Love – More than Mushy Feelings and Sentimental Sop??!

I believe that love is the most powerful force in the world and the only true power capable of transforming the world for good!  This may seem a strange statement given how ‘love’ is portrayed in popular media.  It is generally associated with romantic feelings and human sexuality.  ‘Love’ is portrayed through stories of ‘boy meets girl, falls head over heels…’.  Many songs and movies with ‘love’ as the central theme use the default setting of two people falling in and out of love and then back in love in a deeper way and living happily ever after.  Love is sentimental, sweet, nice and generally in the context of two people in intimate relationship.  Sometimes the love of parents for children surfaces in a movie and very occasionally a story takes us into the larger dimension of sacrificial love.  Someone give themselves for the sake of others.  These stories really move us but possibly also confound us.  How is this possible?  Surely this is extreme and not the expected norm?  It is a good story of a unique individual but not for most of us to emulate.  Mostly, popular love stories are endlessly recycled and also seem far from reality – and they are.

This week I will celebrate a wedding and the young couple will vow their love for one another.  We will read the ‘compulsory’ wedding passage, 1 Corinthians 13.  There will be photographs and smiles, promises and much love will be talked about and shared.  Is it really love?  Of course it is but all too often we settle for a diminutive form of love and loving.  Our expectations have been seriously lowered by the Disneyland makeover of love; of the popular music that promises the world but delivers little.  Take a journey through the lyrics of love songs over the years and cringe at the mush and sentimentality.  They sound nice but rarely measure up to reality – because life is real and the truth of love more demanding and difficult.

As I celebrate this wedding I will attempt to introduce something of the deeper reality of relationships – they are hard and require commitment and work.  This is what love is!  Love is not found in the romantic feelings or the bliss of infatuation, as nice and even important as these are in the process towards love.  Love is in the commitment to act for the well-being of another or others.  Paul writes his profound passage on the back of Jesus’ life and death, of his words that ring through the millennia: ‘No greater love has a person than to lay down their life for their friends!’  He goes on: ‘And you are my friends!’  Jesus’ central commandment for those who would follow him was quite straightforward – Love!  Love God with all you are and love your neighbour as you love yourself.  He suggests that if we do this, we fulfil everything in all the law and prophets, everything of faith, of God.  Love is central.

This love is not soft or mushy but takes a courageous path that challenges people to be better, reach higher and challenges every aspect of our lives.  How do we think about other people?  How do we respond to one another and those who are different?  Do we fear others?  This is not the way of love because in love there is no fear.  Love takes on the powers that are unjust and unfair, powers that deprive the little ones of life and hope and it does so with courage and strength.  Love stands against everything that is wrong in the world but does not engage violence or hatred – it is bigger and better than that.  Love doesn’t lower itself to the course ways of the mighty and arrogant, nor does it bear grudges or seek revenge.  Love’s power and truth reveals the weakness and flaws in human life and invites us to live in hope and joy in a new way.  We are challenged to raise our eyes and look to higher, more profound things that offer spiritual, emotional and physical enlightenment; that liberate us to become more fully, truly and deeply human in the way of Jesus.

Love is the way of wisdom and enlightened living.  It values and appreciates the small and large joys and wonders of life and celebrates all the remarkable achievements of the human spirit.  Love draws us into a community where everyone has a place and is looked upon equally – there are no levels or layers of importance, assumed, presumed or expected.  As Paul says, ‘In Christ there is no Jew or gentile, male or female, slave of free.’  All find their place, equally, at God’s table and in God’s community.

1 Corinthians 13 opens with well-known lines claiming that without love whatever we do or achieve in nothing.  If we achieve great things but do not love, they are empty achievements.  Great and profound words without love fall flat, like a clanging cymbal.  The fundamental context of living and being is love and without love in our hearts, minds and being, we are falling short of who we can be.  This is not based on feelings but is an attitude and commitment to work for what is true and right, just and life-giving.

Love is forgiving but it isn’t sickly sweet or weak, overlooking that which is wrong.  It works for truth and justice, because justice is what love looks like in public.  I think of Martin Luther King jr, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and many others who have struggled to make love the fundamental reality of their lives and world.  Sometimes the powers have crushed them and left them in despair but always love rises from the ashes of defeat for it never gives up and always perseveres.  Love is the power that lifts us out of despair and gives us the impetus to go on and work for that which is right and good.  We stand against the powers that diminish life and are anti-love; the powers that reduce love to sentimental feelings with a feel-good storyline that leaves us feeling good but unchanged and the world still longing for hope and peace.

