Love Changes Everything!

New Year’s Eve looms large on the landscape.  The Sydney to Hobart has been raced and won (a record line honours, along with protests, reviews…).  England has improved their game over Christmas and is looking good for the 4th test.  The Boxing Day (and beyond) sales are in full swing with shopkeepers hoping for record sales to improve their bottom line across the year.  There are tragic accidents on our roads and along the coastline.  It is hot, humid and most people are tired, overfed and thinking about resolutions – and more parties.

Christmas, it seems, has passed us by, lost amidst the ordinary things of life with its routines or new expectations.  Christmas that promises so much delivers so little in most people’s lives.  Families gather and mostly communicate well but many, fuelled by too much grog, fight and argue.  It’s strange how this story of love and hope, peace and joy fails to touch the deeper life of the world.  It’s strange how this season that inspires Carols by Candlelight extravaganzas and festivities beyond the realm of normal life, along with spending measured in $billions, feels so superficial – it is like Teflon as it sails through without gaining much traction in ordinary human life.  The hope fades, along with the good cheer that passes as joy or even love and peace.  There is some sense of tranquillity in the post-Christmas haze of lying around doing little beyond eating more food, watching sport or reruns of ordinary movies on tellie or reading a new book.

So we quickly move onto New Year’s Eve in the futile hope that the new year will bring everything we hoped for in the old one – and more.  The tough stuff of 2017 can be left behind and a new year, with new possibilities embraced until normal programming resumes and we realise that life is life is life and little changes.  Well everything changes and all the time but in essence life rolls onward and we feel the same as the same old pressures and hopes stir within us.  We hope and yearn and hunger sometimes consciously and mostly these things hum along in the background of life and living in the subconscious realm.  Many have given up on hope and feel a lot better for it – if you expect nothing then you aren’t disappointed when it turns up – anything more is bonus.

I read the papers or listen to the radio news and watch bits of the nightly news.  Nothing much changes in the scheme of things.  That’s my problem!! Nothing changes and I want change – not the flow of technology that outdates my computer in 5 minutes or the latest version of social media.  There is constantly something to entertain or distract me, something that will grab my attention and keep me amused for a day or two – minus a few dollars!  Then there will be something else, more superficial nonsense that passes for ideas and something meaningful.

So I wait and I watch, I hope and I trust.  You see I am expecting the world to be transformed, changed, turned upside down and inside out because THAT is what I hear and see in the Christmas stories and in the person of Jesus.  Sure I am idealistic and some suggest I don’t live in the real world where money talks and is power and power is control over everything.  In the real world the ‘rich get richer and the poor get the picture’ as one of the memorable lines from Midnight Oil suggests.  In the real world politics is about a party and supporting left or right (or right and further right) and politics and faith should never mix.  In this world that seems to be thrust upon me and you and everyone else, marketers, that clever breed, create the needs and sell us answers and it all feels like smoke and mirrors but like any good magic trick I can’t see how they do it – it looks real.  The high priests who serve ‘The Market’ spin all manner of belief and doctrine and give voice to what is ‘true or right’ in the world.  They assure me that the economy must be served and followed and trusted because life comes from money and finance and there lies our hope.  Lower taxes for the rich and trickle-down economics will bring relief to the poor and hope to the world – but we wait and wait and wait.  It never comes and won’t!

In the midst of this existential angst we find ourselves in, a story emerges from the sacred texts of the Christmas stories.  Moving on from shepherds and angels, stars and mangers, lowing cattle (not actually mentioned in the story but too cute to leave out) and all the rest is a simple tale (Luke 2:22-40) of the couple going to the Temple to dedicate their child and offer sacrifice for purification, all part of their ancient Jewish faith.  In the Temple they encounter two elderly people, Simeon and Anna.  Both have been waiting and waiting.  They have been waiting for the promised fulfilment of God.  They are waiting for that which will bring change, renewal and turn the world upside down.  Simeon is looking for the consolation, peace and salvation of Israel.  He is waiting for change in the world and he expects it in this one who was born.  He has seen and heard of the oppression of empires that have dominated Israel for 500 year.  He yearns for the way of God as revealed in the law and prophets.  Anna has lived in the Temple courts for many years.  She is called a prophet and is waiting for the redemption of Israel, the transformation of the world.

