Post-Christmas/Pre-New Year – Where to Now?

Here we are in the post-Christmas let-down.  All the busy-ness, stress, rush and chaos is over for another year.  The parties and feasting (except for New Year’s Eve) are over and we are moving slowly and towards a new year.  Full bellies on long hot days with little appetite for work or anything much more than lying around in front of the cricket, football or sailing – or perhaps the latest DVD or good book.  These are the lazy, sultry days of post-Christmas when brains shut down and bodies collapse for at least a few days.

I wonder where Christmas has gone for everyone?  The babe in the manger that was the object of our carols and who lies at the centre of the season (‘Christmas’) seems to have been lost, discarded amidst the wrapping paper and lunch leftovers.  The baby was born and that is enough.  The world still revolves on its axis and all is good for another year – after all let’s not get too religiously zealous.  Or perhaps it is more than that.  Perhaps our cultural traditions and family expectations overwhelm the story such that we have sentimentalised and sterilised it until it offers as much as we can handle but not enough to rock the boat.  It’s a nice story and one we want to tell and remember but what really does it offer, this fairy tale of yesteryear when everything was different and simpler and people believed the most simplistic things – a different world.

We’re about to blow our millions on New Year’s Eve, another party that explodes into colour and fanfare and all-night revelry leaving a hungover world that has hailed in a new year.  And what of the expectations of this new year?  What do we hope for?  What do we believe?  In reality, probably not much.  The politics will roll on in its current strange manner and we will have to wait and see if Trump is really as strange and even dangerous as they say.  There will be twists and turns with our own lot, unpredictable and probably ineffective, lost in opinion polls and driven by lack of leadership and fear.

I wonder, as the night lights up on New Year’s Eve, what we are hiding from.  All this colour and light; all this partying.  Is this expectation or is it distraction – like the parties my high school mates used to organise and allowed some to drink themselves into oblivion to hide the pain and alienation of their lives.  I wonder if there isn’t something of all this in our collective embrace of the superficial and sentimental through Christmas and New Year.  Do we prefer to be distracted, at least for a time, with the magic of Christmas promise leading us into a simplistic world of make-believe and fun.  Of course it isn’t all bad, this journey into red and white gaiety of Santa and the elves, mixed with a baby born in a simple way but hailed as king, with angel chorus and all the rest. It is a lovely mixture of metaphors, images and story.  But at some point the magic fades and real life intrudes and the distraction is no more and perhaps we wonder or ponder or maybe wander aimlessly into a new year much the same as the last one.

Beyond the magic and superficial pleasantry that exudes itself into the celebration, confusing the message, the story and preventing us going really deep, is the real world in which we live.  The news continues each day, with presenters rattling off a list of painful stories of drownings, death, violence and world strife.  The hungry are still hungry and dying from their lack.  Disasters and crises still engulf humanity and all the while, groaning beneath human consumption, the earth itself struggles against the rapidly heating world.  Indigenous peoples struggle for their place and the powerful lord it over all else with their weapons of destruction and power and testosterone fuelled violent arrogance.

This is the backdrop that we don’t want to see.  It is there all the time, despite the beauty and wonder we adore and gather around.  Our religious festivals only exude their power when they emerge within the world as that is where God always comes.  The baby, so sentimentally forgotten, was birthed into a world of violence and pain.  This week’s story from the gospel of Matthew (Matt 2:13-23) is a dark story and it feels like we are intruding into the season of Jesus’ birth with a horror story.  It feels wrong because we have hidden from this reality and protected Jesus’ birth from the hideous darkness of human struggle and suffering. 

In this week’s story we are told of the response of the powers to the birth of this innocent one.  The brutal, maniacal King Herod, a cruel, power-hungry megalomaniac, as far as this story is concerned, unleashes the power of brutal violence, announcing that all children in and around Bethlehem 2 years old and younger must be killed.  This is to ensure the one the Magi (‘Wise Men’) called the King of the Jews would be killed and not pose any threat to his kingdom.  Warned of this mass murder, the family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus journey and escape to Egypt, refugees seeking safety in a world of murderous powers.  All of this invites us to think of Moses and his story and the ultimate liberation of God’s people into the Promised Land, a story that continues to lie at the heart of Jewish faith and memory.  It also brings the story of Jesus into the world we know.  Through this season of Christmas, despots across the world have wielded brutal power and refugees have sought escape to safety.  The darkness of the story is the real world’s story repeated over and over in every generation.  It is the story we all participate in, whether as active contributors or more commonly, helpless, fearful observers overwhelmed by the sheer ferocity and unbelievable pain inflicted on human beings.

