Beside the Still Waters…

This morning we walked our dogs along the Toongabbie Creek.  After the rain it is more of a small river, rapidly flowing with small rapids. It is brown coloured today, not its usual clear-green reflecting the blue sky or foliage along its banks.  The rock platforms that we could ordinarily walk out onto are covered in flowing water.  It looks alive and more violent and aggressive than normal.  The sound is louder and there are places where trees and bushes have been uprooted in the muddy banks that are sometimes submerged and sometimes high and dry.  The creek looks different today, as it has throughout this recent big wet.  It will settle down again and there will be times when the flow reduces to very little and the flora and fauna in and around the creek find life harsh and unpredictable.

I have been reading some spiritual reflection on water these last couple of weeks.  In her book, ‘Grounded’ Diana Butler Bass has a section on the spirituality of water.  All the major (and not so major) religions have a focus around water.  Hindus gather at the Ganges River, a holy place.  The ancient Egyptians used the Nile as a holy river.  The Jewish Bible is filled with references to water, rivers and uses them as metaphors for God’s gracious love and healing that flows through the land bringing life. These metaphors carry on into the Christian New Testament where there are stories about water that brings life to parched bodies and spirits.  Last week’s story focussed on water at a well as a metaphor for the Living water of God.

Throughout human civilisation water has been a central factor.  Without fresh water we can’t live and humans have always built their cities in and around water sources.  The cradle of civilisation in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) was focussed in the midst of the Tigris-Euphrates River systems that could support life and the density of human populations living together.  In my life I have lived or worked in and around the 3 main river systems of Sydney – the Georges River, the Parramatta River and the Hawkesbury River.  These have all been important not only as landmarks but as central sources for human life.  The flow of rivers provides fresh water for agriculture, marine life and therefore fishing, leisure activities.  Without these river systems the early colony would not have developed as it has or where it has.

In the reflection by Diana Butler Bass I read some fascinating facts about water.  Water covers ~71% of the earth’s surface and is around 70% of the human body and we cannot live without fresh water.  Of all the water on the earth 96% is saline in seas and oceans and therefore cannot be used by humans for drinking, irrigation or general use.  Another ~2% of the earth’s water is ice, leaving around 2% as freshwater, usable by humans and other flora and fauna.  Much of this 2% is trapped underground and only about 0.3% of the world’s water is actually available to us in lakes, rivers and streams as fresh water.  Water is an incredibly important and scarce resource.  It is something we city dwellers in particular take for granted until there is a time of drought and we are placed on restrictions.  We do not understand the real importance of water.  Our waterways are often drains and sewers removing wastes and run off from gardens and urban living.  Much of the earth’s usable drinking water is contaminated and the removal of trees and changing habitats have an enormous impact on our water systems.  The marshy and mangrove regions along the rivers and the swampy muddy zones between dry ground and the river proper are called the riparian zone.  This is a vital place where the life and health of rivers is maintained.  These places are often destroyed, built on or tidied up to make them look more acceptable and in the process destroyed.  We have much to re-learn about our rivers and waterways, their health and our (and all nature’s) dependence upon this vital resource.

This week we read Psalm 23, an old faithful psalm well used in funerals and at times to offer comfort.  God is the shepherd who cares for the sheep through good and bad, protecting and sustaining through dark valleys or good times.  It is filled with wonderful images that take time to delve into and appreciate.  Perhaps those who live rural lives more fully appreciate the import of this beautiful psalm than those of us who live more material-based lives in the cities where much more happens within homes and buildings.

There is a wonderful line in the psalm that says; ‘He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul…’  I pondered this a little as I thought about Diana Butler Bass’s reflection on water.  It isn’t the line I normally focus upon.  I tend to go for the protection in valley of the shadow of death or the party in God’s house near the end.  Today I stopped and pondered how God leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.  Water is so much a part of my life, even when I don’t think about it.  I could not survive without water.  I thought about the need and deep desire for long drinks of cool water after one of my longer walks, especially through this humid and warm season.  All around there has been rain and too much water and the grass has grown far too quickly.  The pool turned green and we have had to work out how to restore its quality.  The dogs drank from the puddles along our way today and then had long drinks when we got home.  Water!

