Taking Up A Cross of Love…

The fascinating Gospel reading (Mark 8:31-38) this week got me thinking about some of the difficult situations I have faced over the years and how they changed me.  As I remembered there was the awareness of my own helplessness and powerlessness in most of these situations.  I simply didn’t have anything to offer that would change the situation.  As a male I am always wrestling with the expectation of needing to fix situations, make it better, protect…  These were usually situations where I was powerless and it felt really hard and I felt vulnerable.  I also realised that in such moments I was often pre-occupied with me and my needs, wants, fears or whatever – these things tried to intrude and divert me from what I ought to to do, like it or not.

There was a situation a few years ago.  It was a quiet Saturday morning and I was getting on with doing what had to be done, both in finalising stuff for church the next morning and much needed things around the house.  It was going well and I had my list of tasks to be ticked off through the day.  Some already had their ticks registered and I was feeling pretty good.  Then the phone rang.  A ringing phone can offer a variety of possibilities but as I answered I had a feeling that this was not going to be an easy one.  It was the Uniting Church Chaplain at the hospital.  He greeted me and then got into the business of his call.  He had just received a request to go to the hospital because an elderly woman needed to talk to the it Uniting Church Chaplain.  Her middle-aged handicapped son was dying and she wanted to talk to someone.  His problem was that he had to go and do a wedding in an hour or so and wasn’t sure how long this situation might necessarily go on for – he didn’t want to rush away in the middle.  He was ringing me as the relieving chaplain to ask if I would go over in his place.

As he was telling this story there was a rushing stream of thoughts going through my head as I listened.  They all amounted to me wanting to say ‘no’.  I didn’t have the energy.  I didn’t have the time.  Wasn’t there someone else.  I’m not really sure I’m good at this sort of thing.  I have nothing to offer…  On and on the thoughts streamed through my mind looking for a way out.  Of course my sense of responsibility, perhaps obligation, (or maybe just the sense that this is my job?) took control.  I took down the details wished him luck with his wedding and reluctantly prepared to go to the hospital, very unsure of what I would encounter.  As I drove I felt the usual sense of helplessness, perhaps fear, consume me.  What would I say?  What would I do?  I couldn’t waltz in and make everything better – fix the son or take away the mother’s pain.  Words often feel empty and nothing can change the reality of what this mother is facing in this moment.  I can’t change all that, can’t fix it or make it better and I found/find that powerlessness and vulnerability sometimes a little overwhelming.  I feel overwhelmed sitting before deep pain and grief.  I feel it creep into me and sense, even experience the reality of suffering alongside the other, for a time.  This entering another’s space of grief, struggle, life takes energy and some sacrifice and is hard.

I found the elderly woman sitting by the bedside of a dying middle-aged man.  I introduced myself and wondered what to say.  I was still filled with myself, my own feelings and fears and uncertainties and discomfort.  It was till about me and what I could be doing, things that needed to be done and were easier but here I was and before me was a dying man and a mother sitting alone in her grief.  I asked her to tell me what was happening – knowledge is power and perhaps there’d be a clue as to what I should do.  She spoke and talked for a long time about her son and the struggles of his and their life, of the fun and difficult times they had shared.  He had lived with her and her husband most of his life but then it became too difficult for them and he had been placed into care.  Her husband died and she was alone.  She visited him several times a week but now his system was breaking down due to all the medications he had taken over the years for all the things he had wrong with him.  Pneumonia was taking him out.  She talked and talked, only interrupted occasionally when asked a question or two.  As she talked I relaxed and became more present to her and her story.  At some point in the experience it became about her and her son, not me.  My own needs, fears, wants… were pushed aside, forgotten and we entered into this situation, along with other staff who came in and out or eventually sat with us as well.  As the man died peacefully we were able to pray for God’s peace and grace to hold him and finally lift him out of his life’s struggle.  She thanked her son for his love and all they had shared together – he simple, child-like acceptance and love.

I realise that ultimately this is what it is all about – love.  Love given and received.  Love that does not overpower, dominate, oppress, fear, control, pretend, but is raw and vulnerable before the world.  Love is the most powerful and vulnerable force anywhere.  It is only present when we give up our own egos or fear or need to control and allow love to blossom in what we do and say and how we do it.