We feel the alienation of human life in our bones and long for the peace that this story proclaimed when angels announced Jesus’ birth in the heavens, a memory distant and unbelievable.  We long for something different, a news reel that has a different story but in our fear and confusion we miss the point.  We are the ones who can and will make the difference – not them, whoever ‘them’ might be.  It is in the very alienation and fear of our existence, the rank individualism that is prized and worshipped as the goal of 21st century western life that lies at the heart of our angst, fear and crisis.  Human beings are communal and relational, not isolated individuals.  When we exhibit this gross form of anti-humanity we all too easily learn to despise that one who is different and exclude that refugee or stranger, the lonely or lost, the hurting or confused, the one who reflects our own inner struggle and confronts us with the essential problem of our human vulnerability.  If only we would embrace the other and look into a face different and beautiful, reflecting the face of the one born in the stable and offering another way in the world.  It is Christmas still and the New Year hasn’t yet begun so there is time to finally embrace the story with arms reaching out to one another and those we meet on this strange adventure called life!  This vulnerable love invites us into a community of grace.

By geoffstevenson

Where Is God?

Christmas is here – it has been coming for months now with all manner of promises.  To children everywhere is the bald hope of something mysterious yet hoped for to appear under the tree from an equally mysterious red-robed stranger on a wondrous sleigh with flying reindeer.  It is a lovely mythical event that fills children with wonder – some greed and expectation, others with gratitude and most a belief in the impossible.  The signs of Christmas appear in tinsel festooning public places and private homes.  Tall evergreens, real and artificial, grace homes and malls, sometimes with accompanying Nativity scenes and sometimes with all things Santa – including snow, elves and sleighs.  The sounds of carols and Christmas songs fill the air, along with the waft of candle wax and BBQ’s as local Carols By Candlelight, small and large brighten our small part of the world.  Constant arguments over whether Christmas celebrations and well-wishes ought to contain religious content or not seem to grow every year.  The secular world wants and needs something meaningful at year’s end but they are less comfortable with religion being part of the landscape.  Advertisers and shopkeepers care little whether there is religion or not providing they tap into the wonder, expectation and willingness to spend hard cash and boost their profits for year’s end.

Everywhere there are Christmas lights on homes, brightening neighbourhoods and drawing crowds.  Our local area has Andy who this year has 2 million lights in an ever growing display that radiates out to a community filled with praise and wonder.  We will play carols at Andy’s house on Christmas Eve as he raises money for Ronald McDonald House at Westmead.  His lights bring neighbours together and they provide fundraising support through BBQ’s, selling drinks and blocking the street for the hundreds of people gathering in wonder at this creative piece of joy and wonder.  Andy attends the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Parramatta (St Patrick’s) and does this as a gift to the community.  He asked us to play and it is impossible to say no, so we go and help people celebrate.  I sometimes wonder what these throngs are hoping for or what it is they celebrate at Andy’s and elsewhere.  I am curious. 

There are those who deny God and seem to reject anything of any religious nature.  They speak of the invisible (make-believe) friend in the sky and give a derisive laugh.  They become upset when someone mentions God and Christmas in the same breath or offers Christmas greetings that even imply anything religious.  The wonderful journalist, Peter Fitzsimmons has apoplexy when he receives a card from an MP or public figure that expresses any sort of heart-felt Merry Christmas with a mere whiff of religious thought or sentiment, let alone an outright blessing of the holy season.  I’m not too sure what people expect around Christmas for as the name implies, it is about the Christ.

So as I wander and ponder, look and wonder, I ask myself the question that many seem to be asking: Where is God?  It is a question that has gained some depth of relevance in our modern world.  Whilst there are those who reject any notion of God, others are asking a question that cuts to the heart of a modern world paradigm – if God is, then where is God?  No longer content with the ‘old bloke in the sky’, as many have imagined God to be, we are wondering if God, then where?  Where is God when the fighting erupts in Syria?  Where is God when a small child is beaten mercilessly by her mother’s partner?  Where is God when calamity overwhelms people or poverty or injustice drive others deeper into despair and desperation?  Where is God when I hurt?  Or my children or friends or the innocents…?  Where is God? 

