The Family that Perpetuates the Fighting!

There is an ancient story that is set around 3-3,500 years ago.  It is an ancient story of wisdom, faith and religious origins.  It is the story of Abraham, the iconic figure at the foundation of the three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Abraham and his wife Sarah were asked to leave their home in Mesopotamia, in the region of modern day Iraq, and travel to a new place that the God who offered this call would lead them to.  In the story they pack up everything and leave their home.  It is a wonderful story of pilgrimage, faith and a journey of discovery and becoming.  The story obviously operates at various levels as it provides an archetypal story of human growth and exploration into becoming.  It is a story that wrestles with the mystery and uncertainty of faith and how people might respond to a God who draws us into new experiences and awareness of self and the world and of the Divine in the midst of everything – but mysterious, elusive and uncontrollable.  Abraham and Sarah went into the unknown with only what they could carry on the journey – and a promise!

Led into the wilderness and across their world, they followed the strange directions of faith until they found a land of promise – that was in drought!  After venturing into Egypt to survive and engaging in various lies and deceits for the sake of self-preservation, they settle and the promise of this God rests upon them.  They will be the parents of many nations – Abraham more than Sarah will be known as the Father of these many nations (one reason is that he has more children than she!).  As they age and it is obvious Sarah cannot ear children she seeks to help this God fulfil God’s promise by giving her husband her servant girl to bear him a son and heir to the promised covenant.  Hagar is an Egyptian girl who waits on Sarah and she has a child by Abraham and he is called Ishmael.  There is some anxiety about this event but things settle down and the issues are covered over for the time being.

After more time, God descends upon Abraham and Sarah in the form of angels (messengers) who provide the news that Sarah will bear a son in the next year.  She laughs hard!  She is old and so is Abraham!  Whoever heard of such a thing?  So when the child is born they call him Isaac, which means ‘laughter’.  There is laughter and noise in this household where there was only a childless wife.  (It is interesting to note that through the Bible there are several barren couples who ultimately have children and these children become very important!).  When the boy is weaned Sarah sees him with his half-brother Ishmael and his mother Hagar and they are playing (the word can also mean laughing).  Sarah is angry, perhaps jealous, concerned… She tells her husband to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael and Abraham is torn, confused and upset.  He talks with God who tells him to do as Sarah wants, that God will look after Hagar and Ishmael, who will become the father of a great nation.  So Abraham packs some food and water and sends them off into the wilderness where they wander until the water runs out an Hagar fears they will die.  She sits her tired son down and then moves off a bit as she cannot bear to watch him die.  She cries out to God, who actually hears the child’s crying and answers in the form of another angel who tells Hagar to get up and go to her son.  God will look after them and Ishmael will become the father of a great nation.  Hagar ensures Ismael has a wife and he is the father of several sons.  It is from Ishmael that the Arab people trace their roots and Islam draws its lineage back to Abraham, the Patriarch.

In the Biblical story there are several comments that are easily glossed over and Jewish traditions and stories connect many of these dots.  Isaac is said to have visited particular towns where it is clear that Hagar and Ishmael have lived.  In the traditions, Abraham visits Ismael’s house.  The first time he is rejected by Ishmael’s first wife causing Ishmael to divorce her.  The second unannounced visit Abraham is met and welcomed by Ismael’s second wife and he blesses the household and his son’s family.  It is clear that Abraham loves both of his sons!

After Sarah dies, Abraham takes a second wife and her name is Keturah.  Some traditions have it that Keturah is another name for Hagar, that Abraham went and found the mother of his first son and married her thus reuniting his family (he also had several other sons with her!).  Whether these traditions have veracity or not, at Abraham’s death both his first two sons are present at his funeral and share the responsibility of burying him..  The family that has mixed functionality and its share of rivalries and pathos, is united as one family.

This story and the unification of the children of Abraham is significant because it is the children of Abraham who are fighting violently today.  The sibling rivalries of the Biblical figures are epic but not as epic as their ancestors today.  In Palestine, ‘the Promised Land’ of the ancients, the offspring of Abraham, Jews from Isaac and Arabs from Ishmael fight each other.  They hate one another.  There is deep and profound mistrust, violence, abuse, revenge and retaliation, greed and the denial of human rights.  The Middle East is rampant with such inter-family conflict and violence.  The unified family of the Patriarch is at war and in such deep conflict that the divisions run deep and long.

