A World For Which We Yearn?!

In the movie, Bruce Almighty, there is a scene near the start where Bruce has lost his job, been beaten up by some thugs when he intervenes in them harassing a homeless guy (but gives them a mouthful when they walk away) and comes home to his girlfriend angry and wallowing in enormous self-pity.  After explaining his really bad day and whinging for several minutes Grace, his girlfriend tries to comfort him and says:

“I’m just glad you’re okay – today could have been a whole lot worse.”

“Newsflash!,” says Bruce. “I’m not okay!  I’m not okay with a mediocre job.  I’m not okay with a mediocre apartment!  I’m not okay with a mediocre life!”

“Is that what you think we have – a mediocre life?”

“Don’t make this about you.”

“How could I make this about me?   It’s about you.  It’s always about you.”

“Oh great!  I’ll have the worst day of my life with a side order of guilt please!“ and Bruce storms out of the apartment. 

This begins an encounter with God whom he has blamed constantly for the whole thing, accusing God of caring for others but not Bruce!  When God materialises in his life Bruce gets the job of being God.  Bruce uses these new-found powers with glee and ‘rights a few wrongs’ in his life.  Along the way, however, he learns something about humanity and life and what is good and bad for people.  He ultimately tries to give everyone everything they want and ask for but that only creates chaos in the town in which he lives as competing wants and desires conflict with each other.  He also learns that people don’t always want what they need and don’t always ask for what is good for them.  There is also a tendency towards a focus on self rather than on the well-being of the community and the greater good (or common good).  Through these experiences Bruce is transformed.  He puts aside his obsession with gaining more power, prestige and money.  He becomes satisfied with what he has and the things that money can’t buy but actually offer richer meaning and joy in life.  He takes part in communal activities and delights in other people laughing and playing together.  He delights in the life he has and even gains patience towards his dog.

One of the most important lessons for Bruce is that he cannot change anyone or make them happy – either as Bruce or God.  God cannot make anyone do something they don’t want to do.  Bruce has to come to the understanding that if he wants to restore his relationship with Grace, he can only love her and allow her to make the decision to love him in return.  He cannot change her, he can only love her and be patience and gentle.

I thought of this movie with all of its themes and insightful moments this week.  I thought of it after attending a ‘Meet the Election Candidates Forum’ at our local Uniting Church.  Three candidates accepted the invitation.  Two were sitting MP’s for different electorates and opposite parties.  The third was a Greens candidate for one of the electorates.  They each spoke and introduced their policies for a few minutes each.  They each spoke well.  Then there was an open session for questions from the floor.  Questions ranged from Climate Change/Environment to Superannuation to Affordable Housing to funding for Science and restoring funding to CSIRO and funding for the Arts to Foreign Aid…  Some of the answers went to the heart of the issues but many seemed to say little with many impressive words.  I looked through the Uniting Church’s resources that named the significant issues from a faith perspective.  The papers don’t tell us who to vote for but what the important issues are and what the church believes on these issues.  I found myself nodding in agreement as I read.  I left the evening somewhat dismayed that the major parties were not able to come very close to what the church, and myself, seem to believe is really important for our nation and the world.

I wonder what most Australians think.  I wonder what we will do as a nation when it comes to the crucial issues confronting the world, such as climate change, refugees, slavery and human trafficking (sex slaves, sweatshops other forms – 25-30 million people!), war and conflict and world poverty that is only getting more significant.  I also wonder how we will continue to respond to important issues internal to Australia such as the serious rise in online gambling, access to quality aged care, corporate tax dodging, constitutional and other recognition for Aboriginal people (and restoration of their pride and esteem), taxation reform, renewable energy, and issues related to negative gearing and capital gains tax.

Many of these things don’t seem important to many people nor do they seem to gain much significance in the public forums of our political leaders.  I wonder whether the movie Bruce Almighty speaks into our malaise and the individualism and expectation of accumulation of more assets that pervades public rhetoric in Australia?

This week’s New Testament passage (Galatians 5:1, 13-26) was also challenging as I read it.  For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’  I pondered the slavery we feel and the freedom for which we yearn.  Many of the above issues are about enslavement and oppressive forces and powers over people.  Jesus speaks of liberation and so does Paul in this passage.  Liberation from that which ties us down, oppresses or enslaves us.  For some that is poverty, political persecution, war and conflict, impact of environmental crises, slavery etc.  For others it is about the enslavement to expectations of affluence and material prosperity.  We are enslaved by the expectations of a society that determines what we think about who we are and what we need.

