Conformation or Transformation

I am not as well-travelled as many people these days.  Susan and I have been to a few of the Pacific Islands and experienced the towns and cities (and islands) of Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Tonga.  It is an interesting and often confronting to walk amongst people of a very different culture and whose lives are so very different – especially in terms of economics.

I have ‘travelled’ into the lives and places of various other people through hearing their stories and experiencing them as people who are different from myself.  I have sat with and listened to people who live with a variety of mental illnesses and heard how their lives are challenged and how they often perceive the world differently.  I remember hearing the story of a young man who lived with schizophrenia.  He was sitting in the office of a social worker who was providing assistance.  She took out a pen and pressed the button on the end to expose the writing point and make some notes.  As she held it up and flicked the end with her thumb, he dived under the desk.  After a moment or two he re-emerged a little sheepishly and apologised.  The social worker wasn’t phased, just curious and asked what was happening for him.  He told her that when she pulled the pen out he didn’t see a pen but a laser gun and dived for cover.  They then had an interesting conversation about how he often interpreted things so very differently and saw the world differently from other people.  The social worker realised why many of the great authors, composer, artists and poets have lived with mental illness.  They create out of perceptions of the world that are different and challenge how the rest of us see life,

I remember sitting with some indigenous ministers and church leaders and hearing their story, so different from mine.  I was amazed at how differently they viewed life and the world.  I was enlightened about how they had experienced Anglo culture and how it had dominated them and their people and how powerless some of them felt against the power of Western culture.  They shared how they understood the world in which they lived and it was not only fascinating but illuminating and insightful.  I felt that I/we could learn a great deal.

I have travelled with people into the world of West Papua, our nearest neighbours.  I have experienced the world and lives of some of the indigenous people there, oppressed and persecuted by a foreign power and outside corporate interests who treat them as if they don’t exist and don’t matter.  I have vicariously experienced their simple and difficult lives without most of what I take for granted – plentiful nutritious food, clean water, a secure home, clothing, healthcare, education and the freedom to live my life peacefully and well.  I have been moved by their lack, along with their gratitude for simple things, basic things I take for granted.  Through their stories and those of people who have lived with them, I have seen into their world and ‘visited’ their lives.

Through news media and good journalism I have seen into the horror of places like Syria, Sudan and Sub-Saharan Africa.  I have been taken into places that are so very different and difficult, places that challenge the very reality of the world as I know it.  As I sit with these images and experiences, these stories and the people at their centre, I am challenged and changed, confronted and transformed.  It can’t help but be so.  When we move out of our own framework of experience and look through a different lens in an unfamiliar and different place, we cannot help but to be changed.

In our Gospel reading this week (Matthew 16:13-20) we hear the story of Jesus walking north from Capernaum on the edge of the lake in Galilee to Caesarea Philippi.  This ancient city had been through various transformations and had previously been known as Paneas (and is today known as Banias), after the Greek God Pan, who was the deity worshipped in this place.  There is a grotto and spring that was a sacred place dedicated to Pan.  There is also an escarpment out of which niches were carved and offerings placed to honour Pan.  The city was remodelled the city and named it in honour of Emperor Caesar Augustus.  In order to distinguish it from Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, ‘Philippi’ was added – after Philip the King of the region.  He used this as his administrative centre.

Jesus and his followers walked the 40 or so kilometres to this city of political and religious significance.  It represented everything different from Jesus and the Jewish faith they practiced.  Caesarea Philippi was charged with religious and political fervour that was in stark contrast to Jesus and the way he proclaimed.  In the midst of this challenging, confronting city that represented the power and diverse religious life of the Empire, Jesus asked his followers who people thought him to be.  They responded with some of the typical themes – John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet returned…  ‘So,’ said Jesus, ‘Who do you say that I am?’

This is a central question that moves us beyond a conversation about who Jesus is or isn’t into pondering which world we will believe and choose.  Peter, on behalf of the disciples declared that Jesus was the Messiah, Son of the Living God.  This was an affirmation that contained a deep truth but was also open to common interpretation.  The Messiah was expected to be one from God who would lead a rebellion against Rome and restore God’s nation, God’s people through military might and power.  That said, Jesus stood amidst the very signs of Roman power and Greek religion.  In this foreign place his disciples were asked which world they would choose, which truth, which values, which way.  Would they stand with Rome and the traditions of the Greek world?  Would they chose the ways of secular power and might?  Would they stand in the ways of the status quo and the stories that defined the Roman world?  Would they believe the truth the echoed through the public discourse and Roman Imperial Religion?  Or, would they hear a different voice, one that emerged from the vulnerable places and silence of prayer and the traditions of their faith?  Would they believe in the alternative story of Jesus, one of justice, love, mercy, peace and hope?  Would they seek this way and live their lives in a transformed way or would they conform to power, might and popular opinion?

