  One night we were the band, entertainment, message… at a youth coffee shop at one of the local churches.  Young people came and sat around on cushions, eating raison toast, pancakes, cake and drinking milkshakes, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and soft drink.  It was real 70’s/80’s culture.  Well this night we were playing and it was a good sound (we actually weren’t too bad – some really nice voices and harmonies) and I was enjoying the music.  What I remember most, however, was that I had this sense of playing but something more than me playing.  I can’t fully describe the experience except to say that I was playing the notes and blowing the sax but it was as if there was something more, ‘something other’ playing in and through me.  I doubt that those listening would have heard anything much different or better, the experience was mine.  In those moments time and space seemed to no longer exist and I was in a moment of no time or eternal time?  In that moment the Divine, the Sacred, the Holy – what we call God – seemed to be in, through and around me.  My senses felt more alive and aware, as if I were living within this Holy Presence.  It was very significant for me.

I have had similar experiences at other moments.  Sometimes these ‘aware moments’ have been essentially an awareness of the presence of Sacred Mystery, of God, that have transcended life, awareness, ordinary reality and been an intense encounter with the Divine.  It is a sense of immense grace, love and belonging, of my being in this One I call God.  Other such experiences have led to deeper insight or awareness – ‘aha’ moments – when I have suddenly seen a deeper truth, had a deeper understanding or seen a new reality within the world.  Suddenly or quietly, the reality in which I am changes. It is like the world fades slightly or is lost as I enter a moment where nothing else quite matters and there is a deeper sense of being and knowing.

Sometimes these moments come in quiet prayer, meditation or reflection – even writing these reflection notes.  Sometimes it is in hearing or experiencing a story, whether told, read or portrayed in a movie.  Other times it is in poetry or the lyrics of songs or art that touch me in a new way and draw me into a different way of seeing.  Sometimes it is in music in all of its simplicity or complexity, whether playing it or hearing it.  I can get completely lost in the moment when hearing Charlie Parker improvise on a tune or the haunting and profound music of Mstislav Rostropovich, the cello virtuoso – or even a simple pop song that speaks in a moment.  It can be in worship through the words of a prayer or hymn or reading or the reflection when I am transported somewhere else and ‘see/hear’ something in a very new way.  Often it is in the natural world where the canvas of God’s creativity runs wild with colour, life and profound beauty that transcends so much of the blandness of human existence in our artificially designed and controlled world.  These are moments of deep grace into which I am drawn and my being opened, my mind and spirit expanded and I ‘know’ God in the experience.

The language we have is difficult in helping us make sense of these moments when the matrix of life seems to shift and transform and the Holy and Sacred invade the space with love, beauty, wonder, awe and grace.  I am helped in understanding these Holy spaces by Marcus Borg (a Biblical scholar) who speaks about ‘Thin Places’.  This is not his language or idea but comes from Celtic Christianity; that which emerged and characterised Christian faith in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern England from the 5th century.  The particular forms of faith that developed there tended to understand God not as ‘someone up/out there’ in the heavens or in some distant and mysterious place.  For the Celtic Christians, God was understood as being close in and around us, the ‘encompassing Spirit in which everything is’.   Borg says: ‘God is a non-material layer of reality all around us, “right here” as well as “more than right here.”’  This is the way Paul speaks of God in Acts 17: ‘God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’  It is a view of the world that understands the physical, material, visible reality that we know in our daily existence AND the world of the Spirit, the Sacred, the Divine, of God.  We catch glimpses of this world of God as it breaks through and into our ordinary moments of life.  These, the Celtic Christians, called ‘Thin Places’, holy space, time or place where there seems a special and deeper link, connection, revelation or experience with the Sacred, with God.  Sometimes these are physical places, geographical sites such as the Isle of Iona in Scotland or one of the sites of pilgrimage for the faithful.  Sometimes they are wondrous spaces in the natural world.  As I have said above, they may come through in music, poetry, art, worship, community experiences, the garden, an event where there is communal belonging and something that transcends the ordinariness of life and lifts me into a new, deeper place and I can reach out to the Divine before and in and around me.

