When Barriers are Built and People Excluded…

Conflict and inner turmoil is the virus that creates havoc and often death of groups or organisations.  I have been part of many groups over the years – sporting teams and clubs, school parent organisations, musical groups, churches and church organisations and groups, community groups…  Most of these have experienced some form of dissension or conflict.  This is to be expected when people gather together because we are all different and express different perspectives, views and opinions.  All these are fair enough; each is entitled to their view unless, of course, it is basically untrue and/or slanderous, vindictive, unjust and so on, like so much public rhetoric.

In some of these organisations internal conflict has driven the agenda and completely side-tracked the group from any constructive life and work.  I remember one particular group many years ago.  A group of adults met around children’s issues to improve the opportunities for children – theirs and others.  There was a good agenda and positive feel for a while.  Then there developed some misunderstandings between two groups of people.  Some of the issues came from other places and were brought into this group as a simple lack of trust.  There were also power plays at work.  In the end each gathering became a battleground for the two groups to throw darts at each other.  The time between the gatherings was a power struggle to convince non-aligned people to come aboard one side of the other.  The whole group became unworkable and limped along until eventually some people left and the group had to rebuild itself completely.

This is not a unique story and reminds me of how inner conflict and power struggles can destroy the spirit, direction and functioning of a group.  Any sense of community and belonging is severely impacted.  Struggles for power and control often dominate groups until one or the other emerges victorious.  We saw this in the NRMA a few years ago.  Sporting clubs and organisations have wrestled with power struggles and financial issues for decades all to the detriment of those involved in playing the sport.

On a broader scale, societies, cultures and nations use measures to control the populace and enable those in power to maintain power.  We define people to either belong or to symbolise the ‘enemy’ and push them to the margins.  There is a strong ‘us and them’ ethos that excludes and forms barriers to stop people coming into our group or organisation.  These barriers are not necessarily physical, although programs like ‘stopping the boats’ create and use physical barriers to prevent people belonging.

Most barriers are through the creation of rules that define who is in and who is out.  A culture of exclusion through limiting power of involvement so that only particular people can make decisions is also common.  Most groups and organisations struggle to some degree with how to balance membership so that the purposes and ideals of the organisation are maintained but there is also openness to new members who may differ in understanding or even direction.  There is no point in a football club including people who only want to play cricket and are actively working to turn football teams into cricket teams.  It is more difficult when there are people who want to take the style of football club in a different direction or develop teams in a new way…

So we come to this week’s challenging Gospel reading from Mark 9:38-50.  It occurs with Jesus journeying to Jerusalem and his death.  He has revealed himself as the Messiah but one with a different kind of expectation to the popular opinion.  He is not a military leader-king but a non-violent proclaimer of God’s peace, justice and love amidst a world of violent and power, injustice and struggle, pain and alienation.  In this section Jesus makes clear his purpose to include all who want to be part of God’s Reign of just living, loving-kindness, inclusive community and peacemaking.  He points especially to the little ones, the vulnerable and weak, the powerless and marginalised, and indicates that God’s Reign is as much for them as anyone.  If anyone actively or ignorantly excludes these people from God’s grace they are working against the purposes of God.

The disciples are concerned because there are prophets and healers and others speaking the words of Jesus and doing things in his way, using his name, for the common good.  They are concerned that ‘he is not following us’.  They are concerned over the loss of control and exclusive ownership of ministry and ideas and the use of God’s power to transform.  It is a common problem in churches and other groups or organisations where particular people wield power and control, usually for good but hold onto it until it becomes exclusive, even dictatorial.  There is fear and a sense of responsibility, a need for particular order and to satisfy rules or polity or tradition and without realising it the whole enterprise closes up and excludes, builds barriers and keeps those who might belong out.

Jesus has some weighty words for those who would control and exclude in such manner, creating a stumbling block before these little ones, it would be better for you to have a millstone put around your neck and be thrown into the sea.  It is be better, suggests Jesus, to enter into God’s Realm limping, wounded or scarred by the inner struggle of life and the spiritual journey that is transformative and sometimes hard – the road less travelled – than to be outwardly whole but never deal with the inner demons of life.  As one commentator puts it:

The good news in this parable is not that Jesus expects us to show up in heaven completely intact, pure and unblemished. But rather that Jesus knows we will stumble and expects us to show up lame and scarred by the inner struggle to be true to our loyalty to God as frail and faulty human beings.

