What Do We Do With A Second Chance?

There’s the story of a young man on death row in the USA. Even his mother, ashamed and disgusted at his crimes (rape and murder), had given up on him. He was described as perverted, twisted and even rejected by his own mother. His name was Jimmy Lee Davis and he was sentenced to death, imprisoned on death row.

A young Christian in Melbourne read his story in a newspaper and for some reason was moved with compassion for the young man, a man no-one else thought anything of. He felt deeply that God loved even this despised and despicable young man – that no-one, even this cold and perverted criminal, was beyond God’s capacity to love. The young Melbourne man believed that if only Jimmy could experience and know God’s love as it had come to him; if only he could know the depth and beauty of God’s love, he would change. He wrote a letter to Jimmy in his prison and told him in his simple way that Jesus loved him and that had made all the difference in his own life.

The young man was amazed that within a couple of weeks he received a reply. It said: ‘It’s the most wonderful letter I’ve ever received in my life. I do wish that I could know Jesus in my own life like you do. I’ve made such a mess of it. You have given me hope.’

The young man from Melbourne got yhe idea into his head that he had to go to America, that God was in this and he needed to go. He was determined to go and meet Jimmy and share God’s love with him. He prayed about it and talked to some friends. Before long all sorts of donations were coming in from different places and he soon had the fare to America.

He landed in Jackson, Mississippi, knowing no-one, hoping to get into death row and meet with Jimmy Lee Davis. A whole series of events unfolded that led to him receiving permission to enter death row, twice a week for four hours a visit, for couple of months. He took his guitar with him. He sat in that cell in death row with Jimmy. They talked, he sang Christian songs, they cracked jokes, they laughed and came to behave like brothers.

Jimmy grew into his awareness of God and became committed to Christian faith and the way of Jesus. Over a couple of months the two men had deep fellowship as close friends and brothers in Christian faith. The last visit was Jimmy’s baptism. A Christian magazine carried a picture of Jimmy and the prison chaplain coming out of the small pool dripping wet. The young man’s visa had expired and he had to leave. They hugged each other and said their goodbyes.

He returned to Melbourne and for two years Jimmy awaited his fate. In the meantime they wrote letters to each other. Jimmy was growing deeper in faith – there had been a remarkable transformation in his life. He was truly a new person. In one of his letters he said: ‘There is one thing I’m not going to do. I’m not going to dishonour the gospel of God by using my conversion to escape the death penalty.’

One day a phone call came through to Melbourne and the young man’s wife received the call. She rang him at work and asked to come home at once because Jimmy had permission to call from his prison cell – he’s being executed tonight.

He tore home from work and got through to the prison in America two hours before Jimmy was due in the gas chamber. He said he just broke down and cried on the phone. However Jimmy, on the other end of the line, said, ‘I love you man. Thank you for all you’ve done for me. I’ve got to go now. Goodbye. Be seeing you.’ And Jimmy hung up.

Second chances – sometimes third, fourth, fifth… – can make a difference. How many of us haven’t had second chances in various parts of life. We make a mistake and are forgiven to start again. We miss the mark, fail the friendship, let someone down, lose the plot and a second chance, along with forgiveness allows us to start again.

In this story, Jimmy really didn’t deserve a second chance for his hideous crimes of murder and rape. He deserved justice and that is what he received. He also had a second chance, a chance to turn everything around and embrace another way of being. He was given a chance to become more deeply, lovingly human, perhaps for the first time in many years. His conversion was grounded in a significant transformation, one Christian faith calls repentance. This is a complete change in mind, heart, spirit and being. It is a complete transformation of our lives and the direction of our life.

Jimmy experienced unconditional love from a young Christian from Melbourne. He encountered the love of God through this man and it changed him. As God’s love broke into his being and melted his hardness and evil, he was slowly changed. It was a second chance. He still submitted to and faced the legal requirements of the state for his crime and was put to death. The one who died was a different person to the one who committed the crimes. It is reminiscent of the stories of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who were put to death in Indonesia for drug trafficking. Their lives were changed dramatically and they were making a difference to the lives of others in prison – a second chance to do something significant with their lives before facing the death squad.

The passage this week (Luke 13:1-9) contains a story where Jesus speaks of a fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The owner wants it removed because it is a waste of space. The gardener calls for one year’s reprieve – a second chance. If they dig around the roots, put down some manure and give it another chance, perhaps there will be fruit next year. The owner consents to a second chance.

