Who Is the greatest? The Humble and Loving…

I had a funeral this week.  Over the years I have had many, many funerals and they have taken me into the homes of many diverse families.  I have sat before grieving people who have laughed and cried through the stories they have shared of one they have loved and who has died.  There have been young people, whose premature deaths are heartbreaking and sad.  There have been middle-aged people, still far too young and then elderly people who have lived long and well and whose time has come.  Some have journeyed through serious illness and others died suddenly.  In these experiences I have been humbled by the humanity and loveliness of the people.

So it was again this last week.  Ordinary people who live with deep shock after their partner, mother and daughter died suddenly and unexpectedly.  These people are humble and ordinary people who work hard.  They aren’t names that we would know but, like most of us, anonymous to most of society.  They are people who work hard to get ahead and struggle with the world around.  Most of the extended family are country people who look and feel out of place in the city.  Many were less educated in terms of reading, writing and arithmetic than their city-dweller relatives but they are people who know their way around the bush, the land, tractors and machinery.  They are skilled at working the land, fixing things with whatever is available and getting on with the work.  Their education and skill is different and their capacity equally significant.

In terms of social status, these people and the one whose life they celebrated would not rate highly.  They aren’t the wealthy, the powerful or the outstanding in any particular field.  They would probably be a bit stand-offish when confronted by those who appear more sophisticated.  Most were a little out of place and even awed when they entered the church at Ebenezer.  They were lost when I asked them did they have a Bible reading they would like read at the service.  In all, these people were salt of the earth, ordinary people.  They are formed by the culture in which they live and believe many things they are told.  They have self-respect but also know their place in the world.  Most of them would know nothing of the church and rarely think about God.  If they did they mostly believe that God has little or no interest in them because the church has made this clear at some of the significant moments of their lives.  I suspect that in the funeral they were waiting for the ‘religious bit’ and thinking they would get an earful because, sadly, that happens at some funerals.  They didn’t.  I recognised that in the person whose life they were celebrating there was the face of God.  She was an ordinary woman who struggled with life and had times of great success and joy.  She was one who embraced experiences of wonder, of family moments, of hard work and seeking to better herself.  She was one who gave of herself for the sake of others and couldn’t do enough to help another person.  In this funeral her life was celebrated and her love remembered and praised.  She will be missed, dearly missed, by those who shared life with her.

In celebrating this unique and beautiful life I recognised, as I have on many similar occasions that I am on holy ground and a witness to a life that was very significant even if only celebrated and remembered by the relative few ordinary people who filled the little church at Ebenezer.

This image lingers as I read the gospel for the week (Luke 14:1, 7-14).  In it Jesus speaks to religious leaders, people of power, authority and possibly wealth.  They are people who are respectable and looked up to.  He suggests in strong tones that they seek the least important positions in public places and feasts.  Then they will not be shamed or embarrassed if someone more significant and worthy is invited to sit in the best seat.  The host may even invite them to a seat with more honour and they will be honoured.

On the face of it, Jesus could be assumed to suggest that we all secretly seek to have ourselves honoured through false humility, to play games with cultural rules.  Jesus’ words, however, are meant to cut across the games people play, games that seek to elevate our sense of importance before others.  Jesus has no interest in who is greatest, most powerful, has the most toys or believes themselves important.  He is more concerned with the reality that true greatness comes through genuine humility, not self-deprecation but humility.  It lies in the actualising of love for God, others and self, of reaching out in genuine compassion, with genuine interest and generous acceptance of another.  It is about relationships built upon equality and mutual respect that enables us to look into the face of another and see the face of Jesus reflected back.  Genuine love is life-giving to us and the other as it embraces each into life of God.

This story opens us to the recognition that within God’s gracious community none is greater or least.  We are all human beings and children of God.  We are all unique, significant and therefore have infinite value.  The particular cultural determinants of importance and significance disappear in the inclusive community of grace in which we live and grow as God’s people.  Under God’s Reign all are valued and worthy.