The Gospel Story this week is of Jesus telling the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to give himself in love to and for the sake of God’s Reign in the world – he will give his life in love.  He knows that the powers are going to kill him but he goes voluntarily to show them they have no power over him because he is filled with the love of God and love can never be quenched!  The disciples don’t understand.  They recognise him as ‘the Messiah’ promised by God but don’t understand the nature of what this means – vulnerable, powerless love before the world.  It sounds incredibly naïve and profoundly stupid because there are people with swords and spears and armies who will walk over him without a second thought.  One commentator put it:

It’s not what his disciples expect. They, too, are children of the world. And although they weren’t bombarded with 5000 advertising images each day as we are, yet they still imagined that the secret to life was strength and power rather than vulnerability and love. And so they interpreted Jesus’ miraculous acts as demonstrations of power rather than manifestations of love. And when Jesus describes the greatest act of love – giving his life for them and the world – they can only object.

Jesus invites his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him on his way.  This is about love.  It is about embracing the self-giving way of love in which we discover that in giving of ourselves, we receive much more back.  When we love others we discover a community of love coming back to us.  Barriers fall and the frightening diversity that opens us to differences in people becomes the harmony that fills our world with music grounded in love, wonder, justice and peace.

In visiting the elderly woman I came away tired and weary but filled with wonder at having shared a deeply sacred moment.  God was present and that was all we needed!

By geoffstevenson

The Journey Through Suffering…

One day a man noticed a cocoon opening and stopped to watch as a butterfly tried to emerge into the world.  It struggled furiously to break through the small hole in the cocoon.  The struggle went on and on with pauses to renew strength and start again.  After watching for some time the man grew frustrated for the butterfly and took matters into his own hands.  He carefully picked up the cocoon and took a pocket knife out.  He very carefully sliced open the cocoon and liberated the butterfly.  He expected the butterfly to spread its wings and fly away but it didn’t.  In fact it never did because its wings were too weak.  The man in his desire to help the struggling butterfly stopped its struggle and that very struggle was what it needed to become strong enough to flap the wings and fly.  The man unintentionally disabled the butterfly.

As the butterfly needs the in emerging from its cocoon, so we all need struggle and adversity to build resilience, strength, courage and character.  This applies equally to our physical, emotional/psychological and spiritual development.  If we do not engage in some deep struggles through our lives we will be like the butterfly and unable to engage strongly, wisely, resiliently and confidently, with the world and other people.  I remember a similar story when we did bush regeneration and were planting very young trees.  We were told to provide some support around them to protect them from being easily broken or blown over in storms.  We were also warned not to provide too much structure and support around the plant or it would never grow strong.  It needed to be pushed around, blown back and forth in the breeze in order to grew strong and resist the storms as it got bigger.

As a society we are becoming more and more cautious and the litigious nature of the world often means that we are risk-averse and overly protective.  Modern generations of parents have been accused of over-protecting their children from the harsh realities of life, whether the physical pain of bruises, cuts or broken bones, or the emotional and psychological pain of growing up.  We don’t want our children to hurt.  It is difficult to nurse them through the pain that is normal in life.  It is hard when there is conflict in the school playground and they experience some of this as rejection or friends not wanting to play with them.  It is difficult and we want with all our hearts to keep them safe and secure but are we helping their growth?  Are we creating resilient and healthy individuals or children who don’t know how to deal with adversity and hard times when they inevitably come?  Some who work with young people whose lives have come adrift claim that providing a good and safe structure in which to freely explore life, to get into trouble when they push the rules a little to far and to be nurtured through hard times and suffering is vital for the growth and nurture of young people and adults.

Malcolm Fraser famously stated the ‘Life isn’t meant to be easy.’ It is a paraphrase from George Bernard Shaw apparently and was intended as a response to a question about the hard decisions he had to make.  It is a deeply true statement.  Life isn’t easy and it isn’t intended to be so.  Despite this our society seeks to make life as comfortable, secure, and as pain-free as it possibly can.  We have myriad ways of keeping the realities of life at bay or anaesthetising ourselves against pain and struggle.  History shows that those who endure the hard moments of life, who embrace their suffering and learn through it grow in humility and character.  Some of the greatest leaders have been formed in the crucible of suffering and pain.  Two of the great political leaders of the 20th century, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, both experienced the deep hatred, prejudice and exclusion of apartheid.  Both were persecuted and suffered deeply.  Both grew through their anger and seeking of revenge to become deeply humble people and profoundly great leaders who shunned violence and the use of power in violent and abusive ways.  Nelson Mandela, along with Desmond Tutu and others, saved South Africa from sliding into civil war and chaos.  Having been imprisoned for 27 years in total, Mandela was humbled.  He lived in a small cell, open toilets and the humiliating conditions of jail.  The young, ego-driven radical who took up the fight in his early years gave way to a deeply wise, humble and courageous leader who emerged from prison and led his nation.  Gandhi, likewise, was formed through his understanding of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and applied this to the deeply humiliating experience of being racially discriminated against.  His deeply spiritual life was grounded in prayer and compassionate action.