Love is this power because the essence of God is love and the source of love is God.  John (in 1 John 4) speaks of love also.  There he says that God is love; all who live in love know God because God is love.  The power of God in the world is the power of love.  Such love is the only true power that will change the world and transform human life.  It is the power that lifts us above all alternatives and pretenders to a place where we find our true self and the way of our calling in life.  As we venture in this way, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus in the way of love.  We are challenged to embrace the stranger and love our neighbour.  We are invited to lay down our weapons of violence – physical, psychological and verbal – and choose the vulnerable, courageous way of love.

I will attempt to say something of this in the wedding service and hope some of it may penetrate the pleasantries and high emotions of the moment.  More than that, I will seek to rise to the challenge of this profound passage with its serious implications for the politics and economics of the world and the transformation of human violence and conflict.  I will seek personal choices that are liberating and draw people into the community of God’s grace and bring peace, hope, faith and life.   What about you?

By geoffstevenson

Advance Australia Fair (and Generous!)

Tuesday is Australia Day. It means many different things to different people. Some enjoy another holiday. Others celebrate the history of this nation. Some remember the struggle of indigenous Australians over the last 215 years and the immense difficulty and struggle that they continue to experience. Some are staunch Monarchists whilst others are strongly Republican. Some have family histories that go back several generations and others are new arrivals. All of us (unless we descend from Indigenous Australians) are of immigrant origin – truly boat people. Some Australians live on the land and seek to work with the harsh environment whilst most of us revere the myths of the outback but live in cities full of high rise buildings or the sprawling suburbia.

I always come to this celebration with mixed thoughts and feelings. On the one hand this is a good country with many things to celebrate, appreciate and enjoy. I am not a ‘seasoned traveller’ who has ventured far and wide and has felt the ‘call of home’ from distant places. I can’t easily compare our nation with others except through what I read and hear across airwaves and internet. I have ventured to the South Pacific and recognise they have considerably less, materially, than we have but show more gratitude and joy than we do. Would I, could I, live in one of these ‘idyllic’ Pacific Paradises? Probably not but they ask questions of me.

The part of me that comes to this day with something other than celebration is that which detests the incessant drive towards patriotism and uncritical acceptance of all things ‘Australian’. The awful and derisive use of ‘Un-Australian’ is a simple way to end any reflective critique of the land we love and call home. Like every household and family, there is the good and problematic. Nothing is perfect and nothing above reflection and growth. Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates said: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’ Harsh but true. Open reflection, critique and analysis is important for an individual and a society if we are to grow, mature and become who and what we can be.

It is often difficult in modern Australia to raise issues of important conversation because such conversation is quickly closed down. When it confronts the political narrative, governments and oppositions quickly silence it. When it confronts corporate Australia, the business world throw vast sums at silencing debate or any change – when conversation raged around creating a tax base for the mega profits of the mining industry, we were overwhelmed with their media blitz. When we peer into the heart of Australian life and look at the reality, few want to venture there. It is true, however, that only as we venture more deeply into the reality that is our nation, our life, that we appreciate its true and deeper beauty. We will also discover what we can be; who we are becoming. It is only as we confront the real heart of Australian life in all its diversity that we hear the breadth of the conversation, the voices that are gentle or silenced and see the beauty of people who share this cultural mix-pot and seek the best for themselves and their family.

The reality, as social researcher Hugh Mackay and others describe, is that Australia is both wonderful and hard. We have the vast, but shrinking, beauty of the natural landscape. Gorgeous bushland, sunburnt, golden beaches with clear blue water, a diversity of unique and wondrous wildlife, are things we enjoy and love. We live in a modern nation that has wealth and a high standard of living. We have been mostly generous in distributing that wealth across its people, although the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ continues to widen at an increasing rate. Prophetic rock band, Midnight Oil, summed it up in the line: ‘The rich get richer and the poor get the picture.’ Mackay’s research bears this out.

