The Vulnerability and Beauty of Love’s True Power!

Another week rolls by.  The earth turns on its axis.  The seasons are changing, although Summer made a surprising re-appearance before fading into cooler, wetter days – at least along the Eastern seaboard.  The news feeds roll by and the stories come and go, wax and wane.  The headlines change but the essential content never seems to be different – new names or places, same old stories.  Another ruthless world leader is re-elected, crushing his opposition and imposing his cold-blooded domination upon those who oppose him.  Putin is not one to be messed with and he typifies everything that is narcissistic, controlling, manipulative and an abuse of power.  People have been imprisoned, murdered or disappeared at the whims of Putin’s hatred and need for absolute control.  He is just the latest in a long, long line of such people who dominate the world stage.

Of course, there have been more tweets from the tweet-meister himself, Donald Trump.  This week he has sacked another staff member, Secretary of State, via twitter.  There were more gun deaths in the US and violence across our own streets.  Conflicts across the world create ongoing struggle and pain for many, ordinary people who are powerless against the forces that dominate and control their lives.  We are reminded again of the dire state of our environment and the significant issues revolving around climate change and its impact upon eco-systems, oceans, polar caps and all of us.

There are forces that control our lives, things we feel powerless against and we are squeezed and pushed and manipulated.  Decisions are made, and we feel powerless to contribute, to change or influence these decisions made on our behalf or that affect us in significant ways.  There are things happening all around us and we feel helpless to change anything; we find ourselves at the whim of the world’s forces and powers.  We also find ourselves in the slipstream of changes imposed upon our lives by forces beyond our control and for many, this is difficult.

This week begins the most sacred and holy week for Christians around the world.  As we move towards Easter there are mixed messages and diverse expectations from within our churches and the culture around us.  Those who have no religious faith still participate in ‘Easter’ but increasingly on their own terms, changing names of ‘Hot Cross Buns’ or ‘Easter Eggs’ to appeal to the non-religious.  For some in the church this is all about victory and glory, power and might.  Jesus is hailed as almighty and victorious, but his vulnerable and humble life and death are overlooked.  We simply do not know how to deal with a God revealed in powerlessness and vulnerability.  We seem to want to take on the world around at its own game and we become part of the power games, violence and fearfulness that typifies our world.

This Sunday around the world, churches will re-enact a simple, fun, child-friendly parade of Jesus entering the Holy City of Jerusalem.  He rode in on a donkey with peasants and ordinary people wandering in from the surrounding fields and villages to join the fun.  It was a hope-filled day, one when they could dare to believe that the world might be different and this one who understood them, sat with them at their own level, ate and drank with them, this one was riding into Jerusalem.  It would have been somewhat obvious to them that these very images appeared in their own scriptures – the Messiah would come on a donkey, powerless and vulnerable, as the presence of God.  They danced, sang and waved branches.  It was fun and will be across the church this Sunday.

There is much more to Jesus seemingly innocuous entry into the Holy City.  It was a statement of protest and a proclamation of another way.  Jesus was entering the city of his imminent death and he knew his fate.  The Jewish authorities, living in fear of Rome and upsetting the Roman leaders with anarchy and rebellion in their midst were on high alert.  This was Passover Week in Jerusalem, a week that remembered and celebrated God’s deliverance of their ancestors from the oppression of Egyptian slavery many centuries earlier.  Under Moses, the people were led out of Egypt and to the Promised Land and the people of Jesus’ day, fuelled by rebels and radicals, sought deliverance from the oppression of Rome.  Every Passover was high tension and brought out deeply emotional responses.  The crowds grew to four times the normal population – around 200,000 people.  Rome sent in its governor of the region – Pontius Pilate.  He paraded in through the gate on the opposite side to Jesus.  He came with soldiers on foot and horse-back.  There were trumpets, armies, swords, spears, shields and the ominous threat that Rome was here and would tolerate no turmoil, protest or anti-social behaviour.

So, Jesus came in a deliberate manner to rally the troops of ordinary people to believe in God’s other way.  He came deliberately sending up the parade of Pilate.  One came in power and might, with the threat of violence.  Jesus came with no power, except love.  He came without violence.  He came humbly, vulnerably and offered himself and all he was for the sake of God’s way in the world.  He came building relationships of love and grace with all people, offering another way to live.  He came declaring that Caesar was not all powerful, nor even in control – he only thought he was.  He said God was the true way into the life we all seek and yearn for.  It is a life of letting go of the ego-driven, fear-fuelled, self-centred way of being that is nurtured by so many in our culture.  He shunned fame, fortune and power for power’s sake.  God created enough for everyone and if we shared what we have then all would have enough.  Power was to be used graciously and to serve the weakest and most vulnerable and gently lift them up.  Jesus’ way wasn’t terribly revolutionary because it was all there in the scriptures, but people sought to control how these were read (as still happens) and what people had to believe, think and do (as they do today) and ultimately God’s deep way of love fades behind self-gratification and the lust for more – power, wealth and fame.