If I get away from the messages, overt and subliminal, that confront me in advertising and societal expectations, I find that there is peace and joy in the simplicity of life.  A walk by the local creek or enjoying the colour and wonder of the garden, listening to some good music or reading a book offer me something more than the constant stress to achieve or acquire, whether money, success, power, prestige… As I continued reading the passage, Paul reiterates Jesus’ words to love your neighbour as yourself, as being something life-giving and essential for the well-being of our world.  He goes onto commend the fruit of God’s Spirit, that which God encourages and gives – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. These are not the qualities I heard explicated the other night.  Nor are they the qualities that Bruce first exhibited or sought.  He wanted power and glory, fame and fortune.  These ‘fruit’ are the things that create a beautiful world, one that each of us wants to be part of; where all are valued and have a place.  They are the values Bruce discovered and I yearn for.

By geoffstevenson

God’s Reign – Liberating and Healing!

The story I am wrestling with this week is both strange and challenging.  Unusually I will begin with it as I reflect.  It is a story that is found in a few of the gospels but this week we read Luke’s version (Luke 8:26-39).  It is about a man, a man who lived on the other side.  It was the other side of the lake in Galilee, the Gentile or pagan side.  It represents the ‘other side’ wherever we are and the people who inhabit those places.  Maybe it is a physical place where people who are very different live and have free reign.  Maybe it is a place of emotional or psychological illness and struggle through life where people feel lost in the consuming illness that wrestles for control of their mind and emotions.  Perhaps it is a place of physical illness or disability that limits and oppresses a person.  There are places where people are drawn down into addiction that oppresses their being and traps them in a world of despair and desperation.  There are many, in our world, who are oppressed in poverty or slavery, trapped in a world of relentless desperation and struggle.  There are also those who are suddenly engulfed in the chaos of crisis – a sudden illness, the death of someone close, another sudden loss of relationship, job or something significant – they are thrown into a different world, crossed over into a different place and exist in a place that is strange and lonely.

The man in the story is described as being out of his mind, daemon-possessed is the phrase used and probably incorporates a plethora of conditions.  He is isolated away from people, alienated and excluded out of fear and his inability to live normally amidst people.  The man cries out, is naked and often chained up.  In his desperate state he breaks chains and causes havoc.  He lives in tombs – a man who is essentially dead lives amongst the dead.  The townspeople avoid him as he runs amok in his lost, lonely and desperate world.

The experience of this level of desperation isn’t mine.  I don’t know the experience of this man personally but have sat with several who are in this place, such as people struggling with schizophrenic episodes and living in a confused world of voices and strange aberrations of the mind.  I have sat with couples grieving the deep and sudden loss of a still born baby where all their hopes and dreams for this developing child die with their lifeless child.  They feel different, with many associated emotions from grief to guilt to anger to inconsolable pain.  I have tried to contemplate the lives of people who are homeless, sitting in a park or in a refuge talking and trying to understand.  I have walked with street kids late at night trying to understand the oppressive forces that hold them and the anger and pain of their lives.

In the story, Jesus journeys to this ‘other side’ where he meets this man.  He doesn’t recoil or turn away.  In fact he deliberately walks into the place of the dead, a cemetery, where this man dwells, a ‘dead man’ in the place of the dead.  Cemeteries were considered unclean and to be avoided except when burying the dead.  It was this man’s abode, physically and metaphorically.  Jesus went to the man and saw him not as a madman, scary and dangerous, someone to be locked away. He saw a human being who was suffering and oppressed.  He saw a man who was alone and lost.  He saw a man who needed liberation and love.  He saw a man…

This man was used to being avoided, shunned and pushed away.  He was chained up when he was at his worst.  He was not normally used to anyone stopping and talking to him, asking him who he was.  As is typical, he answered out of the daemons within him, that which controlled his mind or emotions – angry, fearful, unsure.  It is the same with anyone who is from the ‘other side’ and mistrusts those who come close.  What do they want?  What do they represent?  Homeless old men in the streets of Parramatta used to shout out at anyone who got too close.  People with mental illness avoid people or respond with suspicion.  Those who have been oppressed do not respond favourably to anyone who comes close, fearing what they really are going to do.  Those on the ‘other side’ react in different ways when someone comes close.  Jesus came close and the man begged to be left alone – was it the man or the daemons speaking?  What did the man, in his deepest being desire, want and need?