More than the need and desire for water to quench my thirst or cleanse my body, I recognised the need for restoration of my soul.  Busy-ness or stress, the demands of life and dealing with some harsh situations drains us and we need to be restored in our being.  A cool drink from still waters is part of it but something deeper is necessary to touch our spirit, our soul, our inner being to bring rest, renewal and peace.  Diana Butler Bass also makes the point that water is a source of spiritual renewal – a walk along the water’s edge; sitting and watching a river, an ocean, a lake, are all healing and renewing in and of themselves.  It is in the sitting and pondering, the experiencing the gentleness or even violence of the water, the rhythms of nature and life that restore our being.  God is in the midst of water and nature and life, the One who holds all things in gracious relationship.  When we stop and ponder, rest and allow the still or moving waters to touch our being we are connected with something deeper and more profound and if we push through in our patient reflection we will know the presence of God.  This presence is a restful stream of living water.  It is an ocean that refreshes and revitalises the tired and hot body at the beach in summer.  It is a presence of gentle calm or inspiring action or the deep refreshment of soul-quenching, restorative living water that gives us life.  God is the essential source of all life and the metaphor of water helps us ponder God’s all present grace that holds us in love and gives us life.

The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want…  He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.

By geoffstevenson

Drinking Deeply From the Water of Life

I remember reading a story about some explorers travelling down the west coast of the Southern American continent.  Their journey had been delayed and they couldn’t find a place to set ashore to stock up on things they needed.  Their water supply was running extremely low and ran out.  Sailors on the ship were dying of thirst.  They were a little way out to sea and surrounded by an immense ocean but the salt water was no good to drink and slowly they died.   The sad reality of this story is that as the sailors were dying aboard their ship they were crossing the mouth of the mighty Amazon River that delivered billions of litres of fresh water into the ocean with such force that they were actually surrounded by fresh water that was drinkable.  That which they needed and craved was actually all around them but they didn’t realise it.

I wonder how this is a metaphor for the world around and that perhaps we are all on a  ship floating through the ocean, thirsty, hungry and yearning.  All around is water but it seems salty and unpalatable.  In the movie, Bruce Almighty, Bruce receives the powers of God after complaining that God isn’t doing God’s job and isn’t looking after Bruce’s interests.  After fixing a few things on his own behalf Bruce begins to hear voice sin his head and they fill his mind – lots of voices.  He calls out to God who says they are only prayers and he should answer them because they will only keep coming.  Bruce turns them into post-it notes but there are thousands, millions and they fill a room.  So he converts them to emails and there are an equally large number.  He reads a few and they are filled with the broad range of human need and desire.  There are the people who are self-obsessed and greedy, concerned only with what they want and expect they deserve.  Then there are the diversity of human yearning and depth of struggle and pain.  People are lonely and alienated from friends, family and community.  There are those struggling with chronic and debilitating illness of body or mind.  There are those who are heartbroken and grieving and others filled with guilt or shame.  There are people who have lost their way and are depressed and hopeless and others caught in the spirals of addictions.  There are people from every place and we are all together in this ship of life floating on an ocean broad, deep and hostile – or so it seems.

Bruce ultimately answers these prayers by saying ‘yes’ to everyone and unleashes havoc upon his small part of the world as incompatible hopes, wants and needs are granted to everyone.  God catches up with him in the chaos and he confesses that he just gave everyone what they wanted.  ‘Since when do people always know what they really need?’ God asks.  Bruce shakes his head in recognition that he doesn’t really know what he needs.  In the story he coes to the realisation that what he thought he wanted and needed is not actually what he really wants.  Fame, fortune, recognition, a bigger home, a successful career are not the basis of well-being (or even happiness).  There is a relationship of love and sharing of life.  There is engagement with other people and an understanding of the diversity of people around us, learning to look upon each person as a human being.  There is a spirituality that needs to be part of who we are because we are spiritual beings and some of our yearning is for deeper meaning at this level.

I wonder if we are looking in the right places as a society for that which we really need to find deep peace and joy in this world and the life we are gifted?  I wonder if we understand that all around us are the things we need to live fully this life we have?  Instead of living in fear or feeling threatened by those we don’t understand or who are different or afraid we don’t have enough stuff and are being left behind such that we will suffer and be unhappy, perhaps we need to hear another story – one of life.

I read another story, a beautiful story filled with complexity and wonder this week.  It is from john’s Gospel and is the story of Jesus meeting a woman, a Samaritan, at a well and engaging in a conversation that opens up life and breaks down barriers.  It felt like being in that boat floating in an ocean filled with water from the Amazon River flowing out and surrounding the ship.  I dive overboard and there is refreshing water, drinkable and fresh, filled with life and I drink deeply of it.