In the church, as much as in wider society, the temptation is to compete with others for importance or to cling to power and feel ourselves more (or less) worthy.  Many churches come unstuck when people grasp power and lord it over others.  In many churches there are those who are more and less respected.  There are those given more importance and prominence and those who are cast to the side.  Such importance is too often tied to the secular notions of authoritative, positional power, wealth, social status based on education, career or honoured position, or traditions and family origins.  When people claim ownership of churches or other organisations, families or communities, and dominate those others present, dysfunctionality ensues.  I confess that having seen a few churches dominated by an individual or particular people who claim authority and who dictate what will or won’t be, it is fatal to the church.  God’s way is the opposite and when we engage humbly and with love towards one another, sharing each other’s gifts, skills and offerings we become so much more effective and Christ-like.  When we elevate some above others a false dichotomy ensues resulting in division and conflict.

This week Windsor Church celebrates 200+ years of welcome, witness and worship and we will remember that when humility and grace, generous and inclusive love and mutual respect characterise our life together, God will be present, we won’t have to prove ourselves and we will be an oasis of peace and hope for the world.  May God open our eyes to graciously receive one another with mutual respect, love and peace.

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By geoffstevenson

When the Pain of the World Weighs You Down…

The image of the Greek god, Atlas bearing the heavens and earth upon his shoulders is a fitting image for how many people feel.  Whilst most of us don’t literally feel the weight of the whole world upon our shoulders, many do feel the pressures and weight of life.  Often the overwhelming pain and suffering in the lives of other, often unknown, people weigh heavily upon us as we feel helpless to change anything.  I am very aware that there are also the innumerable stories of personal sadness and pain that crush people and leave them hunched over with the weight of living, the stress and strain of life.  Sometimes the significant weight is emotional or psychological.  Sometimes it is physical and always it is spiritual and always crushes people.

I read a story of a young woman.  Her name was Jodie and when she was six she was playing in her back yard with neighbours.  Their mother was inside drinking coffee and talking to her mother.  At one point she went inside to get a drink.  Whilst there, Jodie overheard her mother’s incredible confession to her neighbour.  She told how she couldn’t love Jodie. She wished she had never been born.  She even found it difficult to touch her daughter.  Jodie was in complete shock.  Suddenly her life changed irrevocably.  She sat as long as she could, hiding away from her friends.  She went outside but the neighbours had become sick of waiting, and gone home.  Jodie hid in a tree and cried and cried and cried.  As the days and weeks passed she realised that her mother hugged her brothers but rarely touched her and pushed her away when she came near.  The hurt and pain grew within her until she hated both her parents and demanded to herself that her mother should love her, ‘She is my mother!’

Jodie, the adult, said, ‘I feel as if I am desperately seeking something and I don’t even know what I’m searching for.  Maybe it’s happiness.  Or love.  I don’t know… nothing satisfies me.  I still feel hollow, frighteningly hollow.  There’s still something missing, something important. Perhaps if I ever found it I would know what life is all about and what the point of it all is.’

Jodie felt much rejection and anger.  The weight of her own rejection and pain was deep and intense.  It is so difficult to imagine what the little girl growing through adolescence and young adulthood must have felt, knowing she wasn’t loved or wanted but that she revolted her own mother.  I imagine this young woman as hunched over with the pain of her life and the lovelessness she experienced as a child.

Against this story I heard another.  It was of a woman, an unnamed, unknown woman. She lived many years ago and she was a woman described as having some manifestation of evil that crippled her and pushed her to the margins of life. She was unable to stand up straight and the evil within her tortured her emotions. She was excluded from life because people couldn’t deal with her or cope with her deformity. She was an unclean person and people took a wide berth from her. They knew her to be God-forsaken and that’s what she felt deep within her spirit. She felt dry and tired within; a helpless, powerless nobody, weighed down and hunched over by the strain of life.

