Behold the Wonder – It is (Truly) Awesome

When have you been overcome by sheer awe, wonder or deep delight?  What things give you a sense of profound awe and wonder?  What delights you?

As I ponder these questions for myself I realise that the things that bring me awe and wonder are often simple things that are freely available to those who will stop and look or listen.  Often, I am in too much of a rush or too distracted to really encounter the things that bear awe and wonder, that bring delight.  Last week I shared about our little dog, Nimrod, who was put to sleep.  As you can imagine, those of you who have had dogs, he has been much on our minds this week and the house is different.  I am aware of how he brought a sense of wonder and delight to our lives, as does our surviving dog.  Their gentle or exuberant acceptance, their licks or need of a pat, stroke or scratch and their gentle affection are beautiful moments of delight.  Through them the mystery and wonder of God is conveyed in ways that words and rational logic can’t always communicate.  Holding or patting a dog or other pet creates a relational moment that connects us with something deeper, something mysterious and wondrous.

It isn’t only animals but other parts of the natural world, the created order.  The Earth itself is a living, breathing entity containing billions or trillions of organisms in every few centimetres.  The dirt or soil is a living thing that brings forth new life and growth.  It breaks down carbon, extracted by plants from the air and fixed into complex sugars by photosynthesis.  Carbon re-enters the soil as plants are broken down and this facilitates new growth – food, plants, flowers, tress…  When I tread on the grass, the soil or dig in the dirt it feels good.  Rotating the compost bin is fun and a look within reveals worms and bugs that work on the material to break it down into that which fertilises and breathes life into soil.  This is wondrous.  When I pause to look at a flower or tree I see the wonder of this creature, the colour, pattern, the bark and shape and its beauty.  I often pause along the Toongabbie Creek to wonder at the trees and plants and the gentle flowing of the creek through its little valley.

I remember watching out over a beach into the ocean some years ago.  Out beyond the shore line was a growing storm.  The thunder roared all around and out at sea hundreds of lightning strikes buzzed from the heavens to the earth.  With a dark backdrop of grey skies and early evening, this lightning glowed and lit up the sky in brilliant wonder.  The raw power of the storm was mesmerising and filled me with awe.

I remember the sense I had after my children were born.  I had come face to face with one of the miraculous experiences of life.  These tiny babies were so real and wonderful, so delicate and vulnerable and yet so wonderfully formed.  It is hard to express the absolute awe and wonder I felt in that first glimpse, the first hold.  I remember a sense of vulnerability – within myself at having responsibility for this little life and in our babies who seemed so fragile.  In this was God!

For some weeks I have had a song going around in my head.  It fades and then returns again at all manner of odd moments.  It is a spiritual called ‘Over My Head.  The words go something like this:

Over my head I hear music in the air/Over my head I hear music in the air/Over my head I hear music in the air/There must be a god somewhere.

This morning as I wondered along the Toongabbie Creek the words frolicked in my head.  As I thought about them I began to hear other songs – the songs of birds, parrots, Cockatoos, Whipbirds and a multitude of others.  I heard the gentle ripple of the creek as it flowed over rocks and along the creek bed.  I began to hear the rustle of grasses and bushes as tiny creatures scurried away from me – lizards, insects and other creatures of the bush.  I heard the dogs in backyards and the traffic farther away.  As I got closer to the school, the delighted play and laughter, squeals and fun of children filled the air.  The breeze caused the leaves of tall gums and other trees to flutter and I realised that the bush was alive with music. Over my head I heard music in the air – there must be a God somewhere.  Somewhere, everywhere and all around, in and through God was present but I had to stop and look, listen and experience this Divine Presence.  When I did, profound awe, wonder and delight filled me.

This week is known as Transfiguration Sunday.  It comes from a story we read every year the week before Lent.  This year the version comes from Matthew (17:1-9).  The Gospel writers each record their own slightly different version of a visionary account where Jesus and 3 disciples climb a mountain.  This is all reminiscent of Old Testament Theophany, where God is revealed in wonder, awe and power – usually the power of nature with thunder and lightning.  In the gospel story, the disciples experience a vision where Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, representing the Old Testament Law and Prophets.  Jesus is described as transfigured or glowing in radiance.  This is reminiscent of Moses when his face glowed in the presence of God.  It also recalls the vision of Daniel where the ‘Human One’ would come and would be radiant.