Jesus paraded into the city and walked towards his death, vulnerable on a cross.  He spoke of the dying-rising life in God.  He spoke of how we must let die the fears and expectations that are falsely formed and driven.  When we let go we will feel vulnerable.  As we let go of power we will feel weak until we realise and understand that our lives are in the hands of the gracious God whose power is love and love is the first and final word in all these stories.  Jesus will die but be drawn into a new way of being we call resurrection, life in God at its deepest, most profound level and this is grounded in the power of love to transform and give life in all its fullness.

This week the story of Jesus will contrast once again with the news feeds and impositions of the world around.  We might do well to find ourselves in Jesus’ story yet again and learn to live in this radical, life-giving way of love, grace and humility!

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By geoffstevenson

Protons, Neutrons, Electrons Flying into the Blue – Life Eternal

This week, in contemplating the mysterious stories of Jesus I was introduced to a song by The Cat Empire, an Australian ska and jazz band that plays funky music.  The song is called ‘Protons, Neutrons, Electrons’ and has a chorus that goes:

On the day that I die / I’ll just give a smile / And fly into the blue!
Cause we’re all just- / Protons, Neutrons, Electrons
That rest on a Sunday / Work on a Monday and someday soon
We’ll be singing the old tunes / Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-doo
I’ll be sitting on the porch with you / Then I’ll die and I’ll / Fly off into the blue!

It is an interesting song that is funky and asks questions of life and existence.  I wonder what they mean by ‘Then I’ll die and fly into the blue’?  Is this saying that there is nothing else to life and we are nothing more then a bunch of atoms at the mercy of the laws of nature – physics, chemistry and biology?  Is ‘the blue’ a nothingness into which we all disappear when we finally succumb to nature’s whims and fancy and the atoms in our being are turned once more into dust?   Or is ‘the blue’ a hint of something more to mortal existence that imbues life with the transcendent quality that we encounter through wonder, awe and love?  The Cat Empire ask these funky questions in their funky way interspersed with rhythm, horns and ska vocals and leave us to ponder and wade through the mystery that is life and struggle and hope and wonder – which is where I started when I stumbled upon their song.

Is life a Richard Dawkins-type universe where everything simply complies with the physical laws of life?  Are we simply the means in which selfish genes and other forces control who, what and how we are?  Are we passive participants in Stephen Hawking’s quantum world of sub-atomic forces within or the cosmic scope of relativity in the universe beyond?  Are we merely flesh and blood actors in a script controlled by powers that control life even though we have the sense we have choice and power in our right?

These, in other forms, are the existential questions and ideas that the author of John’s Gospel wrestled with.  This week we encounter Jesus offering a perspective that invites us into a deeper consciousness of life and being, to embrace a new way that deepens our awareness and experience of life (John 12:20-33).  John calls it life eternal.  This notion speaks into life that embraces the fullness of awe, wonder and spirit and lives into a new consciousness in God – a new way with new priorities.  This life is contrasted with the material and economic priorities of the dominant cultures around us.  It is contrasted with the lust for power, control and domination through violence.  Jesus is lifted up and glorified but this comes on a cross.  He is vulnerable, humble and, in worldly terms, weak and the powers laugh as they bleed the life from him.  This One in whom we encounter God deeply and profoundly has no power except love, mercy, compassion.  He is vulnerable and embraces suffering in himself and others.  Jesus breaks open the false belief that life is best lived through the accumulation of money, possessions and power, and that these things will bring meaning and happiness.  He breaks open the individualistic streak in people and the greed and exclusive tendencies built upon fear and prejudice that alienates, divides and separates.

As some Greeks (Gentiles or non-Jews and therefore outside the religious life of Israel) come and seek Jesus he speaks in strange terms saying, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.” 