Another commentator suggests the following and asks these questions for us to ponder in the light of our own churches, organisations and groups.

This text invites communities to identify the self-constructed stumbling blocks that prevent flourishing. In other words, are there subtle ways in which the church sabotages its own ministries? Are the goals of committees in conflict with each other? Is the ministry of the church controlled by a select few whose needs and interests do not represent the larger body? Is the church clinging to a self-identity that no longer reflects its membership or a vision that no longer holds relevance? What’s keeping the church from discerning the will of God and pursuing Christ’s ministry? How can the church become Spirit-led rather than ego-driven?

I wonder how our churches and organisations will respond?  I wonder how often we stand in the way of others experiencing God’s grace through our culture, rules or words?

By geoffstevenson

Who Is Great?

I remember the rhetoric of Mohammed Ali when he was in his prime: ‘I am the greatest!’ He had a whole raft of slogans that described his capabilities and what he would do to his opponents.  He was charismatic and had a big mouth but he more often than not backed it up in the ring and certainly was one of the greatest boxers.  Others who have emulated his rhetoric have not necessarily backed it up with action.

What does it mean to be great?  What does it mean to be the greatest?  How do we measure greatness?  Is it through awards, whether the Nobel Prize or the various honours given out by national bodies.  I often wonder about the Australia Day and Queens Birthday Honours lists.  There are certainly the usual array of figures receiving them – politicians, military leaders, sports people, media and entertainment personalities.  Perhaps they are all deserving, perhaps not.  I’m not convinced of the veracity of such things or that those who essentially do their jobs well enough deserve such awards.  There are others, hidden amidst the lists of names, who are simple people doing some extraordinary things and more inspiring, perhaps deserving of ‘greatness’.

Again I ask: What is greatness and who is great?  How do we measure such?  I remember my involvement with kids and staff at the Hills School in Northmead.  It is a place where kids who live with intellectual and physical disability can go and receive education appropriate to their particular needs.  These are kids and young people who do not have the same capacity as other people.  Their lives are harder and learning is more difficult.  They struggle with the simplest things and often the physical disabilities that accompany their intellectual one makes life tough.  These young people are inspiring and show real courage in the face of that with which they live.  More than that, they are caring and loving.  They laugh and enjoy life, singing and dancing and running around with smiles and laughter.  They tell stories, simple stories that are full of serious intent or side-splittingly funny.  These young people are inclusive and welcoming.  They show kindness and appreciation and friendship.  They appreciate the little things that are done for them far more than other children.  When with them I gained a deeper sense of what it means to be human.  These young people are at the bottom of society in terms of success or raw achievement and yet I feel a deep and profound ‘greatness’ in who they are and what they do.

I remember on the many performance evenings spent at the old Hills Centre for the schools in the region.  Each school performed items of music or dance to the eager parents watching in the auditorium.  Every year the Hills School participated.  They usually did a dance where students in wheel chairs were pushed around the stage by dedicated staff.  They smiled, laughed and sang and thoroughly enjoyed their part of the performance.  Another group of their students sang and danced and gave themselves to the performance with absolute engagement.  They moved so well for children and young people limited by mobility problems.  They effused and radiated joy and wonder in bucket loads – and they were appreciated by an audience who cheered and clapped and enjoyed the thorough enjoyment of the group.  Their performance was simple and less complex than the others but there was something truly great and powerful about it.  So what is greatness?  Who is great?

I thought these thoughts when I read the Gospel passage for the week – Mark 9:30-37.  In the story Jesus’ disciples ask this question of greatness – who is the greatest?  Actually they argue about it!  Which is the greatest?  This comes after Jesus has spoken again of the fact he will be arrested, tried and crucified but rise after 3 days.  They not only don’t get it, they fail to understand the nature of true greatness.  What were they debating?  What was the basis for their determination of greatness?  Presumably they argued about success, strength, achievement, power and capability.  Presumably they argued on the basis of who could do what or who had more capacity or skills or talent.  Whatever it was they realised fairly quickly that they were not speaking the same language as Jesus.  When asked what they were talking about they went silent.  They perhaps realised how far from Jesus they were.  He was talking about sacrifice and death and they were playing games with starry-eyed wonder of Mohammed Ali proportions.