She wandered into the local synagogue (‘church’) for a rest, for some hope, some peace and perhaps a connection with God?  Jesus was teaching at the time and saw her. He stopped his teaching, went to her and spoke tender words of inclusive love. He reached out to her in the name of God and invited her to stand tall and strong. He cast aside the evil presence, the feelings, the spirit, whatever held her and she found peace. More than inner peace, she was received into the community of God’s grace and love. She belonged for the first time in many years! She was brought back from the edge, the margins, to find a place nearer the heart of God and to be loved by people. Jesus’ tender touch and gentle words were a healing balm that flowed through her exhausted body filling her with a peace that she had never known or would never have believed possible.

Jodie found her way into the lives of two people who loved her deeply.  Charles and Jill accepted her, loved her and prayed for her.  They listened and cried with her.  They talked and encouraged her to let go of the pain and hatred she held for her mother.  Her anger was intense and raw.  Gradually, through the love of Charles and Jill and other friends from their church, Jodie found her way into the God’s  presence and began to feel a sense of self-worth and acceptance.  Eventually she was helped to let go of the anger and hatred for her mother and she began to feel an incredible peace.  She said that an enormous weight lifted off her and she felt a peace like she had never felt before.

Jodie gradually found her way into the church and was surrounded by others on the journey towards deeper love and life in God.  It wasn’t always a straightforward path but she came to the point where she could say, ‘I love being alive!’  She also said, ‘It’s just so good being able to live peacefully myself and with other people.  I’m at peace with God.  The anger’s gone out of me.  I didn’t want to live; most of my life I was running away, searching.  I’m glad to be alive now.  I just want to thank God for giving me life.’

In the story of Jesus (found in Luke 13:10-17) there is more. The powers that be, who operate the synagogue and religious system are angry and retaliate because Jesus has upset the order of the system, their lives and their power. They turn on Jesus accusing him of rejecting the laws and requirements of God. They want him gone. They use their laws to justify and uphold their clinging to power and order and control over others.

Jesus stands up to these people who would use power and structures, control and laws to prevent the healing and restoration of a very poor, helpless woman! After all, what is God really on about? Is God about rules, laws and controlled order? Or, is God about liberty, freedom and life under the Reign of God? Does God require love or judgement? Grace or control and power over? In same way there are forces in our society that don’t like people to find life and freedom if it means they lose control or power.  People in places of power will use everything they can to maintain the status quo even if that means injustice, hatred and violence – it usually comes down to violence and more violence. People in power who use that power over others often keep them silenced and out of the way. Love opposes this and opens the heart to welcome everyone in the love of God that is healing and restorative. God’s love is generous and liberating!

When we feel the weight of the world upon us or meet another who is weighed down heavily, it is in the grace and love of God that we can find release and hope.  A community of God’s grace can be a place of life-giving love and peace.

By geoffstevenson

Following God’s Dream – and the Conflict it Will Bring!

I spent last week at Port Macquarie.  We stayed in a unit overlooking Town Beach.  After a couple of days of wind and rain brought on by the East coast low, the sun broke through with blazing warmth.  The wind subsided, the ocean settled slightly and the surfers flocked to the large waves and rolling surf.  I watched somewhat fascinated.  When a surfer with great skill worked with and against the wave it looked exhilarating and an experience of freedom and passion.

Against this backdrop I was reading through a book on John’s story of Jesus and was challenged by the way Jesus invites people to embrace life.  He invites people out of their secure and stable world confined by rules, structures and belief systems that define who they are and how they, and others, must be.  He speaks of the wind that blows where it will and can’t be contained or defined – that is like the Spirit of God.  He draws people out of darkness into the light of life that is an everlasting gift lifting us beyond rules and expectations into the freedom of God.  He breaks open everything that contains people or creates barriers to community and life, justice and love.

