When Washing Hands Doesn’t Matter…

Last Sunday whilst talking over morning tea after worship at Riverstone UC, one of the ladies told me there were some people outside who wanted to speak to the minister.  I wondered…  That usually means a couple wanting to find out about a wedding or baptism or a person(s) wanting some help with food or money or some other crisis.  I prepared myself for these eventualities. I was a little surprised to find two neat and pleasant young men address me in a very friendly manner and introduce themselves as representatives of the local Mosque at Marsden Park.  They spoke about an upcoming event to focus on youth and our community.  It is a Symposium called ‘Love for All – Hatred for None.’  They were going around to churches and inviting members and young people to come along to a dinner and to share around how to educate, de-radicalise and integrate people for the common well-being.

We talked for a bit and I asked how they were experiencing life, was there any difficulty they experienced?  They said that they were going well and people were good.  After we chatted for a few minutes they expressed their thanks and indicated it was the best reception they had received.  Not understanding how things worked in Christian churches they had arrived through some services and weren’t welcome and couldn’t speak to the minister/priest.  Others I suspect were rude or dismissive.

So I now have an invitation for members of our local churches to attend this symposium.  I have discussed it briefly with a number of people but have felt that most are anxious not to go or be associated with Muslim people.  I have heard all manner of adverse descriptions concerning Muslims and a few positive comments as well.  So I wondered: ’Should we attend?  Should I attend if possible?’  Some people indicate that to enter a Mosque would cause us to be unclean or defiled or some such notion.  A Mosque or religious space of another faith is somehow evil.  Others are cautious about participating in something that would get us off-side with God.  Still others exhibit more suspicion and fear because it is an unknown space and unknown people.  Of course we are all influenced by the extreme and negative media representations of Islamic faith through the terrorists and extreme fundamentalists in groups such as ISIS.

I wondered, to myself, what Jesus would think of and do with such an invitation?  I cast my mind back to stories in our readings over the last few months and remembered how Jesus ‘crossed the lake’ to the Gentile/pagan side where it was unclean for Jews.  More than that he wandered into a cemetery and touched a man who was out of his mind and ‘demon-possessed’.  All of this was unclean and against Jewish culture and law – it was taboo and rendered Jesus ritually/religiously unclean.  Still he ventured into such spaces regularly and seemed to dismiss such rules and culture as outside God’s concern and care for all people.

I am curious about what Jesus does and how he might inform how we respond. It reminds me of the church culture some decades ago when to visit the local club or pub was taboo.  Somehow associating with people in those ‘dens of iniquity’ somehow made us all unclean and lesser in God’s eyes.  I remember the turmoil when Billy Graham had one of his rally televised live from Brazil and people across the world were invited to view it together.  The only place where Australians could view it were clubs or pubs because it was on Sky Channel.  Local churches organised to use club auditoriums but gained access without having to go through the club for fear of being tainted.  Is it wrong to enter places where there is serious gambling, drunkenness, perverted sex or worse?  Is it wrong to be there without participating?  Does our presence there void us of grace and love in God’s sight?  Or, is it how we respond to people in these places and situations that challenges our goodness or otherwise?

As I ponder all this I recognise how our fear, ignorance and suspicion drives so much of our attitudes.  I don’t know what is in a Mosque.  I don’t know what they do.  I don’t know the protocol.  I don’t know if they are friendly or whether the blown-up assumptions of the media are true for one and all Muslims.  It is more than the religion because most Muslims are from other cultures and ethnicities and they have different ways about them – do I feel afraid of that which I don’t know or understand?

With all of these questions in my mind I read the reading for this week (Mark 7:1-23) and was challenged by Jesus’ words about how it isn’t what goes into the body that makes us unclean but what comes out.  The triggering incident occurs when religious leaders point out that his disciples don’t engage in the proper rituals before eating and are therefore unclean.  He suggests that it is the ‘heart’ (for ancients, the seat of being, thought and personality) is the centre out of which defilement or uncleanness arises.  It isn’t food or space/place or even the experience of others that causes us to be defiled.  It is what we feel, think, believe and decide within our own being that leads us into evil or goodness.  When Jesus calls each of us into love for God, self and others, the decision to dismiss other people because they are different or do what is wrong or even evil in our sight is the problem.