Whilst the powerful of the world pull the strings and people fall into line either willingly or from fear, Simeon and Anna represent those who yearn for God’s peace and hope to come.  They sing the songs of the prophets and ancient leaders of Israel under God.  They sing songs of peace, justice, hope, joy and life for all people.  They sing for the poor and lowly, the outcast and refugee, the stranger and friend.  They sing for those who are trampled underfoot and those who do the trampling because everyone needs this salvation that promises enriched and deep life.  After all, doesn’t Christmas feel simple and kind once the work is done and the rush is over and we sit and eat, talk and laugh together around a shared table?

Perhaps the magic, the promise, the reality of Christmas lies in the simple truths we miss – that life isn’t about accumulation and power, about prestige or keeping up.  Life is about relationships and living together, sharing food, belonging to the tribe – as long as the tribe isn’t exclusive, defending its turf with violence and hatred.  Christmas brings us together around colour and song, food and conversation.  Surely the hope is that God is in this simple reality, the presence of the Divine is in the midst of relationships.  God is in the spaces between us, around us and through us.  God is in the beautiful orchid that emerged from its shoots yesterday.  God is in the puppy that jumps around under the sprinkler then comes up to nudge me and give me a lick or reassurance and affection.   God is in the midst of the food and the delight and the joy that rings out but we are looking for something else and miss it.  Jesus born and lived teaches us about love for God and each other and for the world.  That is what will change everything!!

By geoffstevenson

A Christmas Poem…

The heat, the relentless heat…

… and humidity, the dense, moisture packed air that oppresses me .

This relentless heat rolls in day after day

Draining energy and life as it leaves me listless, tired, consumed

In technology I put my trust – the AC blows wildly…

…and the fan with its relentless spin and whir.

It is good but the world is still hot and overloaded with humid air.

Then a storm, a loud, frightening, lightning-bright, thunderous storm.

The wind blows through – and refreshing rain

The wind blows and cools the world, drives the humid heat away…

I feel refreshed and hopeful again.

Life returns to my being and energy flows and grows and I know…

…I know that this is Christmas!

The world around gripped by the relentless heat,

By the pressure of oppressive forces that squeeze life out.

Dense, moisture-packed air tinges the despair of human struggle.

Refugee camps where human despair is piled high – and hope low.

Indigenous communities struggling to keep culture live and wisdom flowing…

Poverty-encrusted communities starving in a world so rich.

Life-giving water restricted and exclusive as the 3rd world people die of thirst!

Grief and despair hug us through the lonely journey many endure.

Pain is the constant companion as inner turmoil runs rife 
through entitled lives – existential pain that cuts deep!

We trust the superficial to fix our mood and lift us up.

We believe in power and might and all thing right and true and…

…well we don’t really know do we?  Or all would be well.

If only this or that or something else and I would be happy, happy,

Happy – what is happiness?  It comes and goes on a whim.

A fleeting prayer that floats on the wind and is gone.

Then the Spirit of Christmas, the Spirit of life and living and God

Blows in and through and around me and you and us.

Christmas bursts in when and where I least expect or even want it.

Christmas comes in bursts of wonder and hope,
a refreshing breeze of love that leaves me helpless before it.

I want power, might and to have to achieve and own
– and be in control!

But Christmas is weak and vulnerable –

It doesn’t even fight for control of its own world.

Christmas is overrun by tinsel and trees, lights and gifts.

Parties that celebrate everything and nothing
that eat and drink and arouse people in a festive cheer of
hyped energy and expectation.

Christmas comes in a baby born but surrounded with mystery and wonder.

The stories don’t conform or agree but lead us in wondrous directions

– if we will sit and listen and wonder along with the world of Mary, Joseph and the tiny one born.

