I often get asked about God. People quietly want to ask a question without insulting or upsetting me nor risking the wrath of God. They want to ask about what God is really like. The plethora of images that they have in their mind don’t sit easily with them and belief in an old guy with white hair and a long beard sitting in the clouds like an ancient Professor Dumbledore seems increasingly absurd. We know that heaven isn’t ‘up there’ as it was once believed. Now we can see far into space and there is no ‘old man God sitting on the clouds…’. So where is God? Who is God? What is God? These questions come slowly at first and then faster as confidence rises and the long-held thoughts flow.
So when we move past the idea of an old guy in the sky or even that God is some kind of special super human being waiting shower the good with blessings and curse the rest, there are questions. There is curiosity and wonder. As we engage more fully with the idea that God is not a person nor does God have human characteristics, a deeper sense of wonder and curious uncertainty emerges. Deeper questions arise and the conversation moves into strange areas where certainty fades and faith and doubt kiss. We move into the area of contemplation and begin to ponder more deeply the idea of god in new ways. Ultimately God becomes more mysterious and we find language fails us as we seek to describe the immensity of profound wonder that greets us as we ponder God. The experience of God in our lives broadens and deepens as we put aside the more simplisitic notions of the Divine that really derive from childhood and popular folklore.
The experience of God in moments of holiness and sacred encounter move beyond the mind with its desire to define, control and ‘know’. The language of heart and spirit is one of poetic unknowing. It is a language of mystery and wonder and joyful delight that transcends belief systems and dogma.
There is an image of God that is a Divine dance where Creator, Spirit and the Christ participate in a dance, a song, a spiral movement of artistic creativity and delight. As they move there is the flinging of stars and planets into space and a childlike joy and wonder as the universe joins in the dance of creation. Even the age-old story from the Book of Genesis is a creative expression where the community of Holy Trinity create together in the collective image of the Divine. It is through creative words spoken in poetic wonder that expression is given to each organism and all becomes real. Forms of earth, sky, oceans, mountains and all that is take form from words spoken and a Spirit hovering and the eternal Word of wisdom and love flowing out across chaos and potential that is formless, void and waiting.
When I begin to think about God I find that I am attracted to this mystery at the heart of the universe. This mystery is known in love because God is the source and essence of love. This mystery is expressed in love, grace and justice towards all people and the earth because God loves and God is just. I find God infiltrating communities where there is genuine love for each other and where there is a will to stand with one another, care for one another and loves those who would do us harm. Such communities are inclusive, hopelessly inclusive and gracious. All are welcome and all find a place to belong and to be and to find their deep centre of life and hope. In this midst is the Holy Mystery that flows in and through and around us, constantly moving and impossible to catch or hold and define neatly. God is like wind blowing to and fro creating chaos and messing our order. I remember raking the liquid amber leaves in autumn and then a gust of wind blowing the piles into chaotic disorientation. God is like that.
God is like a pool on a hot day when we dive into the presence and being that refreshes, renews and surrounds us. Water flows and bubbles, cools and disappears. What is water? I can’t grasp it for it soon disappears from my hand as gaseous molecules dispersed through the air one day returning as rain to the river, the grass or garden, the ocean or falling upon my head as I walk the dogs.
God is in me, through me and around me but I fail to see and the harder I look the less I see. God then appears in the face of one in need, a poor woman distressed and crying out. In the face of a child giggling and delightfully playing in the dirt or mud or with others, blissfully unaware of difference or race or colour or creed. The puppy that licks my face or the old dog who needs my comfort all reveal to me something of this One we call God, the heart and soul of life and all that is. In a shared meal God materialises like the Emmaus guest who turns out to be the Christ and then disappears. In this strange thing called love where there is belonging and laughter and fondness and caring, God is there. But where? How is God there? How can I define this Holy Presence? How can I see or know and presume? The harder I work to know and define the more God slips silently through my grasping fingers or the tendrils of mind until I give up and accept and delight and savour the One who was and is and is to be.