This is the challenge I feel when confronted by the people and stories that emerge from places outside the dominant culture I experience in public discourse, general media, political debate and corporate visions.  When I listen to the story beneath the story, the story of people in different places wrestling with the realities of life that are tough and challenging, I am challenged to respond differently, not to be conformed to the world as I mostly know it but to be transformed into a way of life and being that challenges the status quo and believes in the way of Jesus grounded in love, justice and peace.

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By geoffstevenson

The Content of Character Over Colour of Skin!

These words from Martin Luther King jr’s famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 have rung loudly in my ears of late: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they are judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I wonder what it would look like if the policies of the USA (or Australia or any other nation!) were built around the content of character rather than the colour of skin – or religious tradition or social status or political or other ideology or sexuality or gender or age or ethnic background or culture or…?  I wonder how our parliament would be different if politicians looked at the content and quality of character rather than other attributes.  I wonder how the corporate world might change if content of character were a more decisive quality in leadership and decision-making than other motivators.  What might a corporation that was more concerned about the content of its corporate character as a just, fair, community-minded entity, rather than profit, power or prestige look like?

As I ponder these words of King’s I know that they confront me and challenge my own prejudices.  They push me to ask questions of myself and how I respond to various images and stories I see on social media, the mainstream news and current affairs or in popular culture.  How do I respond to the plebiscite issue that has gained much attention lately?  How do I think about the people involved?  Is there a ‘content of character’ perspective or is it all about ideology?  Where would questions regarding content of character lead me?  Am I willing to go there and experience the ‘content of character’ of people who are involved in the debate?

I ponder the extraordinary scenes in parliament yesterday when Pauline Hanson appeared in full burka during question time.  I am not sure what she was really thinking and why she took this path.  It is clear that Muslims worry her, as they do a lot of Australians.  I suppose that we hear about ISIS and Islamic terrorism and that plays into the fears and uncertainty we have about the world.  She raises security issues about the burka and they need to be considered in the current context but there is something more in Hanson’s rhetoric and ideology.  She quite clearly has judged the people who are different on the basis of skin colour, ethnicity, religion, language and a range of other attributes, including dress and presents them as different and dangerous.  I wonder how the ‘content of their character’ criteria informs  Pauline Hanson and others like her.  I wonder whether she has sat and chatted to Muslim women.  I have had the opportunity to sit with particular Muslim men and women and found them to be genuinely faithful and spiritual people.  We hold different religious views but all seek a better world of peace and justice.  I am sure that not all who claim the name ‘Muslim’ are as peaceable and compassionate as those I have met.  Certainly not all who act in the name ‘Christian’ are gracious, just, loving people – the Royal Commission has shown us the truth of this!  In fact not all people whether religious, atheist, English-speaking or other ethnicity, ideology… are loving, peaceful people.  We are all different and every creed, culture and people group has a mix of personalities and character traits.  So I wonder whom Pauline Hanson is really attacking and why?  Would Australia be instantly safer and a better place if we banned all Muslims or people of other religions or language or colour or sexuality or…?  Obviously not!  There are people of good character who work tirelessly for the common good and well-being of society from all backgrounds, cultures and contexts.  There are also Australians of Anglo background, white ‘Christian’ etc whose content of character leaves much to be desired.

This week, in the Gospel reading (Matthew 15:10-28), Jesus speaks to his followers and indicates that it isn’t the stuff we put into our mouths that defiles us and renders us unclean, but what comes out of mouth, action and attitude.  What we do is far more compelling than what we eat, drink, take in.  For Jesus’ Jewish culture, there were various laws, dietary and otherwise, that defined people as ‘clean or unclean’.  These were about holiness and rightness before God.  Various foods were considered unclean and contaminated the body if eaten.  Various forms of illness, dress, work, lifestyle also defined people as clean or unclean.  There were also barriers between cultures that separated people and kept them pure from the contamination brought by those who were different – Jews didn’t associate easily with Gentiles (non-Jews), for example.