Luke has his angel choirs announcing peace and wonder

Matthew calls him ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us

And we wonder, confused and unsure.

Is this all there is?  A baby, weak, vulnerable and cute?

Is this only a story, a thing we remember lamely,
an annual ritual with no extraneous meaning or purpose?

How does a baby born change anything in this god-forsaken world?

Where is the refreshing wind of Spirit, of God?

Where is this power of love that others speak of
with their language of victory, might and conquest?

Is God real
or a make-believe story line trotted out to appease the gullible?

It is this upside down, inside out wondrous simplicity that reveals

The Divine community is a circle, a dance, a symphony of love.

God is a jazz combo bouncing off one another in an ever cascading song of love and joy and hope and peace
– for everyone and all things!

So a baby born is part of the revelation of the whole
God comes in human flesh to draw us back to where we belong.

Home is in the heart of the Divine Community that circles life

We are yearning, hoping, longing for life that is more, much more.

Our hearts are inflamed in stories of love and compassion
of self-giving and the heights of human (and animal) self-giving.

We are consumed by wonder and awe and beauty and God is love and all these things and comes in Christmas which is all the time and everywhere if only we will open our eyes and hearts and minds!!

By geoffstevenson

Finding Christmas Beneath the Celebrations and Tinsel.

There was a series of shows on TV called ‘Grumpy Old Men’.  I watched with amusement and recognised myself in some of these ‘grumpys’ (I think my family did as well!!).  By and large these were men who were a little fed up with the superficial status quo and gave cynical and insightful responses to everything popular and ‘in’.  In my identification with these ‘grumpys’ let me comment on the season of Christmas – ‘Festive Season’, ‘Yuletide’ or whatever other name it is ostensibly given.  Let me say, firstly, that I love Christmas – it is for me, central to the hope for a world that is challenged, in pain and deeply hurting.  I also find much that pertains to modern Christmas deeply odd and superficial – completely missing what everyone really wants and needs but perhaps fears.

My sense of frustration with Christmas is well put by Steve Chalke, the head of UK-based Oasis Trust and Faithworks.  He says: “It was a week before Christmas.  Gathered together were several senior politicians, countless movers and shakers from the world of business, the arts and media and representatives from every Christian denomination you can imagine.  The invited speaker rose to his feet.  After clearing his throat with an anticipatory cough, he launched into a passionate retelling of the nativity story.  He spoke of angels and shepherds, wise men, precious gifts, the shining star and brim full hotels, a tiny stable, lowing cattle and the manger where the baby lay, watched by wonderstruck parents.  But by far the most thought-provoking comment of the evening came from a somewhat cynical member of the audience.  As the speaker finished and returned to his seat, the observer whispered to a friend, ‘You can see why those Christians love telling the Christmas story.  It’s a great sell.  After all, who can resist a baby?’

The sleeping baby has become a symbol of the status quo – a safe, sanitised, twenty-first century saviour… [we need to] truly understand that the Christmas story is a radical message that sets the scene for all that is to come from the most challenging and controversial figure …”

I find Christmas somewhat interesting in that the focus is on most everything but the figure of Jesus who grew into a radical, treasonous, politically-charged prophetic figure who turned his world upside down.  Now I realise that most people aren’t all that interested in a radical, treasonous, politically-charged prophet and prefer the cute baby in a manger.  Most would prefer a fantasy (Disney) world Christmas that brings some superficial, magical peace to the world and make us feel good inside.  Many people go to such lengths (and billions of dollars are spent) to make ourselves and others feel good inside at Christmas.  Parties roll on through days and evenings, fuelled by too much food and drink.  They are sometimes good, sometimes ordinary but I wonder whether they live up to the hype and promise?  Is there any lasting purpose or hope to our festivities?