Jesus, perceiving their debate, took a child, a paradox in the first century, and suggested that if anyone wants to be great they must be least; they must welcome a child and in that action they are welcoming God.  The paradox of children in antiquity was that they were the future for the family and would provide care and protection in older age.  At the same time they were liabilities in the present and had no status.  Children, it seems, were not to be seen or heard.  They were quite literally nothing of any status.  In receiving a child one is receiving a vulnerable (non)person who had no status.  Jesus identifies himself and consequently, God, with the vulnerable status-less position of a child.  He invites his followers to side with the least and be vulnerable and humble.  In this way they will achieve true greatness although the world around will laugh at them and abuse them and dismiss them.  Of course this is exactly what they did to Jesus!

I wonder about this, about receiving the least among us and recognising how in the vulnerability there is a deeper integrity and strength, a life and humility that draws us together.  This is what I found at the Hills School in the kids, the staff and the parents who are drawn together through these kids and young people who have courage and inspiration and life that is quite different from that celebrated daily in media stories and movies, books and songs…  I find myself touched and moved more deeply in this simple presence than I do before great sports heroes or entertainers or politicians or academics.  I find these young people who struggle to communicate are more commanding and attractive than the powerful people who often have more than a hint of arrogance.

This week we lived through yet another change of Prime Minister, another of the revolving doors of political leaders within Federal and State politics in Australia.  I don’t know all the machinations and politicking in the background that generates these changes but I do wonder about how much glory, power and the attraction of ‘greatness’ is an influence in these events.  I wonder how the belief of self-greatness inspires people to seek and fight for the top job and how arrogance and lack of humility leads to their downfall?  I contrast our recent leaders, rather confident and somewhat arrogant with one like Nelson Mandella whose true greatness was forged in the struggle of persecution and the vulnerability of being a black man in a white world.  What does it mean to be truly great?  Perhaps it means to be deeply human – compassionate, humble and gracious.

By geoffstevenson

Who Am I…

Who am I? Who am I, this insignificant one who dawdles along the sometimes narrow, less chosen way and sometimes the comfortable other way of the mob?  Who am I who sojourns through this and unknowing and unknown except by the few who share something of this brief journey we call life?  Who am I that I might consider myself ‘somebody’ or even contemplate this question, this existential pondering that will lead me along uncertain paths of curious questioning?

I am the ‘sometimes person’ who is sometimes wise and sometimes naïve.  I am sometimes quick and often slow to get it or realise where I am or what I am to do.  Sometimes I feel confused about who I am and where I’m heading or what I’m doing.  I am sometimes certain, sure and arrogantly ‘right’ about anything or everything and argue until I am overcome with the stupidity of what I’m doing and wonder, again, who am I?

I look beyond and see the others over there and wonder how I compare – am I like them, as good, powerful, wise, clever?  Can I do what they can do and if I can’t does that make me something less?  Less than what?  Who am I?  I hear the messages that come clambering from media mouthpieces, advertising agencies and populist politicians and wonder where I am in this milieu of manic manipulation.  Who am I if I don’t have the right investment portfolio, drive the right car, have the correct career, live in the right place, listen to the right music, purchase the latest gizmos or spend countless hours letting the world know what I am doing, thinking, eating and playing with on social media?  Who am I if I don’t look or speak or act like the others, the rest, those who command centre stage in the hearts or minds of the proletariat?  I seem to be defined by what I can do or what I have, my work or social status or education or something else that might distinguish me from others, lift me above the tribe.  I am defined by comparison and I confess that I find it very unsatisfactory!

I don’t really think I care too much what another can do or think or what they have.  What does another person’s ability or status mean to me?  How does it define me or make me better or worse?  How does another’s capacity affect me?  If he has more letters beyond his name or she earns more money than I or they own a bigger home or are more talented at something, what is that to me?  How does that change me or make any significant difference to who I am or what I can be?  I despise how the world around makes expectations upon who I am and what I should be or think or do.  I hate being called ‘un-Australian’ because I think the Federal Parliament are a bunch of heartless people who play politics with the lives of those who are different, demonising the powerless and vulnerable because they have no recourse.  When I do not agree with national politics or economic analysis by the new high priests of western culture, I feel pushed to the margins because I am different and have stood against the mob.