It isn’t only these Jews and Muslims who fight.  The Christians have had their share of violence in past and present.  Somehow, in the name of God, people believe they have the right to kill, abuse, rip off and steal, destroy and hate.  Somehow the children of Abraham have learned how to hate and fight instead of love and be the light of the world through the grace of this God who invites us into a path of faith that nourishes our being, challenges us to move out of safety and secure places to grow and become.  We are invited to give up and let go in order to find our lives and live more fully.  This story comes from Genesis 21 but the themes are also found in our Gospel account in Matthew 10: 24-39.  These stories affirm, once more, that God hears the cries of people and responds through history, through people who engage in the life of the Spirit and seek another path, another way that is grounded in love and justice.  Cries go out and people suffer and little seems to change until we hear the cries of God whose heart breaks and we respond to the call to be people of compassion, spirit, love and are willing to live in the mystery of faith.

Whilst the damage of dysfunctional families can deliver wounds that compound over the years, grace and love can deliver healing and deliverance from the oppressive forces within and beyond people.  Abraham is a fallen, often broken figure who falls but gets up and tries again.  He grows, he feels, he lives and he learns to trust in the mystery of God.  He learns faith and those who are born into his traditions do well to emulate Abraham!

By geoffstevenson

On the 40th Anniversary of the Uniting Church – Who We Are!

Uniting Church Statement to the Nation – made at the time of union in June 1977.
People of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches have united. A new church has been born.  We, who are members of the first Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia address the people of Australia in this historic moment. The path to unity has been long and at times difficult, but we believe this unity is a sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race.

We acknowledge with gratitude that the churches from which we have come have contributed in various ways to the life and development of this nation. A Christian responsibility to society has always been regarded as fundamental to the mission of the Church. In the Uniting Church our response to the Christian gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs.

We are conscious of our responsibilities within and beyond this country. We particularly acknowledge our responsibilities as one branch of the Christian church within the region of South-East Asia and the Pacific. In these contexts we make certain affirmations at the time of our inauguration.

We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur. We will work for the eradication of poverty and racism within our society and beyond. We affirm the rights of all people to equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available. We will oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.

We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.

We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.

Finally we affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgment the policies and actions of all nations must pass. We realise that sometimes this allegiance may bring us into conflict with the rulers of our day. But our Uniting Church, as an institution within the nation, must constantly stress the universal values which must find expression in national policies if humanity is to survive.

We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self-interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere — the family of the One God — the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth the One who gave His life for others.  In the spirit of His self-giving love we seek to go forward.

This was the statement that launched the Uniting Church in the public sphere, outlining who and what we will be.  Like the essential document (The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia) that became the vision holding the 3 uniting churches together, this is a vision of a church that seeks to serve the common good in the way of Jesus.  The way of Jesus is radical and grounded in love – courageous, inclusive, just love.  It looks into the eyes of each person and recognises a unique creation in God.  This is not always easy because people are people and some can be very hard to love for the things they do or say and the way they act towards others.  We seek to reach out in inclusive love to those who are vulnerable or live with varying physical, emotional or psychological abilities.

This statement holds us to account for our faith as a way of living and being more than what we believe or would have others believe.  It is somewhat easy to agree to creeds and statements or esoteric theological whims.  It is easy to pontificate or debate truth in some philosophical manner but if that debate and truth-seeking leads to no action grounded in love it is, as St Paul suggests, worthless.

The Uniting Church’s founding vision calls us a pilgrim people who journey together and within the world in which we live to incarnate radical grace and love in the very contexts of our lives.  We transcend institution, exclusive groups and the bureaucracy that stifles life in other places to be a living organism, a body of the Living God in the world and for the sake of the world.  We never reach the Promised Land but seek the well-being of society and stand with the poor, vulnerable, hopeless, helpless and lost.  We reach out to others and invite them on the journey into deeper, richer life in God who is the ground of all being – the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  We are not afraid of science but embrace it as a gift of God who brings knowledge and wisdom through many means.  Science helps us understand and engage with the diverse world in which we live and faith gives breadth and colour and beauty to the wonder we feel.

