Discovering More Than We Expected…

Have you ever gone searching for something and found something else you weren’t expecting but seemed far more significant in that moment?  I have quite often – shopping, travelling into a new place, searching the internet…  Sometimes, it even feels like the ‘something’ finds me.

When I began high school I never considered music might become a significant interest.  I had never really thought about.  In the first few weeks of high school I heard the school brass band play a few times.  They were a very, very good band – Australian Schoolboy champions, or something like that.  I was fascinated that boys my age or a little older could actually play these instruments and make this amazing sound.  I was more amazed when I discovered that some of the boys in my class joined the band and could already play trumpets and trombones, drums and other things.

Over those first few weeks I felt a sense of wonder and was drawn to the music.  When the bandmaster invited people who would like to join to come to the music room one lunchtime I found myself nodding in agreement and realised I was going to the music room at lunchtime.  I wasn’t sure why or what I was looking for, hoping for.  I don’t know what it was within me that drew me to the music and the need or desire to play an instrument.  All I knew was that it was calling me and I had to respond, to go and see what it was offering, what it was all about.

At lunchtime I was in the music room and the bandmaster, one of the music teachers, waxed lyrical about music and instruments and then grabbed a trumpet and did things I never realised could be done on a trumpet (he was the Australian Bb cornet champion at the time).  I was flabbergasted and excited and suddenly discovered I was in a place I never expected to be!  He handed around some instruments for us to try and play, having shown us how to make the sound.  It wasn’t easy, I discovered.  I ended up with a trombone because I couldn’t get a sound out of a trumpet.  Over the next few months I tried various instruments and settled on a baritone and euphonium (like small tubas).  Whilst I learned a bit, it didn’t really work out well and after some consultation I was offered the opportunity to have a go at the newly acquired clarinets with the new music teacher.  Perhaps she was a little more patient or maybe I was just more suited to woodwind but my progress there was much better.  Eventually, there was a saxophone available and I jumped at the opportunity.  It took a bit of getting used and a lot more air than the clarinet, but I felt like the instrument had found me.  I have loved playing this instrument for many years.

As I look back, that was the beginning of a very significant journey that I would never have imagined.  I did elective music through high school and have played music ever since.  It has affected so many areas of my life and made such a significant difference to me.  Looking back, I think music actually found me.  I went searching, hearing the call of the band and sensing something of awe and wonder, but I was found by something much bigger and drawn into a life-changing experience.

At a very different time in my life, towards the end of high school, I was invited to attend a youth group camp by some friends.  I wasn’t sure but there was something in me that felt drawn and so I accepted their invitation.  I can’t fully describe that experience, but it was, once again, an experience of deep awe and wonder.  It was a deeply spiritual experience where I was drawn into a group of people who accepted me, included me and opened me to the presence of God.  Put like that it sounds much less than what I felt and knew that weekend.  It was a deeply spiritual experience and I recognised that this God-presence was very real and far more than I ever thought about or expected.  It was a case of being discovered, found, drawn into something richer and deeper and of having my spirit enlivened.  It was a very significant part of my spiritual journey that challenges, confronts, inspires and draws me evermore deeply into life.

I thought of these experiences, along with many more, when I read a couple of the passages for this Sunday (Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17).  The first is about Isaiah, a prophet sent to bring a hard and confronting word to the Jewish people.  This passage is about his call, an experience profoundly spiritual, a mystical experience.  He encounters the living God in a profound way and is drawn more deeply into a journey that he never expected – and it will be very difficult but comes with God’s presence to sustain and enliven him.  Through this experience Isaiah feels so alive, so free, so inspired and loved that he leaps to the challenge to speak for God into the lives of people.

The second story (John 3:1-17) involves an encounter between Jesus and a religious leader, Nicodemus.  He comes in the dark, symbolic of his life, to the Light because of the yearning of his heart.  For Nicodemus his crisis isn’t so much a critical point that is thrust upon him but a growing sense of purposelessness, despite him being a religious/spiritual leader of the people.  Despair or confusion gnaws at his soul until he can bear it no longer; distraction and busy-ness no longer pacifies his being and his yearning leads him to the one who can enlighten his way.  Nicodemus is mystified by the words of Jesus who points him to a new beginning, a new life born of God’s Spirit that reveals a new path and expectant new world view.  Nicodemus cannot go back to what was – all is different!  He gets much more than he ever expected.  Jesus will not let him go nor let him settle for less that that which is real and true.  He reveals God in ordinary, earthy things and claims God’s deep love for the world in all its beauty, wonder, fear, anxiety, pain and horror.