I wonder at how I so easily dismiss some people because of their difference (or my ignorance of them).  I am challenged by my own suspicion and even fear or those who are different and even get drawn into media and political hyperbole that creates deeper suspicion and hatred at those who are different.  I think of asylum seekers, those threats who arrive on boats to terrorise us and take our jobs, homes and wealth…  I think of all the horrible things spoken of these people and then struggle to align that with the stories, the pitiful stories they share of life that is beyond my comprehension.  Even to talk about these things in this way marks us out as suspicious people entering into places that are dangerous and ought be avoided.  To speak sympathetically towards various groups such as asylum seekers, indigenous people, homosexuals, people with mental illness and so on can mark us and taint us in various circles.  There is guilt by association.

I find that my own cultural expectations and assumptions provide a security for me.  If all act and think within these assumptions, the world is good and I am okay.  If people act outside these rules then what will it mean to embrace them?  What will change?  Will I have to change?  Do I want to change?  Am I afraid?  Will God still love me if I move out of my safe places and circles of comfort and knowing?  Perhaps, I wonder, God might be more impressed if I do wander out of the safe places and into the world as Jesus did??  So, should I accept this invitation from the local Muslims and attend their Mosque?  If so, who will join me?

By geoffstevenson

Everything Must Change…

I read this story the other day in Everything Must Change – Brian McLaren.

Within the central African country of Burundi amidst people from the most violent, poverty-stricken and dangerous countries in the world, Claude spoke in his native language, Kirundi. “Friends, most of you know me.  You know that I am the son of a preacher, and as a result, I grew up going to church all the time, maybe 5 times a week.  What might surprise you, though, is to learn that in all my childhood, in all the church services I attended, I heard only 1 sermon.” People looked curious and confused.

Claude continued, “That sermon went like this: ‘You are a sinner and you are going to hell.  You need to repent and believe in Jesus.  Jesus might come back today, and if he does and you are not ready, you will burn in hell forever.’”  Everyone burst out laughing because they recognised this was the only sermon they had heard as well.  Sunday after Sunday they heard this same sermon – different words, different Bible verses, but same point.  Claude then got serious.  “When I got older, I realised that my entire life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption.  Over a million people died in my country in a series of genocides starting in 1959, and nearly a million in Rwanda, and in spite of huge amounts of foreign aid, our people remain poor, and many of them hungry.  This is the experience we have all shared.”  People around the room leaned forward, nodding in agreement.

“So much death, so much hatred and distrust between tribes, so much poverty, suffering, corruption and injustice, and nothing ever really changed.  Eventually I realised something.  I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities.  Did God only care about our souls going to heaven after we died?  Were our hungry bellies unimportant to God?  Was God unconcerned about our crying sons and frightened daughters, our mothers hiding under beds, our fathers crouching by windows, unable to sleep because of gunfire?  Or did God send Jesus to teach us how to avoid genocide by learning to love each other, how to overcome tribalism and poverty by following his path, how to deal with injustice and corruption, how to make a better life here on earth – here in East Africa?

Claude walked into the centre of the room and asked: “How many of you from Burundi and Rwanda have ever heard a sermon telling Tutsi people to love and reconcile with Hutu people, or Hutu people to love and reconcile with Tutsi – or telling both Hutu and Tutsi to love the Twa as their neighbours and brothers and sisters?

Claude finished by telling the group that something was missing from the Good News the missionaries had shared with their people – they spoke of God and God’s love and how they might get to heaven one day.  They left out the important detail of how we are to live now, in this world, together with each other – what does it mean for God’s Reign to come and God’s will to be done on earth.  How are we to live in this world today with each other?  Does God have anything deep and real to say to our lives and experience?

Claude’s story and questions are not just for Africans.  They’re not just for people of the two-thirds world of poverty and overt violence.  They’re not just for religious people.

The world in which we live is torn in so many different directions and we are stretched and pulled through so many ideas, issues, struggles, pain and the challenges of life for us and others with whom we share this planet.  I must note that there is much that good and beautiful, rich and meaningful in life but there is the reality of painful experience and struggle that pervades human life.