Clean and Unclean were categories – then and now.  We have various food outlets that provide Halal food, which is required by particular religious cultures including Jews and Muslims.  For them, the manner in which food is prepared from the slaughter onwards can render that food clean and acceptable or unclean and unacceptable, defiling to the body.  Codes of dress and standards in other areas of life are also elements of such practice.  Whilst most of us from Anglo background feel confused by this and regard it as unnecessary, we have our own particular codes that are render a person ‘in or out’ in terms of societal acceptance.  There are various barriers that exist to exclude various people and protect those inside from those outside.  Women know how difficult it is for them to break through in various professions and be seen as equals.  Pay and other benefits are often less for women than men in similar situations.  Sexuality, gender, age all have their own sets of barriers.  Sometimes young people cannot get a toe hold into an organisation or profession and sometimes it is the older generation who feel excluded.  Sometimes we discriminate on dress, expecting suits and ties or other particular forms of dress code.  There are myriad ways in which we restrict others from accessing that which we want to hang onto or control or exclusively benefit from, whether as individuals, organisations and corporations or as a nation.  We readily exclude some and welcome others and we use particular rules, taboos, cultural norms and expectations, language, colour… to do it.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus there is a movement towards Jesus opening God’s Reign to all people and welcoming all into the grace of God, regardless of background, culture, creed or colour.  The stories of previous weeks include the inclusive feeding of all gathered.  This was in Jewish territory but in chapters to come we will hear about another inclusive feeding story that welcomes people from all over the world.  The story of Jesus is very challenging at this point because it is an open, inclusive welcoming of everybody.  It is about the content of character rather than outward appearance.  It is about building that content of character, grounded in love and justice, in all people.  It is about all of us coming together with our diversity of being, experience, belief, hope, despair, struggle, joy and learning to live together in love, compassion, peace, justice and hope – in God!

By geoffstevenson

When the Sea Threatens, Will We Find Faith?

Have you ever looked down into deep water?  I remember standing on the top deck of a cruise ship in the Pacific.  There was nothing around but endless water and sky.  There was no sign of other life beyond that in the ship.  When the sun blazed and the breeze was light the water reflected the light and looked inviting and cooling.  On an occasion when the greys grew grey and the wind blew up, rain threatened and the sea began to roll.  ‘Frolicsome,’ I think the captain suggested as the ship rolled and rocked on the growing swell.  Walking along the decks became more difficult and people’s stomachs lurched – there were fewer people gathering around meals.

I stood for a bit on the top deck and looked down into the dark, cold water.  Gone was the friendly, gentle and inviting persona of the sea.  In its place was a lurking, threatening violence.  Reflected in the depths was danger and warning, threat and the cold, raw power of the sea.  This sea was like another world, with its own deep powers and violence.  It is a place that I do not belong.  Sailing over the surface is wonderful, especially if it is in relative comfort.  In fact it is exhilarating and feels renewing, like being in a wilderness where the world closes in.  The realities of the world fade and whilst there are people around, I can withdraw and have no news of the wider world.  There is minimal contact with the outside world and I am left alone with myself and my own life’s hopes, fears and search for meaning.

When the wind blows up, however, there is another side to the quiet, Pacific Ocean and doesn’t seem so pacific or kind.  There is the lurking threat, the warning that there is power here I cannot control.  I imagine what it might be like to fall into this sea and flounder amidst the waves that rock, roll, twist and rush past with the rapid currents.  I wonder what it would be like to feel the pull of the ocean dragging me this or that way and probably down into the depths where humans cannot and do not survive.  I imagine myself small, helpless and at the mercy of these alien powers to do with me what they will.  It is a scary thought to imagine and I am glad to be standing on this solid structure high above the waves and I trust that it will endure these winds and waves and lead me into calmer, gentler waters and life preserved but more aware of my own vulnerability, dependence upon powers beyond my control or even capacity to truly understand.

