Gratitude or Complaining???

The following comes from an email I received some time ago:

A group of graduates, well established in their careers, were talking at a reunion and decided to go visit their old university professor, now retired.  During their visit, the conversation turned to complaints about stress in their work and lives.  Offering his guests hot chocolate, the professor went into the kitchen and returned with a large pot of hot chocolate and an assortment of cups – porcelain, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite – telling them to help themselves to the hot chocolate.

When they all had a cup of hot chocolate in hand, the professor said: ‘Notice that all the nice-looking, expensive cups were taken, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones.  While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress.  The cup that you’re drinking from adds nothing to the quality of the hot chocolate.  In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink.

What all of you really wanted was hot chocolate, not the cup; but you consciously went for the best cups.  And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.

Now consider this: Life is the hot chocolate; your job, money and position in society are the cups.  They are just tools to hold and contain life. The cup you have does not define, nor change the quality of life you have.  Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the hot chocolate God has provided us.’

God makes the hot chocolate, people choose the cups.

The happiest people don’t have the best of everything;
they just make the best of everything that they have.

Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly.
And enjoy your hot chocolate!!

I thought of this email when I read 2 of the Bible readings for this week.  The first is from Exodus 16:2-15 and speaks of the Hebrew people who have just been liberated from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  They are on a journey to the ‘Promised Land’ but have to wander through the wilderness to get there.  It is hard and they struggle.  It is testing and formative and it requires their faith and trust in God to grow. The people become overwhelmed, tired and stressed and they complain; they complain bitterly!  Life is hard, now.  It was difficult In Egypt, being slaves and all, but there was some degree of routine, structure and certainty.  Now they are reliant on God’s provision and have lost a degree of control – they complained!  In the Gospel reading (Matthew 20:1-16) there is another story that ends in complaining.  Jesus told a parable where a vineyard owner went out early in the morning to hire labourers to work for the day.  This was a common event.  Available workers seeking work to feed their families, would wait in a public space and landowners would go and hire the ones they wanted.  The landowner agreed with them regarding how much he would pay for the day’s work.  After a couple of hours, he went back and hired more and then again two more times through the day.  At the end of the day he called the workers together and gave each the same amount of money – those who worked a short time earned the same as those who worked all day.  The latter were angry and complained that they ought to receive more.  The landowner asked if they had received their agreed amount?  They had.  If he wanted to be gracious and generous to the others then that was his business!

This is a story about God’s Realm, which is gracious and just.  Those employed late in the day were the weaker, older or less-abled workers.  They would often not get work and when they did, might only earn small amounts.  In God’s economy, all are able to have enough and all are able to receive what they need.

Never-the-less, there is complaining!  There are echoes of this complaining all around us.  ‘Aboriginal people get too much money; too many handouts…’  ‘Single mothers are only in it for the money.’  ‘She only has kids to claim the benefits.’  ‘They don’t deserve housing as they don’t treat anything with respect.’  ‘If you work hard you will get somewhere and have more than enough.’  ‘There’s no point giving money to developing nations because it is wasted and misused by greedy leaders…’  There may be an element of truth in some of these stories.  Everyone has an example, a story (apocryphal or true?) where they can point to someone doing the ‘wrong thing’ and so we complain.  Question: Who would change places with any of these groups or people?  I’ve never met anyone who complained about these things who actually believes that the situations these people live in is so good they would change places!  So, why the complaining?  Why do we complain about programs etc that try to help other people?  Are we like the workers in the vineyard who have good jobs and earn sufficient money but always look for more or want to stand above others?  How do we respond to those around us who complain?  Will we/they ever be satisfied?

What is it we actually want – the hot chocolate or the cup from which we drink it?  Or both?  Do we enjoy things more because we have the best?  Do we find ourselves wanting to ‘keep others in their place’ so that we feel better about ourselves and our own status?

