We Are Loved!

I’ve got to celebrate a wedding at the weekend.  Part of the service has me saying something to the bride and groom and gathered guests.  It is usually (necessarily?) about love.  It is hard to say something about love that touches deeply and registers at the time of marriage.  There is so much adrenalin and expectation in the air and it is hard to listen.  More difficult still is the fact that we are here to celebrate the love of this couple and most couples understand their love as the most significant and perhaps profound ever.  Most couples cannot see past themselves in this moment and that is understandable.  Added to all of this is the reality that love is presented in some very underwhelming ways in our culture.  Advertising suggests that if we really love someone it will translate into impressive material gifts – the best demonstration of love is to spend absurd amounts of money on the person we love.

Love is often reduced to the lowest common denominator in TV and movie stories, or pop songs and described in simplistic ways.  Some of the nonsensical shows that hover in and around the theme of love suppose that superficial beauty and nice feelings are the sum-total of love.  It is mostly look-good, feel-good nonsense that leads to grief and confusion when people believe that this is how things will be – and it turns out differently.

I suspect that love does not truly reveal itself until life and relationships are thrust into the difficult realities of life.  Whilst hormones flow and infatuation flourishes – a necessary phase for two people to come together, break through their ego-boundaries and commit to each other – love seems blissful and eternal.  What happens when the daily grind of life sets in and the responsibilities, pressures and struggles that we all must face test this love?  When we get down to it, what in fact is love?  And why is love, in popular culture, most typically associated with couples and sexuality?

On and around Wednesday there were a multitude of ANZAC Day celebrations.  Central to many remembrances was sacrifice, along with mateship, working together and looking out for one another.  ANZAC Day usually falls somewhere within the 7-week season of Easter and the readings of Christian churches around the world have various themes of love.  One of the things that Jesus says is: ‘No greater love has someone than to lay down their life for their friends.’  That is precisely what draws us in through ANZAC Day – the laying down of life for friend and stranger, for their well-being and safety.  We stand in awe of those who give so selflessly of themselves, whether in the theatre of war, during bushfires (or other infernos), at the beach, in the pursuit of public law and order and those who respond to danger to save other’s lives.

There was a fellow many years ago.  His name, as I remember, was Leighton and he worked at a Christian campsite in south-west Sydney.  It was a camp site that hosted a variety of groups and holiday camps and he was one of the leaders who enabled young people to engage in a variety of outdoor activities.  One of these included canoeing on the river that ran along the campsite.  It was mostly calm and quite safe but further down was a weir and the water got a bit stirred up there, especially after rain when more flowed over the weir.  One holiday camp the young people went out canoeing with the strict warning to remain upstream, which they mostly did – except for one girl.  For whatever reason she ventured further downstream and too close to the weir.  By the time Leighton and other leaders realised she was out of sight, things were turning grim.  She went over the weir and the canoe was thrust into faster flowing, spiralling water and the girl was out of control.  Leighton was running down the bank and without thought dived into the raging torrent.  He was able to push the canoe to the other side but in the process was caught in a down-thrust of water.  He disappeared and was drowned.  It was an incredibly sad and horrific event, but Leighton was remembered as one who gave his life for the sake of the girl in the canoe.  He lived out the creed he taught to others, the creed of Jesus that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for friends.

This story takes love to a different level.  It isn’t always about sex, romance and nice feelings between couples.  Love is much bigger, deeper and all-encompassing.  Love is about relationship and standing with one another through the good and hard moments life throws up at us.  Love gives of self for the sake of others – it is selfless and self-sacrificial.  As parents and friends this isn’t too large a stretch as most would give as much as possible for those who we are close to and who hold a deep place in our hearts.  But what about those removed from us.  Leighton, in fact, was probably not a close friend of this girl.  His sacrifice was probably for a stranger or one he only met a few days earlier.  Love extends beyond our comfortable and secure world, beyond those with whom we know well and are in close relationship.

Love has the capacity to change us and push us into places where we might not otherwise venture.  Love enables us to reach out to strangers and see them as human beings, to take space to listen and relate and broaden our perspective.  Love inspires in us those feelings when we see news stories of people suffering or when we look into the face of another person who is struggling and feel some desire to reach out.

