The Upside-down World of Blessedness???!

I am writing this on Australia Day.  It is a somewhat strange and diverse day from where I sit.  There will be patriotic pride exhibited across the nation, some sentimental nationalism and some deep gratitude.  Some will wrap themselves in the flag, which always seems a strange, perhaps disrespectful, use for this national symbol.  There will be much of the metaphorical ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!  Oi! Oi! Oi!’, as people swoon over anything that makes us feel good about ourselves, brightens life somewhat or looks better through alcohol-fuelled eyes.  Other people will grieve this day and wonder what might have been had those tall ships not entered into Sydney Harbour all those long years ago?  The indigenous people who inhabited this land for millennia before European and other Australians landed here bear much pain at the loos of culture, wisdom and so much more.  This power of Empire dominating more vulnerable, even powerless locals is a story that has been repeated so often that its pain and sadness encompasses peoples of every continent.  It is a dominant human story.

There is, of course, much to be grateful for across this nation and most of us have benefitted wonderfully from the lifestyle, the natural beauty and the good will of so many people.  In Western Sydney, where I live, the story of ethic people coming together in a multicultural mix is quite profound and one of the great successes of multiculturalism across the world.  We embrace the diversity of colour, culture, food, flavours, music and the delights of people from all corners of the earth who share this lump of dirt with us.  After all, modern Australia is the story of convicts, exiles, refugees, immigrants all in search of a better life.  Over the years, most have come by boat like those First Fleeters.  Some have been pilgrims and exiles seeking something new away from the politics or conflicts of the old world of Europe and elsewhere.  Others sought refuge from racism, ethnic rivalries or persecution from their homelands; a better, safer life for their family.  Some came out to try their luck in gold rushes or engineering schemes such as in the Snowy Mountains.  Many made it good and prospered in lives of freedom and opportunity, of hard work and a new multicultural community.  Others came and found little.  They were lost and alienated before and these feelings grew when their language and culture became barriers and their expectations and hopes remained unfulfilled. 

Modern Australia has much to celebrate.  There are many great and wonderful things about this country.  Those who travel abroad often realise that there is much to be thankful for back home.  There is such a diversity of natural beauty and wonder, from the white sand beaches to tropical rainforest, deserts and rocks (such as the iconic Uluru) and ancient mountains to flora and fauna that is unique and strange.  We have creatures that are deadly and others fluffy and cute.  We have a radiant sun that is warm (hot!) and long days of light that draw us outdoors to plant our feet on the earth and feel its oneness with us, God and all creatures – at least that is what it does for me.

Amidst all of this is also the underside of living in a land that is conceivably prosperous for all.  Modern Australia is a lonely place for many people as individualism and materialism define our lives so powerfully.  Lost in climate-controlled homes, we communicate via screens sharing information and often superficial ‘news’.  We have more than previous generation but haven’t discovered the pot of gold at the end of affluenza’s rainbow – the promised land of ‘Happiness’.  More people are anxious and discontent and seek refuge from their existential longing.  Addictive lives that seek distraction from the mundane or boring, the painful and sad, are pandemic in the land of Oz.

In my mind, as I write, are the stirring and simple words of Jesus that are contained in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 – this week’s reading.  They speak of blessedness but blessedness that surprises and seems contrary to what we know and are told.  In our world, the blessed are most surely the rich, the powerful, the famous A-listers invited to all the good gigs in town.  Surely those who live in luxury and have everything they ever dreamed of and more, are the blessed??!   That’s what most of us believe anyway.  Then Jesus comes along and states the opposite1  Blessed are the poor in spirit, the humble, the merciful, the pure in heart, those who mourn, those who seek righteousness (= justice) and peace.  Blessed are those who seem to be on the bottom of the pile but know in their deepest hearts that they need God and all God can offer because they cannot do it on their own.  Those who feel the weight of injustice and pain and grieve for the world or who seek justice and righteousness in everything.  The ones who show mercy and seek peace are people who are free from the impositions of a society hell-bent on putting up barriers to keep others out – out of our personal lives and away from our nation. 