We are wealthy people, by the standards of the world where 80% of the world’s population shares only 20% of the world’s resources! (This same imbalance applies in Australia where 10-20% of the population own most of the wealth) Whilst many Australians are generous when others need a hand, as a nation we give relatively little in overseas aid to poorer and developing nations. Many of the older generation attest to a growing greediness amongst Australians – we are encouraged to consume and accumulate material possessions and keep everything for ourselves. Despite our growing wealth there is clearly not and equal growth in contentment. If anything, Australians are less content, more stressed and less happy than ever before. There is more pressure on significant relationships, families, communities and a breakdown in personal interaction at meaningful levels where people feel they can ‘belong.’ Social research reveals this deeper truth we may know in our being and feel in our bones but is lost in the plethora of decisions, bustling activity and unrelenting demands on time and energy. We are a people under stress. As we ‘prosper’ materially and as social technological and communications changes impose more possibilities on our already full lives, we feel the weight of choice, decisions and keeping up. We feel this weight in our bodies, minds and spirits. We are tired and rushed and the inevitable consequences of modern stress detract from our well-being and enjoyment of life. Mackay points to this stress in his book Advance Australia Where? A summary article suggests the following: The key effect of all these changes has been to place great stress on countless individual Australians. Inevitably, Mackay explains, other things have had to “give”.

The first is family. Many young adults postpone marriage and children to their thirties or forties or eschew them entirely. The divorce rate is historically high (more than 40 per cent) and the birth rate historically low (1.7 babies a woman).

Our health and wellbeing have suffered. Obesity, depression, anxiety, loneliness, drug use, alcoholism, gambling, porn consumption – their incidence has risen appreciably.

As we have gained more, materially, our lives have become more consumed with the associated consumption and the distraction that having ‘too many toys’ brings. We don’t have time to sit and ‘be’. We don’t have time to chat or share long meals unless we can fit them in around busy schedules. We don’t take time to ponder and reflect and wonder and ask curiosity questions. We have too little time or energy to pray and that is bad for the spiritual dimension of our being. Perhaps it is time for Australians to consider those things which are of true value and those which are merely seductive and don’t bring greater contentment, meaning or joy. Relationships and acts that make a difference to other people are clearly more meaningful and satisfying than accumulated wealth. Beyond providing for necessities and important extras, more significant wealth fails to bring higher levels of satisfaction, joy, meaning or contentment. This is not the predominant message that I hear through media and society.

Australia has been a wonderful place for many immigrants (as I suggested earlier, everyone bar the original Australians of immigrant stock). People from across the world have made Australia home and have mostly been welcomed, although there has been a period of ‘getting used to’ new cultures. Many have come seeking refuge and asylum from various wars or forms of persecution. They have sought this land because of the freedom and openness they have heard that typifies our people. Australians pride themselves on being egalitarian and fighting for the underdog, and the battler. We like to believe in a fair go for everyone. We have, arguably, one of the most successful racial mixes of any nation. Our multiculturalism has always been part of modern Australia. Accompanying multiculturalism has always been forms of racism – they are still present. Those of you who have come from foreign lands more recently will attest to the racism that is present in our nation. Often it comes from fear or uncertainty of unknown people. It breaks down if, and when, we meet each other and get to know each other – it’s really difficult to hate those we actually like and have come to understand! Racism tends to bedirected towards specific ethnic groups. Previously it was Italians and Germans and other Southern Europeans, then Asians. Today it is more towards those of Islamic nations and those of the Middle East. Racism appears in many forms and guises. It is personal and institutional – some of our significant foreign policies are distinctly racist but hide behind ‘National Security’ or terrorism. .

Something changed in our national rhetoric, a decade or so back. We began to revile those seeking asylum and turned them back. It was a sudden decision of political will supported on both sides of parliament and carried by strong rhetoric and the conversation changed. Suddenly people who were previously given an hospitable welcome and support were now looked upon with suspicion and sent packing onto Pacific Islands ill-equipped to deal with the issues of psychology, health and the traumas deep in their human spirit. We are afraid – afraid of who they might be or what they might want. We are afraid but we don’t know why; it’s just how it is. We are constantly reminded to be afraid and alert and suspicious and we carry this angst in our being.

As the material well-being of most Australians continues to rise, for others there is growing gap of hopelessness as they are not invited to share in the prosperity. These are people of various backgrounds and conditions. Some have poor education, for many reasons, and can’t get work. There is always someone a bit better and no matter how they try no-one will employ them. Some live with mental illness, chronic illness or serious disability and find work difficult, if not impossible. There are pensions and benefits but not enough to enable them to engage in what most of us take for granted. I remember a story of a single mum who struggled to hold her life together with 3 small children. She managed her money well and there was always food on the table and clothes for the children. She paid the rent and they went to school but there was nothing left over at the end of the week for the little extras. A hot summer’s day found them unable to afford the $15 to get a bus and go to the local swimming pool – it simple wasn’t in the budget. Welfare agencies know the realities that governments seek to play down. Life is very difficult for many people in Australia.