When asked his name, the man replied ‘Legion for there were many daemons in him’.  When we ask people their names, sometimes they respond out of their pain and give an indication of the daemons they feel – ‘I am a schizophrenic’ (or the name of who they might believe themselves to be this day – often Jesus Christ); ‘I am the woman who can’t carry a child’; ‘I am the homeless bum who walks the streets of Parramatta and upsets people’; ‘I am the one who has lost everything’  The name of this man offer two levels of understanding for the story – the personal story of a man oppressed by the daemons of life and mind and being and a larger understanding of oppression in the world.  This second understanding comes from the recognition that the language and feel of the story has military underpinnings.  Jesus commanded and  the name ‘legion’ are military connotations.  A legion was a basic military unit of the Roman army and comprised 4-5000 soldiers.  The particular legion based in Galilee had the boar’s head as their symbol, hence the interesting element of the swine.  The region was known for Roman military personnel dwelling there and probably a sense of the oppressive weight of Roman occupation.  The casting out of the daemons and into the swine represents the liberation of the man from personal bondage and re-engagement with a community of people.  It also represents, at a different level, the Reign of God over and against the powers of the world that oppress peoples and nations.  The swine running into the sea conjure images of the story of liberation under Moses when the Egyptian army were engulfed in the Red Sea as they followed the Hebrews slaves escaping Egypt – God delivers is the message and the Reign of God is freedom, peace, liberation, wholeness and well-being.

The mission of Jesus was to those on the ‘other side’ and he reached out where others ignored, responded out of fear or shunned.  He responded to those who were lost, fearful, trapped and oppressed and he brought the liberating love of God.  We are invited into this ministry of liberation, peace, reconciliation, love and healing.  We are invited to create communities of God’s grace and love for the sake of the world.

By geoffstevenson

Seen, Loved, Known and Made Whole!

A couple of stories:

I walked through Parramatta with one of the welfare workers I worked with.  He pointed out a fellow up ahead in the park.  I looked and saw an older man, homeless, dirty, matted hair and alcoholic.  I watched as he abused people passing by who got to close.  I was just a little revolted.  I was amazed as the welfare worker walked up to him and said: ‘Hello Dick.  How are you this morning?’ The man looked suspiciously at him and cursed a bit.  The worker brushed his cursing aside and told him to behave himself or some such.  They then had a conversation about how Dick was going.  The worker tried to encourage him to come with him to Hope Hostel, a refuge for homeless men in Parramatta where he could get cleaned up, get some medical treatment, have a feed, a sleep in safety and some clean clothes.  He refused.  I was later told that his was usual.  I stood transfixed by this conversation.  The man I had only seen through the categories of homeless, alcoholic, abusive/rude, dirty… suddenly became a human being.  He had a name – Dick.  He had a history, probably a family somewhere and he had deep needs.  I also learned that he had friends and they looked out for each other.  He learned to trust some of the welfare workers and spoke to them regularly.  When he really needed help, he came to them and they looked after him.  In his sober moments, he was quite a likeable, funny fellow.

I had only ever seen him and others through the categories that pigeon-holed them and kept them locked away in their closed off, often desperate world.  I had only ever looked upon them somewhat judgementally and it never occurred to me that they were people who had deep emotional or psychological problems that pushed them towards deeper addiction and homelessness.  I never understood but then I never took the time to listen to them.

On another occasion, I was at an elective at a youth event, where I was helping out.  The theme was around refugees and asylum seekers.  A young man stood up and was introduced.  He was an Afghan refugee who had arrived by boat during the ‘War on Terror’.  He was a desperate young man and told his desperate story.  He was one of the Hazara people who are persecuted, oppressed and victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Afghanistan.  The young man, whose name I have forgotten as it didn’t roll easily off the tongue, had lost his family through persecution.  He was prevented from receiving an education so that all his learning was haphazard, stilted and opportunistic – he got it wherever he could.  The young man described how he lived alone moving between distant relatives, trying to avoid the persecution his family had experienced.  He finally was able to get out and travel through Pakistan and finally into Indonesia, where he somehow got onto a boat destined for Australia.  He was, according to political pundits, a judgemental media and the majority of our population, a boat person or ‘illegal immigrant’.  He was going to bring terror, or crime, or steal our jobs…