I am reminded of these wondrous moments each year as we read the story for this Sunday.  It comes from Mark’s Gospel this year (Mark 9:2-9) and is called ‘The Transfiguration’.  Jesus took the inner three disciples, Peter, James and John, up a mountain.  There they had a mystical, visionary experience where Jesus’ countenance was transformed into blazing whiteness and he was joined by two figures – Moses and Elijah, heroes of Israel.  The disciples looked on as this moment embraced everything.  Peter wanted to hold it and grasp it and keep it going.  Within the moment, clouded in mist and mystery and wonder, they heard a voice that said: ‘This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him!’   The scene faded back to normal reality and there was Jesus, alone, in normal appearance.  The disciples, however, had experienced a profoundly deep and wondrous encounter with the Mystery of God.  In this moment they came face to face with the Divine – they saw and heard, although we don’t know how this ‘seeing and hearing’ occurred.  In this moment they realised something new and profound.  They saw and understood that Jesus was indeed the deep and profound revelation of God, the nature and grace, love and justice of God before them.  More than that, they understood that Jesus’ ministry, teaching and life was contiguous with everything of Israel’s traditions – the ‘law and the prophets’.  Moses represented the law and Elijah represented the prophets and Jesus with them in this vision provides the link –  that he fulfils and completes the law and prophets as they were intended.  In Jesus’ world the law and prophets were somewhat distorted in parts and injustice and abuse, greed and power corrupted the interpretation of Israel’s traditions as expressed in the religious community.  In this vision, the disciples (also representing the church of generations to come) recognise that the way of Jesus is the true way of God.  It also describes the reality that God comes close to us, is near and around and through us and we see this most clearly in Jesus’ life.

This was a profound ‘Thin Place’ that revealed God in a profound way.  We read it before the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday is this week) to lead us into a deeper sense of awareness of God around us and who comes to us in these moments of grace – the ‘Thin Places’ of life.  Lent offers a period of reflection and prayer that opens us to the possibility of encountering God in deeper ways and of growing in deeper understanding and awareness of God’s way in human life and the world.

Where have you encountered ‘Thin Places’ in life?  Are there places you go to open yourself to a deeper awareness of the Sacred?  Is there music, story, art… that lead you more deeply into an experience of the Divine, of life beyond life?  Allow yourself space to breathe and live in and through the presence of God.

Geoff Stevenson

By geoffstevenson

The Radical Rabbi from Nazareth Sticks it to Caesar!

It’s a strange place I find myself in at the moment.  In so many ways in but out, a part of but not quite.  I am part of the church but not part of a church, having finished at Northmead UC but not having a new placement as yet.  I belong but not really.  I can turn up somewhere on Sunday morning but don’t really belong there – not yet and maybe never.  More than that, I am technically unemployed – for the first time ever.  I have no workplace to get up and go to each day, no responsibilities and no constructive contribution to make to society – at least in the ways we think of it.  It is indeed a strange place, one that will change soon.  The break from having to be responsible, to think, to act, to respond and so on, has given me a chance to breathe a little.

This little bit of space has also allowed me to listen a little more to what is happening around me and, I confess, I don’t like what I hear.  All the political posturing and the incessant commentary and speculation on Tony Abbott is wearing thin.  It is clear he has no clue – probably less than his predecessors in the Lodge.  His party is in turmoil at least as much as the other side, which he painted with such vehement disregard and downright slander.  It is important, I suppose, but not really.  There are many newsworthy stories that never make it, like when the truly awful Charlie Hebdo terrorism attacks were receiving front page endless coverage but the very significantly worse terrorist situation in Nigeria received scant mention.  The federal parliament could almost be said to be ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.  By this I suggest that they simply do not get it or are stuck in ‘do nothing’ mode.  Climate change is real (look at the photos, listen to the scientists…) so do something and stop playing political games with each other.  The Operation Sovereign Borders and whatever the Labor version is called is an unmitigated injustice that abuses people (read ‘Walking Free’ the story of Munjed Al Muderis – and Iraqi refugee who spent time in Curtain Detention Centre and is now a world renowned surgeon at Macquarie Hospital – it makes one feel ashamed).  The list goes on.  I read this today:

“It isn’t the budget shortfall that prevents Australia from offering the UNHCR more funds: the federal government spent as much on its ‘stop the boats’ policy in the first 6 months of Operation Sovereign Borders as the entire annual budget of the UNHCR.  Or to view the equation from a different angle: the UN has requested US$2.28 billion to assist 12.2 million Syrians in need within Syria – that’s a lot of people and a lot of money – yet Australia spends 3.8 times that amount (to take just one possible example) on superannuation tax concessions to the wealthiest 5 per cent of Australia earners.  We are clearly dealing with priorities of a different order here.”