I believe that most of us truly want a community where we can belong and be free to be ourselves rather than put on the mask of conformity, pretending to be what we believe we need to be to be acceptable – to ourselves and others.  I believe that most people truly want a world of peace where all can live in harmony rather than the constant tension of conflict.  The daily news disturbs us at a deep level.  The affairs of the world are upsetting and overwhelming and there is something in Jesus’ words that offer an alternative, Plan B as Dave Andrews calls it.  He suggests that Plan A, the one we’ve been adhering to isn’t working and it is time to try another way – Plan B, the Beatitudes of Jesus.  This was the way that Ghandi, a devout Hindu followed.  Jesus’ words and way appealed deeply to him – the church let him down but Jesus’ way didn’t.  We see it in Nelson Mandella and Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and many others.  It is a way that I think modern Australia is primed for – we speak of egalitarianism, a fair go, mateship and we’ve been ready to give a hand up to one down on their luck.  We put our hands in our pockets when there is deep need.  Are we ready to believe in this all the way?

The Beatitudes are about community because every one of them points to the building of relationships that are compassionate, liberating, inclusive, just and peaceful.  They are a beautiful and hopeful and for everyone.  They are about a fair go for all people and finding joy and hope, meaning and purpose in attitudes and actions that create blessing because God is in the midst of such love and compassion.  All who live in such ways are blessed and are a blessing to others as God embraces human life through relationships of love.  On this Australia Day I am hopeful that we will embrace this other way of life, of hope and peace.  The truth for which we yearn is before us – not in money, power or violence.  It is in love, community, compassion, justice, mercy and openness to all.

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By geoffstevenson

The Revolution/Reign of Love

The latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One, is out.  I haven’t seen it but the trailer opens with the narration declaring that ‘The world is coming undone.  Imperial flags reign across the galaxy.’ The Death Star planet is being built and the Empire dominates through violence and power.  I well remember that first movie, the story of which this latest predates.  I remember the Stormtroopers led by Darth Vader, the rebels and Jedi Knights who used the Force.  There was Yoda, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.  Han Solo and Chewbacca, the Wookie, joined the fight.  It was all spacecraft and special effects, lightsabers and lasers.  There was violence and destruction as the rebels fought the Empire to effect liberation and freedom.  Empires and resistance, struggle and violence, a mythological story that repeats itself throughout history under different guises.

Last Monday was Martin Luther King Holiday in the USA and I thought about his leadership and the courageous Civil Rights Movement that fought for equality for all people regardless of race, gender or any other distinguishing feature.  He too led a movement against the Empire where power and privilege controlled the status quo.  Discrimination, violence and poverty were inflicted on people of colour by a white and powerful society.  There was a major uprising against the ‘Empire’ that began on a bus when a black woman was too tired to get up and move.  Rosa Parks was tired from the day; tired from life and tired from the abuse and prejudice, racism and exclusion.  She was tired and would not move.  The movement began and grew through black churches and other organisations and was supported by ethnic minorities and many white Americans joined in as well.  King’s credo was that they would not fight violence with violence.  They would not match hatred with hatred but love their enemies even as they fought the attitudes and issues of racism and discrimination.

This story has also been repeated through the world.  Ghandi, the diminutive Hindu lawyer who struggled in South Africa before returning to his native India, led the struggle against the Imperial power of Britain.  There was power and violence but his resistance was not based on achieving superior power and might but through non-violent resistance and he gained much insight and inspiration from Jesus and particularly the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel.  Wherever the Empire, in whatever local form it takes, expresses itself in violence and domination there will be suffering and oppression.  The indigenous populations throughout history hold the untold pain of struggle and suffering in their stories, afflicted as they have been by Empire’s domination and power.  Many have risen up under various leaders who have threatened the status quo and for a moment glimpsed the impossible possibility of freedom only to be vanquished, defeated and left for dead.  The powers inflict intense suffering to make a show of their power and warn would-be rebels against such foolish action.

Such is the context for Jesus’ life and mission.  He lived under the powerful reign of Rome and its plethora of emperors and local rulers.  Many were mad and their lust for power led them to brutal and bloodthirsty aggression against friend and foe – even family members who threatened their rule.  Those who challenged the status quo found their lives cut short by sword or spear or hung mercilessly on the rugged cross to die slowly and painfully in public view.  This was the Empire in the local form of the 1st century, powerful, brutal and sophisticated.  It grew through violence and threat, through domination and victory over weaker nations and foes.  There were also good things that are attributed to Rome, building, aqueducts, roads… but violence domination defined Rome to the world around.