The story is set in a traditional place where courtships happen, the well.  Ancient stories abound with tales of husbands and wives to be meeting at wells and going through rituals of discerning appropriateness of marriage.  A woman comes for water for her family at a time when other women have been and gone.  There is a suggestion she may be an outcast, living in a life of dubious morality.  At the well Jesus engages her in conversation, treading on many taboos in the process – he ought not speak to a woman alone unless he is a relative.  As a Jew he shouldn’t be speaking to a Samaritan, with whom there is deep division, conflict and even hatred.  There are barriers of race, religion and gender erected by a society that divided people and shut each other out when there was difference.  Sounds like our society really, with our plethora of divisions, suspicions and barriers, real and assumed.

Jesus broke through the barriers to listen to this woman and engage her deep need and yearning, her alienation, shame and need.  He offered her living water, a metaphor for that which comes from God and provides a deep quenching of inner thirst – thirst for life, hope, love, peace, joy and spiritual vitality.  God offers water and food for living that will feed our deep yearning and bring people together into a community of caring, love and grace.  Jesus transcends the particularities of Jewish faith and that of the Samaritan faith that had Jewish background and competed for truth.  God is bigger than either faith and bigger than those who practice faith and proclaim exclusive ways.  God is bigger than the differences between people and conflict, fighting and discrimination will never yield peace or life.  The water of life runs freely all around us to drink in abundance and find the space to love, care, welcome and include.  When barriers fall people find life and we all find our way into community.  There will be disagreements but wcan learn to focus on the bigger things that bind us and working together for the sake of the world is a wonderful calling and vision.

In the story of Bruce, he discovered a community at the end where everyone had a place in the party and enjoyed togetherness.  There were people of all backgrounds and capacities.  Jesus left the woman rushing back to town to tell everyone what she experienced and who she had encountered.  This somewhat outcast woman found her way back into life and her neighbours and family found their way into God’s race – they discovered the living water that was readily available everywhere around them.  What about us?  Do we yearn for the living water that will refresh our souls?

By geoffstevenson

The Yearning Spirit Wandering in Darkness…

I’ve been pondering a story.  It is about a leader, a religious-political leader in his time; a wise and responsible person presumably.  He is described as being in the dark.  He lurks in the darkness and walks around at night.  In the story this seems to be a metaphor for his own ignorance and that of the status quo he represents.

A leader who is in the dark; who doesn’t actually know what everyone believes and hopes he knows.  Now that seems far-fetched in our world doesn’t it?  As we listen to the political and other leaders around us, we wonder what is going on.  There is a sense confusion, chaos and of in-fighting between members of the same parties.  The rise and rise of Trump left everyone, including his own party, scratching their heads.  He blathers around offering sound bites that often show marketing prowess and a salesman’s skill but are devoid of anything of depth.  There is a superficiality about Donald and his ilk.  They speak the right words to engage the disenfranchised and fearful but their rhetoric rings hollow and without real understanding.  There seem to be a lot of leaders walking in the darkness of a world that is in transition, changing as rapidly as each new generation of computer, mobile phone or other device.  It seems that we change leaders as often as we change devices, looking for an upgrade, one that can engage the new world and set us upon the right path.

I read the story of the leader in the darkness, wandering with some sense of aimless uncertainty, searching for the path that will be life-giving and I thought of myself.  I too, often walk in darkness seeking the path of liberation and life amidst the distorted realities of modern life.  Sometimes it all seems smoke and mirrors, a carnival of options that entertain, confuse, draw you in, promise the world and leave you bloated on junk food that smelled good but sits heavily in your stomach, filling your veins with fat.  You realise that your wallet is less heavy and you have nothing to show for it.  Life is often a mirage that feels real and right but quickly disappears leaving a desert reality of dry longing.

I suppose that whilst ever I find distractions I live in a world of colour much like the pretend world of the Matrix, behind which is a deep and strained reality that is a battle ground of forces seeking to control.  It is in the moments when the darkness draws around and I begin to see that ‘what is’ may not be all that it seems.  The promise of prosperity and upward mobility looks good and sucks us all in.  If only we have more we will be happier.  The more we accumulate the better life will be and the more we will prove ourselves as successful and worthwhile.  But it is a farce that has us in its death-grip as we all spiral downwards using up mother earth’s resources at an alarming rate and alienating ourselves from one another in our increasingly isolated living.