I sometimes find myself bogged down by little things, things that mean more than they should – petty jealousies, arbitrary conflicts with those I choose to hold at arm’s length or push away completely. There are those who threaten me because they are different and I want to set myself over and against them. I want to be someone or something or have power of flaunt something that I don’t have (and don’t really need but there seems the need or desire to prove myself…). In these moments God is there but not there, around but squeezed into the background by my hungry ego. The connection fades is lost like my digital TV in the rain when interference causes static and the loss of image and picture and sound and life. God goes static and the source of life can’t penetrate my selfish or alienated ways. God waits and waits…
This God is so big! So much bigger than I can imagine or dream or understand and when I contemplate this very big God who fills the universe with Holy Presence and life and hope, I feel small and even insignificant. This isn’t a bad feeling but one that makes me realise that I am loved by this God who is so very large and mighty and responsible and in everything, including little me. How wonderful the thought to know that I am loved by the Love at the heart of all there is – the One who created the immense beauty and wonder of the Blue Mountain, the Barrier Reef, Uluru and so much more. The spectacular beauty of the world reflects this mysterious, wondrous, loving God who is the One in whom I live and breathe and have my being. This is God!
This week in the life of the church is the Festival of Pentecost. It hasn’t been commercialised so has a significantly lower profile. It was a Jewish Festival that occurred a ‘week of weeks’ (50 days, hence the ‘Pente-‘ in the name) after the Festival of Passover, which equates to the time of Easter for us. The significant thing about Pentecost in the life of the church is that it is the story that marks the beginning of the church. It is a wonderful story of God’s Spirit descending upon the vulnerable, uncertain followers of Jesus and filled them with a new hope, courage and power to build the new thing that Jesus began in the world. The fascinating thing was that out of this experience people from across the world heard the story of God’s love for them in their own language. People from across the world were in Jerusalem and found a commonality of understanding, hope and passion. They shared a common dream and a common life together. They heard God speak in the language of their heart and yearning.
This story is a reversal of the ancient mythological story in Genesis where the people received different languages and were dispersed across the earth from Babylon. There, difference became the essential element and people no longer understood each other. This story seeks to explain the diversity and conflict that persists amongst humans. These differences have come to define who we are. We tend to look at one another and see the differences and too often build barriers against those who are too different.
I have been listening to the ‘fallout’ of the Q&A program this week and a question asked by Duncan, a man on low income and with the associated struggles of those who have less than most. I didn’t see the show but have heard some commentary on ABC radio, including an interview with Duncan. What I find interesting is the disagreement that seems to be based on presumption and misunderstanding. Duncan’s life is different and his perspective comes from where he is in the strata of our society. It is real, whether we think he is right or wrong in his views. Others have commented from their perspective, their place in society and their own experience – of wealth or poverty. Many have derided Duncan, making many assumptions about him being lazy, wasting money on smokes and booze… All untrue but rather than listen to someone and seek to understand, it seems easier to condemn, marginalise and reject. Few seem to be listening – including the commentators brought onto the radio to make some ‘expert’ point. The politicians on Q&A seem to have responded from their party’s perspective in the light of policy going into an election campaign. They aren’t able to listen.
In the Genesis story (Genesis 11:1-9) humans seek to be like God by building a structure into the heavens where they believe God lives. If they build it high enough they can be like God, powerful, knowledgeable and glorious. They will rule and be great and can push God aside, replacing God with self. They can have power over everyone else – there will inevitably be competition for the highest place. This is a commentary on our society where we tend to believe in ourselves, our own wisdom and understanding. A brief look at the US election campaign demonstrates the megalomania that exists; candidates flaunting themselves as all-knowing, almighty, wonderful god-like people born to be great and better than the rest. The world as we know it exists as a chessboard of competing powers where megalomaniacs compete for power to flaunt themselves, their power and to dominate everyone else. These are individuals, parties and collections of people who seek power, might and to be almighty, wealthy and glorious. The obvious ones come from the world of dictators, such as North Korea, Cuba, China, other parts of Asia and through the Middle East, where rule by ‘divine right’ seems the order of the day. People like Vladimir Putin rule omnipotently over the Russian people and woe betide anyone who crosses him!