Who am I when I feel the reality of the poverty of human life, the poverty of spirit that makes us wonder and question and cry out to someone beyond us, the great Mystery of Love?  Who am I when I feel squashed into an expectation of being human that doesn’t fit my strange shape and odd ideas and in which I feel no life or joy or hope?  Who am I and who will I be?  What will I make of this strange mixture of body, mind and spirit that encounters the world through this skin and mind and being that is me, this particular combination of DNA, proteins and coded mystery at the heart of life that makes me, me?  Who is me?

In my ponderous mood I encounter the ironic good news of the radical rabbi who engenders enigmatic uncertainty as we travel the ancient roads of Palestine.  A man who is blind encounters Jesus on the way, who becomes the way and opens eyes and ears and invites all to listen.  Jesus and the followers make a strange journey north to the politically charged town named for the Emperor and the local King, Caesarea Philippi.  In this strange space he asks who others understand him – ‘who do they say that I am?’  Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, a prophet returned to life…

‘So, who do you say that I am?’  Peter, the mouthpiece blabs it out without thinking.  Perhaps it’s been building up and without thought it springs forth – ‘You are the Christ (the Messiah)!’  Well done Peter and so let’s go as I have a date with destiny in the Holy City where they will arrest me, try me and kill me.  After three days I will rise and live.

Peter was incensed because Jesus was irrational.  The Messiah was a military leader to restore power and glory to Israel, to free the people and glorify God in their might and strength and being.  What was this nonsense about vulnerability and dying?  How could Jesus own the Messiah label and talk like this?

Who am I? asked Jesus.  Who will I be and how to define myself in this strange world?  His culture defines people through relationships – family, village and clan.  He has turned away from these structures, embracing others into a new and deliberate community that he calls the Reign of God.  They are family and all are welcome but it is not an easy way because they define themselves in a manner contrary to the world around, the powers that be.  They stand out in the crowd and deny themselves the ordinary options of life that shames and excludes, that judges and demonises the one who is different or wrong or messed up or from the other side of life.

Jesus refuses to be defined by the powers of the world and their violent use of force to keep people under control, contrite and fearful.  He refuses to identify with powerful forces who stand over others and demand they conform and toe the line.  He walks to the beat of a different drum, a different rhythm that plays a new song and fills the world with a different voice.  It is a new story sung into being, a song sung blue or gold, or rainbow brilliant colours that stirs the soul and threatens the world with love and peace.  The powers cannot cope with love.  It exposes their lying, abusive existence and they rebel and stand tall behind their weapons and rhetoric of fear and threat.  Jesus begins the long walk not to freedom but to the death in the Holy City of God.  He walks and talks and invites others into this dying-rising life, the life of God.  It is a strange, ironic invitation that invites us to turn ourselves upside down and inside out and to walk away from worldly expectation and nonsensical notions that define and regulate our thinking, our belief and our lives.  This is a walk to freedom but doesn’t sound like it because our ears are full of ‘their’ words and our eyes are blinded to life as it can be.

Who am I?  Who will I be?  I will allow myself to be and become in the One who holds all in love and truth, grace and peace; the One who offers life in the ancient-original meaning for a world still being born into the Love of God.

By geoffstevenson

When Change is Life…

Fifteen hundred years ago, a group of Polynesian settlers sailed to Easter Island and set out to replicate their previous society, which was deeply rooted in hierarchal power structures, religious conviction, and plentiful trees and fish. Ignoring the fact that the farming and fishing conditions were far worse than what they were used to back home, they adhered to ancient ways: slash-and-burn agriculture and building statues to the gods to bring them good fortune.

Over the next thousand years they cornered themselves into an untenable situation. The palm trees that once provided their sustenance, shelter, and boats eventually became extinct and the surrounding waters no longer provided fish.  Soon people began to starve.  Since the Easter Islanders relied heavily on their relationship with the divine powers, their solution was to build increasingly elaborate stone statues and places of worship.  When the situation didn’t improve, hierarchies broke down, wars broke out between the clans, and the people resorted to human sacrifice and cannibalism. Few islanders remained when Dutch colonials arrived and those that did were sold into slavery.