Now it is possible, dear reader, that you are in the wealthiest 5% of Australian earners and find this acceptable but I find it just one example of a world out of kilter.  From my quieter, unemployed status, listening to the stories of people, I do believe that we have swallowed the rhetoric of ‘Empire’ and continue to believe the nonsense of those who have claimed some power and wealth and hence a voice, even the belief they have a right to speak and be heard.  Well I don’t care if it is Abbott or Costello, the Ruddster or the all-conquering ego of Rupert (or Alan Jones…).  Who are these people and why do I have to listen to them?  Why should I believe the seemingly humble or arrogant rantings of political leaders and assume they have a clue?  Why should I continue to accept that those who wield power or who are asked their opinion on the nightly news actually know what is true and right?

Now lest you think I’ve become of anarchist in my quieter days, my ponderings come to me from that haunting figure who wandered the shores of Galilee some millennia back and whose simple words echo through the years until they finally reach my ears and rattle my brain.  Perhaps less distractions means there is more space for Jesus’ words to take hold in me and grab a bit of my mind and heart and soul?

I also read this week’s gospel story this morning – Mark 1:29-39.  It is a simple story that challenges the heart of the way the world is.  Jesus returns from church to Peter’s place and his mother-in-law is ill.  Jesus, in his beautifully compassionate manner goes to her, reaches out to her and heals her.  This unnamed woman then gets up and begins to serve those gathered in the household.  Some translations say she waits on them – women’s work and all that.  But this woman is the first real disciple in Mark’s Gospel because she encounters Jesus and serves him, even as he serves her and others.  The reign of God is about joyful, generous, hospitable service.  Of course the word gets out and everyone with the slightest complaint from anywhere around comes to the door and wants a piece of Jesus – he gives and gives and gives.  Who knows what became of this multitude.  I imagine that some were transformed like this woman, changed through this encounter, freed to become and be.  Others, well they probably enjoyed a free and effective medical consultation, got on with things and forgot the man in the white robe wandering the dusty streets of Galilee.

The point of this story however, runs so much more deeply than this simple rendering.  Illness in Jesus culture was about more than being sick, having a biomedical disease.  Illness and sickness meant a person was disconnected from their life, their meaning, their community.  This woman had an important social and personal role within the community of her household.  She was responsible for maintaining hospitality and welcome, being a host and extending welcome to the stranger and friend.  This woman was an essential part of the community to which she belonged and when her ability to be was taken away through illness, she lost dignity and value.

Academic Sarah Henrich says: ‘Illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honoured as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter’s mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honour to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.’

More than this, the story goes to the heart of power in the Roman Empire, which was used to maintain control over people.  It was not about creating freedom or the opportunity for full human living.  The Empire used four united forms of power over the people: Military (domination and control through violence), economic (monopolistic control over production and labour), political (the control of organisation and institution) and ideological (the control over interpretation and meaning). Through these four strands of Imperial power, Rome controlled all!  The benefits were largely the better of bad options – join us and we won’t destroy you.  The Empire extracted loyalty and demanded high taxation.  Local leaders, especially religious leaders were given benefits on the basis they kept their people obedient and under control, collected taxes and were loyal to the Emperor. The masses were simply a means to an end – labour, military personnel, source of revenue…  The individual was of little concern of worth.  A sick woman in the difficult Jewish homelands?  Or, a mass of sick, disabled, struggling little people around Capernaum? Who cared!  Well, actually, Jesus!  Through him the Reign of God intruded into the power of Rome and offered life amidst the painful struggle and hopelessness of so many people.  Healing the people of this community gave them new hope to flourish in life, to belong and find meaningful existence amongst their community and in their world.  Rome, on the whole, didn’t like people believing themselves free because the power of fear was a significant tool for control over them.  Jesus came into the midst of the Empire’s Reign and poked, prodded and subverted the Roman agenda.  He opened people’s eyes to see a new reality.  He helped them stand and walk and follow this new way of God.  He released people from imprisonment and liberated them from oppression.  Their hearts, minds and spirits were suddenly free, even if they still experienced physical limitation through Rome’s control of labour…  But people freed in heart, mind and spirit are free people!  Free people were dangerous to the Empire as they were no longer afraid but alive.  The propaganda and Imperial theology no longer had power over them because God had a greater message of liberation and life!