This week we commence the journey through Lent, a time when we reflect more deeply on our lives and realign ourselves with the path and teaching of Jesus, the way of justice and compassion.  The reading this week (Mark 1:9-15) contains the story of Jesus being driven into the wilderness by God’s Spirit.  There he fasted and prayed, was tempted and there were wild animals with him and angels ministered to him.  It was out of this crucible of contemplation in the wilderness, of enduring the harshness of life and drawing down the ego to find the humble way of powerlessness that emanates in compassion, justice, mercy and grace.  Out of this wilderness experience Jesus began his mission as proclaiming the way of God, a way that contrasted with the powers of the world around him – Jewish religious leaders and Roman powers.

It is out of personal suffering and struggle that we begin to understand that we are not in control of life or the world and we can’t manipulate God.  We move from certitude and confident (arrogant?) belief systems with which we surround ourselves to protect and make ourselves secure.  As we engage in the struggle of life we begin to recognise that we are not alone in this world and that we are powerless to change the world in our own wisdom or strength.  We need other people and they need us.  Our egos and highly developed self-image is able to be gently dissembled and humility to blossom without our being.  Compassion, inclusion, love, grace, mercy and faith can grow within the seed bed of struggle.  The enemy of faith is not doubt but certitude because when we are certain in our belief systems and know all there seems to know, we no longer act in faith.  Faith grows through the experience of pain when everything is challenged and we hurt and feel anger and confusion and cry out to God in this frustration and sadness.  The mystery of God opens up around us to embrace and hold us in this wonder of love that transcends all else and leads us into the deeper journey of the spirit.  This is the way of Jesus.  This is what he season of Lent is about and this is what our dear world needs more than anything else!!  We need leaders who are not ego-driven and immature, squabbling over trivia and playing power games.  We need leaders who are not dazzled by wealth and fame but humble people who know they are no better or worse than anyone else.  We need leaders and citizens who dare to tread where Jesus trod and to live out this journey of faith with courage, love and grace!

By geoffstevenson

When Wonder and Mystery Break in to Strengthen Us on the Journey

I was with a group of people the other day talking about God and life and the journey of our faith.  The conversation moved to discussion about hope in the midst of modern life.  Specifically, we discussed our need to hope and believe that God had not given up on the world and that in the midst of the troubling times that continue to be revealed in the daily news, God was present.  More than that, we discussed our hope that God and goodness would prevail.  We referred to the range of crises and potential crises present in our world, of evil unleashed in the affairs of people with too much power and lacking the maturity and wisdom to manage that power.  Whether we speak of ISIS, al Qaeda, the various civil wars and conflicts engulfing people and nations or of national leaders who present threats to peace and well-being on earth.  There are several unstable, immature leaders in our world – does God have any sense of presence or overall control in the affairs of the world.  To this we added the deepest crisis engulfing our planet and its environment – the constant warming of the earth.  The melting polar caps and rising ocean levels, the warming of earth’s oceans and the changing climate experienced across the globe is indeed a deep crisis.

How do we experience God in the midst of crisis and does God have any overall control?  Is there an end-point where good overcomes evil and all is okay?  Or does evil and chaos thrive and win the war?  These are difficult and prescient questions which engender various responses, some simplistic, some hopeful and others deep and profound.  We didn’t come up with conclusive answers to our questions and we consider that the asking the questions is the most important first step.  Where is God in the midst of the crises of life, both personal and communal and how does God act?  Is there a point in which God will finally and conclusively act or is God constantly active in restoring and renewing life and the world?

These questions were in my mind as I came to the story for this Sunday – Mark 9:2-9.  It is traditionally called the ‘Transfiguration Story’ because in it Jesus is transfigured – transformed in appearance in a vision before the disciples.  It is a story that comes half way through Mark’s Story of Jesus.  In the first half Jesus preaches, teaches, heals and invites all people into the way of God – he calls it the Kingdom or Reign of God.  It is an inclusive Realm where everyone has a place, is welcomed and can find new freedom and belonging.  It was mostly the lowly, poor, ordinary people and those marginalised, sick, disabled…  About 95% of the population of Jesus’ day were in some ways disadvantaged and struggling and these and everyone were welcomed into God’s grace and love.