This image of being on the sea in a storm has been used in many ways to imagine the struggles of our lives.  We feel ‘all at sea’ or caught in the turbulence and storms of life.  We are ‘blown off course’ or caught in the raging waters of change or crisis.  As I look into these deep dark waters they reflect the harsh side of life, the stresses, challenges and threats that sometimes overwhelm me.  When I am caught in crises I am thrown off balance.  I feel pushed and propelled in all directions under forces that seem beyond me and sometimes beyond life.  I feel like a small vessel in a huge, mountainous sea that threatens my very existence.  I am small and vulnerable, weak before the strength of mysterious powers that rock life or threaten stability and well-being.  Sometimes there are forces within our bodies that generate illness in ways that seem foreign and dangerous, waging war against our very being.  Sometimes the crisis arises between people who stand against one another and the conflict escalates and builds into something that draws others into its insatiable vortex.  Sometimes the powers of the world wage war on the vulnerable and powerless, the little ones of the earth, and I feel caught in the helplessness to defend justice and protect the vulnerable.  Anger and rage rises within me but I am still helpless to change or stand against such power alone.

Life is filled with the very dangers and uncertainties that threaten each of us in profound or more moderate ways.  Life has implicit dangers and risks and we sometimes find ourselves in the raging waves or turbulent seas being pushed and pulled through grief, shame, illness, unemployment, conflict, injustice, violence, abuse and the ensuing confusion and disillusionment.  Life is a very small boat on a very big sea, often at the whim of forces we cannot see and do not fully understand.

This week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14:22-33) holds this powerful image before us.  This story comes after Jesus engaged a large crowd and sharing in the food of body, mind and spirit that flows from the Reign of God, giving life and hope through God’s inclusive community of love and grace.  He sent the people away to their homes and then the disciples were dispatched to cross the lake (‘Sea’ of Galilee) while he went into the mountains to pray.  Through the night a storm blew up as is common on the lake.  The little boat of the disciples began to be thrown around in the waves.  The winds and waves threatened the life of these disciples crossing the sea to engage the dangerous and foreign world beyond their region and side of the lake.  They were venturing into an unknown mission field ‘across the lake’ – on the other side of life.

When we walk in the way of Jesus, the way of love and justice, we will face storms and resistance from the powers that be, the status quo who will fight for all their worth.  When we reach out to love and offer care of challenge for justice there comes a point where it is all too much for the powers that be because their very existence is threatened or challenged and they no longer remain quiet or passive.  Think of people like Martin Luther King Jr who stood for truth, justice and love but was resisted by the powers that be until they killed him and threatened the movement.  There are many other examples of people standing for truth or justice or reaching out in love and grace to people in crisis or who are vulnerable and find themselves resisted, rejected and in conflict with raging powers of the world around, a status quo that is fighting back – the Empire strikes back!

In this little story of Matthew, Jesus wanders across to the disciples in their boat and engenders more fear and confusion as they think him a ghost.  He calls to them from beyond the waves and wind, beyond the boat and they are amazed for the presence of Jesus comes to them in the midst of this crisis.  Peter asks if he should come to Jesus and he is invited to get out and ‘Come!’ Peter takes a step or two and them hears wind and waves, the power of the forces acting upon the boat and his fear overwhelms him and he begins to sink.  O how we sink as fear, tiredness, frustration and hopelessness overwhelm us.  We sink into the mire of despair or depression.  We sink beneath the waves and feel we are drowning.  Jesus reached out to Peter and held his arm.  They got into the boat and all was calm.  The powers that threatened the boat no longer had power or threatened the lives of the disciples.  This Divine Presence brought calm and broke through fear, doubt and despair to open the space for belief as trust and the courage to persevere, to act and to walk with Jesus into the future that opens up before them.  Will we trust this God?

By geoffstevenson

When There Is Enough For All and All Are Equal…

There is nothing so simultaneously strange and wonderful as the traditional, so-called ‘pot luck church dinner’.  It is a common enough event where everyone brings some food to share.  People bring as they are able, both in terms of capability and cost.  There are those for whom life is a bit tight and bring something simpler.  Others love to cook and bake up a storm.  Others have little time and buy something nice to share.

The thing with pot luck dinners is you never know what is going to turn up.  You can’t control the menu nor even predict it.  Sometimes there is more dessert than main course and other times nibbles – crackers and dip… – dominate.  Sometimes there is a balance between the salads and hot food and often not.  Sometimes there is more finger food and other times stews, soups, rice and so on are the go.  It is always a lottery what you will get and whether it all complements each other or not.

The wonderful thing about these dinners is the mystery and surprise at what people bring.  It is also the equalising potential of these meals.  Everyone is welcome and invited to contribute or not.  At the table everyone is equal and shares equally in the food regardless of what is brought.  At these meals there have been wealthy, powerful and successful people sitting alongside the poor, vulnerable and struggling and everyone in between.  At this table no one is better, worse, greater or least.  All are one and there is always enough to go round regardless of how many turn up – this is one of the true miracles that enough food is always provided regardless of who turns up and how hungry they are!!.