What about you and me as we live under the modern expressions of Empire?  Do we need eyes opened, legs to move in step with Jesus’ way?  Do we need to sing from a new song sheet, dance a new dance, read from another script?  Do we need liberation into flourishing life of hope, peace and joy in God?  Do we need a new way, a new and restored hope for ourselves and our communities – the community in which we live and the community of faith we belong to?  Are our eyes opened to the nonsense that occupies so much public rhetoric or do we buy such nonsense?  Are we  willing to get on board with the radical rabbi from Nazareth and subvert the world for God’s Reign?

–  Geoff Stevenson

By geoffstevenson

Divinely Dealt Radical Transformation (Revolution of the Soul?)

It was recently suggested that I should read Russell Brand’s latest book, Revolution, because I would agree with a lot of what he says even though he comes at it from a different place.  Russell Brand is the British comedian, actor, radio host and author.  He’s a bit ‘out there’, quite funny, irreverent but also filled with the wisdom of life and its destructive forces.  He was a addicted to drugs and alcohol and used them with gusto.  Actually life for Russell Brand has been a series of addictive influences as he has struggled with inner feelings, hopes, frustrations and despair.  He has bought the rhetoric of advertising and the wider society.  He speaks about Lakeside Mall, a new and wondrous place that promised the world – it was the place to go, where dreams would be fulfilled and everything one needed to be happy could be found.  For a price.  It was close to his simple home and promised his simple life something more.  He bought the CD he could afford and was given a momentary respite from his despair but then he looked and behind the glass were better things that would fill the emptiness and make life complete.  He got money, bought the things on the other side of the glass – and it didn’t work!  More and more he bought and more and more Lakeside, the shopping, materialist’s paradise failed to deliver.  The rules he followed, those words of wisdom on the billboards and advertisements but they were hollow and false.  They delivered but not for the deluded fools who believed and saved and bought!  They delivered into the pockets of the ones who could sell more junk to people who had more than enough but weren’t happy and thought they wanted or needed more!  He bought the whole intoxicating message that told him he wasn’t good enough, rich enough, thin enough, clever enough…  Every purchase and every trend was superseded by something better until…

Brand was bulimic – he was empty and needed to fill a void within himself but then he needed to purge the poison he felt inside.  A cyclic mess that never resolved but only fuelled angst and despair.  Drugs, alcohol, sex and fame followed over the years.  All a searching for something to fill an emptiness, an ache or to escape the loneliness of life that isn’t filled with meaning – ony the realisation that everything he’d be sold as truth was superficial tosh.  It was like eating fairy floss – promising perhaps but there is nothing to chew, nothing to eat as it disappears on entry into your mouth.  I’m only part way through Brand’s book but it is fascinating.

He keeps talking about God, not as I might from my religious background, sounding more sure and certain with a degree of professional vocabulary and familiarity.  Russell Brand speaks of God in the manner of one who has come to realise that there has to be something beyond what is and a voice that is not tainted by the stupid nonsense and foolish lies of the culture in which we live.  He says: ‘If you can’t escape the system, you’ve got to escape from yourself.  If you’re looking for God, for salvation, for a connection, for sanctuary from the cuckoo self incubating in you, and there’s no map, no guide, no story, no folk memory of how to get there, sooner or later you’ll pick up a bottle, a pipe, or a brick.’  This is the reality I see and hear all too often – we’ve lost our way, forgotten or thrown away the map or stopped listening to the wise voices who try to point the way.  So awfully stupid and desperate does life become for so many that it isn’t rocket science to realise we need to escape.  When life is overwhelming and no-one seems to have a real answer the only way is escape, whether drugs and alcohol, promiscuous sex, work, material accumulation, shopping, food – the list of addictive responses is endless and Brand speaks as an expert!