We also draw upon the wisdom of traditional cultures on this land as it comes through the Aboriginal people, whom we have ignored and abused as a society.  This wisdom is life-giving and enriches our lives and being.  We also draw upon the wisdom and beauty of the diverse cultures that call Australia home.  Music, art, poetry, story and creativity feed our spirits and through these things God lives in and through us, speaking into a world that needs renewing and refreshment.

We recognise the diversity of people in their background, experience, culture, ethnicity, gender, orientation, personality and ability or capacity.  The true church is a fellowship that reconciles this diversity and difference into an inclusive community that bears with one another in love, a unity that celebrates diversity in the grace of God.

The traditions (as opposed to traditionalism) of the church are important and the Scriptures in particular provide a guiding light for life and living in the world.  There is rich and ancient wisdom contained within our Scriptures and church traditions that also sit alongside our failings and the abuses that have been perpetrated in the name of God and Church.  The Uniting Church seeks forgiveness for the errors and our participation in injustice and abuse of people, cultures and the earth.  We seek to live fully into the way God has called us to be – a fellowship of reconciliation where people can find a place to belong and become more fully and truly human, loving, gracious, peaceful and merciful in an inclusive community that is held in the power of gracious love we know as God.

By geoffstevenson

The Creative Love of God!

I recently picked up a magazine, the whole edition of which is given over to current physics and cosmology.  There are beautiful photos of space and the profound elements that make up our galaxy and those beyond.  I have read with fascination (those bits I can comprehend!) the complexities and mysteries of the cosmos.  Black holes, dark space and dark matter, supernovae, dwarf stars, solar systems and much more hold me in wonder.  The authors then speak of the variety of forces and particles that comprise the universe. Some we understand and can measure but several are theorised, used to explain what is observed and measured but remaining hidden, mysterious and unknown.

The universe is a vast, mysterious reality that is fascinating and mind-blowing in its complexity and wonder.  The distances described are beyond comprehension, measured as they are in light years (the distance a beam of light travels in one year – ~ 9.461 trillion kilometres. That is a very, very long way!!  Alpha Centauri is the closest star to us and is 4.37 light years from us – about 41 trillion kilometres!!)..

Equally the world around us, that which we can see, feel, smell, touch and taste, is incredibly complex and beautiful.  I sat and watched our dogs this morning as they ran and played with other dogs in the local ‘dog park’.  As I sat I looked around at the trees, diverse and beautiful.  I noticed the ground with grass and bare earth.  I wondered about the soil that existed under the grass, a complex combination of humus, nutrients, decaying matter, other elements and compounds, micro-organisms and little creatures all doing their thing to make this ‘stuff’ the life-giving substance in which we grow food and plants.  The local creek has so much life and activity that I fail to notice.  Reeds and mangroves filter the water and provide a zone important to the life of the creek/river.  Micro-organisms break down organic matter and other organisms ingest much of this as the food chain moves upwards.  In the sky above my head there are clouds of beauty and strange shape.  The air is filled with all manner of particles and molecules, some good and others unhealthy.  Sadly the unhealthy components are growing in number all the time.  Certain compunds are warming the earth as we liberate carbon stored in vast reserves of coal, oil and fossil fuels and emit it into the atmosphere once again.   The colour of the clouds changes as I sit and watch.  They are growing dark in the western sky – perhaps the promised rain is on the way?  The sun continues to shine through warming the earth and my back, creating a beautiful morning in which to ponder life and God.

Where is God in all of this?  In my science magazine there is little mention of God except that one particle, the mysterious, elusive and unconfirmed Higgs boson, is nicknamed the God Particle.  This elusive critter remains unidentified and if verified will fill important gaps in our understanding of how the universe works.  There are scientists that are agnostic or atheist and others that are people of faith.  In the work of science they write with passion and sometimes beauty but their work is careful to avoid any sense of metaphysics or philosophy, not seeking answers to the questions of faith and the like.  As I read this material I am fascinated by its beauty but I also realise that something is missing.  It can feel dry and a little remote from me and my life and who I am.  I am more than a bunch of atoms and molecules at the whim of forces that are variously described by science.  I am more than a series of chemical reactions or biological processes.  I am more than a logical series of events, reactions and physical dynamics proceeding according to the laws of the universe.  I am, of course, all of this but not this alone.