It was against this Empirical reality that Jesus, a small, somewhat insignificant rabbi hailing from the nowhere region of downtown Galilee, burst onto the religious scene and declared that the Empire of God – the Kingdom, Reign or perhaps Revolution, of God – was here!  He waltzed out and made this startling declaration to all and sundry – well a small group of equally insignificant and powerless people.  The Reign of God was here and everything will change because this Reign is grounded in a power far greater than the military might and power on display in Rome.  It was/is grounded in Love – the Love that is God!  It will be built on relationships and inclusive community where all can belong.

Jesus invited some ordinary, very ordinary, men to come and follow him on this mission.  Twelve in all were especially called into the mission team but it was no exclusive group because really anyone could respond to Jesus at any time and join the revolution of Love.  He lived and breathed and spoke the Reign of God into being in his own life and in the world in which he lived.  It was a reign that embraced people in a strange, diverse inclusive community.  This was no army but a rag-tag community in which people discovered life more abundant and joyful than they believed possible.  The hungry had food that gave life; the thirsty drank deeply of water that satisfied body and soul; the lost and alone found a place, a people to belong to; the guilty and ashamed found forgiveness and a new start; the sick found healing and acceptance into the gracious community of God.  The poor and lowly were lifted up and Jesus proclaimed how much God loved them.  It was a revolution that gathered steam and one can see the seeds of this revolution in Ghandi and King and others. 

This Revolution of Love turned the world upside down and inside out.  As Jesus lived, spoke and acted through gracious acceptance and healing, people were drawn into this non-violent resistance of love and the movement grew out of control, as love always does.  The local religious authorities were overwhelmed with fear.  Their own power and privilege was threatened.  Disorder and chaos threatened to unleash itself upon their neatly regulated world of religious structure.  The Roman powers were drawn into the story as Jesus unleashed his rhetoric against all that demeaned, oppressed or caused violent suffering in the world.  His life, words and courageous action remains as inspiration and challenge to us as we engage the powers of the world, empires rising and falling, unleashing their abusive violence on the weak or poor or unsuspecting who are in the way.  The Revolution continues and The Reign of God stands strong and clear as an alternate path through life for all who have had enough of the status quo and want something that will change the world and bring peace, life, hope and joy in the power of God’s Love – a force more powerful!  Check the little story out in Matthew 4:12-23 (you can read more!) and come and join the Revolution of Love!

By geoffstevenson

How Long to Sing this Song???

The whipper snipper died the other day – well it actually started its rapid descent into death just before Christmas.  I managed to get a little bit more from it just after Christmas with a new spark plug.  It spluttered and then started and I was able to get a fair bit of the remaining long grass around the edges of the yard trimmed.  Its spluttering became a deep cough, a groan and then silence.  I left it to cool down, supplied it with new fuel and a range of other things within my capacity (google and youtube are wonderful!).  The whipper snipper would not start – it turned up its toes.  I pondered the possibilities and decided I would get some advice from someone who knew.  It was repaired only 12 months ago so I was a little frustrated.  On a recommendation I went elsewhere and asked the repairer his advice: ‘Is this worth fixing?’ He smiled and gently said ‘No, it would cost you a hundred bucks and maybe last another year.’  So I smiled back and asked if it was a piece of junk.  He said it was.  It was a cheap model bought from a large hardware chain.  It had done its job, served me reasonably well but wasn’t going to see me into the future.

I was faced with the broader question of what to do.  What would serve my needs and give me trouble free service, good lawns and ease of use.  The guy in the store asked me some questions about how much use, how big the yard etc and then gave me some options.  He gave the pros and cons of the various options, answered my ignorant questions and when I pushed him, he showed what he’d buy – so I did.  It is a new day in the Stevenson yard.  I came home and ran the new whipper snipper, cleaner and greener than the old model and it did the job very well with minimum fuss.  I confess that everything was easier with this new model.  It took a little getting used to – it’s a different shape and style but much better!  We are singing a new song for a new day. 

I listened to U2’s song ‘40’ today.  It comes from Psalm 40 and asks how long will we sing the song, the old song?  How long, to sing this song?  I felt that this is what I had been through with the old whipper snipper.  How long was I going to wrestle with its spluttering and what else could I pull off it or fix?  How long would I put up with the dysfunctional gadget that had done its thing?  How long?  Would I finally sing a new song?  Would I venture into something new and sing a song for a new day?  Well, I did!