It is a story that points us into a deeper sense of God’s presence as it is revealed to us in the life, person, words and wisdom of Jesus.  In his face we glimpse the presence of the Divine.  It points beyond Jesus to hold together the story of God and people from time immemorial through Biblical revelation and ancient Dreamtime, indigenous wisdom and natural wonder, inspired by the Spirit of God.

In Jesus, we do experience the radiance of wisdom, holiness, compassion, justice, humility and grace.  When we study his life and words and journey with him, we are drawn into a deeper sense of the presence and wonder of God.  We learn to see and respond to the world differently.  Everything has the capacity to be imbued with Sacred wonder, the presence of God.  In the tiniest flower, the colourful bird, the vulnerable pet, a shared meal, the delight of splashing in the water.  We are drawn into a state of wonder where we stand before the Divine, the Sacred and are filled with awe.  This awe is wondrous, delightful and can overwhelm us.  There is also a fearful dimension to it when we come face to face with the brilliance and beauty of Holiness, of God.  God can be scary.  When I behold the profound size of the universe and the power of suns and nature and the immense forces at work each day and ponder how God holds all this in relationship as Creator, Sustainer and Life-giving Spirit, it is awesome (in the truest sense!).  This story invites me to stop, wonder and be still as I encounter God in the ordinary and profound elements of life and death.  I am held in wonder before the God who is ever present for those who will stop, look and listen.

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By geoffstevenson

A Way Beyond Violence, Hatred and Conflict…

As I write this my mind is pre-occupied with the sudden events of last night.  Our little old dog became quite distressed and when we took him to the vet we were told that nothing could be done for him, given his age and declining health.  It was quite a shock and this faithful little friend was gently put to sleep amidst tears, grief and shock.

As I reflect on our 15 years with Nimrod, he has been a wonderful little friend who has shared so much of our lives.  Being smaller he always seemed more vulnerable than the bigger dog we have, a Labrador who seems indestructible.  In his younger years he was full of energy and ran around chasing or being chased – sometimes down the street and into neighbour’s homes.  When we returned home he was there to welcome us, usually wanting a pat or to be held.  He usually sat with one of us or under our feet, often getting in our way.  He routinely went around the house checking on who was here and who was out.  First thing in the morning he walked around the yard’s border, doing his little patrol.  We referred to this as him securing the borders – he was after all a Border Collie cross.

In his own little way Nim was always there in the midst of things.  In early days there was the desire for a game and in latter years a gentle stroke of his coat or to sit in a lap.  Nim was always aware of people who were more vulnerable and sat with them, almost protectively.  When my aged grandmother used to come over in the last years of her life, Nim always sat next to her and looked on protectively.

As I ponder Nim and his life amongst us I am aware of his presence over these last 15 years.  He was a vulnerable dog more or less at our mercy.  He was a rescue dog and we got him as a pup when our previous dog died.  He depended upon us for most things such as food, water, grooming, adventure beyond the yard, patting and companionship.  It was this very vulnerability that gave him his strength or power in our lives.  He looked at us and would bark or somehow urge us when he wanted or needed something.  If he needed to go outside for toileting he had to indicate and wait for us to open the door.  It was in this vulnerability that he was loved and touched our lives.  He had no power of his own but his vulnerable openness and acceptance of all people broke down barriers and defences. They looked down and patted him.  They laughed at his antics and we all smiled at his little personality and his vulnerable acceptance of us was disarming.

As I thought about Nim this morning through the sadness of a house quieter in his absence, I also recognised that I learned from Nim something of the wisdom of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and the section we read this week (Matthew 5:38-48).  It is a profound passage, this Sermon on the Mount.  I watched a brief video clip from the movie, Ghandi, today.  It is where he becomes aware that those who follow him are becoming violent in their resistance of the Empire.  Ghandi is upset and has learned from Jesus, from this very passage.  He declares that there will not be any violent resistance towards the British.  They will not use force or the power of weapons or fighting.  He declares that he will fast until the violence ends and if his fast goes too long and he dies of hunger so be it.  Violence cannot be the basis for lasting peace.  It doesn’t work.

Ghandi knows, as Jesus taught, violence must never be used to try to achieve peace because it is impossible.  Ultimately Jesus proclaims a way that is grounded in love and relationships, building people up together and drawing them into community.  Like Ghandi, Martin Luther King jr declared to all who were part of the Civil Rights movement in 1960’s USA that they were not to hate the people who mistreated them but to love their enemies and pray for those who were violent and unjust.  They were to resist the evil and injustice perpetrated against them but not to use violence against people.