I looked at this simple young man, with a face, a name and a sad, painful history.  I heard the despair and pain as he told his lonely story.  I heard the fear and suffering in his voice and heart.  I saw a human who was vulnerable and now very grateful for the freedom he had experienced in Australia.  In spite of the difficult times in the boat, the detention centres and the restrictions on his life with little money and possibilities, he was free, grateful and happy.  He had been taken to school and thrived in a place where he could learn – he loved it!! He was years behind but worked hard to catch up – until at 18, the government in their wisdom said he had to leave school.  His life still has too many restrictions and uncertainties but he still smiles!

I thought of these and many other stories where my eyes were opened to the humanity of people I and others categorised, judged and dehumanised.  I was surprised to see a human face where there had only been categories, words and terms that trapped people in expectations or locked them into places of rejection and judgement.  I realise that there are too many people whom I categorise and dehumanise in such ways.  It is easy to look askance at others who are different, whom are demonised, who look frightening or threaten to change something in our perception or world view – or even our lives!  It is easy judge others without understanding the human story that lies in their being.  It is easy to not look into the eyes of another and then write them off as worthless or irrelevant.

I am also confronted by the life of Jesus as he embraces the people whom are written off as those who are worthless, irrelevant, useless or evil.  So many people in his world were discarded and left vulnerable at the behest of authorities who categorised them and judged them by particular standards that trapped them in vulnerable poverty and excluded them from participation in community life or the life of faith.

In this week’s story (Luke 7:36-8:4), Jesus was invited to a dinner party with a local religious leader.  After he entered the home, they reclined on cushions on the floor with their feet behind them to the right, leaning on their left arms.  The food was spread out in their midst.  They talked and ate.  As they were eating a ‘woman of the city’ (get the implication – she was also called a ‘sinner’), came and stood behind Jesus.  She wiped his feet with her hair and anointed them with fragrant ointment.  She wept as she did this, tears of joy and love – of gratitude and freedom!   Simon the host was outraged and wondered if Jesus really was a true man of God – How could he allow this woman, this unclean woman, to touch him and cry over him?  Jesus told Simon a simple story about two men who had debts, one large and one smaller.  The person who held these debts released the men – who was the most grateful?  The one with the larger debt, suggested Simon.  Jesus went on describing how Simon, as a host, had not given him water to wash his feet, nor oil to anoint his head, nor a kiss of greeting but this woman had done these things and more!  This woman did all this because her sins had been forgiven – in other words, she had been released from her indebtedness, her shame and the lifestyle and implications of her poverty.  She was forgiven.  She received salvation, which means she received wholeness in her life and understood herself to be loved, valued and a child of God.  This was a truly significant experience for a woman who was a written-off nobody, a sinner and worthless.  She was loved by Jesus and by God.  She was a human being with value, worth and loved.  I wonder how I might learn to see people as people, the human face behind the category, the one created and loved by God!  What about you?

By geoffstevenson

When Death Threatens Life – and is Transformed!

Sometimes life feels like it is hanging by a thread – and then the thread is failing.  Life unravels before your eyes and feels desperate.  You feel you’re hanging from a high place by your fingertips and the weight is rapidly becoming too much – you are going to fall.  You know the image: Can you remember facing the desperate moment when everything spun out of control and you felt yourself going down?

Sometimes life feels like you have been steered onto a gangplank and you’re walking towards the end.  You don’t know how it happened or what circumstances steered you meanderingly towards this ultimate uncertainty.  Other times an event happens that changes everything.  It is quick, decisive and complete.  Your life is changed in an instant and nothing will ever be the same again.  This happens most regularly in particular deaths that are unexpected, come far too early and create chaos in our lives and psyches.  But death isn’t the only situation in which costly and significant change disrupts our lives.  The sudden ending of a career or loss of health; the breakdown of a relationship or any sudden and significant loss can do it to you.