It feels sad to me that in a world that is yearning for something deeper and more wondrous, a sense of mystery to capture our hearts, minds and being, that we reduce it to bright lights, tinsel and parties – oh and gifts!  There is nothing wrong with celebrations, parties and gifts – nor lights and tinsel.  But if these things become the central essence of Christmas, we have lost the point, the reality and the hope implicit within Christmas.  There is nothing to overcome the existential longing in the human heart.  I heard on the news tonight that we are in the grip of an epidemic use of prescription medication – principally opioid painkillers.  They relieve the physical pain but cannot touch the existential pain that pervades too many people’s lives in this rich, materialistic world.  So many have everything and more and continue to want and need and long for the next thing but it is only another toy that soon pales before the reality of our lives – and the physical and existential pain.

There is a story of 2 pearl merchants who stopped at a caravanserai in the desert.  They both got down from their camel trains at the same time and sought to outdo each other.  One dropped a large pearl facetiously in front the other who picked it up and looked at it before handing it back, saying: ‘My, what a large and lustrous pearl.’

The other replied, ‘Yes it is a beautiful pearl – one of the more modest pearls in my collection.’  On and on the banter went with each seeking to better the other.

A Bedouin looking on finally stood and said: ‘Gentlemen, I was once like you – a pearl merchant.  I was making my way through the desert when I was separated from my camel train.  My camel and I walked around and around for days until I realised we were going in circles.  By now my food had run out and my water as well.  In desperation I looked through every bag on my camel – again!  Imagine my excitement when I discovered a bag I’d previously overlooked.  I looked through it in with great hope and longing.  My hope turned to despair when all I found were more pearls!’

Christmas is a bit like this for most people – they are looking for nourishment to quench their inner hunger and thirst.  Each year Christmas comes with the promise of something hopeful and real in a world of fake news, political spin and the marketer’s illusory tale.  Each year it becomes another superficial time that drains hope and delivers little because we continue to miss the point – it is Groundhog Day Christmas!  Over and over again, Christmas comes and goes and we barely glimpse it!  The baby gets tucked away for another year but never grows up to deliver the challenging message of hope.

The Christmas story is quite shocking – in fact the whole gospel story is brutal and gruesome in places as the world (the Empire) strikes back at those who would point to a deeper more profound reality that turns the world upside down – this is the wonder and power of love.  We look at the story of a baby-born and don’t recognise the profound insight that God is revealed in weak human frailty and comes to us in vulnerable places and people.  We fail to understand that Christmas is not about power as the world understands and lusts after power.  It is vulnerable, humble power that is the outbreak of love, the great explosion of creative, gracious love that emanates out from God, the 3 in 1 Divine Community at the heart of all things.  This love is the creative force at the centre of everything and it is gentle and patient, rejoices in beauty and wonder, holds all things and people equally, is peace and justice – and challenges the status quo.  Jesus is called Emmanuel in Matthew’s story – God with us.  Luke’s story lifts the poor and lowly into places of knowing and worth, significance and joy – alongside the mighty, powerful and wealthy of the world.  God is revealed wherever human hearts are humble enough to allow love to blossom, to realise our own mortality, our vulnerability and need of grace.  Christmas comes when we open our hearts and being in love to others and to a world that hurts and struggles.  We will see God present everywhere and in everything – Christmas!

By geoffstevenson

Hearing the Voices and Stories of the Little Ones!

I try to catch up with the news of the day on either radio, TV or both.  It is often a bit like Groundhog Day and I wonder if I am back at yesterday or the day before…  So much repeats and repeats but perhaps my greatest frustration is how particular types of people seem to become central to the news bulletin.  Certain types of people grab all the attention, time and sense of importance.  A few weeks ago there was great frothing at the mouth over a royal engagement.  This ‘lovely story’ took most of the first half hour of the evening news.  Every person who could be thought to offer even a remote perspective or new insight appeared.  After about 25 minutes that included a quick update on some sporting crisis and the latest weather update (as if sticking my head out the door couldn’t tell me it wasn’t raining and it was not hot!!) we heard an awful report of a catastrophe overseas.  I can’t for the life of me remember which one it was but people had died and there was terrible suffering – a natural disaster perhaps.  It was relegated to a much less significant place in the news because Prince William was so much more important.