This inclusive invitation to love and grace upset the powerful and wealthy, the privileged who controlled people’s lives through religious or political power and through debt.  The privileged were afraid that Jesus was causing chaos and they were losing control, status and power as he spread his message of unconditional love and grace in God.  They plotted against him to retain the power and control of the status quo and keep everything on an even keel.  It doesn’t seem too much has changed across our world as our group struggled with the crises of modern life and asked our questions – wealthy, powerful people still want to control things and define who is okay and who is not.  They continue to use violence to maintain their order.

In the middle of Mark’s story Jesus told his disciples and other followers that they were about to journey to Jerusalem, the religious capital, and everything would come to a head.  Jesus would be arrested, tried and sentenced by the leaders of his own people and his Jewish Faith.  He would be crucified by the Romans and die.  He spoke about how God would not let go of him and the movement of love and grace that was God’s Reign on earth and he spoke of rising from death.  These ideas were far beyond the comprehension of his followers who had assumed Jesus would become a political/religious King who would overthrow the Romans and restore peace to God’s people through warfare.  They couldn’t grasp this way of vulnerability, of a journey to death, of sacrificing his life for the sake of God’s Reign on earth and to reveal the profound power of God’s love to all people.

For Jesus, this was a critical moment, a turning from teaching and ministry to the journey into death and whatever lay beyond through God’s power and love.  As in most times, Jesus retreated to high places to pray.  In this story he took Peter, James and John, three leaders among the disciples.  They climbed a mountain to pray and be quiet in preparation for this immense task.  In that moment Jesus’ presence was transformed, transfigured, and he glowed white.  With him appeared Moses and Elijah, representing the great heroes of Jewish faith and symbolising the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah).  The disciples were afraid and Peter ran around like a headless chook before this vision.  A cloud surrounded them and a voice saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’  Then everything returned to normal and they climbed down the mountain.

Biblical scholar, Ched Myers, calls this a “salvation history summit conference.”  He argues that both Moses and Elijah had their own epiphanic experiences in the Old Testament, and that these occurred precisely at times of special difficulty for their mission.  By this Myers means that Moses and Elijah both had visionary, experiential encounters with God in the midst of deep crises in their mission.  These are moments of difficulty where courage and encouragement are needed, assurance they are on the right track and that God is indeed with them and hasn’t let go!  Myers suggests that this was such a moment for Jesus and these disciples – and for the community of Jesus’ disciples in Mark’s community some decades later.  In the midst of difficult moments of life God comes to us in profound ways to let us know that God has not given up on us, God is with us and God will guide and strengthen us.  People have these encounters through the crisis of death, both the dying and the grieving.  These encounters and revelations occur in other momentous moments where we need the assurance of God’s deep, abiding presence that will not let us go.  Perhaps in these moments, we are more open to the wonder and mystery of God, more alert to sacred in our midst and more vulnerable and humble to receive grace.

Martin Luther King described such an experience on the evening before he was assassinated.  As God had allowed Moses to see the promised land from the top of Mt. Nebo even though Moses would never enter that land. That night in Memphis, King entered the cloud with Moses: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop … And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  These moments that intrude into our lives give us reassurance and hope that God is with us and loves us.  God has not given up and the revolution of love is a powerful force for good!

By geoffstevenson

The Social Impact of Illness and Disability…

There was a young man in his early 20’s.  I’ll call him Tom.  He lived at home with his parents and I think there were siblings.  Tom lived with mental illness – from memory, schizophrenia.  Life was difficult for Tom and his mother in particular.  He took medication that provided some measure of control to the symptoms of his illness but left him feeling lethargic and struggling for motivation and energy.  Tom’s existence was pretty simple – he kept mainly to the house, only occasionally venturing out into the complex world that was hard for him to negotiate.  The world around was fast-paced, stressful and intense and it was hard for Tom to engage.  It seemed to him a little like trying to get onto a treadmill whilst it was already moving and so he didn’t often try.