It was only a whipper snipper but perhaps it is a metaphor for life.  How long will we sing the song we have been singing?  Is the song working or is it a bit old now?  How long will we continue to offer up the same old, same old, to the questions and puzzles that confront us?  How long will we continue with the song that has been done to death and should be laid aside or given a decent burial like my whipper snipper?  The song we are singing in contemporary society is a bit outdated, old-fashioned and its beat has faded.  The song is about prosperity and wealth as the answer to our deepest longings.  Power, prestige and ambition follow in verse 2.  If we are in conflict then violence will resolve our problems – that comes along in verse 3.  So the song goes on, honouring the rich and famous, the stars and starlets, the beautiful people on the A list, those whose lives are splashed in monotonous colour across magazine, TV and the internet. 

The phenomenon of social media has connected us in ways previously unimagined and in some ways helped us to consider a new song but it is still an individual song, sung alone behind the safety of our screen.  The song echoes through a lonely world, one where we seek or sojourn into places of refuge and safety.  The Western pandemic of anxiety, depression and addiction does little to dispel the sense that our song has lost its power.  We have an inner existential longing, a need for new meaning to engage us and propel us forward in hopeful, passionate living.  We need something to embrace or to embrace us in a way that fulfils the essential reality of what it means to be human – this is togetherness, community, of being in a place of belonging.  Social media fulfils something of this certainly but nothing can replace the actuality of real flesh and blood people to laugh, cry and share life with and to journey into the future together.

I came to the story of Jesus for this week (John 1:29-42).  It speaks of a little known disciple, Andrew, who is following the firebrand preacher and baptiser called John.  He casually points out to Andrew and others that Jesus is the one from God.  Curiosity, and a desire to quell the inner yearning perhaps, drove Andrew to follow Jesus around for a day to see, hear and experience him.  At the end of the day Jesus responded to Andrew’s following him by asking, ‘What are you seeking?’  Andrew asks a question in response: ‘Where are you staying?’  This leads to Jesus’ invitation: ‘Come and see.’ It is a funny conversation but interesting in that Andrew was seeking something and went looking, first in John and from there in Jesus.  He listened and watched and recognised he had found what his heart yearned after.  He continued to follow Jesus.  In fact he went and got his brother and some others and told them to come and see who he had found – the Messiah, the Promised One of God.  This was the new song that Andrew was looking for.  The old song had become frayed at the edges, out of tune and perhaps less relevant.  What was the new song of God, the song that would touch his heart and being and find expression in his singing, dancing and living a new song, a new way, a new life?

This is a story of one who was looking, searching and seeking to discover a new and different way in the world.  This is the story of a seeker, a pilgrim, a searcher, maybe like the wise ones, the magi we read in the Christmas stories.  It is a story of someone who recognised his song was sad and dying, like my whipper snipper and so he began to look, to search and seek until he found.  It is the story of U2 who have sung songs of seeking and searching as they wrestled with their faith in a world where institutional faith let them and their nation down and personal individual faith felt lifeless without a community that is open, loving and gracious.  They travelled through various expressions of Christian faith in various churches and Christian communities but many were exclusive and looked askance at boys with long hair and loud music who loved performing and were on a path that was different.  How long, intones Bono, How long will we sing this song?  How long will Northern Ireland live in violence and hatred?  How long will the church exclude people who are different and tie others up in regulations and institutionalism?  How long will the world ignore the poor and oppressed?  How long will wealthy and powerful nations exploit the poor and use military violence to impose their ways?  Is there a new song?  Where can we learn it?  Andrew followed Jesus a day and learned a new song!  Do you want the new song to sing?  The song of inclusive, gracious love, peace and justice?

By geoffstevenson

The Story We Find Ourselves In!

Early this week taking advantage of a public holiday, Susan and I ventured to Canberra to take in the exhibition at the National Museum of Australia called ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’.  It was a fascinating exhibition that draws on 100 objects from the British Museum’s vast collection and provides a sweeping history of the world through these diverse objects.  Each object has a story, or rather stories.  Some are known and well understood whilst others are mysterious and speculative.  For example there is a coffin from Egypt (around 2600 years ago) for a woman called Shepenmehyt.  Scans of the mummy inside show a male rather than a female.  Who is this mummy?  Why was he in Shepenmehyt’s coffin?  There are decorative features on the coffin that indicate much about Shepenmehyt and the expectations of the culture from which she came.  Some of these are extrapolations by researchers seeking to piece together history and an understanding of an ancient culture – and to seek deeper truth.