Claude’s story is real and ongoing.  It is also symbolises the reality we face where there is extreme violence, poverty, power struggles, hunger and people seek hope and meaning, life and peace, food and security.  We all face these things to greater or lesser extent.  Most Australians have it relatively easy compared to those in other parts of the world but deep pain and struggle still impacts our lives and opens our eyes to the reality of life across the globe.  We often do our best to push such realities aside or deflect them back onto others to take responsibility.  We feel too overwhelmed to deal with them ourselves and we can’t face the pain that such things reveal.  Then it breaks in and we are forced to face reality in our own lives – it is no longer the news on TV but real life, here and now.  We feel in our bones that everything must change – whether the violence of war and terrorism, the devastation of the environment and climate change, world poverty and scarcity, or even issues like enough work and affordable housing for all…

This week’s Gospel passage (John 6:51-58) is somewhat bizarre at first reading and I wondered where it fits into the reality of life or faith.  Jesus exhorts his followers to ‘eat of his flesh and drink his blood.’  These images are seriously bad to us but absolutely offensive for 1st century Jewish people for whom the eating of flesh connected to organs that serve the seat of life (eg kidneys, heart…) was strictly forbidden, as was consuming blood or fat because life was from God and belonged to God.  To consume these things was to strive to be like God.

I have pondered deeply what this is all about and what it means for you and I in the 21st century.  I certainly don’t have all the wisdom for this complex and profound passage but have become aware through various readings that the author is pushing his community to enter into a deeper and fuller relationship of trust and life-giving hope in God through Jesus.  He insists that the eating of the Bread of Life (Jesus) symbolised and in some mystical sense realised through the symbolic meal or feast of Eucharist (Communion) will bring life to all.  It seems a strange claim perhaps and something for the religious community to absorb by faith but irrelevant to everyone else.

The community of this gospel lived under persecution from both religious and Imperial (Roman) sources.  Life was not easy for the Christian in the 1st century and the author seeks to hold up a vision of hope where God, alone, will offer life, peace and justice.  This comes through Jesus through whom we discover, encounter and are drawn into a deeper experience of the Living God.  One realisation that came to me is that in the story God receives the abuse, violence, hatred and pain that is thrust upon Jesus in his crucifixion and death.  God receives this in the sacrifice of Love that Jesus makes and such violence is transformed and given back to the world as love and life!!  In the face of the most profound violence and rejection, God receives that, transforms it and offers it back as Love to all.  As we eat together, especially in the Eucharist, we eat of this Divine reality and seek a new way of life that finds love, peace and justice as its impetus, its goal and its gift to the world! Everything must change and this is how it will!

By geoffstevenson

Imitators of God??!

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.  I remember as a kid growing up, imitating various people – especially sports stars.  As a young soccer player the Australian World Cup Team of 1974 were particular stand outs and players like Johnny Warren, Ray Richards, Manfred Schafer and so on were there to be imitated.  Long throw-ins like Ray Richards and ball skills of Johnny Warren – I still have a book by him on soccer skills.  When I played basketball we imitated Dr J (Julius Erving) who was a brilliant player that could jump high, make scintillating moves, dunk the ball ferociously… The only difficulty was that he was 2 metres tall and we were around 1.8 metres.  He was a professional athlete and we were teenagers of average skill and fitness.  In music we listened to the latest sounds and musicians depending upon which instrument we were playing and tried to imitate them.  They were professional musicians and we were beginning so some of the guys at school imitated through the way they dressed or held the instrument.  We even learned a particular riff or easy solo and played it endlessly.  As children we imitated super heroes – Batman, Superman, Spiderman – and people from TV shows.  We imitated people until the novelty wore off and we moved on to imitate someone else.

Imitation.  There is a lot of imitating that goes on.  People imitate others’ style of dress, cars they drive, mannerisms, houses they live in, possessions and lifestyles…  There is imitation in language and accent, vocabulary and perhaps television and video provides many people with their deepest sense of who they might be.  It is a limited range of possible personalities or lifestyles but helps people define themselves against who they think they should be if they are going to have appeal or a sense of success. Maybe that also explains the plethora of ‘Reality TV’ shows that pretend to show us something more real, something truer and deeper than our ordinary lives and reveal something more of who we can be.  Advertising tries to push us deeper into a sense of alienation with who we are and what we have so that we pursue lifestyle choices, acquisition, education options, and anything else someone has to sell.

I suppose we imitate people until we find our own voice, our own way, our own sense of being that is uniquely ‘me’ and for which there is nothing to imitate because I know I am unique.  I wonder how many people actually make it to this point?  I wonder how many people imitate someone else, real or fictional, all their life and never discover their true self?  Imitation is good when it gives a sense of experimentation, to live in another’s skin so to speak and try it out.  It allows us to venture into untried paths and experience another way as we search for our own truer, deeper identity and sense of being.  Of course imitation will never satisfy because we are never truly ourselves until we are ourselves and no longer an imitation.