Parents of children with serious physical and/or intellectual disabilities find the going incredibly tough and there are few who are willing to take time to understand. Time out to enjoy some moments of peace and to do things that you and I take for granted are few and very far between. These are largely invisible people because getting out and about is not easy to manage. In fact many people are invisible in our society, hidden from view in neighbourhoods that keep them isolated, shut off from other people and groups. We all mostly live within our own homes and then drive where we are going. We shop in large anonymous malls designed to get us in and out efficiently, after spending money on the extras we didn’t intend to buy.

The alienation we experience in our lives drives fear, loneliness and existential angst as we seek a deeper purpose and meaning amidst the affluence and prosperity that brings stress but changes our happiness or joy very little. This week’s Gospel reading is quite significant for us in this time of national life. It comes from Luke 4:14-21. It is the inaugural sermon of Jesus in Luke’s story – his mission statement if you like. Jesus read some verses from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

The Jewish conception of poverty, it isn’t only economic. New Testament commentator, Joel Green defines “poor” in the first-century Mediterranean world: In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on.  Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as “poor,” but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and “poor” would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honour in the Mediterranean world.

Poverty is material/ economic but also spiritual, psychological and physical. The poverty for which Jesus promises ‘good news’ is not just economic but also the poverty of oppression where people are held captive. This could be political, religious, economic, health, psychological, addiction – anything that oppresses people and holds them captive. For many in the wealthy West it could affluence and materialism. Jesus’ message and mission is about an alternative that delivers freedom and life rather than ongoing bondage. There are captives and prisoners that Jesus refers to and he speaks of release from the social, spiritual and economic factors that bind people and hold them captive. This is a message for our world and one that we would do well to contemplate on Australia Day.

The promised hope of Jesus challenges our culture and the assumptions of much of our society. It challenges us with another way of seeing the world and the people around us and draws us into a deeper sense of community that is generous, hospitable and grounded in love not fear. This way of God is life-giving for all people, providing a radical realignment of life towards the Reign of God in our world.

By geoffstevenson

New Wine, New Life, New Hopes and Possibilities!

I have spent some of my spare time this week painting one of our rooms. Katelyn moved out a few weeks ago and emptied it of all her furniture, photos, paintings and clothes. It looks rather empty and it was a good opportunity to paint it. The room reflected Katelyn and her love of the colour purple. There was a deep shade on the bottom half and a lighter one at the top. A different colour – called something like ‘crushed   cookies’ – was chosen and covered over the old colour. With nothing in it and a lighter colour the room looks very different from the last several years.

It is easy to paint over something and make it look new, fresh or different. In reality, the room is still the same – same door, same window, same walls, roof and floor. The built-in cupboard in the corner is still the same, as is the structure around the room. The light and fan, power points and skirting board – all the same. It will have a different use by a different person and reflect their personality but it will still be the same room with the same possibilities and limitations.

I thought about what we’re doing in the room as I painted it. I thought about how it will look so different but in its fundamental reality be the same. I thought about how this is the same with much of our lives. It is easy to cover over things in life and hope they will be different. We can change the façade of our being and life but deep down all is the same. We can wear different clothes, change our hair colour or style, drive a different car, live in a bigger house have a better job but deep down the person we are is still the same. We can run, hide, wish, pretend but we are the person we are – with all our limitations AND possibilities. We often limit ourselves by our self-perceptions or the perceptions of others. Often our cultural expectations or rules limit how we understand ourselves – women have had a more difficult time being respected for their capacity than men; Aboriginal people have been treated with much abuse and derision; people who live with disability or mental illness are seen very differently than other people. I know people who grew up in parts of Western Sydney who were told they should not consider university or higher education because they aren’t good enough because they are ‘westies’. I know of people from other cultures who are highly qualified but are not Australian and considered less able than locals and don’t get jobs in which they have proved themselves.