Across the world over the last few centuries there have been many courageous  movements of non-violent resistance that have brought liberation and new ways to oppressed and struggling peoples.  Of course India, but also Poland, South Africa, divided Germany, USSR’s breakdown and through many parts of Latin America, such as El Salvador, and elsewhere in the world.  Groups of common people have come together to move for change and transformation and the power of numbers and popular movements, though often resisted by violence at first, have broken through power regimes to bring new life, hope and freedom to people caught in oppression and violence.

Over and against this, many nations continue to believe that warfare and bombs are the only means of achieving peace and an end to conflict.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are examples of this.  The wars were intended to bring peace but putting down the causes of unrest, violence and terrorism.  In fact they have escalated the violence and unleashed new terrorist groups into the vacuum.  It has cost the US trillions of dollars to fund these wars and little has actually been achieved beyond the chaos and suffering of untold innocent people.  A few terrorists have been captured or killed but many more have been recruited and channelled into active hatred of the West through their experiences of suffering through the wars.

This is the way of empire in our world and has been for around 5000 years since human civilisation began.  It is called the Myth of Redemptive Violence and is the belief that peace can be found and achieved at the end of a sword/gun/bomb…  The cycle of violence often spirals out of control and empires rise and fall refusing to learn the lessons of history.  Despite the ways of non-violent protest and movements of change grounded in love and forgiveness, the powers that be never learn.

Jesus walked this way of peace.  He declared that the violence of the powers was evil and the injustice perpetrated upon ordinary people was evil and must be called out, resisted and transformed through movements of love, community and non-violent resistance.  For this he was killed by the powers of the world.  They hung him on a cross to be an example to anyone else who dared threaten the powers of the world.  He gave himself up for the mission of God’s peace and reconciliation in the world and ultimately it was in God’s love and grace that he overcame this evil and life flourished – we call this resurrection.  It is the state of being in God where we choose life and hope and to live with vulnerable abandon before the possibilities of life.  I sense that we will need more and more of this in the modern Trump and Putin era world (and other dangerous megalomaniacs the seek to impose their views and themselves upon our world).

Our little dog embodied a vulnerable openness and faithfulness, accepting all who came to the house.  He brought people together and seemed to thrive on relational peace and being together.  He is, for me, a symbol of peacefulness and relationship.  Dogs don’t seem to remember slights done but seek to be in relationship with their owners.

By geoffstevenson

Rules, Laws, Values or Jesus’ Way of Love??!

Some years ago I was team-teaching Year 6 Scripture.  I was just about to speak when there was a loud noise and ensuing chaos. The year 6 boy had a noise-maker and decided to use it at that moment. The class dissolved into raucous laughter (generally the boys) and shrieks (mainly the girls). It took a few minutes to get back to some semblance of order.  One of my colleagues in this combined Protestant Year 6 Scripture class, of about 50 kids, took him aside and spoke to him. He was taken to the back of the room and he sat by himself to avoid distraction… I noticed he was still distracted, wriggling and playing with carpet, trying to make a noise without being deliberate and so on.

Over the ensuing weeks I had the chance to ‘do the disciplining’ and take him aside to talk to him. Eventually I realised that nothing we had done really made a difference and I was frustrated with telling him he wasn’t behaving appropriately and nothing changing. It was wasting my time and I wondered whether I was taking myself and this boy seriously? So, I allowed my curiosity to lead me into other directions. The next time he distracted the class I took him outside and had a conversation with him. I allowed him to be honest without getting into trouble. Was the class boring? Did he know all this stuff and was uninterested? Was he having trouble with anything we were saying? Was there something else? He began slowly, testing my trustworthiness. Eventually, he shared some of his story, which was difficult. There was a degree of chaos in his life from his family – illness, conflict as well as a degree of dysfunctionality. He and his siblings had a high degree of freedom to come and go but also they were expected to get meals organised and do other things. If they didn’t, no-one really cared. There wasn’t much structure to his life and he brought this chaotic life and dysfunctionality to school. I knew he was considered a difficult child within the school and it wasn’t only Scripture.

We talked for a while and I responded to some of the issues he raised about being in the class. He had permission to write or draw in the class, as long as his doodling had some relevance to the lesson. It could engage, disagree, ask other questions and so on. He had permission to write what he liked but only to show me. If he was having trouble focussing and felt himself ‘getting out of control’ and likely to do something that would create a major disturbance, he was to get my attention and we would go outside until the feelings dissipated.  When I was leading the class I tried to apply some more structure to what we did and use stories with depth to engage him and others and it mostly worked.