He also says: ‘You’ve probably noticed by now that I keep alluding to God… The reason I keep mentioning God is because I believe in God.  A lot of people are surprised by that, what with it being 2014 and this being a technologically advanced secular culture.

God is primarily regarded as the preserve of thick white people and angry brown people.  Since Friedrich Nietzsche (deceased) declared, “God is dead,” we’ve been exploring the observation of British writer G K Chesterton, who said, “The death of God doesn’t mean man will believe in nothing but that he will believe in anything.”’

He goes on to suggest that he is a good example – a believer in the rhetoric of Lakeside Mall, then sex, drugs and celebrity, fame and wealth.  Russell Brand has been clean for 11 years – one day at a time.  The demons come and go, tempting, luring, seducing and haunting him.  A community of people who listened to him, stood with him, affirmed him and continue to support and encourage him – compassionate people.  The ‘higher power’ of God part of the process, a map that helps fill the void and tame the demons – and reveals the false security in the nonsensical rhetoric of deluded fools who claim wisdom even amidst their dangerous stupidity.

Russell Brand’s story illuminates the story of Jesus to be read in churches this week – Mark 1:21-28.  Jesus entered a synagogue in a town called Capernaum.  There were wise ones there who taught the religious laws and wisdom and revealed God’s way.  There were people who listened, believed, were helped and part of the community.  It wasn’t bad it just wasn’t, well, alive.  Jesus waltzed in (well I suspect he entered gently and with great calm but that doesn’t so poetic) and started talking words that seemed to be filled with life and vitality.  At once a man stood and in his desperate (demonic??) state lashed out at Jesus.  It seems one of those situations where fear and anger merge with hope and confusion and the inner spirit cries out rejecting the presence that seems frighteningly prescient and powerful.  What if he were to believe this one, to reach out and seek, receive and yield to the power in this one?  What if he abandoned his delusions and comfortable insecurities, his illness (that brings compassion and attention of others) and the security of being lost, alone, confused and hopeless?  What if was to give in – what would it take???  Jesus seized the initiative and in a voice of authority told him to wake up, to let go of the inner spirit of violence that works inward against the man and infuses his world with bilious angst and negativity – with despair.  Jesus commanded the ‘spirit to come out of the man’ and set him in his right self.  Isn’t this Russell Brand’s story?  Well not the same but the same.  Didn’t he manifest the demons of the age that fought for his soul and led him to be lost, alone, despairing and hopeless?  Didn’t he need the voice of compassion and wisdom, experience and fraught with Divine empowerment to challenge the demons and his own reticence, fear, and disillusionment and to bring purposeful direction to his aimless wandering through life.

The other interesting thing in the story is how everyone loved it!  Those who witnessed it felt alive and vital – church was different that day and pretty damn good! Something finally happened and a life was transformed, restored and the power of God was on full display.  It wasn’t some magical display filled with divine video effects, a Star Wars mega-moment of heavenly proportions.  This was the reality of God getting into a human being and being released in the deep power of love to transform and restore in grace.  The words were filled with life and vitality and God.  Except, of course, the religious leaders who didn’t really find Jesus amusing or true.  He was an unhelpful distraction from the order and rhetoric of their way.

I hear something of all this in Russell Brand’s story, his irreverent story that challenges so much of life in our comfortable part of the world, a sometimes dreary monotony that surrounds so many people.  Watch the news and get into a lather over some celebrity doing something stupid again.  Be amazed at Australia Day Honours to the Duke of Edinburgh or some politician ripping off the system or the next big trend in consumer stupidity or the frothing of economic high priests pointing toward Nirvana at the stock exchange…

Do our churches challenge this story or mediate a soft and gentle gospel through the medium of naïve acceptance of a world gone mad?  Do we yearn to have Jesus turn us upside down and inside out as he comes crashing through with transforming love and distributive justice?  Do we even want our lives to change?  If not then why read the story(s) of Jesus because that’s what he wants to do to you and me – now!

–  Geoff Stevenson

By geoffstevenson