Whilst the room won’t change, what we do with it can change and how we think about it may also change. Perhaps there will be new possibilities for how it is used? Perhaps we need to look at people, at each other, in a new and different way? Perhaps those we see in particular ways are limited by the perceptions of society and culture (and us!) and their real potential is limited. When others don’t believe in us (or we don’t believe in ourselves!) we will limit what we do and believe we can do. When we are given particular limitations by a doctor due to an illness or disability we may never push those limits but accept what is said unquestioningly. I’m told that axolotls (immature salamanders) in a fish tank with an extra wall across it will swim within the limited space. If the extra wall is removed and the tank enlarged, they still swim within the same area they have adapted to. Are people like axolotls? We are when we allow ourselves to be limited by what we see, are told, think or believe absolutely and unquestioningly. When we are not able to ponder and dream, question and push boundaries we are limited like the simple axolotl.

Our culture, like all cultures, is a self-limiting paradigm (world-view) that constructs a system of expectation, assumption, taboo, blessing and social stratification in which we find our place and are expected to stay there. Everything is geared towards the status quo that fights to maintain order and significance. Those on the ‘top’ maintain their high place and those below know where they belong – it is the way of the world.

In the 1st Century they had similar paradigms (world-views and cultural expectations). In the world of 1st Century Palestine, the world of Jesus, the legal code of Moses was paramount. The Temple of Jerusalem with its priests, scribes, teachers of the law and others who had education and therefore power and authority, maintained the authority of the interpreted laws and how they applied to people’s lives. There were over 600 defined laws and knowing and abiding by them was the only way to be right with God. It was the social, legal, cultural and religious code that guided and ruled people’s lives and their cultural expectations. People found themselves and their place in life through the social stratification that evolved out of the Temple and religious culture. They understood their place in the world and before God through this cultural and religious milieu. It was harsh and legalistic – and often exclusive.

This week’s reading (John 2:1-11) is well known because it is the one about Jesus turning water into wine. This story is filled with various symbols that point to God’s lavish, over-abundant generosity that turns the world and our cultural expectations on their head! In a shameful oversight they ran out of wine at the wedding. Coaxed by his mother, Jesus told them to fill 6 stone jars used for the water of purification, which contained around 900 litres between them. In Jewish tradition one glass of water was enough to purify 100 people for worship. Therefore, this picture of 6 large jars holding 900 litres symbolically holds enough water to cleanse the whole world! The abundant new wine of God’s Reign replaces the old ways of purification and offers blessing for the whole world.. The new wine is a symbol of God’s new age arriving, the age of shalom. The sign of good wine stands alongside the feeding of the 5000 in John’s Gospel. Both point to God’s embracing all people and feeding us – body, mind and spirit. The wonder of the steward when he tries the new wine also symbolises God’s abundant grace that gives us the very best. God’s love is abundantly present to all of us and reaches out to the world with lavish, generous grace that releases and realises the true potential within each person.

This story is situated in the midst of the ordinary events of human life. It is a celebration where Jesus blesses the gathering and offers the intimate presence of God. Do we experience blessing in the simple but profound moments of our lives? Are we open to the profound wonder of God’s lavish generosity in the midst of life? Do we recognise that God’s abundant love and grace are ever-present? .We are loved because God is gracious and loving. We are significant because God believes in us! The old expectations no longer hold – whether legalistic Judaism or the cultural expectations that bind people in our world. The status quo is challenged and God lifts up the little ones to take their place at the table and join the party of God. A new day, with new potential dawns in bright colour!

By geoffstevenson

Longing for Life – Where Do We Look?

I wonder how many people actually engage in life, in living? I suspect most of us come close when there is a crisis and life is turned upside down. We are cast into a place that is disturbing and where the ordinary structures and expectations of life are disoriented or removed. When I enter the space of grieving people and hear their story, it is often a place where life has been overwhelmed by chaotic forces that threaten every vestige of normality and turn them upside down. When I sit with, or communicate in some way with people who have experienced an interruption in the ordinary course of their life, through illness or some catastrophic event, there is confusion, anger, pain and disorientation as they try to find equilibrium.

I remember as a young boy being in the surf. It wasn’t particularly rough but we’d had some storms and it was rougher than had been on this holiday. We rode our foam surf boards in the relative shallows and enjoyed catching in the smallish waves. All good fun – until one was a little larger than the rest and caught me. I went under the water and for a few seconds that seemed minutes or hours I was twisted and turned upside down and sideways and completely disoriented. I didn’t know up from down, right from left. I took in copious mouthfuls of water and wanted to breathe. It was reasonably shallow so I eventually hit the sand on the bottom and the wave dissipated leaving me gasping for breath, confused and scared. This, it seems to me, is something close to the experience when chaos overwhelms us.