One of the readings this week is from 1 John 4:7-21 and it speaks profoundly of love.  It says that all love comes from God because God is love.  It suggests that when a person loves, God is present whether we recognise this or not – because God is love.  We are told that God’s love is revealed in God’s embracing of human life, of being revealed through Jesus, the Christ, who dwelt among us.  The good news that John wants us to understand is that God comes to us and loves us fully, completely and dearly.  He says that in true love there is no fear or guilt, and this is the way of God, because God is love.  We don’t have to be afraid because, know it or not, we are held in Sacred love and grace.  When our children we small and something scared them, we held them, and they felt protected and safe (we to do this now with our young dog!).  God, who is love, is in us, through us, for us and will not let us go – ever or for anything!

God, this Trinity of relational love, cannot help but love.  Creation is an act of love – just as the procreation of children in marriage is an act of love, it flows from the love of two people.  God, the heart of love, is where we come from and the destination to which our heart yearns.  Our journeys through life seem to lead us back to this heart of Divine love.  It is where we belong because love is our source and gives us life and being.

So, on the weekend I will have to speak about love and how this most beautiful and potent force is the only thing that will give true hope to the world.  It is the essence of God and God is its source and it flows into human life to give joy, wonder – and love!

By geoffstevenson

Am I Like a Sheep???

I have conducted many funerals over the years.  A lot of the families organising the funeral have wanted Psalm 23 as part of the service.  Whilst they cannot name other Biblical passages, they know this one and it seems to resonate with them.  For some it was mum or dad’s favourite Psalm/Poem.  For others they have heard this much-loved Psalm at other funerals – it is familiar and a comfort.  Many can even recite some of the words, especially the opening: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’

This psalm is well-known in and beyond church circles and seems to offer a sense of comfort and security to many people.  As I read it again this week, as one of this week’s readings, I wonder what it really means to so many people.  Is there a conscious reflection on this psalm, a holding onto something real and hopeful in its words?  Or is there something sub-conscious that touches us in its simple words?  After all, how many of us understand the life of a shepherd and who wants to be likened to a sheep?  I’m not sure that I identify with sheep??!

Then I read one commentator who said this about sheep and shepherds:

If I am sheep, then I am dumb as a box of rocks! In the land of Israel, everyone knew about sheep, since they were everywhere on the hillsides and in the streams of the land. And what they knew beyond all doubt that it was not a very nice thing to be likened to a sheep.  Sheep need constant watching, as they stick their ever-hungry snouts into the grass below them or into the hinder parts of the sheep in front of them, and wander without a thought up and down the land, eating and defecating and straying up dangerous hillsides, and down into rushing waters, foolishly risking fleece and mutton again and again to the utter frustration and consternation of the shepherd, who must be constantly vigilant lest another of her charges drown or fall or be snatched away by the lurking predators of the forest and vale. Shepherding is no pleasant walk in the dog park; it is hard, dusty, smelly, constant labour, and if I am sheep, I am lost without a shepherd.

I wonder, again, whether I am perhaps more like sheep than I want to imagine?  I have intoned the opening words to the psalm many times: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…’  I have read it at funerals, to the sick in hospitals, around death-beds, to people seeking hope and comfort and in church services.  I have read and recited this psalm so many times and, on a few occasions, stopped to ponder what I am saying, what I am affirming as I intone this poem.  I am a sheep who needs a shepherd and the shepherd who fits the bill is this Triune God of wonder, love, mystery and grace.

The psalm suggests rather pointedly that if God is my shepherd ‘I shall not want’.  This is possibly better translated as ‘I will lack nothing.’   This raises so many questions – what do I need?  How will God ensure that these needs are met?  I look around the world and there are many who do not have what they need even though they, too, know this psalm and it truth.  The psalm implies fresh water, green grass and protection through the dangers that confront us.  It is probably this lovely image of fearing no evil ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ that touches many of us in times of struggle and grief.  At what level of our lives does this psalm speak to?  How do we engage or own it so that it rings true and provides deep hope grounded in life and the world?  I can’t say that I know the answers to these questions.  I can’t say that saying this psalm will change the reality of what I experience day-to-day.  I can’t say that the words of this psalm will change the way the world comes at me nor how it deals with others who intone it in desperate hope and belief and in times of crisis, struggle and threat.

When my dying mother read this psalm over and over it didn’t change the reality of physical death and dying.  It didn’t remove the struggle or provide for her physical needs.  Never-the-less, the poem remained with her, day in, day out and offered her some deep assurance and comfort in the midst of the experience of dying.  I have recognised this reality in other people’s lives as they have drawn deeply of these words to revive their spirit, nurture hope and comfort and ease them through the struggle of life and death.  Some have lived through and beyond this, whilst others have moved through life to death.  What was the hope that these people heard and clung to?  What was the comfort that they received from reading this simple poem?

