Advance Australia…

Australia Day has, as has been the case in recent years, generated much discussion around what it means, how it speaks into Aboriginal Australia and whether a date change is required…  I don’t really want to enter that debate but rather reflect on what this day symbolises and how it might speak into the reality of contemporary Australia.

Some years ago as part of a Masters Thesis I wrote the following:

“In 1787, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King George III, the British Government sent a fleet to colonise Australia.”  “That night (26 January, 1788), after the convicts were landed, the British flag was unfurled at Sydney Cove, shots were fired, and toasts were drunk.” 

So began the history of white settlement in the British colony of New South Wales, Australia. This is not the story of brave pilgrims seeking a new world. It is not the story of pioneer adventurers setting out to build a better life and tame the wild countryside. Though this story does contain something of these elements along the way, it is predominantly the story of struggle. It is the clash of people from different backgrounds struggling with, and against, each other in a strange and hostile land. This unknown and enigmatic continent became the prison to the criminal class of British society. It was an experiment in penology suggested by Sir Joseph Banks after returning from his voyage with Captain James Cook. It became the solution to a growing problem of what to do with those people sentenced to transportation from Britain; how to cleanse Britain of the criminal class and ease the strain on the overcrowded prisons.

In this cultural mixpot were the wealthy, the poor, convicts, those in authority, British (European) and Aboriginal people. There was no Philadelphia (literally “brotherly love”) in New South Wales. It was sweat and blood, anguish and pain, loneliness and isolation. People brought together by a “colonial experiment, never tried before, not repeated since,” were the roots of a new and unique culture.

Interestingly, this was the beginning of the colony of NSW and it was a penal experiment that was a failure.  It came towards the end of the ‘Age of Discovery’, a period in Western imperialism that commissioned exploration that ‘conquered’ much of the world.  It was a time of Western arrogance and power asserting itself upon indigenous cultures across the world, decimating their numbers and destroying traditional cultures in favour of a ’civilised and Christianised’ colonialism.  The explorers and colonisers went with the blessing of Church and State with papers declaring the authority and power of the West over and against the uncivilised, sub-human peoples of colour and indigenous culture.  To read the letters of authorisation provided by Political and Church leaders is most horrific and unbelievable.  They approved mass slaughter and extermination of indigenous populations and used God’s name to endorse this.  So much of this happened in our own history, history often hidden because it is the victors who write the story – not those who lose and are oppressed and lost.

The reality for our early colony is that it very nearly died out before it began as food became scarce and ships with supplies slow to arrive.  The only way the early colonists and convicts survived was when the lower people (ie not the authorities and military leadership!) interacted with the local indigenous people and learned how to find food, what to eat and how to engage with this strange, hostile land.  It was these same indigenous people who helped lead the famous explorations but whose names were never recognised nor recorded.  It was these indigenous people who understood this fascinating and unique landscape and worked with the ecology over millennia, using fire and working with flood, drought and the diversity of this strange and spiritual land.

That God emerged from the boughs of the First Fleet is a most ludicrous statement of arrogant religion.  God was present in this unique landscape, in the plants and trees, strange animals evolving in isolation from the rest of the world.  God was in the cultures and people, the Spirit of God working in human life and culture to nurture life, hope and peace. God is still present in the land, the spirit of people, values of egalitarianism, the practical love demonstrated when we put difference aside, work together and help those who are doing it tough.  God is present when people of different, race, culture, language, gender, sexuality, disability/ability, socio-economic class and any other difference sit down and talk to one another, to listen with respect and break bread together.  God is present in the raw, ancient beauty, the diversity, the strangeness, the noise of cockatoos or roaring surf and the silence and stillness of night in the outback.

Any day we choose to celebrate this nation needs to be a day when we grasp the truth and reality of who we are, to recognise the injustices and bad decisions of the past and present.  The cultural genocide that many Aboriginal tribes suffered and the overall oppression and struggle, loss and alienation of our indigenous brothers and sisters has had repercussions for generations afterwards.  Until we own the mistakes and injustices of our forbears and understand the implications that continue today, the shame that quietly eats away within our nation’s heart will go on untreated.  We all suffer as we live in the midst of angst and pain, fear and rage of people we do not know but share land with.