Are we able to let go of the cup and enjoy the hot chocolate whatever it comes in?  Can we understand that it is the drinking together and sharing joy and life, that is ultimately important?  Can we understand that in God’s economy, no-one should have too much and no-one too little.  Those who have a greater ability to earn and accumulate have a responsibility to share with those who cannot earn or do not have enough.  It sounds odd and, for some, unfair, until we get to the point of realising that having the best cup will not make us happy and content.  It is having the hot chocolate that is the important thing and it always tastes better when others share it with us.

The Hebrew people in the Exodus story didn’t realise that all they had to do was to let go of their need to be in control and trust in God.  Everyday food came.  It lasted for the day then disappeared – they couldn’t accumulate it.  If only they lifted their heads, were thankful for what they had and could trust in the God who led them, they might not have complained!

What about you and I?  Can we trust God, be grateful and satisfied?  Can we live life and enjoy it with gratitude and delight for the wonderful gift it is?

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By geoffstevenson

How Many Times…?

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they’re forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind ,the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

How many times must a man look up

Before he can see the sky?

Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows

That too many people have died?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind ,the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist

Before it’s washed to the sea?

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist

Before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head,

Pretending he just doesn’t see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind ,the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

I thought of this song through the week and it made me think – the  raw and rough voice of Bob Dylan, the six string acoustic guitar and the harmonica.  It’s it is over 50 years old but the questions linger – How long?  How much?  When will we awaken?

Earlier this week the anniversary of ‘9/11’ crept up upon me.  Everyone calls it ‘9/11’ so I forget it is September 11, and was reminded of the horrific evil perpetrated on the World Trade Towers in New York, 16 years ago.

I remember reading the Sydney Morning Herald on the anniversary some years after the event and within a brief article read these words:

Americans have marked the seventh anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks with a heartfelt ceremony at Ground Zero and other solemn remembrances around the country to honour the 3000 who died in the strikes that led to two wars…

…”Today marks the seventh anniversary of the day our world was broken,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the start of the ceremony, calling September 11, 2001 a “day that began like any other and ended as none ever has”…

…The attacks, claimed by al-Qaeda, paved the way for President George W Bush – then less than a year into his first term – to launch an attack against Afghanistan, where the terror group’s leader Osama bin Laden was hiding.
They also served as justification for the attack on Iraq, which led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime…

I was surprised by the mayor’s words, as I have with similar sentiments expressed over the years. Many try to suggest that September 11, 2001, changed the world; that after this attack, nothing would be the same again.  I suppose that it changed many people’s perceptions – especially in the US. But did it change the world?  Terrorism has been part of the world’s affairs for centuries. One of Jesus’ disciples was a terrorist.  Simon the Zealot was one of the Jewish guerrilla fighters who were set upon fighting the Romans and inhabited the hill country surrounding Jerusalem to engage in warfare with their oppressors.

Dylan’s song rang through my ponderings of September 11 with prophetic resonance.  How many times must the cannon ball’s fly before they’re forever banned?  How many ears do we need before we can hear the cries of people?  How many deaths are too many?  How much oppression is too much?  How long before we can choose freedom for all people?  How long will we continue to choose warfare and conflict, bombs and guns over peace and compassion.  The US have sacrificed more young men and women (most from poor and disadvantaged communities) in the ‘war against terror’ than died in the terrorist attacks!  The economy of the US has been under immense strain as they have tried to sustain the war effort in Iraq.  Incredible amounts of money have been spent daily – for what? In 2003, the US military budget was $2 billion a day. In 2006, the US military budget was larger than the next 25 nations combined!  A mere 10% of the US military budget, reinvested in foreign aid and development, could care for the basic needs of the entire world’s poor!

How many times must cannon balls fly?  How many deaths?  How many cries?  How much suffering?  What has been achieved by the ‘war on Terror’?  We now have ISIS, Kim Jong-Un, the Syrian crisis, along with the myriad ways people use violence against one another.

Surely it’s time to listen. Surely it is time to stop the rampant warfare and listen. We could begin by listening to the stories of those who have seen warfare and fought the wars of Australia. A wander through the Australian War Memorial and a few conversations with war veterans have convinced me more than any other arguments that war is not an answer. It only ever results in increased suffering and pain, death and misery. Meanwhile, the other issues of the world where people suffer poverty, disease, poor access to clean water, education etc, continue on. The wars that are worth engaging in have to do with justice, the care of the earth and creating peace and hope amongst the human community.