This is the story that confronts most of us in smaller or larger ways as the world changes and we are forced to renegotiate things and embrace what are called ‘Adaptive Challenges’. Sometimes these challenges require a reworking of our world view and how we engage the world in which we live.  If the Polynesian settlers on Easter Island had embraced the reality that this new island was different – their new world was significantly different to the old one, they might have acted differently?

Having said that, it is not easy to change our perspective in such dramatic ways and such transformation is often painful and hard as we learn new ways to live and be and develop a new range of expectations.  Such change is sometimes given to us as an option and sometimes it is thrust upon us with no choice.  We live between that which was and that which will be – a place of disorientation and confusion as we recalibrate our lives, expectations, hopes and habits.

We are facing such momentous changes in Western society at this time – a once every 500 years upheaval that will result in transformation across the whole spectrum of human life.  It has happened before with the same upheaval.  The last was in the 16th century and accompanied the Enlightenment, Renaissance, the printing press and other significant changes.  There was a movement from the feudal system into the modern forms of liberal democracy and capitalism.  The clan structures of family life broke down and the nuclear family was born.  Cities became the centre of society in new ways as people sought new forms of work to support their families

This is all changing again.  Some economists have pointed to the need or movement from capitalism as it currently exists to some new form of economy.  Communications, transportation and technological revolutions have changed, and continue to change, the way people live.  Our world is vastly different from a century, even half a century ago and we face significant changes that consume our energy and time.  The difficulty is that we don’t know where these things are actually leading.  We can see this in the confusion of politicians who seem unable to make decisions or direct us.  They are as confused disoriented as any other people.  Our institutions are under siege and facing immense change and we feel the stress of trying to maintain structures and forms that aren’t working – so we try harder and harder in a futile bid to rein things in.

In the midst of all this we rush more and more and work harder to accumulate more or try to control things and find ourselves stressed and tense or overwhelmed.  We don’t think to stop and look and listen, to find a deep spiritual space in which to ground ourselves and be renewed.  We don’t allow ourselves to engage in spiritual practices that will renew us because the rejection of all things spiritual is part of the materialistic (and scientific) paradigm that controls so much of Western culture: If it can’t be seen, studied, controlled, manipulated… it doesn’t exist!

In the midst of all this I read the Gospel story for the week (Mark 7:24-37).  The main story is confronting and confusing.  A woman described as being of Syrophoenician origin burst into the house where Jesus was resting – perhaps praying, reflecting on his mission and where God wanted him to go next.  She threw herself at his feet and begged hin to heal her daughter.  All this was inappropriate trod all over cultural taboos.  A woman ought not speak to a man who wasn’t her relative.  She was a Greek, a pagan, a Gentile and he a Jewish rabbi.  She was abusing his space with her pagan presence and interrupting his prayer and rest.  It was all wrong and Jesus responded in a manner we might want to say was out of character?  He was rude and racist in response – he called her a dog.  This was apparently a common term to describe Gentiles.  She begged for help and he suggested that the food was for the children (the Jewish people) and it wasn’t right to throw it to the dogs.  She came back at him and said that even the family dogs eat the scraps and crumbs the children leave under the table – she wanted some crumbs!

Jesus seems to have been impacted by this exchange and her rhetoric, her boldness, her desperation, her humanity.  He told her to go, because of her words her daughter is now healed.  Jesus went from there further into Gentile territory away from his familiar stamping ground in Galilee and the Jewish homelands.  He encountered other Gentiles and ministered to them and then there is a feeding story where thousands eat from simple food provided.  The significance is that God has food enough for the whole world – even the Gentiles!

Did something change in Jesus in this encounter?  Did he shift his stance from a Jewish centric ministry to one that embraced the whole world?  Were his eyes opened to people of other races and cultures in a new way?  Did he see how the grace of God needed to reach out beyond the Jewish world in which he lived?  Was this an eye-opening, mind-expanding encounter, the answer to his prayers for guidance for the next step?  Whatever it was, it seems that Mark is pushing Jesus out further into the wilderness, the margins and edges of life where grace and hope, love and peace are desperately needed; where the Reign of God needs to be experienced and lived and revealed in human life.

In these times of change we need to find the space to be quiet and listen to the Spirit within, to be renewed but also to be emboldened to embrace the new challenges and possibilities for the life of the world, the mission of which God invites us to be part.

By geoffstevenson