As I sat on the park bench and pondered I thought about the complex emotions involved in our relationships and the reactions we have to each other.  I listened to bird sound and watched dogs romp, play and chase each other, interacting with each other and the humans watching on.  These observations touched me and affected me at some non-physical level.  As I looked at the grass and the dirt and soil I realised that in some mysterious but very real way I am related to that matter.  The atoms and molecules that make up our bodies has been part of the earth and universe for millennia.  The water I drank this morning has been in rivers, oceans, clouds, industrial systems, other humans and animals for many, many years.  The relationship is deeper, than just sharing molecules and atoms.  I am connected and dependent upon other parts of the universe for my life and being, my existence.  When I do something here in my miniscule corner of the earth there are implications for other places and people.  I don’t exist in isolation from everything else and I can’t separate myself away from everything and everyone.

As I sat and pondered I thought about the words I’d read earlier from Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 (2 of this week’s readings).  Both are about creation and both are Hebrew poetry filled with beauty, wonder and relational joy.  In the Genesis story, the ‘Seven Days of Creation,’ there is this beautiful infolding of creative expression.  Everything flows out from the creative Word expressed by God.  This poetic account is often ruined when it is either compared to science or taken literally as an historical, scientific account.  Neither does justice to the beauty, wonder and truth that this beautiful poem expresses.  In it we hear of God who is the very source and essence of life and being, who holds all things in relational grace and love (‘In God we live and move and have our being,’ says Paul in Acts 17).   I imagined a universe exploding into wondrous existence as God dreamed and spoke – the Big Bang of Divine Love at the heart of all things.  I imagined an expanding universe bursting with possibility and potential.  I imagined the quiet of chaos and the gentle wind of God’s Spirit hovering with creative intent until order and beauty sprang forth.  I imagined the waters and land finding their place under the dome of the sky, with stars and planets in their orbits and flight.  I imagined the daily rhythms of night and day and the steady flourishing of plants and vegetation.  Then sea creatures in the vast depths moving onto land in the forms of ancient beasts and reptiles.  Birds grew their wings and took flight and animals of great diversity found their place on the dry earth.  I thought of the interactions, the web of life that holds everything in relationship and provides order and diversity.  I pondered the beauty and danger of humans entering this complex web and the potential for the great imbalance if greed, power and abuse take too great a hold on these delicate systems of beauty and wonder.

I imagined God gleefully enjoying the beauty and surprises of creation.  Puppies licking, kittens meowing, and the joy of people loving each other and sharing life, enjoying the wonder and living peacefully with one another and God.  I pondered that God is love and holds everything in love and grace – whether we appreciate that or reject it.  What a beautiful story, a wonderful poem and a gracious God at the heart of all things!

By geoffstevenson

Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things!

There is a story in Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled that tells the following story:

A thirty-five year old remarkably successful businessman came to see me because of a mild neurosis.  He was born illegitimate, and through infancy and early childhood was raised solely by his mother who was both deaf and dumb, in the slums of Chicago. When he was five the state, believing that no such mother was competent to raise a child, took him away without warning or explanation and placed him in a succession of three foster homes, where he was treated to rather routine indignities and with a  total absence of affection.  At the age of fifteen he became partially paralysed as a result of a rupture of a congenital aneurysm of one of the blood vessels in his brain. At sixteen he left his final set of foster parents and began living by himself.  Predictably, at the age of seventeen he was jailed for a particularly vicious and meaningless assault.  He received no psychiatric treatment in jail.