This story contains a couple of calls for repentance, a complete change in mind, attitude, action and being. Initially Jesus confronts the issue of bad things happening to good people. He tells them that bad things are not punishment and they happen to good and bad people. So change your mind and stop judging other people because of what has happened to them, what they look like, do etc – Repent!

The second call is for repentance in our lives such that we live into a new way of being. We are offered second chances so take them but be changed through the experience! Don’t waste the chance. Don’t do the same thing several times and wonder why everything is messed up – learn and repent. More than that, surely the implication is that we are to believe in second chances not only for ourselves but for others. Can we believe that others can change, that they deserve a second chance?   How would we respond to someone like Jimmy? How do we respond to people around us who desperately need a second chance?

I wonder how we respond to people who are different? How do we respond to people who have made mistakes or have made choices we don’t consider respectable or reasonable? How do we respond to people who have gotten things so badly wrong and messed up their own and other’s lives? Can we be gracious and offer a second chance? Do we know God’s love deeply enough to be able to be gracious and loving towards others who are despised? Do we believe that we are indeed deserving of a second chance in God’s grace? It changed Jimmy, it can change others and us!

By geoffstevenson

Comfort and Challenge…

Growing up in suburban Sydney we had some of the usual and unusual array of pets. At times we had a couple of dogs. We had a variety of birds – cockatoos, budgies, finches… We had reptiles and tortoises (or was it turtles?). For a number of years we also had bantams (I know they’re birds but are of a very different nature to the usual birds in a cage). These smaller and more colourful hens and roosters were interesting – especially when they belonged to my brother and it was his responsibility to do all of the work!). The original pair was thought to be hens, which is what we really wanted but chicken sexing is a difficult art and we had a hen and a rooster, called Pebbles and Bam Bam. These names were probably appropriate. Pebbles was a mottled brown colour that looked pebbly. Bam Bam was a brightly coloured rooster who was quite a beautiful bird and seemed to know it. He was cocky and most certainly the boss in the yard. My brother (and his mate who looked after the birds while we were away) received their fair share of attacks from Bam Bam who would fly at you with his spurs pointed in your direction. He could deliver a fairly nasty injury when he wanted. Bam Bam protected the chooks’ cage and also kept an eye on things in the yard when they were let out through the day. Neighbourhood cats took a wide birth as he would attack them as well.

Pebbles laid eggs and they were smaller and quite tasty. Inevitably the day arrived when Pebbles decided that she wanted her eggs and wasn’t giving them up for anyone. She had a small area in the cage where her eggs were gathered in a small hollow. As the cage was under an apple tree there were also a couple of small, unripe apples that had dropped down. Pebbles sat on the eggs for a few weeks until one day we heard the telling sound of small ‘cheeps’ and tiny heads appeared from beneath her. After a few days, Pebbles emerged from the cage with half a dozen or so little balls of fluff – very, very cute! They were wobbly on their legs at first but were soon running around with their mother hen. Initially they stayed close by but as they became more daring strayed further from her. She scratched at the ground and gathered them around to eat the food she uncovered. More than once her aggressive scratching caught one of the chicks and sent it flying backwards.

There were times when all the chicks would gather quickly beneath the hen’s wings and she would walk slowly back to some place of protection. Bam Bam would almost certainly be on alert if there was danger, but it was mainly if he was threatened. He didn’t really seem to be aware of the chickens, not much interested in them. Pebbles, on the other hand could be a force to be reckoned with. It was very difficult to get close to her chickens unless one strayed away from her. She would peck and chase us away, until Bam Bam realised he ought to be doing something.

This mother hen was extremely attentive and protective of her chickens. At the same time she could also seem ruthless and brutal in pushing the chickens to do things. The chickens grew up fairly quickly and there was much to learn. She couldn’t protect them all their lives – they had to learn to look after themselves. There was this balance between protecting the young chickens and pushing the chickens to become mature and capable of being a bantam in the world.

In the Gospel reading for this week (Luke 13:31-35), Jesus is warned about the danger that King Herod poses him – Herod has threatened his life. Despite the threats and the danger, Jesus will not deviate from his mission of proclaiming God’s Reign in their midst. Jesus’ demonstrated the power of God’s Love by proclaiming good news, healing the sick and casting out demons. He found himself amongst those who longed for liberation, healing, peace and acceptance; who yearned for salvation. The story reveals Jesus’ compassion for the people of Jerusalem who long for freedom but reject those who come in God’s name with justice, peace and love. He longs to gather them up as a hen gathers here chickens, as Pebbles nurtured, protected and challenged her chicks.