It is too easy for me to spiritualise this, to suggest that the hope and comfort that comes to us is about spiritual realities rather than coming to us in the midst of real life and offering something true in the vagaries and struggles of life.  My observation and experience of people is that we want and need access to something, someone, that stands beyond us and can hold us in love and grace.  This is the deep existential mystery of life – we cannot find our way alone.  We need help from other people and from a deeper power, wisdom and love beyond human capacity.  There is the deep longing to find ‘our home’ the place where we belong, from where we originated and to where we ultimately want and need to return.  This is the mystery of so much of what Jesus says as he invites us into a deep and profound experience of grace with the One who loves us before we were and for who we are.  It is this existential meaning that provides us with the deep foundation of love and hope for our living and ultimately that which we really need.  When we have it we really don’t need any more!!!

In terms of survival in the world at large we will need food and water, shelter, medicine, companionship and other things.  The psalmist invites us to go deep and ponder our deepest yearning and longing.  The psalmist invites us into the place where we meet our most fundamental hope and desire and as s/he explores his/her own life there is the journey that leads into the presence of Love that embraces, holds, protects and will never let us go, thus the psalmist (perhaps David, perhaps not – it isn’t actually stated) arrives at the concluding statement: ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’

I understand the psalm’s movement is to draw down into the depths one’s being to find the Presence of Love, of God, holding us through life’s adventures of joy and pain.  The Shepherd who leads us is a guiding power of love, compassion and mercy that seeks to lift us up to become who we can be, who we are in the very essence of our being.  The Shepherd nurtures and empowers us to find our true selves and discover the freedom to live and be and become.  We are liberated from fear and anxiety as we trust this guiding power of Love.  We find our way through life’s mysteries and we are held in the most profound mystery and wonder of love and grace.

Perhaps this is what the world really needs right now.  We really do yearn for leaders who are formed in this compassion, mercy, justice and love to lead us well.

By geoffstevenson

The Mysterious Power of Vulnerability and Love

We have an old Labrador.  He’s 13 years old and a bit forgetful and certainly obsessed about food.  He is also incredibly friendly towards humans and other dogs.  When we take Nebo (the Labrador) and Nico (a 1 year old Cattle cross Border Collie and full of energy) to the local off-leash dog park they are very different.  Nico can be boisterous but also a little timid with bigger dogs.  He wants to run and chase and round up other dogs.  Sometimes this cause him problems when he annoys them.

Nebo, on the other hand, is happy to plod around sniffing and welcoming all the new arrivals at the dog park.  He wanders up to dogs and sniffs and greets.  He wanders up to other owners and rubs against their leg for a pat on the head.  He regularly wanders around the various people and dogs and seems to check up on them.  The really interesting thing is that Nebo is never at the centre of dogs wrestling around or flexing their muscles with each other.  When some dogs want to gain dominance over another and there’s a bit of conflict, barking, growling and wrestling, Nebo is never involved.  I cannot remember him ever seeking to be the dominant dog or being picked on by others.  When there is a bit of dog conflict and he is nearby, Nebo will try to walk into the middle and it almost seems like he is trying to get them to stop.  He tries to make peace but interestingly they never turn on him.  Nebo is a vulnerable, friendly soul who seems to make peace and provides an example for the humans at dog park.  He endures the frolicking, annoying habits of Nico who often wants to play and wrestle.  He lets other dogs have priority of place and doesn’t create problems.  Nebo is characterised by vulnerability and humility.

It is a strange notion in this world of ours, to think of someone vulnerable and humble and for that to be considered a virtue.  We often think of people who are humble, vulnerable and even powerless as weak, doormats, and certainly not heroic.  We tend to look for strength in our leaders and idolise power, might and strength.  We want political leaders, it seems that are strong and we want allies who are powerful (and have an extra large store of big and powerful weapons!).  Whilst Australians tend to support the underdog we don’t want someone who is walked over and appears weak, vulnerable, humble and powerless.

And so it is with God!  We want a God who is big, strong, mighty, powerful – the biggest ‘dog in dog park’ kind of God.  We want a God who flexes ‘his’ muscles and smites the enemies of the earth (essentially those who we don’t like).  We really want a superhero God who overcomes the baddies who come in power and might with their nasty weapons and hate-filled rhetoric and action.  We like the glory, power and might that has been concocted around God, along with those big words such as omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscient (all-powerful, all-present and all-knowing).  The trouble is this isn’t the God we get!