These strange words go to the heart of how this life eternal is perceived and embraced into our lives.  There is a seed, a kernel, of yearning that is deeply embedded in our being.  We feel it flutter into life as we glimpse or experience something that transcends our lives, our awareness, our being.  When we come face to face with profound love or awe or suffering, we are in a place where words and the belief systems of our culture fail us.  We cannot explain the ‘miracle’ of the birth of our child.  When we gaze upon the vulnerable and fragile life that had its origin in human love and has developed in the deep dark place of its mother’s womb, we are left speechless.  I remember the deep sense of awe and wonder I felt.  I know the biology and phases of development from embryo to foetus to child born but it doesn’t matter when I hold my child for the first time – it is miraculous and truly beyond my comprehension.

When we encounter profound love that holds us through the joys and storms of life without regard for who we are, what we can do or what we can offer, but simply because we are, this is a deep and profound wonder.  It is life-changing.  As is a deep suffering that we are supported through, to embrace and feel and grieve and to die before we live again.

These experiences involve a death in perception, expectation or world-view in some form.  As we move through them we are likely to be transformed through the crucible of struggle, of engaging in deep questions and profound experiences.  This transformation in our consciousness is like a seed breaking open within our being and bearing new fruit.  We see and understand anew.  We have a new hope and purpose and life.  The things that once held us so tightly, bound us in limited expectations, break open like a seed and die.  Through this death of expectation and limited vision we experience a resurrection, a new life into something bigger, more profound and more mysterious.  We are no longer bound by a belief system or the cycles of life or even the laws of nature, which continue to exert their influence on our physical being but cannot control the life within us that emerges in vulnerable, humble love, mercy, justice, compassion, relationship, belonging and wisdom.

In John’s story Jesus will be lifted and draw all to himself and into the light that is life eternal and we will be invited to embrace this deeper way of God that is grounded in vulnerable love, empowered by the love that burst out in the first big bang at the heart of all there is – the Divine Heart.  From within the God of love we come and into this love we return – perhaps this is ‘the blue’ of the Cat Empire’s song.  It is the yearning in every human heart.  It is the bonding of love and faithfulness we experience in other creatures towards us.  It is the relational love embracing diversity and difference that is the beautiful truth of who we can be for one another on this fragile planet.  It is the beauty of the soaring orchestral work or the free improvisation of jazz or the breath-taking ballad.  It is art, music, love, life poetry and the breadth of human experience held in God’s heart.

By geoffstevenson

Yearning for Life, Deeper, Richer…

I encountered a bloke recently and he was struggling with life, with the grief of loss, the changing patterns of his living, the unfulfilled dreams and expectations that no longer seemed as appealing anyway.  He was in a place where there were unformed questions that sat like a weight in his gut or floated through his subconscious, fleeting and disturbing.  He sighed a lot and couldn’t put into words what he felt – everything was too deep and unformed and dark and scary in that he was feeling less and less in control.  He had come face to face with vulnerability and felt an increasing powerlessness over life.

It is a hard place and I recognised myself in his struggle.  I have been there and dipped in and out of the place of questioning, of facing a quest into the unknown where all expectation of self and one’s capacity seems to uncertain.  For males it means I am not able to ‘fix’ everything and make it right, safe, stable and under control.  Everything in me cries out against such powerlessness because of the ingrained expectations that ‘I can’.  When ‘I can’t’ I can feel all at sea.  The common response is to fight, struggle, resist and seek a measured control over my life.  This isn’t only a male thing because females do this but in different ways and their inner responses vary.  The submission before powerless vulnerability leads us all into a difficult place such that we challenge it strenuously and seek to regain some control and power over life and events and people and ourselves.

There is a deep struggle that we all engage with whether we like it, want it, accept it or not.  Sometimes this struggle sneaks up and arrests us in a sudden burst of overwhelming grief and leaves us lost, alone and frightened.  Sometimes we succumb to a deep yearning that wends its way through our being, a discomforting sense of there is something more, something we’re missing that lurks just beyond our grasp, our vision, our life.  There are moments when we are captured by a glimpse of something that triggers a subconscious flood of feeling, emotion, knowing that sets up a reflexive response of hope and yearning that we can’t quite capture except in raw thought and feeling.  There are moments of intense wonder and awe that hold us transfixed and we recognise something of our limited nature before the overwhelming beauty and power of our vision and experience, which is visceral and all-consuming of our being.  Then, of course, there are the seasons where we collapse in the face of deep and profound grief, where life and death loom large before us and our own mortality is writ large across the screen of our mind and being.  We encounter these transcendent emotions and realities and feel small, powerless and even helpless before them.  For some, there is a response of fear to what feels threatening and oppressive.  For some there is a struggle to resist, fuelled by anger or bitterness and rejection of what is.  Some succumb and are meekly held in the grasp of forces they will not resist and give into depression and despair.  These are the natural and logical means of responding to the deep powerlessness and vulnerability we confront in human life, but they are not the way into deeper, richer existence and life.