These are the things that Jesus called (and calls) us to. He spoke about the courage to engage in peace and resolve conflicts through grace and listening, compassion, mercy, understanding and justice. He stopped to listen to why people were doing what they did and challenged them to live in other ways. He met their most desperate needs and opened the possibility of a new way.

Perhaps we might ask why there are terrorists?  Why do young people act out in various anti-social ways?  Why are there angry and violent people in our community?  Why do many people appear ungrateful for the ‘handouts’ they receive and what do they really feel?  Why do people get caught up in addictive lifestyles and what are the underlying needs that drive them?  How many times must people, through their words and behaviours, cry out before they are heard? We may not want to hear what they say but perhaps we need to – only then can we find solutions that lead us towards peace and hope.  Listening, love and understanding will achieve more than guns!

By geoffstevenson

The Courage and Wisdom to Love Deeply

I recently read the story of a minister.  After many years pastoring a congregation he moved into another leadership role and also moved to another state at the same time.  He wondered about his new relationship with the church and how it would look.  Would he want to go to church or need to go to church when he was no longer leading the congregation?  What would he look for in church now he wasn’t doing the preaching, leading or responsible for the well-being and so on of the congregation?

The results surprised him.  He realised that he not only wanted to go to church but needed it.  He needed a group of people with whom he could be vulnerable, a community to belong to and share life with.  He needed a place to go and be quiet before God with other people and then to share some active service of the community and world beyond the church.  When they settled into their new home, he and his wife set about finding a church, a community of faith that would allow them to belong and help them meet people, serve the community and listen to God.  They wanted a group of people who sought to live in the way of Jesus.  They stumbled onto a church that felt right for them relatively quickly.  It had a great interest in social justice, equality, inclusiveness and a range of ways people could belong, have fun and share life together.

The biggest surprise for this minister, however, was what he discovered he needed and wanted from church now he was more on the listening end of worship.  He wanted and needed encouragement and support to become a more loving person.  He realised that if he was to grow and follow Jesus with integrity he had to learn to engage as a loving human being before the world.  How would he love those who rejected him and his ideas?  How would he love those who were different and whom he was always told not to trust?  How would he love people who seemed ‘unlovable’ to the world around him, people who were difficult, disturbed, marginalised…?  Where would he learn to love other people more fully?  If it wasn’t in church, he wasn’t sure where it would or could be.

I remember thinking about this minister’s journey and recognised that being a more loving person is the most significant way of growing as a human being and living a richer life.  Love is the most powerful force for creating a better world.  It helps overcome fear and division, hatred and mistrust.  Love can transform people and groups in ways that little else can.  I remembered reading Martin Luther King jr’s words about love and how he constantly proclaimed the way of love (as the way of Jesus) within the Civil Rights Movement.  In the face of hatred, abuse and racism he urged his people to love!  He constantly told them to love the people who hated them; reject the things they did and the ideas that drove them – but always love the people.  He said that only love would transform the world and only love would win them freedom.  If they fought fire with fire and were violent back to those who abused and oppressed them they would descend into a cycle of hatred and violence that would only get worse.  He, like Gandhi and others, proved that love is the best, the only, way to bring peace and reconciliation.  They also warned that it takes greater courage to love than to hate, to not use violence than to resort to violence.  It takes incredible courage and love to be vulnerable before others, to stand before hatred and violence without retaliation and more violence.  This doesn’t mean being a door mat but to face oppressors and look them in the face; to call their violence and hatred for what it is and declare that whatever they do cannot stop us acting in love and resisting their beliefs and the injustice of their ways.

I find this a profound and challenging idea.  We need more courageous love.  We don’t need more weapons of mass destruction and violence.  It is those who lack imagination, courage and wisdom who reach for the gun and the bomb, the fist or club to react to those with whom they disagree or differ.  I too often find myself thinking or speaking of those who differ with me in unkind ways.  Such words and thoughts build barriers and it is easier to erect and maintain barriers than break them down.  It takes great energy and time to break down walls between people – the longer the enmity, the longer to break down barriers that have been reinforced over and over through the years of conflict and hatred.