This is part of grappling with the complexity of being a people together in this land and seeking to ‘Advance Australia Fair’.  There is certainly much for us all to celebrate without having to descend into superficiality.  We so crave success and celebrity that we grasp at any straw, anyone who will win something on the world stage and has some link with Australia, whether they are ‘representing’ Australia or not.  We will wrap ourselves sin flags (a most inappropriate use for the National Flag!).  BBQ’s, parties, food and drink and lots of fun in parks, beaches and backyards.  These are all good things but never really penetrate to the heart of Australia, who we are.  Nor do they inspire us to become who we can be, to rise above the angst, fear, individualism and the pandemic of anxiety, depression and loneliness that is the inside struggle of our people.

This week’s gospel (Mark 1:21-28) is a story of Jesus in a synagogue in Capernaum.  He preaches and acts with authority and is contrasted to the religious leaders.  A man with an evil spirit confronts Jesus and he is healed of the spirit by Jesus’ words and actions.  The spirit also symbolises the heart of the people’s lives, oppressed by a spirit of fear, injustice, greed and the abuse of power by those called to lead.  Jesus’ invokes the way of God to show people another deeper, richer way of living that is grounded in love, relationships, hope, peace and life.  As I ponder this story and that of our nation, my hope and prayer is that we in Australia will go deeper to the place of healing and life, this way of Jesus.

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By geoffstevenson

How Many Chances? Unlimited!!

As a kid I played a lot of sports at various times – soccer (the main one), tennis, athletics (all the events of track and field), swimming, basketball were the main ones.  In each of these, to various degrees, I had coaching.  The various coaches I had over the years were of different capacities.  Some were good, some not very good and a couple brilliant.  The main difference between those who were good and those who weren’t was in their ability to nurture us in learning new things, to have a go and make mistakes.  The best coaches knew we needed to see how a skill was meant to look and then have a go.  They knew we would make mistakes, plenty of them, and they gave us space to make mistakes and try again, and again and again.  I remember learning basic skills – passing or heading a football; hitting a forehand drive or volley; doing a layup or set shot; high jump, shot put, javelin, triple jump…  All of these skills required learning from scratch.  The best coaches explained how to do them, showed us and then gave us time and space to make mistakes.  We had 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 10th, 20th… chances.  There were as many chances as we needed to learn how to do something.  Making mistakes was frustrating and with the wrong coaches or team mates, could be humiliating.

This same kind of learning happened for me in music – I made (and make) many mistakes.  I was shown a piece of music or an exercise and a teacher would play through it so I know how it sounded, how it was meant to go.  I then tried and got figures tied up in knots, wrong notes, off-rhythm…  We would go over the exercise several times and them I would be encouraged to learn it at home and bring it next week.  Mistakes were recognised as the means of learning – I was given many chances to improve and get the music right.

In other parts of life, it hasn’t always been so forgiving. Sometimes I have been naïve or ignorant or simply not known something but have been treated as if my error was a major failing.  In many areas of life making a mistake is unforgivable it seems.  Public figures are often the objects of serious muck-raking in order to shame them or render them unsuitable for whatever position they hold.  Sometimes these are fair enough as the mistakes are serious breaches and question their judgement or ability to function in that position.  Other times the information is from decades previously and bears no relation to their current role or persona.  We make the journey through life and make mistakes, take wrong paths, trust the wrong people, make errors of judgement and sometimes lose our way.  There is always room for a second chance, to try again and learn from mistakes that are genuine and not criminal in intent and result.  Sometimes our error’s have other implications and we need to own up and ‘take our medicine,’ to pay the price for a serious error in judgement or practice.  After we have made restitution and paid our debt, then there is room to start again, to have another go at life and learn through error.  We grow and mature through our mistakes – if we are open, honest and willing to be changed.  Sometimes the message of the church has also been one of ‘no second chances’.  People who are different or do things other perceive as wrong are excluded or condemned.

This week’s readings (Matthew 1:14-20 and Jonah 3:1-5,10) reveal the 1st, 2nd, and more chances that God gives us.  Despite what some parts of the church may proclaim, God is the God of multiple chances and our growth into spiritual maturity comes through learning and growing through mistakes or the false paths we take.  The story from the book of Jonah is a delightful story that turns everything upside down.  When we think people are so bad or different that there is no hope for them and they should be written off and excluded, the story of Jonah challenges us!