Tom was invited into a program set up by Parramatta Mission in conjunction with the Schizophrenia Fellowship of NSW and Cumberland Psychiatric Hospital.  It was called the Parramatta Leisure Club and operated to provide easy access to social and leisure activities for those who lived with mental illness.  Entry was gentle and welcoming.  The team eased people into activities and gave them space to build trust and learn how to engage or re-engage.  There were a range of activities that most people take for granted but people living with mental illness often found near impossible to be part of.  There were sports, visits to places of interest, picnics and creative pursuits around art, music and poetry.

Tom gradually entered this program with the support and encouragement of his mother and the team.  It was a slow process to begin with, but he gradually found his place and became a regular participant in the many activities.  After a few months, Tom’s mother was talking to the team who asked her how she thought Tom was going.  She said that Tom seemed better than he had been for several years.  He seemed more motivated, more interested in life and was enjoying himself immensely.  For her, the program was a lifesaver.  Tom was out on activities through most days and she now had more time and space to live her own life and get done what she wanted and needed to.  Tom’s major symptoms were milder than they had been for a long time even though there was no change in medication or treatment.  We realised that for many of the young (and not so young) who engaged in this program there was therapeutic value.  It came through them being included, valued and able to participate in communal activities that were safe and structured for them.  Interacting with other people and gaining a sense of belonging is a vital element to being human and experiencing life at deeper levels.

Over the years I have come to realise that illness, disability and mental illness have both bio-medical implications and social/communal impacts.  Disease is not just biological but there are always social dimensions to disease and disability.  When a colleague or family member is unwell with a virus, we keep our distance so as not to be infected – we try to isolate the person.  We also do this with the range of childhood illnesses such as mumps and measles, where we isolate children at home so that the spread is contained as much as possible.  Different illnesses and disability have different levels of social impact.  At the height of the AIDS epidemic I was working at St Vincent’s Hospital in the department that diagnosed and treated patients.  These people were gentle, ordinary human beings who were faced with a diagnosis that was quite dreadful.  The physical symptoms of their illness were very difficult, but this was significantly compounded by the social exclusion and judgement they experienced from society in general, including the church.  The social dimension of such illness, like the stigma attached to mental illness or autism or many other illnesses or disabilities, severely impacts the lives and emotional well-being of those affected.  It very often minimises any full engagement with other people and restricts their sense of communal interaction and sense of belonging.

Illness and disability are often more prevalent in communities where poverty is higher and access to resources more limited.  Often illness and disability contribute to impoverishment, social, emotional and economic.  In our contemporary society where disease is viewed predominantly through the lens of medicine and science we all to often miss the social dimensions of disease and disability.  Many people who live with chronic illness, disability or mental illness remain largely hidden and separated from mainstream society and are forgotten.  The struggles of individuals and families becomes very difficult and many simply just exist.

In Jesus’ world, illness and disability were understood predominantly from social and religious bases (medicine and modern science were still a few years away!).  There was understanding that some illness was communicable and so there was quarantining of people and the symptomology of disease caused varying levels of difficulty and stress.  By far the most serious dimension of illness was in the social and religious understanding that often believed the God (or gods) were responsible for a person being unwell – it was a judgement upon the person or family.  There was stigma associated with illness and reasonable isolation (quarantining) led to social exclusion.  Illness and disability usually resulted in deeper impoverishment and was exacerbated by poverty.

In the early stories of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1 onwards) there are several stories of Jesus healing people of their illness.  Sometimes he used the words: ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ which really upset the religious types who sought to control people and their lives in every way.  These healing stories are intended to reveal to us how Jesus countered the social and religious dimension of illness and disability that excluded people from normal communal and religious life.  For example, Jesus embraced lepers who were religiously unclean and socially isolated.  He challenged the social taboos around illness and disability and proclaimed that God loved all people – as they were!  Jesus embraced anyone and everyone into an inclusive community of love and grace where each person found their place to belong and contribute – to become their true self in the grace of God.

This was (and is!) quite extraordinary.  The religious leaders experienced it as heresy and a challenge to their own authority.  Suddenly people who had been isolated and excluded from the life of their community (and the grace of God!) were liberated from these strictures to find freedom despite their illness!  This is the way of God!!  This is the intent of God for all people – to be able to belong and express ourselves freely as human beings alongside all other people.  The exclusive ‘us and them’ mentality that typifies so much of life in our world diminishes all of us and builds barriers that cause pain and rejection.

Tom experienced life and belonging in the Parramatta Leisure Club and he came more alive and joyful.  This wonderful human being received grace and love and gave it back to others in a community that accepted all people and treated everyone with dignity and grace.

By geoffstevenson