It is a passionate question that challenges some of the fundamental notions of faith past, where God was securely and comfortably ensconced on a throne in the mysterious heavens awaiting those deemed worthy to rise heavenward at life’s end.  The converse was that those deemed unworthy would descend to the lower places where the fires of hell would consume them endlessly.  Over the course of the last century humanity has come to understand that hell has enfolded itself around many people through the desperation and deprivation, the suffering and hell that is called war.   We discovered we have the power of hell itself through nuclear weapons and modern warfare.  Hell is the poverty many exist within or the sustained abuse at the hands of those they ought to be able to trust.  Hell has shown itself in this world of flesh and blood and there are devils enough in human form to terrorise and dehumanise many an innocent victim.

So where is God?  If hell has erupted into our world, then where is God?  Does God inhabit some far-away irrelevant place of mystery where some will one day find themselves?  Is that all there is for us to hope in?  What sort of power or love or hope, let alone peace and joy does this offer a world searching and in need of Good News?  Where is God?  Perhaps we are discovering that God comes close, very close and is present within and through and around us?  Perhaps God is a web of love that holds all things in a grasp of grace.  Perhaps that beautiful orchid spike outside our door is a sign of God’s presence.  Its beauty and wonder, its fragrance, calls forth something in me that delights in the beauty and sets my mind pondering the wonder and beauty of the world and how we are somehow connected.  Perhaps it is the dog who licks my face or the beam of sun enlightening the manger scene in the church at Kurrajong Heights in a moment of wonder and awe.  Perhaps it is in people working together to make a difference in a world by acting together for love and care, justice and peace.  Perhaps God is present in the places of darkness, within the lives that suffer, a presence of solidarity against the injustice and violence of the world where the Divine tears wash over the countless victims and desperate souls holding them in vulnerable, precious love.

Where is God in this Christmas season where sentimentality, commercialism and all manner of confused and complicated messages co-exist?  I think I glimpse God in Andy’s face as he lights the lights of his home for the 19th, 20th, 21st… day straight.  It is reflected in the love he has for the community and the delight in faces young and old who behold this and are drawn together in a mystical way – God is there!  God is present in groups of people who sing carols with strange words and themes but ooze passion, love and joy.  God is present in the countless acts of love and grace, conscious, unconscious, anonymous and known.  God is present in the little story we tell and retell every year of a simple family into whom a special baby is born – angels will sing, shepherds and wise ones will visit and God’s presence will be love, joy, hope and peace.

By geoffstevenson

Power Revealed in Love and Vulnerability!

I have a soft spot for the underdog.  In sport or other places where there is an underdog, I will often cheer for that person or team or try to go into bat for those who are struggling.  During Olympics, I tend to cheer for the ones who try really hard against all the odds and enjoy the littles ones getting up over the wealthy and powerful athletes from wealthy nations.  I even prefer the Paralympics to the ordinary Olympics for the same reason.  I enjoy a movie where the weak, vulnerable or put down rises up and succeeds above the strong and mighty.  One of my favourite Bible stories is David versus Goliath.  I remember being fascinated by this story as a child, where the boy who was vulnerable and powerless defeated the tall, powerful, Goliath with all his armour…  I’m not sure where this  desire to see the small and downtrodden rise up over the arrogant and those who are privileged and those who live in the expectation that they will always be above others, actually comes from.  Perhaps it is growing up and spending my life in Western Sydney with its rich culture but widespread socio-economic and other need.  I find the portrayal of much pertaining to Western Sydney has been either disdainful or patronising.  In this part of the world there are many hard-working people from every corner of the globe.  Many have found life hard as they wrestle with hopes and dreams that are hard to reach because economics works against them.  There are many social problems and these emerge more fully into the public eye, whilst those in more privileged parts of Sydney are hidden behind closed doors and the pretence that all is well.  There is an open honesty amongst those who struggle – it is much harder to hide and far less distance to fall. 

I love to hear the stories of people who rise up above the problems and struggles, the hurdles that stand in their way.  I cheer on those who overcome the low expectations of society and even family to achieve and find a good place in life.  I also know that this can be very difficult as generational poverty, along with other forms of poverty continue to close in around them and so those who take the time and energy and love to reach out and give a hand up are the heroes of our world.  It is not only those I see and know in this region where I live and spend time but people in nations beyond our shores whose lives are evermore harsher and desperate.  Those we have reached out to in West Papua are a constant source of inspiration and humility as they struggle with life issues I can’t begin to comprehend – and to do so with humility and grace. 