When I pondered imitating I thought about music or art – and perhaps sports…  You can only imitate an artist or musician for so long.  Unless you want to specialise in restoration art work and need to be able to perfectly imitate famous artists in order to more truly restore their works or be a cover musician who reproduces another musician’s sound and music precisely.  These are imitations and roles but never find their own voice in music or art – or even sport.  They may be flattering but such a person never creates their own work that projects and speaks for them and who they are.  They never create out of themselves but replicate another.  Imitation, so far as it can help us explore, discover and learn, is important but we need to move onwards into the place where we are able to become the unique person we are.  Until we are able to become our true self, we may find it more difficult to relate to and embrace others into our realm of existence and experience.  Imitators are always watching and waiting for cues as to how they should look, be, sound or think.  They can also be defensive and uncertain of others because there is no solid foundation on which they have built/are building their own life and sense of being.

So it was with a sense of interest and curiosity that I read this week’s reading from Ephesians 4:25-5:2.  It contains an exhortation:  ‘Be imitators of God…’  I have probably read this many times before and not thought much about it. It makes sense, imitate God… but what does it really mean?  Am I to try and imitate the Divine as a human?  Some will no doubt point me to Jesus and tell me that imitating Jesus is imitating God, but that doesn’t work either.  What does it mean to imitate Jesus?  Do I give up my own sense of being and try to copy Jesus?  Do I replicate Jesus’ 1st century way explicitly in the 21st century?  How far do I go – dress, language, religion…?  What does this mean – to imitate God?  How do I imitate the very essence of God which is not human but Spirit, not living my life but in and beyond and around it?  How do I imitate God and become more truly the one whom God has created and has imbued with potential to be this unique being?  Do we all try to be the same?  Looking at parts of the church it would seem that this is the case – the same in dress, language, music, career, possessions, outlook…  Who is imitating who and where does God fit it?

As I read more deeply into the passage there is a rich expression of ethical pronouncements relating to truth, honesty, expressing anger appropriately, generosity towards others – especially the needy, speaking words that build up rather than bring down.  It goes onto express a way of being that is gracious and communal, kind, accepting and compassionate rather than angry and violent.  The author then exhorts us to imitate God by living in love.  It is a general way of being, of viewing life and the world – through the lens of love.  What does it mean to love another person rather than to be defensive or confronting?  What does it mean to listen and seek understanding rather than being suspicious and distrusting?  What does it mean to embrace a way of love as our integral self rather than a way of hate or bitterness or violence?

I’m still not convinced that ‘imitate’ is the best word but understand it in the sense of recognising that innately we are creatures who love and grow into this potential to love boldly and courageously as we grow into the truest sense of our being.  God’s essence is love and we are intended and find our deepest and most beautiful expression of who we are in that love and in being loving.  Perhaps we might consider the term ‘inspire’ which has to do with ‘breathing in’.  We might think about ‘breathing in’ God and the essence of God, which is love and grace, and becoming our true selves that are formed and grow through such inspiration. We take in and on the attributes and character of God but in such manner that our unique self becomes more truly realised in who we are.

By geoffstevenson

We Are One, But We Are Not The Same

After hearing several different stories from different places over the last few weeks or so, I heard another story of a rock band entering a recording studio to prepare for their next album.  Their previous albums were produced in the UK but they felt they needed a change to get another influence into their music, somewhere unfamiliar that would challenge them.  They arrived in Berlin on Reunification Day and this provided a significant influence for their new direction.  There were all kinds of tensions developing in the band and their own personal lives.  As they entered the studio they realised that they weren’t really ready to record anything – the songs they thought were ready, really weren’t – the band wasen’t ready either!  As the various members of the band felt the tension and pressure to produce something significant, they all wanted to take the music in different directions.  The band was on the cusp of breaking up, of disintegrating.  They had completely lost their way and conflict enveloped them.