I confess that I wasn’t sure what to do about this fellow and spoke to our counsellor, at the church. They spoke about hyperactive people and the need for a lot of structure around them that provides security but also room to move and be creative. They spoke of the problems with labelling such kids as ‘naughty’ and responding to them as if they are able to control what is going on within themselves, as if they even understand it. They spoke of needing to deal with bad behaviour but not only look at the symptoms. Why do these kids act the way they do? What is happening to them inside and why? When we get to this point we will understand them, trust will grow and transformation (for all) is possible!

I remembered this story and how the tight, binding structures that were assumed in generations past, unquestioned and often rigidly applied, have dissolved.  Recent generations have pushed the boundaries, asked questions and turned from the binding rules of their parents and grandparents.  I feel a sense of despair and frustration for younger people as they seek to negotiate the new world where freedom and choice seem paramount.  The parameters of being and living have changed or disappeared as we struggle to build new foundations in this modern, 21st century world.

Conservative institutions are fighting back with tighter rules more rigidly applied.  The struggle of Trump/Hanson etc era politics is about building tight structures around the changing world where rules, authority and boundaries defining who is in or out, have become softer or lost completely.  Fear, change and individualism are some of the factors that drive this response.  The desire to go back to what was when the world seemed more  predictable and safe is also a driving force – in church and society.  The trouble is that the new ‘rules’ being applied are the old ones in rigid form and they don’t always apply: they don’t make sense and most of us have moved on.  As society changes and uncertainty prevails, rules become more idolised and hard core.  We speak of ‘traditional values’ and so on, but what are these values and why are they so important?  Things like love, respect, relationships and such are vital.  These things, along with justice, mercy, peace, humility and integrity are timeless but it is not clear that our society is actually pointing to these things as ‘traditional values’.  Mono-culturalism (Anglo), racism, homophobia, middle-class privilege, silencing the minority groups and so on are more what I hear expounded and defended in the public arena – especially by the neo-conservative spokespeople.

It is against this backdrop that I hear Jesus’ continuing words from the Sermon on the Mount (this week Matthew 5:21-37).   He actually provides a deeper structure for the law that grounds it in love and relationships.  The Jewish Laws (notably the 10 Commandments) easily become rigidly applied rules whereby we understand them literally – eg, Don’t kill!  Therefore as long as I don’t stick the knife into the person I have fulfilled the law.  Jesus raises the bar and provides a broader, deeper structure around this and other laws.  If you hate your brother/sister then murder is in your heart.  In other words love doesn’t have room for hatred that leads to rejection, barriers and the death of relationship.  Conflict and ultimately wounding, hurt, discrimination, anxiety, tension and so on prevail in our lives and that of those we hate.  Similarly with other rules and laws that can be rigidly applied.  Jesus invites us beneath the legalism to the essence of relationship.  We cannot be human without relationships, not truly human because that is how we are built.  Love and relationship is essential to being human and Jesus invites us into the place where these become the guiding principles, the law of the heart, the foundational structures of interaction, the lens through which we view the world and other people – not skin colour, sexual orientation, ethnic background, religious faith (or none) or any of the other differences we might apply.

When I looked at the child in my Scripture class as a person and listened to his story, I saw him differently and our relationship began.  We shared a brief part of the journey together and hopefully we both learned something from each other.  The strict rules of others were disabling and a barrier.  Love built a relationship, respect and possibility.

By geoffstevenson

An Old-New Way in A Challenging World!

I saw the end of Julia Zemiro’s  biographical story show, ‘Home Delivery,’ with Sam Neill the other night.  They were sitting talking and Neill said that he didn’t really believe in religion anymore.  The Bible’s stories were so old they had no applicability to the world in which he lives with all of its complexities.  Then when he reads science he feels so small and insignificant and also gains a sense of wonder about the profoundness of world in which we live.  Ultimately he believes that the world doesn’t need religion would be better without it.  He recalled a joke where God indicates ‘he’ wishes he’d never invented religion – it is too painful.