There are many situations in our world where life is made harsher by oppressive rulers and regimes that control people’s lives and keep them submissive and desperate.  There are over 25,000,000 slaves in the world today – sex slaves, children forced into child labour and others oppressed in sweat shops and so on.  There are people such as the indigenous people of West Papua who are oppressed by ruling nations (Indonesia).  Military regimes such as the one in Burma have made life intensely harsh for many of its citizens.  This story repeats across so much of the world, including Australia where the lives of our own indigenous people and refugees seeking the hope of new life are treated with a harshness that is shameful and sad.  I hear the stories of oppressed peoples, slaves, and feel the pain and desperation in their words.  I feel a deep sense of powerlessness and pray for peace, liberation and life.  My words feel helpless and desperate because I don’t feel I have any power to make a difference.

It is into this sense of powerlessness and desperation that we read the story from Matthew’s Gospel this week.  It is Matthew’s simple story of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25).  When I first realised that there are 2 stories of Jesus’ birth – in Matthew and Luke – I had to read and re-read Matthew’s version because it is so simple and nothing like the one I remember (which is actually Luke’s version).  Matthew’s is simple and short – 8 verses from start to finish.  There is no journey to Bethlehem – the couple seem to be living there.  No cattle stall or manger, angels or shepherds, just a simple statement that Jesus is born.  Most of the passage is about Joseph and his coming to grips with Mary and her pregnancy, along with a reference to a verse from Isaiah.  It is strange when the story ringing in my ears is Luke’s well-known story.

I have come to learn that Matthew models his story of Jesus on that of Moses – there is Joseph who has dreams, an escape to Egypt, a murderous ruler who has all the males 2 years and under slaughtered.  Matthew portrays Jesus as the new (and greater) Moses.  Moses was the liberator of God’s people, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  More than that, Moses is the underdog who takes on the most powerful person in his world, Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt where his people were slaves.  Moses is thrust into this task by the Spirit of God and ultimately goes with nothing but a couple of appalling magic tricks and some simple words – and the Presence of God.  Moses is vulnerable, small, powerless and helpless before the power and might of Pharaoh but ultimately, like David, triumphs and the people leave Egypt to embark on the journey of becoming a people, a nation under God.  This people are given a structure and set of laws that requires justice, equality, sharing and the care of all people in their borders – including strangers and sojourners.

For Matthew’s readers this connection with Moses is clear – clearer than it is for us at first glance!  They also live in a time of struggle, change and harshness.  The Romans have intensified their oppression towards the inhabitants of the Empire and especially the Jews and those in Jerusalem.  The Christians had been rejected by the Jews and excluded from synagogues and found themselves a small, vulnerable community in a big and harsh world.  For Matthew’s community life is hard and they feel the persecution and oppression of life.  That Jesus is portrayed as the one who is like Moses only greater, the one who will bring liberation, life and promise to all people is a source of profound wonder and joy.  It is hopeful and liberating as they embrace the possibility in faith and rise above the struggles of life in belief that strengthens their resolve as they pursue the way of Jesus, the way of love and life, including all who will join them.

I wonder if the Christmas story ever touches us in this profound way?  Does the Christmas story connect with our own sense of despair in life or the desperation of people across the world?  Do we, like Matthew’s community, believe that the impossible is possible and that our own powerlessness and vulnerability can be embraced into the love of God whose promise is liberation and life and who works with and through us?

By geoffstevenson

Christmas Poem – 2016: Where Is God??!!

Where is God?

The question rings out like a religious version of Where’s Wally?

Where’s Wally in the picture of chaos and confusion?

Where’s God in a world of chaos, confusion and despair?

In places of desolate desperation or lonely despair.

In moments of pain and struggle where we feel consumed in the violence and anger of life.

Where is God, we ponder and wonder and cry out and scream before the silence of the heavens – and we wait….

And wait and wait…

But nothing seems to come; no voice from the vivid blue sky above
nor the depths below – there is echoing silence.

Where is God?  Where, where is he? (usually ‘he’ – a remnant of an old time patriarchal world).

We look up and wonder where in the heavens is God?

In the poverty that rips people apart – where are you God?

In the abuse and oppression of people, where are you God?

In the war and fighting, anger and violence, where are you God?