Until we can embrace a vulnerable, humble way, to journey through powerlessness and to give up the need to be in control, we will not find the path into deeper wisdom and love that is the deep source of all human longing and hope.  Deep within us is the richly formed desire to belong and live within the heart of love, compassion and hope.  We are formed out of the Big Bang of love that is the origin and source of all things – that which we call God.  This personalising force and power of love that is infused into all things as the necessary character of creation, draws all thing into a deeper relationship with the Divine, the source and essence of love, life and everything – in God we live and move and have our being, says Paul (Acts 17).

This deeply embedded yearning and hope initiates the quests and questioning of people.  It prompts us through the glimpses and experiences of sacred wonder in human (and non-human) life.  When we confront the deeply profound experience of awe and grief, wonder and mortality, the transcendent, existential reality of life in God challenges us and draws us into its curious and wondrous path.  Before deep wisdom and compassionate love and mercy we are often edgy, fearful and resistant.  We are invited to let go and become vulnerable, trusting and to exercise faith.  This is unnatural for humans as we want control over, certitude and to trust what we know and can define.  The mystery and uncontrollable love and mercy of God are often anathema and that is why Jesus speaks of dying and rising, death and resurrection.  In the prelude to our passage this week (John 3:14-21), Jesus tells the questioning, yearning, seeking, searching Nicodemus that he must be born again anew or from above.  He needs to submit to this raw mercy and wonder, the wisdom of humility and ceding control and embrace love – to be embraced by love.

In this passage the most well-known verse in the evangelical church, John 3:16 finds it home.  This verse has become a well-worn symbolic verse that holds all manner of evangelical meaning and doctrinal expectation.  It has become so well-trodden that we read it without awareness and its profound truth barely sees the light of day.  It reads For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  I used to understand this as pointing towards an intellectual, rational ascent to truths or dogma about Jesus, that believing was about thinking and accepting particular truths, but I was wrong.  This believing means to hold in one’s heart or being that the way of Jesus, along with his teaching, is the way of life.  It is to let go of my need to be in control in this world and cede such power into the grace and love of God where it becomes refined and renewed and non-coercive or dominating but freeing and life-giving.  In the passage around this verse there is an image from the story of Moses holding up a serpent on a pole in the wilderness.  The serpent was understood to be imbued with healing power (and hence became the symbol, of the healing profession – doctors have this symbol).  Jesus becomes the beacon of light in a world where darkness and shadows wreak havoc and lure us into seductive addictions and life-denying practices, spreading poison, hatred, fear and alienation.  Looking to him as the way into a new consciousness and life, believing in him, his way and submitting our lives into this new-ancient way of God gives expression to the yearning in our hearts.

This way is a vulnerable, self-giving way that immerses itself in love, wonder and transverses the chasms of suffering within this mercy, fearing no evil because God is with us, loves us, holds us and draws us into the beloved community where we can learn to set aside the superficial masks and pretence learned in a culture that shuns vulnerability and discover the truth and beauty of who we are and who we were created to be.  This is the journey for each person and the invitation into genuine love and life in God.

By geoffstevenson

Relationship – the Heart of God (and the Universe!)

I was reminded this week, again. Of the vastness of the universe.  It was a brief comment on the Voyager 1 Space Probe.  Voyager 1 left Earth on September 5, 1977.  It has been part of the Voyager Program to study the outer Solar System.  Jupiter, Saturn and its large moon, Titan have been observed and studied by this amazing probe.  As of the beginning of this year it was 21 billion kilometres from the moon!  Through the early part of this century it began to move from the heliosphere (‘the realm of our sun’) and into interstellar space.  On August 25, 2012 it became the first spacecraft to cross the heliopause into interstellar medium and is travelling in deep space.  At its current speed of ~520 million kilometres per year it is travelling 1 light year (that is the distance light travels in a year – a rate of 300,000 kilometres per second!) every 20,000 years.  It will take 80,000 years to reach the nearest star (4.3 light years away).

You are probably shaking your head by now at these bewilderingly large figures.  For me, it is hard to comprehend such distances, such vastness.  Our nearest neighbour star is 40 trillion kilometres away and the universe is vastly bigger than this relatively small distance!  The studies of space and the theories around black holes, dark matter, the life-cycles of suns and the expanding universe are mind-boggling.  As are the studies of that which is very small – intercellular organisation, sub-atomic particles and all those things that happen beyond what we can see and more readily understand.  The world of which we are part is vast, bewildering, profound and very mysterious.  We know a great deal but this pales before our ignorance.