I am reminded of U2’s song ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’.  It confronts and questions a society where we settle for the superficial and secondary rather than that which is real.  It plays on the old jingle for Coca Cola – It’s the real thing!   If Coke is the real thing, what does that actually mean?  If a cola drink claims to be reality, where does that leave everything else?  U2 ask us what is real and true and worth holding onto.  In a world of smoke and mirrors, distractions, imitations and the confounding call to embrace material excess and virtual reality, we are challenged to look into something real, enduring and meaningful.  It is this that Nicodemus discovers and once he sets his feet on the path he is caught up in a journey that stirs his soul, stokes his spirit, feeds his mind and energises his body – it is a whole of person experience and he is alive.  Nicodemus, in his initial confusion had to discover that a reorientation of his mind and view of the world was necessary and when he opened himself to Divine Love revealed in Jesus he discovered the essential reality he had been truly seeking but had never really understood.  Nicodemus

I wonder what you are seeking?  What is it you really want or need in your spirit?  What journey will you take into a deeper, richer sense of being?

By geoffstevenson

The Exhilarating Ride into Life!

I recently read a story from Tim Winton’s book, ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain.’  It is a story called, ‘The Wait and The Flow’.  He says:

I grew up in Scarborough Beach in the sixties where surfing was a local culture.  At the age of five, when my teenage cousins, both girls, pushed me out on a big old longboard.  I was more scared than excited.  The physical details and sensations are still vivid and fresh in my mind.  Like the greeny tint of the board’s resin and weave of the Volan cloth beneath it.  The deck was bumpy with paraffin wax.  I remember the stolid symmetry of the three wooden stringers under the fibreglass.  Everything about the trek out to break was overwhelming: the light and noise, the sheer heft of the board, the nervous anticipation.  I wasn’t paddling, I was being ferried out there.  Then, without warning, I was spun around.  The air roared all about me.  Suddenly I was rushing shoreward, flat out.  And that was it.  I was gone from that moment on.  I wanted more.  I wanted to be a surfer.

Winton describes surfing as an experience of freedom where one pits their skill against nature, working with weather, wind and waves in an exhilarating ride that is unpredictable.  Perhaps it is the uncertainty and risk, in conjunction with a level of being out of control that provides the richness of the experience.  The freedom comes from letting go and being driven along on a wave that is powerful and unpredictable.

This story reminded me of those moments when I have felt somewhat out of control and carried along by forces I can’t contain – there is risk and freedom and a wonderful sense of exhilaration.  There was the time I decided to ride down a very steep hill not far from where we lived.  I had driven it many times and wondered about riding it on a bicycle.  One day I took the challenge and rode the reasonable distance up and down slighter hills until I came to the beginning of the steep hill.

I had chosen a time when traffic was light and set out.  The hill is very steep, and I rode the pedals as fast as I could to keep up with the wheels but soon I couldn’t keep up.  I crouched into an aerodynamic position and freewheeled down this hill.  I hit the bottom, which flattened out and then proceeded up the other side – just as steep.  My momentum carried me a fair way up the other side and I pedalled as far as possible.  As I slowed down I felt it prudent to jump up onto the footpath out of the way of traffic behind me.

The ride was exhilarating, and I hit somewhere near 60 kilometres per hour on a slow mountain bike – I wondered what my old racing bike might have achieved?  The wind in my hair, rushing past me, the blurred scenes on either side, the road flying by beneath me, all this felt wonderful and exciting.  It was freedom.

I’m not sure what caused these feelings.  Was it the risk and memory of bike crashes down hills in my childhood on older bikes as chains came off and snagged the wheels?  Was it the uncertainty of the bike’s capacity for speed?  Was there an inherent sense of danger and risk that amplified the excitement?  Perhaps it was the sense of being out of control, of letting go and being in the influence of gravity’s force.

I thought of these stories when I read, again, the story of Pentecost.  Originally a Jewish Festival, called the festival of Weeks (a week of weeks, fifty days, after Passover).  The Jewish Christians gathered with others in Jerusalem to celebrate.  It was there that they had a special experience of God’s Spirit coming upon them.  The story that Luke tells (Acts 2:1-20) describes the coming of the Spirit as like tongues of fire and a wind that blew through the room and their lives.  The Spirit touched these people and filled them with a new courage and recklessness.  Instead of hiding away, afraid of the powers of the world, they were filled with the power of love – that casts out all fear.  They proclaimed this experience of love that filled them and overflowed in love for others.  It was a reckless, generous love that could not be contained.