When life breaks open and we feel raw and vulnerable, helpless and beyond hope – where are you God?

Are you, really here, there, somewhere?

The atheists giggle in the background at the absurdity of desperate yearning and belief- in an invisible friend in the sky.

Sometimes we wonder as we cling to an old-world imagination

of God in the sky, swooning in the clouds whilst we languish.

Where is God?

In the lost places of Aboriginal youth caught between the worlds and imprisoned when we or they know not what to do?

In the helpless journey of the refugee, the aimless wandering and wishful thinking that somewhere a free world exists

and they will be welcomed?

Where is God?  Is God hiding the Divine face?

 

I look and wonder where God might be?

I read the stories of worlds gone by, stories of faith and hope.

God appears in the pages, a voice in a prophet’s mouth.

In clouds and storms, silence and law –

God is there!

So why not here, now?

How will I hear these little stories of a baby born and a starry sky?

Where is God in this – really, truly, hopefully?

So often I hear the same old story told and sung and proclaimed but have the horrid sense that God is back there somewhere

Left behind and relegated to the past

Or a wishful thought out, sentimentalised future

But this doesn’t work, not for me or you or the other who cries to the heavens for Divine grace and love.

So I look again and listen…

I see the love of mother for child and friends laughing together.

I share a meal with others, known and unknown and the mysterious guest appears in our midst

Mystery shrouded in light, love and kindness

I look and ponder and sometimes my looking bursts forth into seeing.

I see the world in a measure of beauty and wonder!

Flowers burst open in springtime in blooming majesty.

Birds of infinite colour and beauty swarm and chatter in native

trees and shrubs.

There is wonder and awe, beauty and light in a world of mystery and sacred places and holy moments.

Maybe God is there, here, everywhere, a web of infinite grace

and love holding a world of creaturely wonder in relational

peace and joy.

In a tiny baby born in a strange backwater place to nobodies in a world of power and might,

God emerges as incarnational presence.

In a story told and re-told, sung well and badly in choral beauty and chaos we behold God!

In love of friendship and family, in welcoming strangers

In the presence of togetherness and relational acceptance

God is there!  In beauty, wonder, pain and fear,

God does come and will not let me, or you go.

In wind and rain, sun and night-time calm, God is!

All around us in Christmas wonder, love and grace!

 

May God’s Peace, Hope, Joy and Love be with you now and sustain you through 2017.

Geoff, Susan, Katelyn and Joshua Stevenson

By geoffstevenson

A Baby Changes Everything!!

I read the following quote this week and it intrigued me:

“It truly boggles the mind:  The birth of a child is to bring about the great transformation of all things, is to bring salvation and redemption to all of humanity. As if to shame the most powerful human efforts and achievements, a child is placed in the centre of world history. A child born of humans, a son given by God.  This is the mystery of the redemption of the world; all that is past and all that is to come.

All who at the manger finally lay down all power and honour, all prestige, all vanity, all arrogance and self-will; all who take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high; all who see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger: 
these are the ones who will truly celebrate Christmas.” (Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. By Manfred Weber).

We talked about the birth of a baby at our Advent Discussion in Kurrajong Heights, as one of the members brought her 4-month old.  A lovely little girl who reminded all of us of the wonder and simple beauty of a baby.  Their ability to change our lives so dramatically and profoundly surprises most first time parents.  I remember that Susan’s goals for the day over the first few months were quite simple: feed and bath the baby, have a shower and get dressed, have breakfast and maybe do something about nappies before lunchtime.  She mostly made it.  When our children were born our lives changed in so many ways.  We were filled with the wonder and mystery of birth.  We felt the protective and nurturing love that so readily emerges when the child arrives.  We felt the awe and fear of this vulnerable, dependent life and whether we could do what was required.  Our sense of time changed because everything took so much longer and seemed more complicated.  There were the myriad illnesses that emerged, things we didn’t understand at first, such as croup, middle ear infections along with the normal growing pains, such as teething.  I also remember learning to see the world anew as our children grew and experienced the world and saw things for the first time – a bird or butterfly, the moon, flowers and trees, animals.  Everything was a new and wonderful experience and we were drawn into this wonder.