Sometimes it is good for us to stop and consider that the world is very big and there are 7 billion people and God knows (literally!) how many have walked the earth, and how many animals, plants and organisms share this world with us.  We are very small bickies in this vast picture and yet we occupy such a vast and central place within our own minds.  We have made great leaps in technology and understanding, but we claim a far superior place in this universe than is realistic or reasonable.  Humanity exudes a high degree of arrogance about our place in this scheme of things, a rather stunning sense of entitlement at times.  Perhaps a little humility and vulnerability is in order – certainly our planet needs a little humility from its human inhabitants.

So, it is that we approach faith in God.  Too much of faith is not faith at all but certitude that presumes to ‘know’ and to declare what is right, wrong and speak this in the name of God.  On the other hand, there is the arrogant assertion that we are all there is and nothing more and we hold ours and the world’s destiny in our hands (which in a way we do) and we are the centre of knowledge, wisdom and truth.  Neither approach offers much possibility for the future as both inevitably lead to warring and conflict over who is right or wrong, who has power and who is in control.  Ultimately, none of us is.  Our small minds cannot conceive of everything there is and individually we cannot control the world (nor together actually) and make it into what we want it to be, though we try so hard!

I was confronted by these thoughts as I read the reading for this week – the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).  I always think of Charlton Heston as Moses standing on a mountain surrounded by thunder and lightning – the God of storms and might lighting the sky in power and might and delivering two stone tablets with the LAW on them.  Sadly, I also connected this image with Charlton Heston as the head of the NRA (National Rifle Association) in the US and his defence of the right to bear arms despite the grievous displays of violence and the massacres of so many innocents.  It makes me wonder how an actor can play Moses, enter the story and stand in awe before the mysterious, powerful God receiving the Divine communication, then give voice to such violence and terror, to the means of taking life – human or animal??!!

When I recall Cecil B DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments’ it seems that God is portrayed as a powerful, fearful, mysterious being who stands rigidly over and against these humans.  It is as if God says, ‘These are the laws and you will obey them – OR ELSE!!).  God seems remote and somewhat terrifying at times in this portrayal.  But then I wonder?  I wonder if this is how the story really does unfold?  I wonder if we have been formed more by Hollywood and not enough by theology and the story in our Scriptures?  Admittedly, the words in our Bibles can be read dramatically and in strong, decisive terms but is this partially a cultural understanding of God communicated through the people who expected God to be like this and responded to their pre-existent, cultural experience?

The Ten Commandments are very relational, as is the Jewish way of thinking, something that we miss from our Greek way of viewing the world.  God declares that God is their God who brought them out of slavery and invites them into a relationship that is living and real.  They are invited to be in relationship with the real, living God who will act with and for them.  Therefore, don’t worship the false idols, gods, images and other things that point to the Divine – look to the God towards which all things point, rather than the pointers themselves.  This is an invitation to be in relationship with the Living God!

The second half of the Ten Commandments invites us into relationship with each other – honour parents, don’t steal, kill, or commit adultery, don’t gossip/slander or covet/be jealous…  These are about interpersonal relationships and essentially call us into a place of love where we live with others and refrain from theft of life, possessions, relationships or reputation.  These are quite fundamental boundaries for a community and a world.  They really aren’t that radical but take a high degree of humility and giving up a sense of entitlement.  Why is it that the powers that be will not change gun laws in the US?  What is so difficult to understand about ‘Do not kill?’  How is it that our nation has not understood that demeaning and demonising refugees or those who are impoverished is slandering and bearing false witness.  More than that we have deprived fellow human beings of freedom and basic human rights.  When we view life from the central position of ‘me’ we often miss the deeper reality that we belong to something bigger, deeper, richer and more profound.  We fail to understand our place in the universe and live with the tensions of conflict, fear, hatred and seeking to be in control, jealousy.  We seek things we don’t need or even really want but have been convinced will make us better, happier and more fulfilled, none of which happens and so we seek ever more ‘stuff’.

As I look to the vast universe out there and within my own body, I am humbled and awed by the sheer profound wonder!! This is of God and this God wants to be in relationship with us.  It is a gracious invitation to let go and find myself and my life in this God who is love and loves so deeply, graciously and generously.

By geoffstevenson