This week’s gospel reading is about such a person, a woman who was widowed and had lost her only son.  In the 1st Century that meant she was desperate.  Aside from the grief of her son’s death, the woman now had no one to support her and look after her.  In the context of such a patriarchal society this woman had a flimsy grasp on her own livelihood,  Relatives (all male of course) could come and seize her property and even kick her out into the streets and she had no recourse.  Her life was spiralling downwards and the thread that help her in stability and security had broken.

Jesus and the crowd following him were in high spirits after the previous incident – the slave of a Centurion was now well due to Jesus’ ministry.  It was a celebratory crowd, celebrating life, rejoicing and holding Jesus in awe.  It was joyous and exciting and full of life.  This crowd met another crowd, one accompanying the widow for her son’s funeral procession.  This crowd was grieving and mourning.  It was a crowd of death, lifeless and hopeless because this son was dead.  Two crowds, one filled with life and hope, the other filled with the emotions and hopelessness of death.  Two processions, one of life and one of death, converged with Jesus at the centre.

As Jesus looked upon the woman he saw.  He looked at her and saw her and the desperation of her living, which was now a living death.  He saw her desperate vulnerability and humility.  He saw and he felt it in his guts – that is actually the translation of the Greek work, he felt deep compassion in his guts.  Jesus felt so deeply and profoundly for this woman that he was moved to act and restore something to her – to bring life out of death.  That is the way of God, to transform deathliness into life.  In the midst of the world where death reigns in the violence, hatred, injustice, vulnerability, poverty, exclusion, grief, loneliness and despair, God’s way is to transform death into life.

In the story we are told that Jesus reached out and touched the funeral bier and told the son to ‘Get up!’  The son sat up and started talking (I wonder what he said???).  Jesus gave the son back to the mother and her life was restored, the threat to her being was ameliorated  and stability, hope and security immediately returned.  The death procession became a procession celebrating life and the two processions became one – a life-giving, hopeful and joyful celebration!

It is tempting to engage with the story around the dead son restored to life and all the questions it raises – a resuscitation story that rubs against our rational world view.   Some believe it literally and other metaphorically and so the arguments go, back and forth.  But is the restoration of the son really the central part of the story?  Is it the deeper truth within the story with which the author would have us wrestle?  Is there not a deeper point to ponder, one that impacts you and I and the lives we live in this complex and often painful world?

Earlier this year our Hawkesbury Churches organised a Jazz Night at the beautiful Ebenezer Church.  It was a fabulous night, more successful than we could have imagined.  The real significance, however, was that as a result of raising around $10,000 we were able to support the poorest of the poor in West Papua through building wells for clean water – most particularly in an orphanage.  This simple event has brought new life and health to some of the world’s poorest people.  The simple act of people turning up and supporting our event has given life to people.  The real joy and gratitude these people express is quite unbelievable for us who take clean water and everything else we have for granted.  They are ecstatic and deeply thankful.  The small group of people who run the charity, West Papua Development Company, have managed to build many wells for the people of West Papua.  These have changed people’s lives and restored health and well-being.

This is just one story of how life can intrude upon death when we act out of compassion; when we look and see other people who are vulnerable, poor and helpless and feel it in our guts.  When we allow our compassion to bubble up into action, such love can change human life and bring hope out of death.  I have seen this same light of hope and joy in the faces of asylum seekers, so often demonised and treated inhumanely, when they have found a new freedom from persecution and given a new life in Australia.  I have seen it in the eyes of young people who have been taken seriously, perhaps in their minds for the first time – someone takes them seriously even when they don’t take themselves seriously.  They slowly begin to emerge from despair, self-judgement and self-hatred and blossom into the people they can truly be.  I saw it in a young man who has had a difficult life.  His family arrived from desperate conditions in another country.  He struggled to find a place in this new land.  At school he didn’t really perform and didn’t take learning or himself seriously.  Then one day he was invited to play same traditional drums.  He knew about them from his family and homeland.  He played well and when his skills were added to other people’s a really good sound emerged.  He played at school functions and beyond the school at important events.  He began to take himself seriously and believe in himself  – and he began to live!  It took a teacher to trust him and encourage him and others to give him a go.  He blossomed and thrived in a new and positive way.

This story is one of inviting us to embrace the life that God offers us in the midst of struggle or pain – or joy.  We are encouraged to reach out in compassion to others and share life, love and hope in a world where there is pain and death. We are invited to live in the love of God that reaches out to all of us to bring life, hope, peace and joy!

By geoffstevenson