The prophet, Jonah, receives the call to go to Ninevah and he refuses.  He detests the people there and believes they are evil, dangerous and fit for the fire…  He goes in the other direction and this is where the humour of the story emerges.  Jonah is on a boat out of town and in the midst of a fierce storm is recognised as the one whom ‘the gods’ are punishing and is thrown overboard.  He is swallowed by a large fish and spends three days in the belly.  He is then spewed up onto a beach and God suggests he try again and do as he’s told because there are people over there who need a first chance – Jonah is given a second chance.  The story is a story and there are diverse views about it.  The point, though, is God reaches out to everyone and no-one is beyond God’s love.  It is not for us to judge others and exclude them because they look, seem, believe or do differently!  The other point is that we are all given second, third and more chances in God’s grace.  God’s love is for all people all the time and it is this love that sets the world on its course towards justice, peace, hope and life.

Matthew’s story has Jesus’s first words that declare the Reign of God has arrived and invites all to come and join this Reign of grace and love.  Jesus invites some fishermen to come and follow him and learn the way of inclusive ministry and life, drawing all into the web of God’s relational love.  There is a beginning for everyone and these disciples will have some interesting adventures, make plenty of mistakes, fail, succeed, fall, get up and in all of it grow and mature and move more deeply into God’s love.

When our society is unwilling to give others a go or to trust those who are different, perhaps we will understand from our own lives that we need all to be given a go, drawn into a community of people who care, support and include.  When our society excludes people who seek refuge, indigenous people who are disenfranchised or the poor who struggle for to survive, we need to remember that we are accepted and loved as we are, with all of our bumps and rough patches.  We are loved and given multiple chances to learn, grow, change and live in the way of love and peace.

Sometimes I have been shamed when I have pre-judged another person because they look, believe or act differently to me.  Perhaps they have done something seriously wrong in the past or they look threatening.  Perhaps I want to judge how they live or why they are poor or are angry with the world.  It is so easy to judge, justify and reject another person and it often happens sub-consciously.  And it does damage to them, the peace of the world and ultimately to me.

I am challenged as I read these simple stories of love, grace and multiple chances for people who have reputations or do the wrong thing.  These stories challenge my perceptions of others and perhaps I will learn to look upon the world as God does.  Perhaps I will learn from my dogs who seem to be friends with anyone and everyone – unless they are very threatening.  They don’t judge anyone but are very happy to receive a pat or rub or kind word from anyone.  Our Labrador is friends with all the dogs and all the people in dog-park and he is sure to go up and engage everyone every time we venture there.  Perhaps he understands Jesus way better than most humans?

By geoffstevenson

Come and See!

I read the words, ‘Come and see’ the other day and they stayed with me.  I immediately thought of the ways our kids used to come running and yelling ‘come and see’ or ‘come and look at this’.  There was always something exciting, new, a new skill or trick or something they had discovered that excited them and they wanted to share this discovery.

I also thought of the song by Russell Morris – ‘The Real Thing’.  The words are unique.  The song became an original classic, written by Johnny Young and produced by Molly Meldrum.  ‘Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing, come and see,’ are the opening lines.  There isn’t a great deal to the song but is Johnny Young’s response to Coca Cola’s advertising that their drink is ‘the real thing’ and the trend towards shallow rhetoric media advertising that make preposterous claims about very ordinary things.  The notion that a cola drink is the real thing is, of course, ludicrous but that is what we are subjected to then and now.  It is an invitation to come and see the real thing, to look through it and ponder what is real and what is not.

This is of course a deep and profound issue and an invitation into looking more deeply at what goes for news or fact or truth in our world.  When we use the word ‘awesome’ is what we proclaim as awesome really that awe-inspiring?  When we proclaim a truth, how deep and true is it?  When we hear the news or the proclamation of leaders, political, corporate, community or religious, what veracity do we place upon these words?  How real is that news and how deep is the truth they claim to offer?

When we respond to the invitation to ‘come and see’ what are we really expecting or even hoping for?  Are we just up for a good laugh at something really funny – nothing wrong with this.  It is an experience that comes and goes but is fun.  There is usually nothing deeper in it than a clever gag that yields a good laugh.  Perhaps, though, we are seeking a deeper level of awareness or meaning, something that touches the soul in this often dry and superficial world.  What is it we would like to ‘come and see’?