This typifies so much media reporting.  We idolise these sports, movies or music stars and watch their every move.  We hold them up and glorify them.  We look n with wonder or envy at the big mansions they live in or the glamorous lifestyles they live.  Every kid at some stage wants to be like one of these heroes.  In our world there are the big people who shine brightly under the illumination of the bright neon (or LCD or LED) lights.  Others stand in the brightness due to their power or wealth or positional authority.  Donald Trump gains much publicity, along with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and several other famous, infamous or simply high-profile individuals.

The trouble is that these people hog all the limelight (literally the production of artificial light that involves lime).  They shine in artificial lighting that glows in our minds and they occupy the space such that other (little) people aren’t usually noticed.  Occasionally a (small) person manages to gain some attention and capture people’s imagination and the world tilts a little on its axis.  For example, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who spoke out for girls receiving an education to lift them out of difficult and oppressive lives, captured the imagination and hope of much of the world.  It is not always the case that marginalised or simple people’s names are known, let alone used in the same reports as the big names, the important, powerful of our world.

I am constantly amazed at how this happens in the story Luke tells of Jesus.  In his first 2 chapters, which contains the story we often call the ‘Christmas Story’ is quite astounding!  Luke names the powerful people of his world – Octavian, known as Caesar Augustus (the august or exalted one).  Caesar Augustus was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire at the time,  He was worshipped and exalted and ultimately deified (confirmed as a god) just before he died.  The mythology around him proclaimed that he was conceived by the god Apollo in his mother’s womb and the whole room lit up.  He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and when Julius Caesar was assassinated Octavian fought and conquered his enemies and brought the warring factions of Rome together under one Empire with himself as the first (and probably the greatest) Emperor.  Julius Caesar was deified and so Augustus proclaimed himself and was worshipped as the son of God.  Around his empire Caesar Augustus has inscribed, in Latin and Greek, on temple walls, monuments, anywhere people might read it the following words: “Divine Augustus Caesar, son of god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and saviour of the whole world, has brought you peace.”  One commentator says of Augustus:His titles included “God,” “Son of God,” “Lord,” “saviour of the world” who had brought “peace on earth.” He was the product of a divine conception, conceived in his mother by the god Apollo, god of light, reason and order.”

Along with the likes of King Herod and Quirinius the Governor of Syria, Luke names these powerful people who inhabit the powerful and wealthy places of the world.  They claim all the power, all the space and there is no way ‘little people’ can share this space.  So the miracle and wonder of Luke’s story is that in the same breath as thee high and mighty people are named, so are the least people of the society.  Alongside the mighty Caesar is Joseph and Mary – some of the lowest people on earth!  Mary, for example was a complete nobody, a lowly, lowly woman without power, privilege or position in the world.  Mary is the complete antithesis od Caesar Augustus.  He was known everywhere and she would not be recognised by anyone except for the few who knew her and Luke names her alongside the others!!  This is radical because as his story unfolds she grows in stature and importance and Caesar declines.  Today many people know Mary’s name but far fewer really know Octavian, for all his greatness.

In one our readings this week, Luke 1:47-55, we hear the ‘Song of Mary’.  These profound and world-changing words turn everything upside down.  Mary praises the God who knows her name, who has blessed her and who lifts her up.  This profound song sets the theme for much of Luke’s gospel where the small ones are lifted up and the powerful are brought down, where rough places are smoothed and crooked paths made straight – that is, justice comes to the earth through the activity and work of God through Jesus and those who walk in the way of love, peace, justice and hope.