Such a chess board of competing powers invites the inevitable conflicts and fighting for pre-eminence and dominance in the world. This pattern is observed at the various other levels of society. We see it in nations, communities, corporations, community organisations, sporting clubs, churches and families. Division, conflict, competition all based around highlighting and defining differences between people characterise much of our world. We aren’t able to listen or hear one another or the voice of God!
The Story of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) interrupts this competitive, divisive power struggle by bringing people together through commonality of story shared in their own language. Jesus’ followers experience the Spirit of God fill their lives and transform their hopelessness and powerlessness through the power of love into courage and infectious joy, life and faith. The world hears this story of hope in their own language, form, style and it speaks into their heart. This story is proclaimed amongst the ordinary people and challenges a system in which there are the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, those born to rule and those born to be abused and oppressed. Within the power of the Roman Empire and even within the power of the local religious/political system of the Jewish people, the story of God’s gracious love is heard and experienced. It is a breath of life to all people. This story invites us to seek a commonality and to work for a common vision that serves the well-being of all people, not just the few. This story invites us to listen to one another, seeking to understand and through understanding to work for change in the world in the power of God’s Spirit, the power of love.
I listened to the brief interview with Duncan, a person with little education, who is trying better himself through study. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and has been on a pension but is now working as hard as he can but is on low wages. He makes ends meet and shares custody of his two daughters with his ex-wife and wants the very best for them. I don’t know what it means to live Duncan’s life. It would be easy for me to make all manner of bold statements about him, his situation and what he ‘needs to do’. That misses the point and it would be patronising and based on ignorance. I simply do not know what it is like to be Duncan and the only way to find out would be to listen to him and to seek understanding. Then I would be able to understand society’s priorities impact those who are more vulnerable. Perhaps I would be willing to join with others and work with the Duncans of this world to make life more accessible and meaningful for all people. Perhaps the power of God’s love may transform me and us and make a difference to Duncan and the world. Pentecost invites us to listen to the story of God’s love in many languages and to share this love for the sake of the common good of all!
A week or so back Father Daniel Berrigan died peacefully in a Jesuit nursing home in the Bronx, New York. I suppose for most of us that news doesn’t mean very much as we have probably not heard much, if anything of Dan Berrigan. He was a Jesuit priest in the US and an author of poetry, essays, articles and religious commentary. More than that, Dan Berrigan was a radical follower of Jesus. One of his quotes says: “If you are going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” He lived this out in his life, having been arrested many times for breaking laws that protected violence and fostered warfare, hatred, racism and discrimination of all kinds – faith, gender, sexuality, race, culture…
Dan Berrigan protested against wars of every kind, beginning with the Vietnam War. He did not reject those who were sent, the soldiers, but the governments who continually used warfare as an unnecessary and evil means of resolving conflicts and who sent young men and women into the pits of hell to do their bidding. Berrigan was imprisoned for his protests and at one point he spent time on the FBI most wanted list for burning draft papers with home-made napalm as a protest. In hiding he continued to speak, giving talks and lectures, writing and frustrating the authorities. He was finally sent to prison for this protest against the war. He wrote: “The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred,” From prison he wrote: “To remain prosperous, America defaces its countryside, fouls its air and water, makes its cities unliveable,”
Berrigan was at heart a deep follower of the way of Jesus. All he did was grounded in Jesus’ teaching and life. He embraced a way of peace and justice that few really grasp and drew others into this radical community where all are welcome but where we are all challenged to embrace the radical and loving alternative to hatred, warfare, conflict, discrimination and greed. Berrigan’s simple words and profound actions confront, challenge and inspire us to walk more deeply in the path of Jesus. Dan Berrigan was a man who was free in his heart and spirit. He feared no evil and no authority because nothing the powers of the world could do to him could destroy him or the love and connection he had in the heart of God. He was a deeply spiritual man and that spirituality of prayer and deep devotion to God was the driving force in his life that which sustained him, gave him hope, joy and peace in a world of madness.