When we ask others to ‘come and see’ what is it we expect to offer them?  What is it we think is sufficiently important for someone to ‘come and see’?  What excites us sufficiently to want to ask another person to stop hat they are doing and to ‘come and see’?  Is there something beyond the facebook gags, that really are amusing, that we want to share with other people?  Is there something that we approach with awe and wonder, things of life that move us deeply and change our thinking?  Is there a story, a movie, a song that moves us and challenges us and invites us to see life differently?   I have had many people send me email messages of various stories, video clips or songs that have been beautiful and moving.  Some of these have moved me to action, to do something – perhaps respond to a petition request or change my shopping habits by avoiding particular types of food or clothing because they disadvantage the poor of the world.  Sometimes I have been invited to ‘look and see’ one of the little ones of the earth, the poor or marginalised, the invisible people who are constantly overlooked and often oppressed or simply ignored.  I have been invited to ponder the beauty of life and the world around through beautiful images or videos of the natural world in all its wonder.  I have been offered insights into the vastness of the universe and the beauty of cosmology or quantum physics (in very simple forms).  I have been invited into the wonders and mystery of this vast universe and the profound questions that are being asked.  Sometimes it have been the very simple story of one person loving another.

There was one the other day.  It was very touching.  A woman dressed to the nines stopped before a homeless man in the street and offered him a meal in the café across the road.  He wasn’t sure what she wanted and felt intimidated and tried to brush her off, send her away.  A policeman watched and asked her if there was a problem.  She said that there was – this man wouldn’t get up and walk to the café so she could buy him a meal.  The officer knew the man and coaxed him to his feet with a little help and walked him across the road whilst he complained.  In the café they found a table in the corner and she ordered a large meal for the man.  Finally, the officer asked her what was going on and the man echoed his words.  The woman told her story.  When she was finished studying and living alone, she couldn’t find work. She was kicked out of her rental and had wandered for a couple of days and was now really hungry.  She walked into this café and begged the man behind the counter for some food.  He looked at her and then made her the biggest sandwich she had ever seen and told her to sit at the table they were now on.  She was worried he or she would get into trouble but when she looked over she saw him put the money for the food into the till.  The man was this, now, homeless man and she was the president of a large corporation – she never forgot his generosity and wanted to thank and help him.  She gave him her card and told him to go and see her personnel manager.  He would arrange for clothes, a haircut and a job.

I was invited to come and see this story of love and generosity given, received, given and received.  It was a moving story and moves me towards a deeper sense of care and connection with other people.  This week we will read a simple story from John’s Gospel (John 1:35-51).  It speaks of a couple of disciples of John the Baptist being invited to see the ‘one who greater than John’ and they go an look.  Jesus invited Andrew to come and see what he was doing.  Andrew went and discovered the deep and profound truth he was yearning for, to which John had been pointing.  He then went and invited others to ‘come and see what/who I have found’.  Others, including his brother, Peter, went and looked, listened and followed Jesus.  They were invited to ‘come and see’ and when they looked, they saw something profound that would change their life’s direction.

The invitation of Jesus throughout John’s story is to encounter something real and deep, to experience the presence of God and to find peace and life in your deepest being, your soul or spirit.  There are other stories of people who ‘come and see’.  Some hear of Jesus and go to visit and talk.  Others encounter him on the road or around a well and their conversation and encounter changes something in them.  Perhaps it is the acceptance and love they perceive in Jesus?  Perhaps it is the sense of holiness that pervaded his being?  Perhaps it is the deep wisdom of his words?  There was something different and profound about his bearing, his being and in him they encountered the presence of God and were changed.  It was a life-giving experience!

What is it you would like to ‘come and see’?  What could I invite you to ‘come and see’ that would touch your heart and your deepest yearning?  Can I invite you to ‘come and see’ God?  God is present in the beauty and wonder of the world, in relationships of love and grace, in the sacred wisdom of faith and Scriptures and in life lived deeply.

By geoffstevenson

Journeying into Wisdom and Life!

Have you ever been on a journey?  There are all manner of journeys we embark upon.  Some are proceeded by detailed planning and preparation.  Other journeys are more spontaneous even thrust upon us.  Some journeys are interior journeys, journeys of the inner life.  Some journeys are accompanied by anticipation and expectation, joy, fun and adventure.  Other journeys are heavy and hard.  They are perhaps journeys into grief and loss, change, despair or may be shrouded by harshness of life and experience.  There are journeys that are hard and others more straightforward.  Some journeys have little or no greater impact on who we are or the life we live, they don’t change anything much about us.  I suspect for many people this is the extent of many of the journeys of their lives – fun whilst they last, some memorable moments but not much more.  For other people any journey can be a meaningful experience that transforms their perceptions and life.  Even the journey to the local park can be imbued with meaning and transcendent, existential meaning and purpose because it is an enlightening encounter with the sacred that pervades our lives and our world.  It is accompanied by reflection and insight, wonder and transformative contemplation.