When we come to Easter stories the God we see revealed in Jesus is one who is beaten, battered and broken, nailed to a cross, dies and is buried in a tomb.  The powers and forces of the world overwhelm and kill him.  Jesus gives himself over to this way of God that submits to violence and power rather than seeking to subdue it with greater power and violence.  Jesus gives himself into this way of God that is vulnerable, humble and appears in weakness rather than strength.  In the story of Easter, we are confronted was with a story filled with human drama, pathos and vulnerability.  Jesus dies and is buried.

In the post-Easter stories, those that come to us after what we call resurrection, the world order is turned upside down and inside out.  The power of God works gently and profoundly, mysteriously and wondrously to raise this Jesus into new life in a new way, a sign of hope that love overwhelms the powers and forces of the world.  The story affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love – nothing in heaven or earth and no powers or forces in all the world. Whatever can be done to us, nothing can separate us from God’s love and it is into God that we finally arrive as the ultimate destination of our being – from God we emerge and into God we return.  This is the nature of love and God is love.

As we enter these stories we recognise the Risen Christ, one part of the Divine Dance we know as Trinity.  This Risen Christ is known by scars and wounds not glory, power and might.  In life, death and beyond death, Jesus is known and recognised in weakness, vulnerability and humility – by scars, wounds and suffering.  Whilst the church often wants to sing about glory, power, victory and so on and the world around is obsessed with power and might (and bigger guns and bombs), God is known in vulnerability and humility, in weakness and suffering.

The first words that this Risen Christ offers in both Luke’s and John’s stories is ‘Peace be with you!’  Later he gives them the ministry and mission of forgiving others.  Both notions are counterintuitive.  There is no anger, nor cries to take up arms and defend or attack.  There is the deep blessing to have peace, to know peace, the peace of God in their hearts, minds and spirits.  Don’t be afraid or angry or anxious – know peace and live into that peace of God.  Then, go and forgive people because mission is reconciliation and love for all people.  It is about liberation from that which burdens and oppresses us; it is about reaching out to those who feel alienated or lost and it is about forgiveness for those who know guilt and shame in their being.

These disciples found it hard to grasp this new and strange reality that life comes through death and love overwhelms hatred and all the powers of the world – and this love is the true liberating power available to all.  The disciples had an encounter with this Risen Christ and were transformed.  This Christ is revealed in the ordinariness of body, a shared meal, wounds and powerlessness.  The sacredness of life is lifted up and God is revealed in the simple and the ordinary, which become profound mystery bearing the Real Presence of the Risen Christ.  This Real Presence is there for us to see and encounter, to engage with.  God is revealed in the margins amongst the powerless and vulnerable, where there are wounds and scars and suffering.  It is when we succumb to the powerlessness and vulnerability of suffering, our own and that of the world around that we begin to encounter the Real Presence of the Risen Christ.  When we break bread together and share meals that bring diverse people together, with common food, conversation and equality, God is present.  When we engage with the world around and God’s beautiful creatures and creation we will know the Real Presence of the Risen Christ – in the vulnerability and grace of our pets, the beauty and wonder of the landscape, the joy of music and story, art and poetry, the teamwork and comradeship of sports and games, the wonder of life shared together.  God is in our midst and life is made sacred, holy, precious, a Divine gift!

By geoffstevenson

The Dying-Rising Life of Love!

A young man once stood on a street corner, opened his coat, and cried, “Look at my heart, look at my perfect, perfect heart.” A crowd soon gathered, impressed by his perfect heart. They stood in awe of a heart without blemish, perfect and complete in every way.

Soon an old man walked by and paused to see what the commotion was all about. When he heard the young man proudly crying “Look at my perfect heart” the old man pushed his way to the front to get a closer look. And when he saw the young man’s heart he scolded him. “Son, that’s not a perfect heart. If you want to see a perfect heart you need to see mine.” With that the old man opened his coat to reveal and old, knotted and ugly heart. It was full of bumps and holes, and pieces of it had broken off here and there.