The story the disciples tell is of being out of control, of flowing free in the Spirit – riding the wave of love and the power of being, which left them exhilarated and alive.  They freewheeled down the mighty slope of discrimination, violence, oppression and fear in the ‘out of control’ power of inclusive love and merciful grace.  They could not, not love and speak, and live out grace and compassion, mercy and justice.  They couldn’t help but ride the freedom of this experience of the Divine, of God’s grace come close and filling them.  It was like the most profound experience that keeps on going, a ride where one cedes control and is united into the reality of God and is filled with the most joyous and wondrous feeling of fulfilment.  It is an experience of being one with all things and standing in awe before the source of all life, that One in whom everything moves, lives and has its being.  In this experience of the Spirit there is no judgement – that comes when we give into fear.  There is no hatred, only love and life, joy and peace.  It is a mystical experience that many speak of and is fundamentally about a relationship with the Divine – living in and through God and God in, through, for and around us.

I heard a similar story of some young musicians in the 1970’s USA.  They were good musicians who were playing with known bands.  Life was a continuous unfolding experience of seeking new experiences that gave a buzz, a high that tingled the senses.  There were drugs of all kinds that stimulated the senses, dazzled the mind and gave a wonderful feeling – for a time.  There was alcohol and sex and everything the hippy culture, promoting peace and love could discover and serve up.  They were heady days.

They were also days that were filled with more yearning and searching for something enduring and life-giving.  Drugs wore off and messed people up.  There were addictions and high cost but also, drugs took them out of life for a time – they dropped out.  For many of these searching young men and women, the culture promised much but delivered too little of lasting reality.  It was just another hollow promise.

Into this culture, the Spirit of God blew through as on the Day of Pentecost and myriad other times and places.  These young men and women responded in various ways to the pull of a new and growing Christian culture called the Jesus Movement.  They found themselves confronted with a choice to jump on the wave or reject the ride.  Would they give up control and try this new thing or plod on through highs and lows hoping to find the answers themselves.  One was challenged by a friend who asked if he wanted to be prayed for.  He finally confessed that he didn’t have a clue and was only faking it like everyone else.  He allowed himself to be prayed for and the room exploded in light.  His life changed dramatically, and he discovered the freedom, life and love of being embraced by God, who is love!  He found a sense of wonder and a love that felt deeper and richer than anything he had known.  He, like others, found grace and life in God’s Love!

By geoffstevenson

A Mother’s Love…

This is a true story of a Mother’s Sacrifice during the China Earthquake.

After the Earthquake had subsided, when the rescuers reached the ruins of a young woman’s house, they saw her dead body through the cracks.   Her pose was somehow strange that she knelt on her knees like a person was worshiping; her body was leaning forward, and her two hands were supported by an object.  The collapsed house had crushed her back and her head.

With so many difficulties, the leader of the rescue team put his hand through a narrow gap on the wall to reach the woman’s body.  He was hoping that this woman could be still alive.  However, the cold and stiff body told him that she had passed away for sure.

He and the rest of the team left this house and were going to search the next collapsed building.  For some reason, the team leader was driven by a compelling force to go back to the ruined house of the dead woman.  Again, he knelt down and eased his hand through the narrow cracks to search the little space under the dead body.  Suddenly, he screamed with excitement,” A child! There is a child! “

The whole team worked together; carefully they removed the piles of ruined objects around the dead woman.  There was a 3 months old little boy wrapped in a flowery blanket under his mother’s dead body.  Obviously, the woman had made an ultimate sacrifice for saving her son. When her house was falling, she used her body to make a cover to protect her son.  The little boy was still sleeping peacefully when the team leader picked him up.

The medical doctor came quickly to examine the little boy.  After he opened the blanket, he saw a cell phone inside the blanket.  There was a text message on the screen.  It said, “If you can survive, you must remember that I love you.”  This cell phone was passed around from one hand to another.  Everybody that read the message wept.  “If you can survive, you must remember that I love you.” Such is the mother’s love for her child!!

Such are the extraordinary lengths a mother will go for her beloved child.  There are countless stories on this Mother’s Day to inspire and challenge us – and challenged we need to be in this often angry, violent world in which we live.  When people of power and low on wisdom are confronted they use their power and might to subdue enemies or any who oppose them, and the innocents die.