Luke embodies this transformative way of God by speaking of lowly people and elevating them in his story.  He allows us to hear the stories, words and struggles of the marginalised and outcasts, the ordinary and simple people.  These are the ones drawn to Jesus and his teaching and ministry of inclusive love.  These are the stories of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.  These are the stories of young girls in Pakistan and other parts of the world who do not have access to good education or opportunities to reach their full potential as human beings.  These are the stories of people held and trapped by poverty and who cannot escape, are not really noticed and feel completely powerless.  These are the ones who are trodden down by power in the world and have little or no voice.  These are so many people in our world, close to home and far away, who feel powerless and voiceless before power and might, violence and oppressive force.  These are voices that are hard to hear because they are weak, restrained or just plain painful to our ears.

Luke enables us to hear these voices through the cacophony of powerful, privileged voices that dominate.  We are invited to share the world with all people and to experience God in each person.  We are invited into this world of Christmas that turns everything upside down and inside out and imbues everything with wonder, joy, inclusive community and the love of God for each and every person and the whole of creation!

By geoffstevenson

Isaiah’s Words, Martin’s Dream and Mark’s Treason…

Just over a year ago President Trump was elected on the back of his mantra of ‘Make America great again.’  I’m not really sure what this actually meant or means – possibly very different things to different people at different points on the socio-economic order.  Several people who have visited the US in recent times speak of the growing divide between rich and poor with the line between the two becoming more pronounced.  Health care still stands as one of the dominant factors that divide people.  Serious illness without health insurance can plunge people into deep debt and desperation.  Many people struggle to make ends meet, requiring two poorly paid jobs to pay some of the bills.  One Pastor suggested that America’s obsession with sport means that it has the best stadia and the worst schools, as the latter struggle to attract funding.  Others have observed that in some schools classes meet wherever they can find a clean dry space because leaking rooves and pipes play havoc.  This, of course is not the whole story but there is definitely a sense of desperation, even despair, amongst many people in the US.  It makes President Trump’s mantra all the more prescient.  What does he mean by proclaiming he will make America great again?  Many have put great hope in these words.  Many are waiting for the regained greatness to gather them up and restore a sense of well-being.  They are longing and yearning for a new day!

In our own nation many yearn for a new day, something profound and vital to begin and embrace them and their families into something hopeful and new.  Many people celebrated in the announcement of the Parliament this week around marriage equality.  Some of the people who have spoken publicly have shared their profound joy of being recognised as equal to others.  Meanwhile Aboriginal people still await their day in the sun, the time when they will be restored to hope and life in this land they have occupied for thousands of years.  We have heard the tragic stories from the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, of people who have waited long for a new day of justice and release from the abuse and pain of their lives.  Asylum seekers here and across the world yearn for a day of freedom where they can establish new lives in peace in a place where they can belong, contribute and feel safe.

A new day.  A new beginning.  A new world.  This has been the cry of people from time immemorial across the spectrum of human life.  In our own hearts, through our own moments of reflection we also long for a new way.  We yearn for new hope and life to break in through the violence, hatred, discrimination, isolation and exclusion that characterises too much in our world.  We long for a new day.  We also fear the possibility of something new in case it changes us.  We perhaps want equality but on our own terms – everything else can change as long as it doesn’t impact us too much.