I read a tribute in which a younger man recalled a meeting, a desperate meeting with Dan Berrigan many years ago. He needed advice and wisdom because he was confronted by a world of madness that flourished through abusive power and destruction. They talked for a couple of hours and the man walked away with hope and peace in his heart. He also walked away with words that shaped his life. Dan Berrigan’s advice to him was simple: ‘Find some people you can pray with and march with.’
I read and thought about these words: ‘Find some people you can pray with and march with.’ As I pondered these words I realised that the prayer Dan Berrigan spoke of was something that arose deep within one’s heart, soul and being. It is the deep yearning within us that longs for something true, real, life-giving and hopeful. It arises from the deep cries of our heart for authentic life in a world that feels chaotic and violent and fearful. The prayer we pray in the deepest moments of life, the ones that reach deep within us to the centre of our being. Dan Berrigan was advising to find those who shared your deepest longings for life, those who also dreamed and hoped and cried for justice, peace and all that is truly good. Gather with those who want the very best that can be in our world, with those who are of a similar mind and pray. This praying is a movement into the heart and being of God, who is the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Prayer moves us into a deeper place that is sacred and holy and sustaining amidst the wild powers and the threatening chaos of the world.
Berrigan’s advice doesn’t stop at praying and talking but invites us to march together – to act and enact the way of Jesus. We do this together in partnership, supporting, sustaining, encouraging and challenging each other. When we feel discouraged or defeated, gathering and praying together lifts us and inspires us and moves us forward to places where action and life can be lived.
I thought of Berrigan’s words when I read this week’s Gospel reading (John 17:20-26). This is part of a long a prayer of Jesus prior to his death. It asks God to draw these followers into a unity of life and faith in God. Jesus, the radical Jewish mystic rabbi whose life and being are centred in God, as one with God, asks that those who are drawn into his way will also have this same depth of being in God and one another. It is indeed a deep prayer that they (and we) will pray deeply together and march together. It is a prayer that we will find the path into God’s deep presence and journey more deeply together into that place and there to drink deeply of the water of life and to act for the sake of the world. It is a way of deep and profound peace, joy, hope and life. It is a way of courage and daring, of risk and freedom, of love and joy in a world of violence. It is Jesus’ way. It is God’s way. It is the way we are invited into.
Dan Berrigan embraced this way and found deep and profound strength in praying with others, the prayers of their deepest longing. He saw the pain and suffering of the world in soldiers returning with physical, emotional and psychological wounds – or not returning at all. He saw it in those whose lives were lived in extremes of poverty or powerlessness against the powers and forces of the world, a world that didn’t care: Corporations who treated little people with disdain; rich nations that treated the poor of the world as disposable and rejected help to refugees; a society that abused and bullied minorities and vulnerable people. Berrigan and others prayed together and heard the ‘voice of God’ calling them to justice, peace, love and to make a stand for good against the evil that caused suffering. Berrigan and others moved into deeper prayer in the form of action against all that was evil in their world. At times they appeared to be mad themselves, as they stood on the wrong side of the law. They protested against nuclear weapons and everything that threatened life and hope and the goodness and beauty of the world. They stood with and for the vulnerable and rejoiced in the community that gathered around them, one of hope and grace and simple joy because God was in their midst. This is Jesus’ prayer fulfilled in one man’s life. What about us?
As I wander or drive around various parts of my local neighbourhood or parts of the Hawkesbury I notice there are several places that have solid locked gates that keep everyone out. There is a rather large property near us that has a high fence and electric gate around the whole property. You cannot get near the house. There are gated communities not far from our home; town houses and villas, behind locked security gates that keep everyone away. This sense of building barriers against the world isn’t new and isn’t restricted to local homes. Our whole ‘border security’ policy is designed to keep people out and exclude them even if they are desperate (unless they come by plane and overstay visas; by far the most common reality).
There are various ways in which we build barriers to exclude those we do not want to allow in. There are barriers based on race, culture, religion, belief systems, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, ability/disability, intelligence, mental health, physical looks or prowess, career, personal history… The list is endless and all of us find ourselves included and excluded at various points in our lives. We have all felt left out or excluded from various groups, activities or parts of the community in which we live.