As I ponder the ways of our society and many of its leaders I feel a deep sense of despair and grief as I hear leaders filled with such hatred, mistrust and so lacking in courage and insight that they reach immediately for threatening words, violent responses and the bombs that will fill enemies with fear and trembling.  People like Kim Jong-Un in North Korea is both dangerous and profoundly lacking in wisdom, courage and love.  He seeks power and threatens others.  Donald Trump is little better as he returns the rhetoric with interest.  He threatens to use the USA’s immense stockpile of nuclear weapons or to build a high wall between the US and Mexico to exclude the poor and desperate.  The civil war in Syria is affecting millions of people.  They are hurting, grieving and suffering immensely as both sides fight and kill.  What is achieved?  How does this deliver anything meaningful?  How many people must die?  (Is the answer Blowin’ In the Wind?).

This week’s readings (Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20) invite us to love each other.  In Romans, Paul echoes Jesus’ words that in loving each other we fulfil all God wants from us – if we really love one another – those we know and like and those we don’t!.  Love is absolutely central to our humanity and the common good and well-being of our society.  The only way to peace and life for all is through love.  In Matthew, Jesus invites us to make peace with one another.  Rather than invoke the law (or a gun…), when someone does something against you try talking it out.  If it works then you have peace and a friend.  If it doesn’t then try by taking some others with you and give it another crack.  In other words try and break down the barriers as best you can.  Listen, understand and seek to find a common ground that there may be peace.  No-one wins if you engage in out and out war?  Who gains if you both stand firm in stubborn refusal to reconcile and endure years of silent enmity?  Who gains and how is the world a better, fairer, more peaceful place if we hate one another, fight others, maintain rage and hostility?   How do we benefit when there are barriers between ourselves and others and how much energy does it take to maintain walls between us?

If I believe what I hear from most people we would prefer peace and reconciliation than fighting and conflict.  Most of us hate conflict and feel its capacity to drain us and hold us captive to its power.  It takes great courage and strong love to overcome our fear and anxiety in facing the ‘enemy’ we are in conflict with.  When we take the risk to engage one who is different we may discover a deeper truth about our mutual humanity.  We may discover the path of true peace and life – together.

By geoffstevenson

Liberated from Superficial Angst into New Life!

I gave our 2 dogs a bone each.  When I got the bones out, they came scrambling to me as fast as possible.  They dropped everything to get a bone – a bit like the dogs in the dog park who stop playing when they realise that someone is giving out treats.  Everything stops and their whole attention is on getting a treat – or in this case a bone.  It is the only thing that counts! As I gave them the bones, they seemed to think that the other was doing better because they each dropped their bone and sought the other bone.  One was interested in having both but when he tried he had to let go of one in order to get the other.  Each time he let go of one and ‘leant’ on the other to give up the bone, the other would wait and pick up the one he dropped.

I pondered, as I watched, how alike people these dogs are.  We all pursue things that we obviously believe are imperative, the most important things for us.  It may be money or power, education or status.  It may be love or a career.  It might be children or possessions.  It may be travelling or pursuing a hobby or interest.  It is often many things and often these things compete with each other for time, resources, energy and a sense of importance in our lives.  Like the dogs we drop one thing in order to pick something else up.  We believe we are on the right path until we look over at someone else or experience another way, another path and it draws us in a different direction.  Sometimes we have the inner belief that we need or want something and that something will make life more significant and special, more meaningful and we will be more content.  Sometimes when we gain what we yearn for, we do feel happier, more excited and joyful – at least for a time.  My experience suggests that such times usually don’t last.  I remember, when growing up, Batman and Robyn were all the rage.  The wonderful show featuring Adam West was on each week and it was fantastic!  All I wanted was a Batmobile car.  I saved my money until I had $3.  It took me ages and I was determined.  When I had the money mum took me to the shop and I bought a Batmobile.  It was about 6 inches of metal and a bit of plastic.  It fired missiles and had a small blade at the front.  Batman and Robyn could get out and the doors opened.  It was really great and I was so excited to have it.  I can’t remember how long the passion and excitement lasted.  I can’t remember when it wore off but it did and I ultimately wanted/needed something new and different.  Don’t get me wrong I had fun with my Batmobile before it was finally placed in a drawer and forgotten about.  It’s just that the expectations, whatever they were, were finite.  This has been replicated many other times in my life.  As I’ve grown, the desires and yearnings have changed, hopefully matured.  Sometimes I have yearned for experiences or possessions.  Sometimes it has been opportunities and other times I have grabbed at ideologies or beliefs or relationships…