A baby changes everything and, in my experience, heralds in some of the most dramatic changes in my own life and perception of the world.  I look out at the world differently and the priorities of life become quite different.  I enjoyed being able to work more from home and enjoy the growth and changes in our children, along with all the ‘firsts’ (steps, words…).  Some of the former priorities seems less important and in some ways life became a little simpler and basic.  My perception of what was/is important in the world around – here and overseas – also changed as I came to appreciate the vulnerability, simplicity and joy that children bring to our world.  Their games and fun are simpler and draw us in.  I can understand why Jesus invites us to become like little children – trusting, simple, open, believing…  The experience of children crosses all boundaries of culture, ethnicity, religion and socio-economics.  Unlike so many other elements of life it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, a baby is still a gift of wonder and grace and your capacity to love is not measured in wealth.

So it is that Matthew and Luke commence their stories of Jesus with stories of birth and babies and there is something profound and prophetic in the way they tell these different stories.  This week we will read the Song of Mary (also known as the Magnificat – Luke 1:46-55).  It is the song of a young, poor, lowly woman who realises that she has been given the gift of a child, a special child and celebrates with her older cousin, also pregnant.  The song rejoices in God’s goodness towards her and speaks of how this baby and the story of this baby turns everything upside down.  Her very lowly status ridicules the power and might of those who live in privilege and even rule over the world.  She will give birth to a child and that alone is a miracle of grace, a gift of God who favours her with this blessing.  That God would choose this lowly, insignificant one to bear the one named Immanuel (‘God with us’) drives her to sing with great joy.  She laughs at those who are full of themselves and their self-importance, whose wealth and power fill their minds and beings but who are ultimately hungry because we don’t live by bread alone.  She is wondrous at how God might choose those who in the eyes of the world are insignificant and worthless.  She, not Caesar Augustus, will bear this child!

I wonder if this isn’t also something of our reality.  In a world that is still very patriarchal, men are powerless before this mystery of child-birth.  All the powerful men lording it over the ‘less significant’ women over the centuries are powerless and lost before the miracle of child birth – they/we can only look on in wonder and clumsily embrace fatherhood.  In embracing our children we enter into this vulnerable, life-changing experience where true power is found in vulnerable, nurturing love and wealth is measured in very different currency – smiles, words, crawling, steps and myriad small achievements celebrated with wonder and delight.

That a small, powerless, vulnerable baby should turn the world upside down seems remarkable until we enter the experience and feels its beautiful power and life-changing reality.  That the gospel writers should choose to begin with Jesus as a vulnerable baby who promises to change everything somehow seems exactly right.  The prophetic warning in this story that arises from the mouth of an insignificant, lowly young woman is astounding and profound.  We lose this sense in our familiarity and the sentimentality with which we read the Christmas stories each year.  Mary insists that God is doing nothing less than changing everything and all the world’s values are turned upside down.  Mary insists that the poor of the earth aren’t forgotten or worthless in God, even if they are abused and left for dead by the powers of the world.  God is revealed in these people, in their desperate hope and faithful yearning.  It is often amongst these peoples of our world that we find the most profound faith and deepest contentment and joy, despite their poverty and struggle.  Life can be very hard, as it would have been for Mary, and there is a beautiful simplicity and profound gratitude in such people.  We have received some of the most moving, transformative gratitude from the people of West Papua in providing help to build their village a well.  It is humbling, as is the birth of a child.  Mary’s song of joy is a remarkable, prophetic song of a child who changes everything.  It invites us to be open to God’s grace and live in wondrous simplicity and love.

By geoffstevenson

Are We Heading in the Right Direction?

I was driving somewhere new and different recently and turned into the right road but in the wrong direction.  I drove along a bit and it seemed wrong but I felt sure I had gone in the right way.  I drove on for a bit and nothing I expected to find was there.  I stopped and checked google maps – I was headed in the wrong direction.  The further I drove, the further away from my destination I would end up.  After this moment of clarity I turned around and headed back in the right direction, through the intersection where I’d made in wrong turn and onwards to where I was meant to be.  As I drove I felt less anxious and more comfortable.  I eventually ended up in the right place, relieved.