Who benefits from all this?  As we hurtle along in the slipstream of technological revolution and economic growth, striving for the latest gadget or toy we lay stress upon stress.  We have achieved a pandemic of stress and distress, alienation from people, except the few that are part of the inner circles of our life, and a state where anxiety, depression and sadness has overwhelmed large slabs of our society.  There is a healthiness of depression, according to M. Scott Peck (of ‘The Road Less Travelled’ fame).  He says that sometimes depression arises when we walk into the darkness and see the world for what it is and feel a deep sadness for the struggle and suffering of those who can’t compete in the marketplace of economic beneficence.  He doesn’t say it quite like that but that is the essence.  There is a sadness that overwhelms those who stop long enough to look and see and feel the pain of human despair.  We feel helpless before it.

I heard statistics last night that the number of people who commit suicide is twice that who die on the roads in Australia and 7 people per hour attempt suicide.  Why, if all is as good as we want to believe and are told, is this so?  Why the desperation and loneliness?  Why the silence over this?  If the road toll increased marginally there would be massive advertising and a blitz on speed, alcohol, seatbelts, fatigue…

A religious-political leader wandered in the darkness.  He was one who should ‘know’ but recognised that he didn’t.  He went to the Light in the night to find wisdom.  He went to one who did things that amazed people and though his words had the real power for life, they marvelled more at the signs and wonders that accompanied him.  This leader went to find out what was and could be in a world that was not all it seemed.  U2 sang that they ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and Nicodemus, the religious leader, was looking for something when he went to Jesus in the night (see John 3:1-17).

Jesus told him that wisdom and life came from a renewal of heart and mind, of being born again or born from above.  This phrase, used and abused, means to be renewed in your mind and heart from beyond yourself – from God’s grace.  Eyes open and hearts change.  Ears hear the cries and wills become steeled towards a new way.  Jesus spoke of wind and Spirit (they share the same root work in Greek) and in the same way that wind blows freely wherever it will, so it is with the Spirit.  God’s Spirit blows through creation renewing and sustaining, creating and bringing new life.  The Spirit of God within and through humans brings the capacity for life and profound wonder.  The same stirring inspiration can also be used for personal greed and gain or the abuse of power.  This is the darkness of human life that also surrounds us, into which we walk and feel its oppressive powers suck life from us.  As Nicodemus sought life in this one, Jesus, so we in our deepest beings yearn for the freedom to be; to live with fullness and hope in community with others who share the journey of life together.  We know that the adage ‘The one who dies with the most toys wins’ is as empty as the lives of so many who have lost their way, drowning in wealth and wallowing in despair.  Howard Hughes, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and the plethora of stars who departed this mortal coil in recent years, many far too early.  Loneliness and despair surrounded their last drug-addled days or quiet desperation that tipped them over the edge.  The more we have the more we are owned by the stuff of our lives and the darkness coalesces around us until the Spirit blows through us with renewed life, hope, joy and peace in life with others, a community of gracious living!

The other story I have pondered is about the founding figure of the 3 mono-theistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), Abraham.  It comes from Genesis 12 and tells of Abraham encountering God who tells him to pack up everything and journey into the unknown.  He is given a direction but no destination and the only assurance is God is with him and will tell him when he arrives.  Abraham packs up everything and wanders into the unknown future.  With simplicity of life and the uncertain assuredness of faith he goes and discovers God-presence in the journey of faith and life.  This is a story for our time!

By geoffstevenson

The Excruciating Silence that Yields Life and Vision

There’s a wonderful scene in Stephen King’s novel, The Stand, focussing on the visionary, mystic leader called Mother Abagail.  Mother Abagail is an elderly black, prophetic woman who becomes the leader of one remnant group of people who have survived a holocaust.  They gather around her and form a little community.  After things have stabilised somewhat and everyone finds their place in this new community, Mother Abagail informs them she must go away to pray and listen to God.  She wanders off into what is the post-holocaust wilderness of middle America.  In this wilderness she prays and fasts in order to hear God speak to her and give her direction for the community.  It is in this silent and lonely place that she is able to hear God and returns after a period to share the vision.

Mother Abagail calls four men into her make-shift hospital room and as she lays dying gives them the words she has received.  They are to go into the wilderness and journey across America to make a stand against evil, personified by Randall Flagg and the community he has drawn to himself.  These men are to journey without taking anything except basic clothes and so on.  They are to find food and other things along the way.  Clearly the point is that God will be with them and they are to trust.