This weekend marks the ending of the season of Christmas, the 12 days of Christmas.  From this distance Christmas may seem far away and forgotten as the New Year has rolled around and life moved on either through return to work or holidays.  Or, you may have held to the journey of Christmas, pondering the wonder and significance of the revelation of God in the ordinary things of life; that which is beautiful, awe-filled, wondrous, simple or especially in the dark, lonely or even desperate places of life where the vulnerable and humble reveal the essence of God.

As the season of Christmas ends the new season of Epiphany commences.  Epiphany is about revelation, manifestation and enlightenment as we continue to encounter this Divine in-breaking through awe and wonder, contemplation and reflection.  The story at the heart of Epiphany is the story of the Journey and visit of the Magi (often called ‘wise men’).  This ancient story told by Matthew holds together elements from the older Jewish texts of the Hebrew Scriptures where visitors came on camels with gifts of gold and frankincense (Isaiah 60).  Stars and Messiahs have long been associated in Jewish history.

This is an interesting story to ponder and delve into the wisdom and possibilities that lie at its heart.  It is a story of pilgrimage where foreign (gentile/pagan) kings journey into the unknown world.  They are astrologers and follow stars, reading meaning into astral phenomena.  In this simple story they follow a promising star in the belief it will lead them to the new king, and important, significant king whom they must worship and pay homage.  What is this about?  Do we seek deeper meaning in the world and follow promising signs in blind hope or faith?  What happens when we embark on a journey that has no known destination, a journey into the unknown in faith?

T S Eliot wrote the poem below in reflection upon this story.  It is a poem that explores the challenge of the journey that the magi engaged in.  More than that it is a poem about the journey of the heart that we all engage in at some time.  Our journeys through life are diverse and we struggle through many journeys we are called upon to make.  Some journeys, even without deeper reflection still change us at some substantial level.  The journey into grief and loss comes shockingly sudden and consumes our being such that we lose our way for a time and confront all the questions of mortality.  Journeys into new phases of life challenge us in many ways – the movements from childhood through adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, middle age, senior years into the decline of health and being to death.  There are journeys that thrust us into the next phase of life –moving out of home, marriage, children, commencing a career or beginning a new one, children leaving home, grandchildren and so on.  Some of these journeys confront us such that we cannot help but engage in life-transforming reflection.  Through other journeys we seem to roll on without much change – we don’t necessarily engage with the feelings, tumultuous or otherwise, and ignore the strong thrust to embrace new ideas or wisdom into our being and world-view.

The journey of faith involves spiritual reflection that engages the emotions, the reasoning mind and our attitudes.  This pilgrimage calls into question our assumptions about life and people and right and wrong.  It involves careful listening and engagement and a willingness to explore who we are, the expectations upon us, our expectations of others and whether the priorities we have given to life are truly central and meaningful for us and the world.

This is a confronting journey and this is the implication in Eliot’s poem where the magi come from the encounter with the Christ-child and cannot grasp its significance.  it is a birth-death experience where something in their life and being was confronted with death in order to fully embrace the true wonder and profound reality that was their experience.  They came face to face with the Divine and could never be the same.  But what does this change really mean for them and how they live?  What does it mean for their values and life in their society or how they see the world and other people?  What are the implications of their eyes being opened and how will that transform who they are and what they do.

For Eliot this metaphorical encounter is about himself and about each of us as we open our hearts and minds and being to the Divine dance of grace and love that permeates everything because God is through all and in all and for all.  The Divine and sacred imbues itself into every atom and molecule, every galaxy and star in this profound universe (and any universe beyond!).  Because God is that One in whom we live and move and have our being and love is the essential bond of the universe, the force that holds everything in relationship, any journey is filled with the potential to transform us and lead us into new directions of hope and wonder, expectation and life.  As we pick ourselves up from dark and desperate experiences they transform us and our way of seeing and being.  As we encounter the deeply profound and wondrous we come face to face with God and there is nothing we can do but sit in wonder and awe before it and allow it to be part of us and us part of it – that is contemplation and it is transformative.  We may not even realise that it is happening in us as we give ourselves over to the process of an inner journey into light and life.  This is the way of Jesus and the way of the contemplative life that delights in living and the world around.  This is the journey and we are all invited to delve its rich depths and receive its wisdom, life, joy, hope, peace and love.

The Journey Of The Magi

  • S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991). This poem has been shared here under fair use guidelines provided by The Poetry Foundation. To hear T.S. Elliot read his poem aloud, go to this link: Journey of the Magi from Poetry Archive

By geoffstevenson