This simple story is enacted in many ways and forms throughout our world as mothers seek to care for and protect their children, who are threatened or in danger.  Some have the power of this woman to save her child whilst others look on helplessly as their children are sacrificed in warfare, indiscriminate violence, tragic accidents, illness and natural disasters.  I have sat with mothers who have felt the deep and profound pain of losing their children – it is heart-wrenching.   The child they felt grow and develop within them and whom they birthed, held, nursed, nurtured and loved has died and they were powerless to change anything.  There are dreams shattered and questions that echo through the years, remaining unanswered.  There is the deep and painful hole in their heart that will never fully heal.

In his song, Russians, Sting asks if Russians love their children too?  This is the only thing that will save us from unnecessary and unwinnable war.  In the context of the Cold War he asks similar questions of President Reagan and Premier Krushnev and suggests that if their children are loved, perhaps they won’t start nuclear strikes or sacrifice their kids for nothing.  I wonder how the international conflicts we hear of and experience would go if mothers, especially the mothers of the children who will be sacrificed, had a say?

As we journey through Mother’s Day and ponder the prayer of Jesus (John 17:6-19) perhaps we may hear an alternative to violence, hatred and the conflict that does so much damage to innocent people’s lives.  Through John’s gospel, Jesus invites people into a new and different way that is grounded in a freedom that comes from being loved and learning to love in return.  He invites us to see the world in a non-dualistic way – that is not to look from the perspective of us and them, black and white, right and wrong, in and out, Muslims and Christians, east and west…  Jesus invites us to look at the whole and to see ‘us’ so that we break down the barriers of ‘them’.  Mothers see children and love them.  They yearn for a life that is safe, free, loving, kind, gentle, challenging and fulfilling.  Good mothers tend to see children as children and are deeply pained when any child is sacrificed.  This is the attitude that Jesus engenders in us.  His prayer in this passage ranges across protection, challenge and growth, hope, life, joy and for all people to know God deeply and profoundly.

I often wonder how world politics may be different if mothers were running nations?  I also wonder how the budget would be different if mothers were able to put it together.  Would there be more compassion, more mercy, more care of those who are weaker and vulnerable, and more generosity for the poor of the earth – the children who are dying from hunger, thirst, basic illnesses and so on?

When baptising a child and welcoming him/her into God’s family, I often reflect on what our hopes and dreams are for this child and for all our children.  Mostly people want a world that is peaceful, inclusive, filled with love, joy, hope and where everyone has enough, and the beauty of the earth is maintained for all to enjoy.  They want a world that is safe, secure and where their child(ren) can thrive and flourish.  This is the world we all want, and it is the kind of world Jesus speaks of and his way is filled with these characteristics.  His prayer invites us into a way that makes a difference, living hopefully and joyfully and including others into a gracious community.  His prayer seeks unity and life in God for all people and that God would hold all in grace and love and never let us go.  It is a prayer for freedom, life, hope and joy!

This is the world that mothers want for their children.  As they hold their child they dream of a future that is wonderful, where the child has enough of the things they need – material, spiritual and emotional/psychological.  This is a world that is possible if there is a will, a desire and the belief.  It is a world where self-giving and loving another for who they are as a person loved by God is characteristic.

Mothers do the most extraordinary things for their children and give up of themselves much in order for their children to thrive.  Jesus lived this life in self-giving, sacrificial love and invites us to participate in this counterintuitive, transformative way of life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mums and may God’s love touch all who have had a mother and lead us into this life of joy, grace, peace and love.

By geoffstevenson

What are Friends?

I read this story about a 5-minute unexpected conversation that created a relationship between two strangers.  It causes me to ponder what it means to be friends…

There I was all settled into my aisle seat near the back of the plane. Others were still boarding.  A couple who was clearly together caught my eye.  On an impulse, I offered them my seat, so they could travel next to one another.  When I looked around I realized that all that was left was the middle seat right behind me. I climbed in over the man on the aisle, opened my book, plugged my ear-buds into my phone and settled in to read and listen to some favourite music and settled into my flight.