The story also speaks about power and where it is located. Of course Herod Antipas represents the most powerful force in their world, that of the Roman Empire. This power is feared for its ruthless brutality. This power forces people into line, conforming them into the way of Caesar. Jesus is threatened with this power but doesn’t submit. At first reading of the story we might believe that Herod’s is the only locus of power. The reality is that Herod possesses only one form of power and he, himself, is actually enslaved by his own power. He acts to subdue those who threaten him but with what power do others threaten the ruler? How is Jesus, a simple Jewish Rabbi with no power base, threatening? Why is he a threat to the ominous power of Rome?

Jesus represents another power – the power of God’s love, which is courageous, vulnerable, compassionate, just and liberating for all people. Jesus’ words and actions, grounded in God’s deep and powerful love, are challenging. They confront every status quo and Herod, among others, feel themselves on shifting ground. Jesus’ power is the power of genuine love that seeks liberation and salvation for all people, but especially the downtrodden, poor and powerless. It challenges the power base of secular rulers and offers a wisdom that confounds and turns the world upside down.

The other dimension of Jesus’ power is that of self-determination. Jesus has the power (and courage) to determine what he will do and how he will do it. In the face of threats against his life from a ruling despot, he can either flee and find safety or confront his fear and face Herod head on. Jesus chose to stand firm in the face of threats to silence him. He chose to confront the powers that sought to overwhelm him, scare him and crush him. Ultimately, his fate was a brutal death at the hands of worldly powers. His life was given in love and grace and it was the power of this love that shone through the darkness of his suffering and death. It was love that brought forth a resurrection hope of new life, of power beyond the grave and salvation in God. This is a very different power!

In the passage, Jesus offers comfort and challenge to those who will hear. As a mother hen, Jesus comforts and challenges us. Where do we turn when things are hard? Who or what do we fear and do we allow that fear to dictate how we live? Can we follow Jesus’ example in giving our lives into the hands of God? Will we live and work amongst those who long for liberation, peace or salvation?

Psalm 27 (another reading this week) speaks of trust in God as the means of salvation and life in the midst of the deep struggle of life and opposition from outside. In the midst of life what and who do we fear? What might it mean to fear God alone – fear, in the sense of deep respect and ultimate trust? Both this and the Gospel offer the image of God’s protective love that nurtures us and will not let us go. We may lose everything of material value, including life, but the promise of these stories is that all we are can only find fulfilment and truth in God, who is love. This enduring, eternal, reality is the one place where we can have hope, life and peace. It is liberating, joyful and the source of deepest, truest hope.

By geoffstevenson

To What/Whom Will We Conform?

This week I had my second lesson with beginner saxophones at the local school where I teach in the band program one morning a week. It is always interesting to begin with a new group of 3rd graders. They are generally small and the instrument looks so big. We go through the basics of setting up the instrument – the mouthpiece and reed, the neck and saxophone body. Once the instrument is set up, we work out how it hangs from the neck strap with its weight on our neck and where our fingers go. Then we begin the process of learning how to blow the instrument and not only get the right sound but to have the correct embouchure (mouth position). All this is very new and difficult. It takes a few weeks of practice to get this together and every student is different. When I first began around 20 years ago, I tried to get all the students to conform to the ‘correct’ way of holding and playing the saxophone – there was only one way. It was always a difficult process with young students because their hands were small and smaller. They couldn’t easily reach around the instrument. Their mouths are all different shapes and their lungs hold more or less air. Some are strong in the body and can easily support the instrument and others find it a struggle. Some blow hard and loud and others softer and sweeter. Everyone is different and I have had to learn how to help each person find their way on the saxophone. Whilst there are general guidelines and normative elements we need to follow (or no sound will come out or it will not be a good sound), there is variety and flexibility based on the unique physical, emotional and psychological elements of each student. Where there are alternative fingerings for the same note it is interesting to see how different people choose one over another. I have learned not to get everyone to conform to the same strict way of playing the saxophone.

There are many ways in which we seek to conform people into particular ways of being and thinking that are ‘standard and true’. Societal norms and local traditions all push people into particular ways of being in the world and not all these ways are necessarily the best or only way. Leaders and those who control the conversation through media often seek to control the way in which people think and what they believe to be right or important. A couple of hours of television leaves one in little doubt as to what we should buy, do, look like and so on. A brief listening to commercial talk-back radio and we are given all manner of ‘truth’ from the mouths of shock jocks, and other radio hosts who manipulate the conversation.