Throughout the exhibit are stories.  There are stories of the objects and some of the objects are stories, or communicate stories within themselves.  There is an Assyrian clay tablet that tells the story from the Epic of Gilgamesh of a great flood.  It is similar to the Biblical story but predates it.  This is one of the earliest writings in human civilisation.  There is also the head of a statue of Caesar Augustus, the first and greatest Roman Emperor.  Augustus, like other Roman Emperors had statues and other images made and distributed around the Empire to remind people of who he was and of his power.  The populace was largely illiterate so images were vital in communication.  This head was originally part of a statue in Egypt and was decapitated by an invading army from Meroe in modern day Sudan.  The head was buried beneath the steps of the temple as an insult to Augustus – this act preserved the head.

The stories from this exhibition draw together mythology, history and culture.  Many stories speak into human life and describe an evolving self-understanding of humanity across the millennia.  In many instances that which passes for history in our culture – some form of recorded factual truth that we believe – is often of little concern to the people responsible.  Truth becomes something deeper and more profound and this profound truth can only be contained in story, whether written, sung or through art.  Many of the exhibits had spiritual or religious elements.  Sometimes, as with Augustus, there was the sense that particular humans were divine.  At other points the divine was mysterious or portrayed in particular mythical forms, often through stories that reveal something about them.  The great Pharaoh, Ramesses II recast history in favour of himself by changing or adding to the inscriptions of previous Pharaohs to glorify himself.  This ensured he was worshipped as a god for centuries after his death.

The stories of humanity are often deeper and more profound than any of the particular events or even people they may allude to or describe.  They lead us into deeper meaning of life and of ourselves.  They invite us to reflect and provide deeper awareness of who we are and what life is about.   We also use stories in such a way.  We all tell stories and emphasise or de-emphasise various elements to make particular points.  We remember things not as historical occurrences, which are more often wrongly described, but as experiences that affect us in some particular way.  We use stories to help explain ourselves, who we are and what we think or believe.  Such stories help us enter more deeply into life.

So it is that I come to this week and the two stories that confront me – both from the life of Jesus.  One story is really for Friday, the day of Epiphany, and describes the journey of magi (wise men) coming before the Christ-child (Matthew 2:1-12).  We all know the story.  We’ve sung it in Christmas carols, seen it in Nativity scenes and even joked about how many wise men could actually be found.  We’ve either conveniently ignored the seemingly ’magical’ star in the sky that moves before the magi and rests over the home of Jesus, or we have unquestioningly accepted it as real and miraculous…  I wonder, though, whether we have really entered into the story to ponder what Matthew wants to say?  I wonder if we have ever ventured into this other world of stars moving, astral phenomena, magi, gentiles, from the east bringing strange gifts?  What does Matthew seek to communicate through his story?  Evidently this story is unique to Matthew and unverified by other history.  Does that matter?  Of course not because it contains a profound truth.  This star, whatever it may have been (or not), declares to the world of Matthew that the one beneath was the Promised One of God – the Messiah.  This Jesus is the revelation of God and in him, his life and teaching, his dying and rising, we encounter the way, the path of God.  The star was an ancient symbol of God’s Messiah (see Numbers 24:17) and here Matthew uses it to reveal Jesus as Messiah.  There are other elements to this story that give us deeper wisdom – the images of the magi draw upon Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, both of which describe gentiles or kings from afar visiting and worshipping the King of Israel.  Matthew names all of this at the beginning of his story of Jesus.

The other story we may read is from Matthew 3:13-17.  This chapter is a large leap from the infant Jesus to the adult Jesus and his baptism.  There is continuity expressed from the mission of John the Baptist into the life of Jesus and his mission in the Reign of God.  John baptises Jesus, albeit reluctantly, in an act that demonstrated the upside down nature of God’s reign where there is no greater and least.  In this mystical event Matthew speaks of the heavens opening which, like the star in the previous story, speaks of the connection between heaven and earth and of the mysterious possibility that is to come in this one called Jesus.  We are invited into his life and journey with him through his mission in the world to convey the reality of God’s Reign upon earth and beyond.  We are invited to enter into the waters, the subversive waters of baptism that will turn everything on its head and reveal true power as vulnerable love and compassion.  We will discover that the heart of God is love and justice and true worship is to live with such love and justice.  We will explore the ways of peace over violence and that faith is not so much what we believe as whom we trust and how that looks when we apply it in our lives.

These stories of Matthew have deeply profound things to say to us in our world and if followed may change everything.  So perhaps take time to enter the story, walk around there and ponder its profound possibilities for you, us and our world.

By geoffstevenson