Sometimes exclusion is based around capacity and if we lack a particular skill, piece of knowledge or insight we don’t fit in. Sometimes that doesn’t matter because a group comes together around particular skills and interests. For example, a football team plays football or a knitting group, knits. If we have no desire to play football or knit then it is reasonably likely we wouldn’t want to belong there. The problem arises when we have nowhere to belong and feel excluded from life in our community. Sadly, this is the reality for many people – they don’t belong or don’t know how to belong. As society becomes more, individualistic, intense, rushed, stressed and competitive, the pressure to conform increases and the capacity to ‘fit in’ becomes more difficult. Exclusion and a sense of alienation pervades human life.
This is the sad reality of many of our cities. They are lonely places where people can die and not be missed for months or years. They are places where those who experience and live with mental health problems, breakdowns or addictions can wander the streets, homeless and despised. Some beg on street corners, lost, unknown and excluded. Others turn to alcohol or drugs to hide the feelings of despair, hopelessness or alienation they feel. Many are lost, lonely and hopeless.
Many people who are ‘successful’ ambitious, well-off, living in nice homes and driving nice cars feel an inner yearning for something more, deeper and meaningful. They keep moving so the feelings of existential longing are quelled and set aside. There is a deep longing in the human heart for a place to belong and be free to be who we really are; to stop pretending, compromising or playing the game that everyone else is engaged in. This feeling of being lost, of not having the place to belong, to be and to find richer meaning and purpose in living out life in this crazy world, cuts across all society. Sometimes when we look for a place we meet barriers – barriers of fear, or, belief or culture or understanding. We come up against barriers that stop us from looking deeper and seeking the place for which we yearn. These barriers apply across the spectrum of society and we may simply give up and deal with the attendant emotions.
I find it very sad and frustrating that the church, in general, contributes to these barriers. The church, like all human institutions, builds its own barriers. Sometimes it is a strict belief system that carefully defines who can belong and who remains outside. Sometimes it is a set of practices that are rigid and exclude people who don’t understand or know and aren’t helped to ‘learn the language or culture’. Sometimes we are simply unfriendly or afraid to embrace someone who is different or new or asks questions or has a deep need.
This week one of our readings is from the book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament and a strange and difficult book to read and understand if we don’t know the context or background to this strange writing. Our reading comes from the last chapters (Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5) and speaks of a great vision. There is, in this vision, the river of life that flows through the city and the glory of God fills the city with light, joy, hope, peace and love. The city has twelve gates and they are always open; people are always welcome. Strangers are not excluded and they find a place to belong within the city. The vision contains an image of God descending on the city and filling it with life and light. There is no night because there is always light. This image implies the deeper sense of darkness of human suffering, being lost, excluded and hopeless. In this city, God’s presence creates the space where everyone finds a welcome and the place of their own being in freedom and life.
The river that runs through the city brings life to all. I reflected that I have lived or worked in four parts of this greater Sydney region. All have had major waterways as central to their life in some way – the Georges River, Sydney Harbour, the Parramatta River and the Hawkesbury River. These waterways provide life and green space that is life-giving, renewing and healing. This is the vision of the passage, a river of life flowing through the city to bring life, healing and peace to the world. The river is both real, in the gift of real waterways and metaphorical as an image of the flow of God’s love that reaches out to the world with healing grace.
The city never shuts down or closes up. It never excludes or closes its doors to anyone – everyone is always welcome and will find a place to belong and to be themselves, loved and embraced in a community of welcome, healing and peace. This vision is for all the world and one for our world now. It isn’t a far off pipe-dream in some heavenly sphere but a vision to transform us and our cities and communities now. The God who indwells this visionary city is already present offering a place to belong in the Divine heart. We are invited to be part of this movement, this community of God’s grace that is like the river flowing out with healing and peace to the world. Sometimes this includes the church and sometimes it doesn’t – it really depends on whether we want to be part of what God is doing.
I love this inclusive vision of God’s grace flowing into human lives, flooding us with love and peace, hope and joy and inviting us to reach out to the world in transforming, healing love. This is a wonderful vision for us to live into – now!