The journey begins with difficulty, they get tired easily, it is hard, they complain…  After a few days one of them says that the way feels easier and he feels clearer of head and being than he has for a long, long time.  He finally understands that he has benefited from the silence, the simplicity and he is unwinding for the first time in many years.  He likens himself to a car that has been travelling along with its engine running, the air conditioning on full bore, the radio, wipers and anything else that can drain power.  He has been draining of power for sometimes now, living off stress energy, fear, adrenalin and small top ups from limited sleep and food.  He has been draining rapidly, like my tablet when all the apps are running!

As he walks, there is silence and conversation.  They have to contend with thoughts and feelings.  They are confronted by the daemons of their lives.  There is guilt, grief, fear, past actions that can’t be resolved or undone, addictions and contradictions and they are initially tense, intense, stressed and running off adrenalin.  The movement through this withdrawal of anxiety, fear, grief, guilt, adrenalin, confusion is not easy and they would prefer to have all manner of pervious distractions available to stop them thinking and feeling and it is hard.  After a few days, the anxiety, the struggle subsides somewhat and the adrenalin has drained away.  The world seems clearer and life more vivid.  They see things they previously hadn’t.  There is beauty and wonder despite the chaos.  There is also a clarity of purpose and meaning to their lives as they prepare to make a stand against evil.  The wilderness journey of these four men is a preparation of body, mind and spirit.

I thought of this story when I saw an interview on Charlie Pickering’s show, The Weekly´ and his interview with Simon Sinek of TED Talk fame (especially on leadership).  Sinek spoke about leaders but he was also led into a conversation around the need to stop and listen, to move beyond the addictions we all experience and how we are distracted by our plethora of devices that fill our lives with noise, sound, images, videos, text and break everything into bite sized pieces with an immediacy that demands our attention whether it is important or not.  As I listened to Simon Sinek and Charlie Pickering I thought of how easy it is to look at the phone and check email. Text messages and the like or plug into music.  I realised that it is easy to put on the radio, a CD or Bluetooth my phone in the car and fill the space and time with sound and distraction.  What would it mean to drive in silence, pondering, wrestling, reflecting with thoughts, ideas or allowing the silence to resound in my ears.  I know why it is harder to sit in silence and that is because I might be challenged to think about things that aren’t easy.  I might be confronted with ideas and doubts, questions that push me into unknown places that challenge my assumptions.  In the silence I am confronted with my own vulnerability and insignificance in this immeasurably huge universe.  In the silence I come face to face with my own humanness.

As I walk quietly through the local bushland and along the creek paths, I find that my being and spirit is restored and the things that seem very important in the daily news or in life in this society suddenly have less imperative.  The materialism that surrounds me suddenly doesn’t seem as important.  Nor do the people of power or fame who seem so impressive on the nightly news or other media.  I am drawn down into the place where people struggle and wonder whether we are so very different – they and me with different colour skin or culture, race, gender, sexuality, or even religious faith or none.  Isn’t there something about being human that binds us?  Aren’t we all held in some deep and profound relationship in the Divine Heart?  Doesn’t God love all God’s children in the same way (or deeper than) I love mine?

These thoughts echoed around in my mind as I read the story of Jesus in Matthew 4 for this first week of Lent.  It is the story of Jesus temptations in the wilderness.  40 days and nights echoes Moses on the mountain receiving the law.  ‘40’ echoes the various points where this number appears as a time of preparation of God’s people through the Bible – Noah, Moses, the people in the wilderness…  Jesus spends this time fasting and praying, presumably allowing the daemons of life to have their way and flounce around in his head to distract and distort his vision and dreams, his calling and purpose.  When the silence screams out threatening to drive us mad or lead us into depression or doubt or confusion, as it did with Jesus, he faces the daemons with renewed focus and calm spirit.  He is not distracted by temptation to hold to the status quo and leave everything be.  In his physical hunger Jesus is drawn into faith and faithfulness that is open to what is deeply and profoundly true – that God is!  God is the heart of all things and holds all things in gracious love but humans and their institutions may not necessarily agree.  Those who benefit from how things are never want to change and the status quo asserts its gentle tenacity of resistance.  Jesus will not be deterred in wilderness of city.  He has a focus grounded in God’s way and forged in wilderness silence and undistracted listening.  It sees people and looks through the mirage of social expectation to the face and way of Divine life live out in this world.  He follows in faithful joy, wonder and hope.

I wonder what it might mean for us to stop and listen in the silence in this season of Lent?  What would it mean for you to stop for a few moments in the day and reflect, listen, look or pray?  I wonder what you might discover about yourself, the world and God?  I wonder how different our world would be if we all stopped to listen in silence?

By geoffstevenson