In Advent, this season leading up to Christmas, we ponder the world and how it is.  The images of worlds distant and foreign speak into our experience and we realise that ancient people were people too and the wisdom they gained from their own desperate hopes and the prophetic words speak into our world with power and possibility.  This week we will read again from Isaiah 40:1-11 and also from Mark 1:1-8.  The reading from Isaiah travels to us from the time when the people of Judah were exiled in Babylon – conquered and taken away into exile to live in a foreign land.  This story comes from around 2,600 years ago but the hope still resonates in the modern world.  Martin Luther King jr in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech blends these words and images into his own life’s situation and hopes for liberation.  These are words of gracious comfort and hope from God who draws these lost people into Divine grace and life.  God’s love for people is proclaimed into the dark despair and alienation that floods their lives.  They are loved with a love that is active, engaged, just and moving through the world.  The love is imbued with hope and promise.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel, he draws on these images from Isaiah to introduce the figure of John the Baptist as a forerunner to Jesus.  This brief passage speaks powerfully of a new day, a new beginning and a new way in the world.  Mark begins by saying: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’  For many years this sounded to me like the start of a story – ‘Once upon a time…’  It didn’t resonate at the deep level intended.  It wasn’t until I understood that Good News in the 1st century was all about Caesar and Rome.  Caesar’s birthday was Good News.  A victory for Caesar’s army was Good News.  Anything about the Emperor was Good News and proclaimed throughout the Empire.  In this simple opening statement Mark subverts the powerful and dominant figure in his world.  It is a treasonous statement and therefore a highly-charged political statement (for those who believe politics and faith should remain separate have failed to understand Jesus.  He isn’t party political but his proclamation of God’s Reign on earth challenges every political system).  Mark is announcing a new day where God, not Caesar, reigns and the way of Jesus is the beginning of a new way in the world.  John the Baptist invites people out of the city and therefore the Jewish Temple to hear words of invitation and challenge.  He baptises people as an act of transformation and initiation into a new (perhaps restored old) way of being under God.  This will be a way of justice on earth for all people.  It will proclaim the equality of all under God and that everyone deserves a share in the goodness of God’s grace – including food to eat, freedom to live safely, access to basic human needs and rights, inclusion and peace.

Make no mistake this is not a nice spiritual message that ignores the physical, material world or the realities of lives lived.  It takes us into the core of being as humans.  We are created out of the dynamic love that exists within the Trinity, the community that is God and emanates outward as creative life.  We are created in his dynamic image of inclusive, active relationship – of love.  It is into this dynamic relationship of God that we belong and find our being and this is expressed through relationships of grace, love, fun, inclusion, peace, joy and wonder – with people and the earth (and it’s other creatures)!

This new way surprises us in all manner of forms in which it is revealed.  We will tell the story of a baby born, a baby in whom we encounter the living God – vulnerable, powerless, humble.  We encounter God in the adult Jesus who serves humbly and graciously, teaching wisdom and love and who stands against the powers of the world – then and now.  Mark’s opening address for us is an appeal against the powers in our world – President Trump, President Putin, Kim Jong Un, ISIS leadership and so many more.  It is a call to stand with God and live in this new old way of inclusive community, love, justice, peace, equality and to find our lives and being in this God who is for all people!

By geoffstevenson

In the Midst of Chaos and Crisis – We Hope!

I glimpsed my first Christmas lights the other day and I have played my first Christmas carols.  Christmas decorations have been waiting quietly for weeks in some places for a reasonable time to emerge, just dying to come out.  Christmas is in the air and it will not be long that the business end of the year hits us square in the face.  These few weeks leading up to Christmas are filled with all manner of emotion, expectation, tiredness and hyped-up fun.  There will be the ordinary moments of life, the business of day to day living.  There will be the extraordinary moments filled with wonder, delight, love, joy and fun.  There will be moments of horror and pain, confusion, anger and distress.  Some of this may touch our own lives through new experiences or memories of times and people that were.  Some of these experiences will come vicariously as we live them through the lives of others – real people we know and others whose stories we hear and feel, writ large on TV screens or screaming out from the small screens of our lives.

This is the season of Advent, a season of preparation leading up to the celebration of Christmas.  Without the reality of the days and weeks of Advent and all the times of our lives, Christmas becomes little more than a fantasy time, one of magic and childhood hopes and dreams.  We are lit up by the Christmas lights, stuffed to the brim by endless parties and tired out by all the expectations and activities.  The baby in a manger feels lovely and simple – perhaps simplistic in our enlightened and complex world.  We enter the mysterious world of Christmas stories and events that compete with each other, promise much but leave us wondering what we missed.  All the hope and promise that builds up across the weeks fades quicker than the Christmas leftovers, disappearing before our eyes.