I began by wondering how many people actually engage in life, in living, in the ordinary course of daily existence. My observation is that most of us, for most of our lives, cruise along held by cultural norms and the expectations that we have unquestioningly embraced. We feel anxiety or frustration with ‘the way things are’ but those feelings rise and fall and we feel powerless to change anything so just get along. As long as all goes well, we remain relatively oblivious to deeper questions or realities that pervade this life we live – they are too big, too difficult or plain too confronting. Whilst life is comfortable and secure we cruise along absorbing the little bumps and annoying frustrations.

This isn’t living – at least not in terms of the wisdom, spiritual traditions. It is being dragged along in the slipstream of cultural expectations and the ideology of someone else who thinks it is a good idea and is equally asleep to the real possibilities of living. At a deeper level I suspect we have some yearning for this life that we perceive occasionally but this yearning is too often quenched in the ordinary seductions of life and we cruise along hoping for normality to reassert itself so that ‘all will be well’. I recognise this yearning as an existential yearning for something deeper; a yearning for a deeper sense of reality, of being. If we allow these intrusions they raise questions about existence and meaning and purpose that challenge the status quo of our society.

We see outbreaks of existential longing in people’s lives when they react out of character and do something crazy or adventurous or even dangerous. There are signs in the ‘mid-life crisis’ where people wake up one day and want to throw everything in and start anew. There comes a point when people will wake up and see their life in a tone of colour that isn’t as bright or wonderful as they had wanted to believe and an existential crisis ensues. Sometimes it finds a resolution and the feelings dissipate in a new but just as ordinary existence. Sometimes the feelings do not resolve and they pursue answers every which way, confused, anxious and searching. Some resolve their existential longings in various forms of addiction that either distracts them or anaesthetises the pain.

There are others who pursue what is often termed a ‘religious quest’. This also takes various forms, from the ‘getting religion’ to the radical journey of deep spirituality. This latter is a journey into deeper introspection and reflection that is open to the rich wisdom of the sacred texts and wise ones who are further along the journey. It is one of learning again, anew, about life and living. It questions the assumptions of society and culture and invites us deeper into the way of love, justice and compassion. This journey is not for the faint-hearted or those in a rush. It recognises the chaotic and disturbing moments of life as crucibles of growth and truth, even as we experience the deep pain of such a life lived. That’s what I feel when I am in the place of grieving or afflicted people; there is a chaotic existence that exposes reality and opens the door to new journeying along another way. At such times we ask different, existential, questions that reveal the blandness, predictability or even unfairness of so much existence. It’s as if we can suddenly ‘see’ and we don’t necessarily like what we see. Nor do we know what to do with these disturbing feelings. We hope for resolution and for the nightmare to end. Or, we take the opportunity to tread another path.

This week we read a simple story of Jesus and his baptism (Luke 3:15-22). It comes each year in slightly different form depending upon the version we read. This version from Luke’s story suggests that John the Baptizer who began this movement and who prepares the way for the One who will come (Jesus), is in prison. It isn’t clear who actually baptises Jesus in this version but it happens and he prays. Whilst praying there is the mysterious mystical experience whereby he receives Divine blessing and the pronouncement that ‘You are my Son the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

The message of John and his baptism is about repentance, about turning life around. His high-pitched, brazen rhetoric calls people out of their stupor, religious and otherwise, and invites them to engage in life – the life that God created them (us) for and will lead us into. He slams the authorities, the traditions, and anything that seduces us into comfortable, ordinary existence. He wakes us up and wants us to live! The trouble with people who do this is that they often end up where he does – in trouble with the authorities, imprisoned or dead. Think Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Romero, Bonhoeffer, Joan of Arc… The status quo will not abide such rhetoric because people want comfort and security, even if it is illusory or demeaning or plain unjust!

Jesus goes under the water and his world is turned upside down. He emerges and prays and is given the blessing of God as ‘Son’, ‘Beloved’ with whom God is well pleased. From here he is driven into the wilderness, the place of testing, temptation, seduction and the lure to let go of this way, this journey, this ideology and expectation of God. Let go and be like everyone else. Jesus resists as he does throughout his life and mission and follows the way of God; a way of compassionate, engaged, just life that is lived in blinding technicolour. It is into this spiritual journey we are invited to follow.

A Prayer from Walter Brueggemann:

Yes

You are the God who is simple, direct, clear with us and for us.

You have committed yourself to us.

You have said yes to us in creation

yes to us in our birth

yes to us in our baptism

yes to us in our awakening in this day.