I wonder if this isn’t a metaphor for life?  I had a great conversation the other with a fellow I met around the place, he being of no fixed address.  I’ll call him Terry.  We had a coffee and a chat.  His accommodation fell through a few months ago and he’s between places.  He’s been sleeping under the stars for a few months now.  It was tough at first and everything he owns, he carries with him.  He has had his fair share of experiences good and harsh through the years.  He confessed he has done stuff over the years, stuff that maybe wasn’t wise or even good.  He’s made his share of mistakes, along with the rest of us and life was heading in a direction.  He, like all of us, has tried to fit into the system and conform to expectations and culture, the ways of the world.  Sometimes that’s been good but this year, with its wilderness lifestyle of simplicity and where life has been drawn back, he has begun to realise what is really important and what feels to him like a waste of time and energy.  He has discovered the raw and wild beauty of the world around.  He has learned the beauty of the flowers and trees – the Jacaranda in bloom that fills his world with beauty.  He talks to the crows and magpies that live near where he is at the moment and they listen and chatter back.  He wanders by the river and meets people and they chat.  He learns new things and has discovered the wisdom of life that love is the foundation of all things.  He speaks of God, a God he once knew with whom he has now become reacquainted but in new ways.  God is bigger, more mysterious and sometimes confusing.  He hates religion that condemns and rejects because he has discovered that in God there is a rich and deep love that has offered him forgiveness and opened his eyes to the world in all its simple and wondrous beauty.  Terry speaks of God in a wonderful way, having turned his life around.  He claims to have been heading down various wrong roads and paths.  Along these roads he came unstuck from time to time, messed up, confused and in these moments life was very hard.  Terry has had space in the wilderness this year, alone and with time to ponder, think and listen.  He has heard the voice of God in the quiet places of his life, through the conversations with other people and in the little Bible he has picked up to read.  He now has hope and plans to live simply and to live a life that is love-filled.  He has seen through the violence that has filled his life, often on the receiving end of human violence and abuse.  He has recognised that peaceful living is the only way to respond to love and hold it carefully and graciously within his being.  Terry has had his life gently and slowly turned around, reshaped and given back to him through a journey into wilderness isolation, testing and the solitude of life on the road.

As I sat and listened to this young bloke’s wisdom and passion, I was inspired and pleased to be having this conversation.  Terry has something to say, something to share and he has been able to see through the dominant culture that has held him in its grip for too long.  He has discovered a freedom and hope that is real, one for which many people yearn but fail to realise in their lives.  He looks at many other people and feels sad for them, trapped as they are in the merry-go-round of life, trying to satisfy the materialistic urges of a society that has lost its collective way.  Terry has found a new path and down that road he will now travel.

I thought of Terry when I read this week’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12).  This same week every year a strange and mysterious figure appears in our churches – John the Baptist.  He comes into our places of worship that are full of respectability and propriety and unleashes a torrent of fiery words that upset our ways, our hopes and plans.  John says it as it is and reveals our questionable ways or beliefs or priorities.  He upsets the religious people and calls them to account.  It isn’t enough to think the right things or even believe them.  He lashes out at the religious leaders whose lives are ultimately unjust towards the wider world and calls them to account.

John has lived in the wilderness, perhaps as part of the Qumran community (those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls).  He dressed like a wild prophet – that is, unlike the typical religious person.  He lived simply and called people into the presence of God to have lives turned upside down and all around.  He took them into the river Jordan to be baptised, washed clean and renewed, freed to live fully in a new way in and through God.  John prepared a way for the one to come – Jesus.  It seems his expectations were not exactly fulfilled in the way Jesus went about loving people, embracing the marginalised and outcast, the downtrodden and lowly into the community of acceptable, the community God’s people.  Jesus’ proclamation that God’s Reign was for everyone and grounded in compassion, inclusive love, justice and peace went against the formulations of religion in his day (and ours!).  It implied that all of us need transformed lives, hearts and minds that take on a new way of thinking and being in a world yearning and struggling, fighting and hoping.  But it is always more than a change of heart and mind – it is a transformed life that is lived out of the inner transformation we experience, a renewal of our minds, as Paul suggests.

When I consider how Terry’s life has undergone transformation, through his heart and mind and into how he is trying to live towards others, I see a profound expression of this story and Jesus’ way.  Terry’s baptism hasn’t been in water from the river, but in the crucible of real life with its sharp edges and pointy bits that poke, jab and cut into our being.  He has hurt and cried, ranted in anger and cried out to God in fear, pain and despair.  They have journeyed together through this rough period, God the constant companion holding and goading, nurturing and giving wisdom as Terry rides the emotive waves of life into a new and renewed place of personal peace grounded in the deep love of God.  Many a church person would look at Terry and wonder – he doesn’t seem too much like one of us.  Maybe that is the point of Matthew’s story!

By geoffstevenson