Societal norms have often dictated how people engage in life and the world in practical ways and through belief systems. In days gone by people who were left-handed were made to conform to the ways of right-handers – especially when learning to write. There are horror stories of teachers standing over children hitting them if they used their left hand to write or draw. They forced them to conform to the right-handed ways of the world – the right and only way, so they believed.

The ebb and flow of our culture and its powerful formative forces create within each of us expectations about who we should be and what we should do. Sometimes these are positive but often they create tension and angst within us because we are driven to be and do something different to who we really are. Our culture, for example, encourages us into believing that we have much greater material need and have to constantly acquire more. We are convinced that violence and warfare is the only way to sort out conflicts internationally or that those who have much deserve it because they must have worked harder than those who are poor. There is the belief that everyone can find work – if you can’t you’re lazy. Some have bought the line that those on welfare are living it up and life is easy and good. Others believe that those who are desperate enough to seek refuge by way of boats are a threat and more-so than the many more arriving by plane. These relatively few desperate people should be removed and detained, locked away for our safety and well-being. There are many misconceptions that are peddled about through our society, things we believe about ourselves and others that simply aren’t true. Henri Nouwen, teacher of spirituality, spoke of the inner compulsions that drive us. These inner compulsions are generated by the powerful forces of life and the world around that nurture these drives within us. Compulsions such as fear drive us and are nurtured by societal forces and powers. Giving up the false expectations and habits that have controlled our lives is not easy because they are so influential within us.

The good news that God speaks into our world for all who will listen is that we are each created uniquely and wonderfully and we each have a place in this world to contribute. We are each different and so trying to conform to the expectations of others or the society at large will mean we are sometimes living contrary to who we really are meant to be. The net result of this is tension and angst within as we live the lie that is thrust upon us and we own for ourselves. The good news is that we do not have live into the ways of the world around us but can be free to live as we are created to be. This does not mean there are no structures or limits to human activity and personal self-expression. We live within a society and a world where there is mutual responsibility and accountability and when these boundaries are transgressed others are affected.

In this week’s reading (Luke 4:1-13) Jesus is led into the wilderness where he encounters temptation and seductive words trying to convince him to live another life, another way. He is tempted to claim power, to be spectacular and to be relevant to the world. The temptations sound convincing and even positive. If he had all power what he could do! These particular compulsions are part of all of our lives and the life of the church. We would like to be spectacular! After all spectacular is a hit and people are in awe of a good spectacle. But what if the spectacular has no depth? I have seen many spectacular things but few stick with me! Power and might are worshipped in our society and the church as the religion of the Empire shared power, might and wealth. But political power, oppressive power, power over and against is not the sort of power that endures and transforms. It becomes abusive and violent. It makes people do things they don’t necessarily want to do but does not change them.

Jesus chose an alternate may that was true to his calling, his being and to God. He chose a way that allowed God to be God and for all else to flow from that reality. In choosing an alternative way, Jesus stood over against the compulsions, drives and temptations of life. His society expected other things of him but Jesus chose to be true to himself and God and lived under another set of rules. It is liberating to recognise that we don’t have to be like everyone else. We don’t have to conform!

By geoffstevenson

A Transformative View From the Heights

For our 30th Wedding anniversary last year, Susan and I went cruising in the South Pacific.  One of the islands we visited was Dravuni Island, one smaller islands of Fiji.  The ship anchored off the island and we were taken ashore by tenders.  As we motored towards the shore across the sparkling South Pacific seas, the golden beach spread out before us.  Beautiful sands and clear water backed by palms swaying in the breeze.  Behind the palms gentle rainforest grew up the hillside and was littered with the colour of Hibiscus, Frangipani and various wildflowers.  There were huts and buildings visible through the vegetation and a high ridge through the middle of the island.  At one end of the island was a high peak.