But we are of another kind,
more accustomed to ‘perhaps, maybe, we’ll see.’
left in wonderment and ambiguity.

We live our lives not back to your yes,
but out of our endless ‘perhaps’

So we pray for your mercy this day that we may live yes back to you,

Yes with our time,

                     Yes with our money

                     Yes with our sexuality

Yes with our strength and with our weakness

                    Yes to our neighbour

                     Yes and no longer ‘perhaps’

In the name of your enfleshed yes to us,

Even Jesus who is our yes into your future. Amen.

 

Further Reflection…

In urban life, there is much to distract people from the spiritual dimension of their lives. Many issues confront us: materialism, the rapid pace of life, change everywhere (including the tension between the modern and postmodern worlds), technological and communications revolutions, knowledge through scientific enterprise to name a few. When life is busy, fast moving and stressful it is difficult to develop and nurture spirituality. Things spiritual are lost as urban dwellers live two-dimensional lives that engage the mind and stimulate the senses. The stories that engage us largely pertain to things of the flesh. Television, print media and radio bring us stories that focus on the tangible and material whilst largely ignoring or denying, that which is spiritual.

Never the less, the search for spiritual meaning is growing as many people seek to make sense of their lives in this stressful time of change. The postmodern generation is openly seeking spiritual reality in a world that has focussed primarily on material and rational meaning. As Brother Roger, of Taize, suggests: “From the depths of the human condition a secret aspiration rises up. Caught up in the anonymous rhythms

of schedules and timetables, men and women of today are implicitly thirsting for the one essential reality: an inner life, signs of the invisible.”

 

Brother Roger again:

“In a technological society, there is a clear separation between prayer and work. When inner life and human solidarity appear to be in competition with one another, as if people had to choose between them, that opposition tears apart the very depths of the human soul.

Prayer is a serene force at work within human beings, stirring them up, transforming them, never allowing them to close their eyes in the face of evil, of wars, of all that threatens the weak of this world. From it we draw energy to wage other struggles – to enable our loved ones to survive, to transform the human condition, to make the earth a fit place to live in.”

 

Henri Nouwen…

The Desert Fathers regarded society as a shipwreck from which every person had to swim for their life. They believed that drifting along blindly accepting the tenets of the society around was dangerous to the Christian. Nouwen says: ‘Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ but a very dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can very easily get strangled and lose our soul.’ He asks if we, followers of Jesus Christ, have become so blinded and accepting of our society that we fail to see these dangers and lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives?

We are very busy people. Our agendas are filled with plans, meetings, social activities, work… We move through life in such busyness that we don’t ever stop to wonder whether what we are doing, thinking or saying are really worth doing, thinking or saying! We go along with the many ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ that have been handed onto us and we live with them as if they are the translation of the gospel of Jesus. These ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ relate to work, money, church, faith, possessions, being liked, happiness and so on. Think about the ‘musts’ and the ‘oughts’ of your life – where do they come from? Do they serve God’s Kingdom? Are they important?

Our lives have become dominated by the dynamics of the secular marketplace – even in the midst of our church life and seeking to be Jesus’ people. We respond to the values and acceptable ways of those around us. Our compulsion is to be accepted, valued, liked. We (often unconsciously) manifest this compulsion, these desires in many ways. We seek to be liked, admired, praised – to be perceived well by the world. If work is valued as a sign of importance, we take on more and more or seek to move upwards. If money or ownership is seen as freedom or happiness, we accumulate more. If knowing many people grows our sense of importance, we will make new contacts. We fear failing and gather more of the same things (work, money, friends…) to ourselves to secure us.

By geoffstevenson

Searching and Finding – in the Least Expected Places!

In this last week of the 2015 I have had two funerals. Funerals at this time of the year are difficult for people. There are mixed emotions with the celebrations of Christmas all around us but the feeling of emptiness and sorrow at the loss of one we love.

The two people could not have been more different and yet they were very similar. Their backgrounds were vastly different and a generation separated them. Both were born in rural NSW and lived through some tough times. The real similarity, though, was in their openness to other people – especially in welcoming others into their homes. The first funeral was an elderly woman who has lived with dementia for a few years and whose health declined over time. She lived a good and full life and was solidly part of the local church. She cared through her cooking and providing food but also offered a home for a few different young people over the years and gave them compassionate care and loving nurture. Her life had the struggles of those who have lived through the harder times of our nation – wars, depression, floods and fires. She seems to have endured these with strength and faith.