I am also aware that there have been times when I have felt squeezed into a mould by others or the system and culture in which we live.  Other times I have reacted through fear or uncertainty and retreated into a safer place of living or being.  In all of this I sometimes have come to recognise that I have been like the dogs with bones or treats in the park.  I have moved from one thing to the next big thing that promises the world – or at last something better than what I currently have or experience.  Sometimes I feel like the little dog who submits to one larger and more powerful, licking my lips as I eye off the treat they have.

As I pause and look back, it makes me wonder what life is really all about.  I wonder what it is I am made for and whether I am being led up the garden path – the wrong one!  Am I pursuing the good and right course for me?  Am I seeking things that look good, that glitter and are attractive, but are ultimately a letdown?  Am I wasting time and energy pursuing things that are superficial and unhelpful for me?

I come to this pondering with a couple of stories in my mind – they are the stories we will read this week in church.  One comes from the ancient world of Jewish Faith in Exodus 3:1-15 and the other is a story of Jesus from Matthew 16:21-28.  The first is the wonderful story of Moses in the wilderness being confronted by a voice from a burning bush.  This voice claims Divine authority and challenges Moses to leave his place of safety and retreat from the world through fear and engage with the powers of Egypt.  Moses is wilting away in the country tending sheep.  He is not fulfilling his destiny, the calling he was created for.  There is a life to be lived that will take him into dangerous places but will also lift him into higher places than he ever imagined.  In all of this he is invited to rediscover his vocation and calling in life – and it isn’t playing with the sheep!

Jesus similarly invites his followers to engage in a journey that is inward and outward, a journey where we are challenged to leave the safe places and risk his way, the way of God.  He speaks in terms of letting go of life and expectations, all the false hopes that crowd us in and to trust in this God who sometimes seems mysterious and sometimes blindingly obvious.  Sometimes we hear words as if from a burning bush and other times there is such a clarity of call and direction that all is obvious – and everything in between!

Jesus invites his followers to lose their lives for the sake of God’s way and in this giving up, this ‘dying’ to the expectations, pressures and even superficial beliefs of our lives and the social forces around us, we will find life in a more fulfilling and revealing way.  He warns of gaining the world but losing one’s soul – what do we gain?  It is a prescient warning in a world where we are urged to gain more and more and add to the material treasures we already possess.  In a world of such wealth, higher than ever before, there is a rampant and worrying pandemic of symptoms that indicate we have lost our way.  The levels of depression, anxiety, angst, despair, loneliness and manifold addictions suggests that we may have gained the world but forfeited our souls.  We are lost in a world that has lost its way and urges us into a deeper state of alienation.  We gain more and more but find we have less and less of that which is real and provides deep meaning and peace.  We find ourselves more isolated and fearful, wary of other people and yearning for something that will bring light and hope to our living and being.

Jesus points to the Reign of God that promises to hold us in grace and love and lead us into lives that challenge the systems of the world around us and liberate us to live in a manner that is whole and true, deep and rich.  This way will not be easy or simple but its challenges will enrich our being and deepen our faith.  We will rise to great heights of love, justice, peace and hope.  We will reach out to others as an inclusive community that is a sign of hope in the world.  This is the invitation for all of us.  Will you come on the journey with Jesus, a journey of passion and life grounded in love and compassion?

By geoffstevenson