Forty-five minutes later our plane landed in Raleigh.  I wasn’t getting off, but everyone else was.  Up to that point, I had shared no conversation with the woman by the window other than to tap her arm to see if she wanted a soft drink when the flight attendant couldn’t get her to raise her eyes from the magazine which seemed to have her undivided attention. Only as the rest of the passengers shifted in their seats, anxious to get on to various destinations, she looked at me sheepishly as she pulled a grocery bag out from under the seat in front of her.  She offered then that her sister had asked for the kind of hot dog buns which split on the top. She’s turning sixty on Monday and it’s all she wants.  With just a couple of sentences spoken, I picked up on the sharp edge of her New England accent: one shared by family as my dad had roots in Massachusetts.  Before we knew it we were sharing all sorts of details about our lives.  In five minutes time I learned that her mother just turned 80 and lives with her younger sister and her husband.  That her dad had died the year before.  During his last years in a nursing home her mother visited him every day. I heard about her disdain for winter, but their grandchildren are there and they won’t be quick to move away from them.  I learned that she has her great-grandmother’s very extensive shell collection in her home… and that on a first visit last summer, a grand-niece of her husband’s thought her name should be “Shelly” instead of Chris.  And she wasn’t the only one talking.   It was an utterly easy and unexpectedly rich conversation I shared with a stranger that afternoon. And I found I couldn’t help but wonder if given the chance to really get to know one another, if we might just be ‘friends.’

What makes friends, friends?  What are the necessary elements for us to consider another person a friend?  Do we choose friends or does it ‘just happen’?  I suppose there are people we connect with deeply, who seem to be on our wavelength or understand us and we them.  Perhaps it’s things we have in common, like experiences, interests, views and perspectives (ideology) or a purpose and dream.  Friends are diverse, and I find connections in surprising places.  There are people who I have been surprised to encounter and engage in conversation and life experiences, people who are very different from me and come from a very different place, background and place in society.

So, what is friendship really about and why/how do we call people friends?  I’m not sure I know the answers to these mysteries, but I sense that they are important ideas and questions.  Friendship is obviously about relationship and relationship is grounded in trust, respect, love and there are elements of self-giving and even self-sacrifice for friendship.  The elements of loyalty and self-sacrifice, of this unequivocal love is obviously reflected in the animal world – I know especially about dogs, whose love, faithfulness and loyalty is unquestioned.  This week we will celebrate the life of Elizabeth, a member of Ebenezer Church.  She died suddenly over the weekend and I can’t help thinking about her beloved dog, Tex, who went everywhere with her.  He accompanied her to church and everywhere else as an important companion in her life.  He will be grieving as well, as dogs do.

How does friendship grow and develop?  With our dogs, they bond through trust with humans.  They have a deep, deep need to bond and to relate, to trust and to love in return.  Their lives depend upon our goodness to them.  Is it the same with friends?  Do we understand how we depend upon each other, how we need the companionship, the interaction, the sense of belonging with other people?  I recognise that friendship grows as we open ourselves to one another, sharing stories and personal information as we journey deeper into a relationship of trust and openness.  As we share more deeply who we are and feel the acceptance and trust of another we begin to trust and love ourselves more fully.  The path to human maturity lies through being loved and loving, of growing in our awareness of ourselves in relationship with others.  If we never learn or allow ourselves to share who we are we will remain disconnected from others, unable to engage and discover the depth of meaning and life that comes through relationship and love.

This week we read a fascinating passage (John 15:9-17) where Jesus calls his disciples and followers, friends.  They are not servants, creatures or anything else – they are friends of Jesus and therefore of God.  He challenges them to love each other as he has loved them.  Further, he says that no greater love has a person than to lay down their life for their friends.  Like much of John’s story of Jesus, there is a convoluted, circular movement where Jesus speaks about being in the Father and the Father in him and me in you and you in me…  This is the confusing, wondrous mystery of God who is a relationship of love between Creator, Christ and Spirit.  They dance this circle of creative, self-giving love that flows out into all the world so that we are in God and God in us and we are invited to become one with one another, loving each other as God in Christ has loved us.

It is a story of sacrifice and self-giving love that finds joy and wonder in giving to the other.  It is a story that challenges the divisions and barriers that we find are erected between ourselves and others who are different.  I have occasionally watched ‘Australian Story’ or ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and find fascination in hearing a person share something of who they are at a deep enough level for me to be challenged and change my attitude to some of the people who have exposed their lives on this show.   Some of these are people I thought shallow or uninteresting…  Their story reveals a beauty and humanity that connects with elements of my own story such that there is understanding and openness.  Whenever I have looked into the eyes of another person, no matter how different, and listened to their story, I am changed, and something happens between us, a connection and the fragile origins of friendship.

This is the wonder of what we call Incarnation – God revealed in flesh (as one commentator puts it: God moved into our neighbourhood and lived among us).  God comes to us and lives along side us in flesh and blood and calls us friends, trusting, loving, understanding and travelling with us.  In small and large ways we are loved and invited to love in return for this is the deeper reality of being human and finding meaning in life.

By geoffstevenson