Conflict is a common element in human relationships and is usually considered a negative thing that ought be avoided, so much so that much conflict is never resolved, never dealt with.  It lies fallow in human life dividing people and festering until its viral tentacles lace human hearts with hatred, bitterness and division.  We see it nightly on the TV news.  Tonight, the brutal attack on a woman by her ex-partner who ran into her car and overturned it in his rage at her.  A couple of huge rugby league players took their rage out on a volunteer referee at a junior game and threatened him.  I have felt angry at the public treatment of Adam Goodes, an AFL footballer and Australian of the Year in 2014.  People have begun to boo him on the field because he has made a stand against racism and for his people of Aboriginal Australia.  He is a man of great integrity and grace but encountering the worst side of Australian nature.  The stories, large and small abound and we find ourselves surrounded by conflict and the consequent violence, in word and action, as people find it difficult to resolve, or better, transform their anger and conflict into a positive creative force that drives health and well-being.

Back to the band.  U2, the phenomenally successful band, were at loggerheads and descending into divisive rancour.  In the midst of the tension and trying to force new songs into being, the guitarist (Edge) was playing a couple of bridge sections from one song and was growing more deeply frustrated because they weren’t right for the song and he couldn’t find the right way ahead.  The producer heard him and suggested he play both parts together, which he did.  Lead singer, Bono, heard the music and picked up a microphone.  Inspired by a note he had written to the Dalai Lama, he began improvising lyrics.  It began with the idea of the note: ‘We are one but we are not the same.’  A song emerged, one that draws people together.  It asks the questions of division and disagreement.  It calls for a recognition that we are all one but all different.  For Bono, the lyrics draw on many levels of human conflict and reality.  It is about the angst between father and son.  It is about relationships in families and communities.  It is about a band on the verge of breaking up amidst a nation unifying after years of separation through communism.  It is about forgiveness and the recognition that we are all different but have something unique and special to offer each other and the world around.  It is about creative restoration where four young men find within themselves their own unique contribution to a band that is prophetic and unique.  Without any one of them U2 is not U2 but something less.  Without the unique contribution each brings to finding the songs and the voice of those songs, they don’t ring out, don’t inspire.  They fail to live.

In a world where there is less distance between people than ever before and where the distance between life and catastrophe is a fine line and where violence has more immense power than ever before the song, One, has a power to touch our hearts and call us into love.  The song ends: One love, one blood. One life, you got to do what you should. One life, with each other, Sisters, brothersOne life but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other. One life.  One…

I also read the readings for this Sunday – Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6:24-35.  The first speaks of unity of spirit – there is One faith, One Lord, One baptism…  The author calls us to be humble, gentle of heart and to seek unity with all of our heart and being.  He goes on to say that God has created us each uniquely with particular gifts, skills and contributions to the whole but if we won’t or can’t offer our contribution the whole suffers.  When one is elevated beyond everyone else there is imbalance.  When we consider one person better, more significant than all else, then serious problems arise as everything gets distorted.  The author speaks of the church as a body, the Body of Christ, where all have a part in building up the body into full maturity so that we can work together for a common cause, a common mission – the mission of love for the sake of the whole world.  When the church ‘gets this’ it is beautiful and a rich, effective, vital community of people who are a gift to the world.  When we don’t get this, we are awful as we divide, fight and hurt each other.  We deny the love, grace and forgiveness that God offers and live in bitterness, fear and conflict that sucks any life from us.

The other passage from John invites us to more deeply ponder the basis and direction of our lives.  On what do we trust and depend?  Where does our sustenance come from?  Are we grounded in a deep source of strength and life that nurtures our being and gives us clarity of love and forgiveness, of grace and peace in our inner being?  The author speaks of Jesus as the Bread of Life that feeds and nurtures our soul and fills the hunger that tugs at our inner being – an existential hunger that we all feel.

We live in a society where power struggles and conflicts are prevalent and division is rampant.  When we feel the exclusive power of division and are left out or feel worthless by virtue of station in life, education, skills, looks, career, home… we rage and anger flares within until it erupts.  This eruption breaks us within and without flowing into relationships and communities and surging against the same emotions in others until alliances are formed or wars are fought.  Much of this conflict arises from the existential longing each of us feels but many ignore or seek to fill in some superficial manner.  The author of John’s Gospel invites us to let go and feed on the way of Jesus, to draw near to God who forgives and transforms and fills the soul with love.  This is life but few ever find it and fewer live within its sheer wonder and grace for very long.  Put together these passages cry out in myriad ways for us to stop, draw deeply and allow love to flow in and through us, to be people of peace, grace and love for the sake of the world.  We are one but we aren’t the same and we get to carry each other. One love; One life; One God.

By geoffstevenson