Upon his release, after six months of boring confinement, the authorities got him a job as a menial stock-room clerk in a rather ordinary company.  No psychiatrist or social worker in the world would have foreseen his future as anything but grim.  Within three years, however, he had become the youngest department head in the history of the company.  In five years, after marrying another executive, he left the company and eventually succeeded in his own business, becoming a relatively wealthy man.  By the time he entered treatment with me he had in addition become a loving and effective father, a self-educated intellectual, a community leader and an accomplished artist.  How, when, why, where did all of this come about?  Within the ordinary concepts of causality, I do not know.  Together we were able to trace with exactitude, within the normal framework of cause and effect, the determinants of his mild neurosis and heal him.  We were not able in the slightest degree determine the origins of his unpredictable successes.\

Scott Peck goes on to discuss the mystery of people’s lives.  Why do some people cope with incredible set-backs in life?  How do all of us deal with the traumas and trials life throws up, the ordinary and extraordinary experiences of life?  He speaks of a ‘force’ that seems to operate routinely in most people to protect and nurture reasonable mental health through their life.  As his discussion continues he points to the mystery of grace in people’s lives.  As a scientist (psychiatrist) he can’t define grace or this mysterious force operating on people in more complete terms.  He can’t describe what it is, how it works or why it does what it does.  He can only marvel that what shouldn’t happen, so often does happen and something seems to lie behind it, regardless of people’s faith or belief systems.  This thing he calls ‘grace’ doesn’t reside only within those who profess a particular faith or type of faith but is revealed across the human race.

When Peck begins to speak as a person of faith he understand this mysterious force arising from the source of life, of all being – that which we call God.  He quotes the well-known hymn, Amazing Grace and points to this beautiful hymn’s words as the mystery that pervades human life and works in people’s lives even when we are not aware of it.  Through grace, ordinary people do extraordinary things!

Peck’s discussion remains more psychological that theological but often moves between the two.  When I read the story of the man and heard from his psychiatrist that there is no logical explanation for his well-being, but some deep and mysterious in the human spirit that arises from beyond and works with and through to bring well-being, I thought of the story that will be read through churches across the world this Sunday.  It is called the story of Pentecost because it takes place at the Jewish Festival of Pentecost – the Festival of Weeks (a weeks of weeks after Passover – our Easter).

The story speaks of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem waiting for something to happen, the promise of Jesus, whatever that might be.  As they read and prayed the room they were in was filled with wind and tongues like fire appeared around and over them and they began to speak in other languages.  It is a wonderful, provocative story.  It has fostered all manner of expectation in religious communities as people live in expectation of this story happening in their lives now.  Sometime we literalise these stories so much that we miss the vital points and power they offer.  There are so many levels and layers to this story that, for the early church, take them to a new place.  For the church of Luke, writing in the 80’s of the 1st century, it is a powerful story to drive them in confident hope that God has not abandoned them and left them alone in the big, scary, violent world.  The little church, represented by a relatively small group of followers is filled with the power of God’s Spirit that comes like wind, blowing where it will, or fire that purifies.  The story is in some ways a reversal of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 where people sought to build a tower into the heavens where God(s) to become gods in themselves.  In that story it is said that God confused the languages and dispersed the people across the earth.  In the Pentecost story all the world hears God’s love proclaimed in the language of their heart and passion.  The little church in encouraged to proclaim God’s love to all the world!

Hidden within the story is the wonderful mystery of ordinary, even afraid and weak, people overcoming their vulnerabilities and fear and standing strong in the world.  They speak out in courageous ways of how God’s love is revealed in and through people’s lives.  They witness to the life and love of God revealed in Jesus and his ministry of compassion, inclusion, justice and peace.  They become the people they can be rather than being diminished by fear and uncertainty.  These ordinary men and women begin to do extraordinary things because they are suddenly open and embracing this mysterious force that comes upon them and works in and through them.  This mysterious force we call the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit that is creative and nurturing.  This is the Spirit that hovered over the chaos in the beginning and brought order; the Spirit that breathed into the people formed from dust and animated them into life.  This is the Spirit of God that permeates our world and being with creative power and love.  This is the power that moves people to deeper love and compassion, acts of mercy and justice, reconciliation and peacemaking.  This is the power of God that is not coercive but invitational, nurturing, comforting and grounded in the deepest, purest love.  This is the love of God that holds all things in deep relationship and animates all life.

When we are open through whatever means to this powerful force love, we are lifted to new possibilities in love, grace, peace, justice, inclusion and reaching out to each other as a community of hope in the world.  The man in the story embraced the potential of love that was in him and grew in his capacity to be a loving and loved human being!

By geoffstevenson