The crowd began to laugh, but the old man raised his hand and began to speak. “See this bump” he said, “That’s when I me my first love. Oh, how the sun shone that day, how bright the colours of the universe were, how sweet the singing of the birds in the trees. What a wonderful moment it was…Ah, but see this hole, that’s when my first love and I broke up. How it pained me and pains me still. But the hole once ran much deeper. The years have managed to fill it in a lot…See this bump, that’s when I met the woman who became my life partner. Oh, what a wonderful life we had – year after year of shared companionship, of laughter, tears and joy. This scratch here is when we had a blazing row that threatened to end our marriage – but we made up and moved on…Over here, this place where a piece of my heart has been broken off, this is when she passed away. Oh the ache – yes it still aches even today, for she took a part of my heart to the grave with her, but I trust she will return it to me someday…Ah, but here’s another great bump. This was when we began our family. You’ll notice the hole beside it. That’s when we learned we could not bear our own children. How hard it was to accept, how painful to live with. But the bump is when we got our adopted daughter – our very own beautiful little girl to raise as our own. And yes, there are scratches and indentations surrounding the bump – the times we fought and yelled. But always we learned to forgive, and so this bump grows ever bigger.”

The old man went on to describe many other bumps and holes and scratches on his heart, and when he finished the crowd was silent. “You see son” he said, turning to the young man with the unblemished heart, “Yours is not a perfect heart, for it has not lived, it has not been touched with joy and tears and laughter and love and pain and anguish and hardship and celebration. Only when you are an old man like me will you be able to look upon a gnarled and battered heart and be able to say, ‘Yes, now that is a perfect heart.'”

Love is known by its scars and woundedness.  Deep love is an outward flow that rises within a person and flows outward towards others and the world.  This is the pattern of God, the Divine ‘three in one’ relationship we call Trinity.  Love is the essence of this relationship between Creator, Christ and Spirit, a Divine Dance of love, grace and self-emptying humility.  It is out of this Divine Dance of love that flows out into the world as the most powerful creative force that everything exists and lives.  For it is only within deep and powerful love that life can be, can have its being in fullness and wonder.  Wherever humans experience a lack of love something in them begins to die.  Whenever creation experiences neglect, a lack of love, there is diminished life, alienation and death.

This love is vulnerable because it opens itself to all the hurt and pain possible through rejection, loss and the bruises of life.  Such love costs much and is a commitment to another.  It is a great cost to love and yet it is the only way to deep life, hope, joy, wonder and growth into the fulness of who we are and can be.  Love is the vulnerable self-offering of one’s self to another and there is always the risk of this love being rejected, thrown back at you or lost through death or separation.

This is the love we remember, celebrate and stand before in awe and wonder through Good Friday, Saturday and Easter Day.  Jesus bore the fear, anger, abuse and hatred of the forces and powers of his world.  He endured the rejection of people who lived under the power of forces that were violent and alienated people.  The brutal regimes of history are drawn up into this story, as is the pain and suffering of all people.  Christ revealed in this one, Jesus, embraces into the heart of God, the pain, anger, hatred, fear, lust for power, greed and everything that diminishes and ‘kills’ life.  In the Divine heart where there is pure love, such evil cannot exist for love is too powerful, too real for death and its minions and forces.  In love, death and its powers cannot rule because they are the antithesis of everything in the heart of God and they are overcome, transformed and new life flows.

As the story unfolds it appears that love will be destroyed, that the powers of violence and death will be victorious over the vulnerability of love.  Jesus’ body is battered, bruised and beaten.  It is hung on a cross, a humble image of loss and defeat at the hands of the forces of the world.   Caesar and all he represents has won as this battered body is laid in a tomb – the end.

But as daylight emerges into a new day there is something new and profound in the air.  Resurrection, that strange and indefinable word we cannot really grasp, though its signs are everywhere around, bursts into new life.  Love will not lie down defeated for long.  It’s patience and endurance bursts through death and life is born anew.  The Risen Christ emerges into human awareness in new and wondrous ways – appearing in locked rooms; a vision of light on the road; a mysterious presence in the breaking of bread; in the new-found courage and power of his followers.  The Risen Christ is mysteriously and wondrously present to transform life through love and hope.

This is the essence of Jesus’ teaching, that life is a dying-rising experience.  We will only grow as we die to old ways that are formed in fear or self-deception, greed or self-centredness.  We will only grow as we let go of control and power and everything that sets us apart from God and builds barriers to love with God and others.  Dying to expectations, fears and the violence that our culture nurtures within us is hard.  Dying to the limitations that we or others have imposed upon ourselves is hard.  Dying to the prejudices and sense of entitlement that pervades our world is hard.  But dying is necessary and makes resurrection possible through love’s embrace, grace and humble generosity.

Jesus’ story is one in which we find our own lives.  His courageous sacrifice and embrace of love in God is the only way for us to find our way into the life for which we yearn.  Easter is the promise and hope, but it is costly, as are all things of true worth.  New life, new birth and new hope comes through dying-rising in the way of love.

By geoffstevenson