I can understand something of what Sam Neill says – I have heard it so often.  The Bible is an old book, therefore irrelevant, and religion only creates conflict, hatred, abuse and war.  I suppose it does seem like this to many people.  So with Sam Neill’s words and the disturbing tales from the new ‘Trump-era world’ ringing in my mind I opened this week’s readings.  Imagine my surprise when I read words maybe 2500 years old that said: “…to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).  It speaks of hope and light in the world when deep compassion and justice abound in human life.  I turned to the Gospel passage (Matthew 5:13-20) and encountered much the same thing.  It actually continues Jesus’ turning the world upside down and blessing the little ones of the earth.  He speaks of compassion, mercy, justice, peacemaking, grieving the pain of life… and names these as the way of God’s blessedness.  Further, he suggests that those who live with these values in their hearts and guiding their actions, are like salt and light in a world that is sometimes bland or dark.

We still use the term ‘not worth their salt’.  It apparently comes from the times when salt was important and worth some money.  One might buy a slave for an amount of salt and if they were somewhat useless or lazy wouldn’t be ‘worth their salt,’ the amount paid for them.  We still use Jesus’ notion of a light on a hill.

In view of the world in which we live, one increasingly individualistic and often lacking in compassion and justice, I find these words very prescient and confronting.  Far from the Bible being an old world book, irrelevant and simplistic in a complex world, it seems to lift up themes that transcend life and times and geography.  Love, justice, peace, mercy, compassion and so on ought to be the currency of our world and the characteristics of world leaders who purport to rule with some sense of wisdom, responsibility and with a sense of deep and profound humanity.  Sadly, we have too many power-hungry, narcissistic megalomaniacs running the show.  Our society idolises the wealthy, famous, powerful, beautiful and those who seem to be able to knock out a tune or carry on before a camera.   Celebrity is worshipped as we hang off every word and misadventure in the popular mags and news bites.  There are a plethora of ways in which people manifest religious zeal – sometimes within the context of a religious activity and sometimes by subsuming a person, a hobby, an interest or a movement into a fanatical, compulsive and even exclusive idolatry.  They effectively see the world not through eyes of love and justice but through an obsessive literalism that defines everyone according to how they accept or reject a person’s ideology.  It is everywhere.  Sports fans across the world can be exceptionally one-eyed (I know this within myself at times!) in both the exclusive following of one club or the exclusivity of one code or sport to be followed.  The same can be said of political or philosophical ideology, for example.  Other people become obsessive about accumulating wealth (investments, buying more…) or achieving success in career or other avenue of activity.

Nations fight over land, skin colour, wealth, power and old conflicts that no-one really understands or remembers.  Megalomaniacs assume power and lord it over everyone creating intense struggle and much suffering.  These fanatical obsessions are the stuff of religious zeal and variations on the theme that is constantly before us in this tired world.  There have been many wars and massacres inflicted upon innocent people by secularists and atheists (the Hitlers, Stalins, Lenins, Pol Pots…) for diverse reasons.  Similarly humans have used religious fervour and exclusivity to fight wars, defending dogma and literalist beliefs.  God has been used for good and bad.

Our readings invite us into a different way.  They actually challenge the narrow, exclusive and judgemental religion that Sam Neill sees as detrimental to the well-being of the world and cause of strife.  The way of Jesus, if we believe his words, is a way of humility, love, peacemaking, mercy, justice and grieving the world’s pain and suffering.  These ancient words invite us into a way that challenges power for power’s sake, along with the superficial hero-worship of celebrity, wealth and power.  It is an ancient-new way, a way that is millennia old but renewed in every generation, in every context.  It is a refreshing way that celebrates life and living and understands that humility and vulnerability is a courageous way that opens the self to other people as brothers and sisters, fellow pilgrims on this journey of life.

There is a legend about a missionary who was lost at sea. By chance he was washed up on the edge of a remote village. Half-dead from starvation, exposure and sea water, he was found by the people of the village and nursed back to health. He lived amongst them for the next 20 years. During that time he didn’t preach a sermon, confess faith, sing songs of faith or read any Scriptures – he did nothing that we might consider an essential part of mission work. But, when the people were sick, he attended to them, often sitting long into the night. When people were hungry he gave them food. When they were lonely, he was a source of company. He taught them and shared wisdom.  He sided with those who had been wronged and identified with the people’s every struggle.  After 20 years had passed, missionaries came from the sea to the village and began talking to the people about a man called Jesus. After hearing these stories of Jesus the natives insisted that he had lived amongst them for the last 20 years. “Come and we will introduce you to the man about whom you speak.” The missionaries were led to a hut and there they found their long-lost fellow missionary whom they thought was dead.  This missionary brought the beauty and wonder of God into people’s lives and they experienced God in their midst.  He was salt and light in the world and Jesus says that about us when we embody love and peace.

By geoffstevenson