This week is the beginning of the season of Advent with its stories from days past that connect us with life that is real and tough, painful and challenging.  Advent stories draw us back into reality and force us to engage with life in the world that is hard work and demands much of us.  It is a world where there is often powerlessness and where people are humbled before power and feel vulnerable in the world.  It is a time where we are encouraged to open ourselves to the honest truth that though we long to be in control of life, even our own lives, we aren’t.  There are powers and forces and the great unknown that always stands over us threatening and real.  In our deepest, most honest moments we feel the reality of vulnerability and the yearning for love and belonging, to be connected to the source of life and hope.  It is often in the stories of others or our own crushing collisions with life’s harsh edges that we recognise our own need for hope and peace and the comfort of belonging love.  When we feel small and vulnerable before the world we want to reach out to be grasped in love’s embrace much as we were as a baby reaching out to the strong hands of love that lifted us to a mother’s heart.

This season of Advent gently pursues us as we are torn in the swift torrent of our culture’s push to superficial celebration and good cheer at all costs.  If we spend more, eat more, party harder, drink ourselves into a state of euphoria we will be happy – because surely that is what the season requires of us!!??!  But happiness ebbs and flows on the tide of human emotion and leaves us flat and worn from the pursuit.

This week’s reading is from Mark 13:24-37 and is an apocalyptic story that is dark and dangerous.  Written during (or just after) the Jewish-Roman War of the late 60’s of the 1st Century, this story is filled with images of doom, destruction and death.  It paints in large, dark brushstrokes to convey the horrors of desolation, pain and fear that the people experienced.  The stories and words of Jesus are juxtaposed with the reality of darkened skies, massing armies, wars and rumours of wars and the full-blown horror that humans inflict upon one another as power is abused and escalates out of control until thousands and thousands of people lay dead in streets and a Temple that is a wonder of the world lies in ruins, desolated and defiled by pagan armies of Rome.  People are lost in the hopeless despair and existential pain that overwhelms them.  There is anger, fear and desperation.

These images aren’t new.  We see them cast upon the screens of our days as war images from across the world flicker in and out and around us.  Violence, hatred, despair and the pain of suffering, illness and hopelessness lingers all around us if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear.  Of course not all life is like this and we try our utmost to escape into hopeful, happy realms, like the Disneyland worlds that we may wish for.  Escape is close-by in a variety of modes and many find their lives lightened by the addictions we give into as we seek to hide from that which is dark and threatening.

It is this very reality that we must engage, though, if we are to have any chance of surviving and living freely beyond its grasp.  If we keep running or hiding from the overwhelming reality that besets so much of human (and other) life we will never cease our running.  The story of Christmas too often comes as one more fairy tale we hope might loosen the grip of reality’s hold on us but the fairy story quality we endow it with always fails.  This isn’t a fairy story, a quirky, cute little thing that we tell to the children.  It is the very stuff of life but more than that it promises to transform life and turn everything upside down because in it God comes to us.  Wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, vulnerable, weak and helpless, we encounter God.  What a pathetic image we must think!!  ‘Almighty God,’ we say but what is ‘Almighty’ about this figure?  What is ‘Almighty’ about Jesus who dies a pathetic helpless death upon a cross in agony and alone?  Where is the hope in this little story?

Perhaps we have robbed it of meaning by tying it in literal knots and binding it up with overlaid superstition.  We have sought to define and control God, even in this little story of Christmas but God will not be controlled or defined or contained.  The little story challenges us at every point as we see the rich and powerful subverted and the powerless lifted up.  A young girl of no worldly power or worth becomes the one who bears the child in whom God dares to be revealed – not in power and glory but vulnerable humility – the essence of love.  Love is relational and God is relational – the Trinity, as we say – Creator, Redeemer and Life-giving Spirit.  The dance of love flows into human life as creative being that brings hope and truth and peace and lies in wondrous potential in this baby who bears the name, Emmanuel (meaning God with us).  As we journey into and through the season we journey more deeply into life lived in all its joy and pain.  We engage in life as vulnerable but hopeful people living in the courage of love as a community of belonging, whose life is in and through God who holds everything in relational love and grace.

By geoffstevenson