When we were ashore there were various signs pointing the way to various sights.  One path led up to the mountain peak.  It was a track that ventured off the main path through the island and I turned and headed up the quickly inclining dirt track.  At first it was lined with beautiful rainforest trees and palms spread out towards the beach.  As we climbed the vegetation thinned out to grassland, affording spectacular views of the island.  At the summit there was a 360 degree view of the island, the surrounding waters and neighbouring islands – it was breathtaking!  I looked down upon gentle coves and golden beaches with water of various shades of blue and aqua – stunning!  The trees and shrubs were diverse and beautiful in the unique forms of a tropical island.  As I looked out across the island I could see the lay of the land and how the island was structured.  The ridge ran along the centre with tracks up and across leading into different parts of the island.  I saw the reefs that surrounded the island and the outer reefs with smaller waves rolling over them.  It was clear where the village was and why it was located in this protected cove along the beach and protected by trees and palms.  The clearing for the school and community areas was protected from the elements.

As I stood above the island and this breathtaking vista, I took several photos and some video, trying to capture the wonder of the moment.  The photos looked good and some were very good but even the best could not fully capture the wonder of the experience.  Photos cannot capture the warmth of the sun or the humidity.  They don’t capture the breeze or the smells – salt air, palms and flowers, mangoes lying on the ground, the animals (especially pigs bred for food).  Photos capture a moment but it is never as real or intense as the reality.  Even now I look at the photos and try to remember what it felt like but the experience fades with time – I just remember that there was wonder, delight and joy in the experience.  It was a deep encounter with the Sacred, with the presence of God in the midst of this beauty, unspoilt and free.

Mountains and high places afford these spectacular views and encounters, an experience of wonder, awe and magnificent vista spread out before us.  I can only wonder at the profound experience of viewing the world from other mountains in other places – especially those in Europe and Asia – Everest, Swiss Alps, Fujiama, to name a few.  These appear spectacular, with stunning views and offer a profound experience of wonder and beauty.  I can only wonder.   Mountains are places that offer a different experience from ordinary life.  In order to take in the view from on high, we have to choose to climb the mountain.  Mountains are not ordinarily part of the life’s journey – we have to take another path and climb the mountain.  We have to take time out from the usual activities of life to take in the view.  It is a deviation from the path of life and it is only in this space that we can encounter the wonder of an extensive view that provides a panoramic overview of the geography laid out before us.  Mountains are usually places where there is less activity, less people and where the ordinary activities and expectations of life are laid aside.  In climbing a mountain we need to focus on the steps we need to take.  We need to breathe differently and pace ourselves – the higher the mountain, the more difficult.  Mountains provide a spiritual experience, akin to pilgrimage and they allow us to see differently.  We gain a sense of wonder and of perspective that is different to ordinary life.

This week’s readings (Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-43) are about mountains and people climbing them.  In the first Moses has climbed Mt Sinai and encountered God.  It is a view, an experience of pure wonder and awe.  Moses receives the wisdom and guidance of the commandments but he is changed.  After venturing off the path and climbing this sacred mountain, Moses comes face to face with God and can never be the same.  It is described in terms of his face glowing from the awesome experience.  Moses’ perspective on life and the world has changed and can never be the same.

In the second story Jesus went up a mountain with 3 disciples to pray.  He escapes the crowds, the teaching, the healing, the word of God’s Reign, to pray and find renewal and strength.  The mountain is a lonely, secluded place but also a place of wonder and visions.  In this story there is a vision in which Jesus’ form is changed and glows brilliant white.  There are 2 figures, Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the Prophets of Jewish faith.  The disciples are transfixed and Peter wants to hold onto the moment.  He will build tents to keep the visionary figures and the scene alive – much like me and my photos.  The scene disappears into a cloud that covers the mountain d when it fades, there is only Jesus but the disciples are changed.  This mountaintop experience has gotten into them, changed their perspective and filled them with wonder.

In a very real way, these spiritual encounters are the essential realities of the mountain top experiences that are filled with wonder, changed or enriched perspective and in which we are changed through the experience.  These are spiritual experiences and their essential nature is the heart of prayer.  As we take time and space and exert energy on the path up a mountain, whether real or metaphorical, we are engaging in the pilgrim, or seeker’s, path of prayer and reflection.  We are engaged in an active encounter with God but the mystery, wonder and inspiration of the experience cannot be defined or controlled or contained.  We can only experience it and allow it to change us and set us in a new direction.  This is what Jesus engages in when he goes into the mountains and secluded places to pray.  These are places where are provided with new perspective and wonder and we have our life’s course altered.

This story always precedes the season of Lent, which is a spiritual time of reflection and pondering, of climbing the mountain or finding the space to think, pray and be renewed in our spirit.  I encourage you to take the time and space in Lent to allow God to renew your spirit, you being and the direction of your life.

By geoffstevenson