The second woman was younger – in her early 60’s – and died far too young. She lived not far from my home, in the next suburb. She lived in a public housing estate in Western Sydney and this estate attracts the usual kinds of stories and speculation about the people there. Those who live in private dwellings in more salubrious places look down upon the people of the estate. The young people there are blamed for many of society’s ills and of course they have their fair share of difficult people with problems and anti-social behaviour. They also have many ordinary people who have had it tough and are making the most with what they have. So it was that I ventured in the estate and wandered through on my way to visit Carol’s family. There were people around, mothers walking children; men fixing cars; kids playing together. It was peaceful and not like others might want me to believe.

I found Carol’s home and it was filled with people – family and friends. They were gathering to support each other and to meet with me and talk about her funeral. Her eight living children were determined to send their mum off with all the love, respect, care and ceremony they could. I walked into the gathering and listened as they told stories of this wonderful woman. They spoke about the harshness of her early life, living in the bush in a tin shed with dirt floors and no electricity or running water until the family moved to a larger rural centre and to a home. They moved around a bit before they finally settled in this town. Carol came from a large family and a larger extended family who cared for one another and shared much life together. Her mother took in anyone who needed a home and people were always coming and going.

Carol eventually found her way to the city and into this home in Western Sydney. It was her place and she loved living there. Her children filled the place as they grew, left and returned. Her partner brought great joy and love to her life, as did her children and grandchildren. Parties and celebration were the currency of Carol’s life and she joyfully loved all her family and friends. But here’s the thing: Carol welcomed into her home people who needed somewhere to live! Over 40 people have called Carol’s place home over the last 25 years. A four bedroom town house always had room for people who needed a place to live. Carol was generous and gave of herself, of the little she had. Like Jesus’ loaves and fishes, love and practical care expanded to fill the needs of those present and there was joy, fun, love and life.

As I left the family and friends after the funeral I pondered how simple all this was and yet how difficult. In a world where everyone seems to be searching, looking and struggling to find that which is life-giving and meaningful, Carol simply gave stuff away and welcomed people into her place. In a society where there is a pandemic of anxiety, depression, addiction, conflict and alienation, Carol imperfectly, simply and effusively gave of herself and was filled with great joy and life! Not only Carol but Gwen in the other funeral found life in giving of herself. Hers was more ordered and controlled, less chaotic. She came from a different stratum of society but still she reflected this expansive giving of herself.

I thought of Carol when I read this week’s Gospel story, which is about the ‘3 Wise Men’. Well, that’s how most people think of it but we don’t know how many of them there were (there were 3 gifts) nor whether they were kings. More likely they were astrologers and sought wisdom in stargazing and other such practices. They are usually called Magi (the root word from which we get ‘magician’). In Matthew’s story (Matthew 2:1-12) we hear that they travel from the East in pursuit of a new born King of the Jews. They saw his star rising and followed this star to Jerusalem. The evil King Herod is asked where this new King could be found but doesn’t know until he checks with the Jewish Priests and they tell him Bethlehem – the Magi are about 15 kilometres off target. Jerusalem is the centre of power and organised political life. The religious leaders have become puppets of the Roman state which sponsors oppression, high taxation and rules through violence and fear.

The Magi set off on their quest away from privilege and prestige, power and might into the back blocks of Judea and Bethlehem. It is a nothing place, a hick village compared to Jerusalem. All their travel, their long journey, their searching leads them to this backward place and a small child (up to 2 years old). In this place they discover wisdom and joy. They worship, celebrate and ponder and God is profoundly present! The presence of God takes form in the unrecognisable, the unimaginable and the vulnerable – a baby of poor parents in a backward place. Whatever it is they were seeking, they find what they want and need in this One in whom the Presence of God is revealed most deeply – and in vulnerable, powerlessness.

When I entered the Housing Estate I wonder if I expected to encounter God there. I wonder if I expected that I would see the face of God in a relatively poor but proud Aboriginal mother who died prematurely but gave of herself in such a way that others felt love, joy, security and peace? I wonder if I expect to find God in the lowly, vulnerable places or whether I am aware of the search at all. I wonder if I get lost in the busyness of keeping things ordered and seduced by glittering images? How will you and I respond to these stories – especially as we confront a new year? How will our own search pan out? Will we cast a glance in the vulnerable places and seek God’s face in simplicity and vulnerability or pursue power, privilege and wealth?

By geoffstevenson