As I read these stories of Jesus I watched the surfers and how they spent time settling in, feeling the flow of the predictably unpredictable waves and currents.  They merge into the water and move into its motion.  I watched how they read the waves, anticipating their turn to draw themselves into the wave, allowing its energy to take them on a ride towards the beach.  The surfers used the wave’s building energy to drive them along.  Some, perhaps beginners, simply stayed with the wave, giving up completely to its motion and riding it into the beach.  This looked like fun but ultimately must give way to something that is riskier and more liberating.  Seasoned surfers seemed to work with and against the wave.  They would ride with it and then work against it to create tension and movement back and sideways through and across the wave.  At just the right time they would resolve the tension and find their way back into the flow of the wave before challenging it once more.  These riders took risks in working against the wave and testing themselves.  Some flew high through the air, tossed off with vigorous energy.  Others resolved the tension in time and evoked elaborate moves and exciting rides.

This movement between creating and resolving tension is interesting and it is the essence of growth, freedom and life.  In music the most interesting pieces have strong elements of tension or dissonance that drives the piece along creating excitement and energy before resolving, partially or completely.  It is the balance between tension and resolution that creates interest and passion.  Without it we are left with lifeless muzak the much-loathed elevator music.

When I turned to this week’s reading (Luke 12:49-56) it speaks of the tension and conflict that rises for those who would follow the way of Jesus.  Similar words appear in the other gospels and each author provides their own particular example of implication.  Luke chooses the idolatrous worship of family as an absolute, a god-like expression of ultimate faith.  Families are important and range from wonderful to hideous.  All manner of evil, injustice, ignorance and abuse is hidden within the structures of families.  Family can be a wonderful gift or an evil affliction. As a microcosm of wider society and communal structures, these same possibilities exist in other places as well.  Jesus speaks of the conflict his very words and way will create in many people’s lives.  It is not the indulgent, ignorant and evil conflict we often associate with religious conflicts, where there is judgement, exclusion, violence…  It is the conflict and tension that comes from having one’s life, beliefs, ideology and priorities challenged by God.  Whenever we hold up a system of belief or give ultimate authority or importance to something of human origins we put our trust in something that is limited and will ultimately fail us.  We also run the risk of creating an idol we will defend at all costs.  Jesus speaks of finding our life in God, the ground of all being, ‘the one in whom we live and move and have our being’ and that when we seek God’s Reign, God’s dream, everything else finds its place and life finds its rhythm BUT there will be conflict because we will challenge the priorities and evil of the world.  When Martin Luther King fought racism he was resisted and eventually killed.  When Bonhoeffer resisted Hitler he was hung.  When we take any stand against injustice or evil, because that is God’s way, others will resist ad there will be conflict for us – as there was for Jesus.

The invitation of Jesus is to engage with the Reign of God and the Spirit of God that blows where it will pushing us into new and different paths that are life-giving.  More than that, Jesus draws those who would follow his way to engage with the vision (Reign) of God and the change that God dreams for the world.  Commentator, Bill Loader, says “He espoused a vision of God and God’s agenda for change which often stood in direct conflict with other absolute claims, like wealth, possessions, land, culture, religion and family. He appears to have deliberately encouraged some to dislocate by leaving behind the claims of their local communities, clan, and family. Like him they travelled with him as a kind of entourage of protest against the prevailing systems. But he also encouraged others who stayed where they were to put the kingdom first. Everything else has its place but falls into proper perspective when the ‘God part’ is taken care of. That is not a guarantee of peace and harmony, but an involvement in change which will have its own rewards. It will encounter resistance and rejection from the powerbrokers of the gods of family and tradition.”

There is always a risk to swim against the tide.  It is hard work and demanding but as I watched the surfers last week it was when they resisted the wave went against its energy and direction that they produced the most exciting rides.  There are times and places to conform to society and the world around us, to celebrate with joy the good things that humanity is inherently capable of.  There are other times when we will ride against the wave of popular opinion because it is right and just to do so.  William Wilberforce gave his whole life to fighting to free Britain of the evil slave trade.  It cost him a great deal and there was much resistance but in the end he, and those with him, won the struggle for justice.  It is important that we find friends to share the journey, a community of Jesus people committed to justice, peace, integrity, love and life together and for the world.  It is a journey and an adventure but not for the faint-hearted.  It will take commitment and courage – and much love!  Oh, and God will be with us!

By geoffstevenson