This mysterious kaleidoscope of food varieties serves as the backdrop for sharing and relationship.  Over the meal an equally rich variety of conversations takes place.  They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.  There are deep conversations about issues that are tough.  There are funny stories that bring raucous laughter.  There are surprising revelations from people’s lives, unknown but revealed in a trusting, open environment.  These simple but profound meals often seem bizarre and odd but they are a deeply and profoundly significant metaphor for how the world could work – if only we learned to share, love, trust and be inclusive.  At their best these are open, inclusive, welcoming places where food and drink flow freely and are devoured joyfully, a foretaste of the banquet in God’s Reign.

There are many occasions when food and drink feature as a central and fundamental basis for community and relationships.  They help us talk, celebrate, remember, laugh and cry together.  We sit side by side sharing stories as we fill our mouths.  We receive the nourishment of food for the body but share in relational experiences that nurture our emotional well-being. In our midst God is present in the mystery and wonder, as we eat and drink together, breaking bread as a form of communion (Holy Communion, as it is usually called).  Several years ago when Susan was working at Parramatta Mission and used to visit the soup kitchen they ran, a woman sat down and began to talk to her.  The woman said, at one point, ‘Since coming to the kitchen over the last few months, I have begun to feel much better within myself.  I’m not sure whether this is because I am getting a good meal each day or because I have people around me to talk to. Perhaps it is both?’  Food and people together around a table feeds our body, mind and spirit.

For me this is a wonderful vision of hope for our world.  If more people gathered around meals of shared food and drink, with stories and relationships, tears and laughter, in an inclusive, open manner, the world would be a more hopeful and peaceful place.  There would be more understanding as the sharing of food and relationships across the divides and differences between people unifies and deepens awareness, trust and understanding.  Imagine if we could meet those we least understand or even fear over a table of food each has provided?  Imagine if we could have a safe place to listen, share and learn together about the world and its mysteries and wonder.  Imagine if we had a space where love overwhelmed difference, fear and uncertainty and brought us together in a manner that celebrated the equality and uniqueness of each person.

This week the story of Jesus (Matthew 14:13-21) comes after he receives the bad news of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod, the local king.  Jesus went off into a quiet place to grieve, pray and think.  There were crowds of ordinary people who were needed the grace and healing of Jesus’ ministry and they followed him.  Feeling a sense of compassion and connection he spoke with them and provided a healing presence in their lives.  As the day wore on the disciples expressed their concern for the people and suggested that Jesus send them to local villages to purchase food for themselves.  There was a huge crowd and they couldn’t begin to provide food.

This is a metaphor for us and our world.  There are many crying out for something.  They hurt or have need or are weary and troubled.  They need to be fed something that nourishes their being and fills the deep need in their lives.  The need is great, vast and beyond what we know we can do.  Where to begin in this large, weary, hurting world?

In the story, Jesus told his disciples to help the people and they were surprised, stunned and afraid because it was an enormous task beyond their capacity.  So Jesus took what they had and gave thanks, broke it and gave it out to the people.   Everyone ate and was satisfied.  This story is about God’s love and grace that reaches out to the world in practical ways to nourish, feed, nurture and give life to all.  The image is of a world that has great and diverse need gathered around the table of God sharing food together.  There is enough food for everyone and it restores body, mind and spirit.  The healing and hope lie in being part of the inclusive community where everyone is welcomed, equal and loved.  The food is physical, emotional and spiritual.  It is relational and trusting, open and respectful, caring and compassionate.

This story holds the image of a world that comes together and learns to respect, care, trust and be compassionate towards each other.  Around this table there is no-one who is greater nor least.  All are equal though different and diverse.  There is enough for everyone and no-one has too much.  Those who have too much in ordinary life, share with those who have too little so that all have enough.  Instead of people competing with one another and using violent means to gain more, we find a place where we are satisfied and recognise the importance of relationships over material wealth.  Life becomes a shared and communal experience where we look out for one another and care for the earth and its creatures.  This is a picture of God’s grace that sustains the creation and provides sufficient for a hungry world.  In our midst is God’s mystery, wonder and grace.

By geoffstevenson