Relationship – The Beginning and End of All Things!

I read something this week that made me think.  It was speaking about relationship and that power and energy exists in the relationship rather than in particular elements or in people.  There was the example of an atom.  The energy of an atom exists within the relationships of particles within the atom – the electrons, protons and neutrons.  When a particle bombards another atom, it causes that atom to split into two new atoms and release huge amounts of energy, which exists within the relationship of the nuclear particles.

The point of what I read was to comment on how relationships are at the heart of the physical universe.  Another article described quantum entanglement, which I found profound and strange.  It essentially says that if you have two particles that are in relationship and then separate them, the relationship continues on wherever they are in the universe.  The theory goes that if you take one of these particles to the other side of the universe and then do something to the particle you are holding, there will be an instantaneous, equivalent change in the other particle light years away.  If, for example, you reverse the spin of one particle, the spin of the other will change instantaneously.  This upset Albert Einstein because it seems to mess with his theories of relativity and that nothing can move faster than the speed of light.  An instantaneous change of a particle in response to a change in another particle with which it is in relationship at a vast distance, defies the speed of light.  Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance’ (a wonderfully scientific phrase!).  The whole point of this is about relationship and how it is central to the universe, whether at a particle/atomic level or in the gravitational pull between planets and stars in the universe.  Relationships are the essence of how cells operate and the systems of the human (animal and plant) body.  The systems of nature are interrelated and influenced by those relationships.  Relationship is where the energy, life and love exist within the physical/emotional world.  Life is experienced in relationship – with other people and with non-human creation.

As we engage in our daily walk with the dogs, we encounter and are in a relationship with the world around us.  We interact with the world through contemplation, breathing, temperature, the dog’s movements, people we encounter, animals/trees/creek we stop to look at and so on.  Life and experience is in the relating and my being exists in relationship.  I understand myself more truly and fully only in relationship – especially relationships that are honest and engage me, push me and critique me.

The book I was reading actually speaks about God – as relationship, a community held and grounded in love.  It speaks of God in the traditional Trinitarian formula of ‘Father, Son/Christ and Spirit’ (or Creator, Christ and Spirit…) as three entities held in relationship and the essence of that relationship is love.  This is a loving community and love exists in the relationship between them, holding them together.  This relationship is the essence of creation and life.  In the Jewish story in Genesis (1:26-7), God says, ‘Let us create humans in our image.’  The image of God is relational love, a flow of love and life from ‘Father to Son to Spirit’ to us and back again.  This flow of Love is in the spaces between us, a flow of love between people (and creatures), in, through and around us.  Richard Rohr goes on to say how it is the stopping of this flow of Divine love that is ‘sin’ because this is existential death.  It means being shut down, closed off, blocked… – much like a hose that is twisted, and the flow of water stops.  Or, a river that becomes blocked and the flow ceases leading to stagnant water and death of the river.

God is relational, and it is in the relationship God with us that we have life and breath and being because this Divine relationship is the essence and energy of life and love.  When we block this energy, deny it or refuse it and reject the inspiration and leading of God’s Spirit within us, we become arrogant, self-centred and dogmatic in our views and ideas.  Hard as it is to comprehend, God is more concerned with relationship than correctness (whatever we mean by correctness or even truth)!

This underlines the meaning in our Gospel reading this week (Mark 4:35-41) where Jesus set out across the lake with his disciples.  Jesus is tired and sleeps.  Meanwhile a storm blows up over the lake and threatens the little boat.  The disciples, deeply afraid, awaken Jesus begging him to help them, to save their lives.  Jesus seems grumpy and annoyed (I get that – he was woken from sleep!!).  He raises his arms and cries out to the wind and sea, ‘Peace! Be Still’.  Of course, everything calms down and Jesus turns on the disciples asking, ‘Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?’   They were awestruck and focussed on the wind and sea ‘obeying’ Jesus.

One commentator reminded me that I am too often like the disciples and cry out to God to stop things that are happening.  It is common for us to yell out to God and blame God for not doing what we think ought to happen, for not exercising powerful control over everything – as in this scene.

Perhaps Jesus’ reluctance in this story is fully in tune with his reluctance to be a powerful wonder-worker over everything else.  Jesus, it seems really is like God!!  God doesn’t appear to intervene to change things like we might in our video games or make-believe games that give us omnipotent power and control.  Something in us would like God to do this – as long as it is in ways we expect and approve of!!  But God doesn’t because that isn’t the true nature of God.

In this simple story it seems that it may have been enough for the disciples to comprehend that Jesus was in the boat with them!  Jesus sat with them in the midst of the storm.  He was in relationship with them and in that relationship is the real power and essence of what it means to be alive.  The truth that the disciples will eventually understand is that the Spirit of Jesus, is with them in the midst of life’s storms and struggles.

As a minister, a male minister, I have had to learn that I cannot change people’s life situations; I can’t make everything better with a lovely prayer or Bible reading or words of faith or hope.  Sometimes all I can do is get into the hole that people find themselves in and sit there with them to share the mess and chaos and pain.  Sometimes, often, this is what we want and need from others.  We don’t want to be fixed, we want relationship!

God is relationship and in this relationship of love, I discover life and freedom and hope and peace.  I also discover that it is relationship with others that is more significant than being right.  I can live with the diversity of ideas, experiences, beliefs, hopes when I am committed to relationship more than correctness or uniformity.  God is in the relationship between me and others, the love that flows between us.  ‘God is love and those who live in love live in God and know God because God is love.’ (1 John 4:7-8).

By geoffstevenson

Living in Mystery and Joyous Wonder!

There is a mystery to this life, a deep and profound mystery that we mostly can’t live with, cope with or allow to be.  We find it hard to sit quietly in the presence of mystery and wonder.  Awe is lost on our modern world when everything is ‘awesome’ and yet nothing really is – we lift the banal up to the levels of the wondrous and often miss the truly awesome.  There is the rather laborious desire to control everything and hush mystery, avoid the uncertain and feel inadequate before the purely confusing and unknowable.  Even when science ushers in the answers, in a pragmatic and utilitarian manner, we are caught like a stunned animal in the glare of headlights before mystery and wonder.  We simply do not know what to do.  Certitude and an unwillingness to live with the unknowable become difficult in a world that seeks control and absolutes.

Susan and I recently visited Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the traditional indigenous name for the Olgas).  Standing before Uluru, an ancient wonder, a sacred place, filled me, as it has millions of others, with a sense of awe.  Uluru felt alive as it interacted with the world, the light, the changing moods of the day.  It was different each time you looked at it and every corner, angle and view was different and invited curiosity and reflection.  I heard some of the science behind Uluru and it helps me understand it.  I also heard the traditional Indigenous stories that held deep wisdom about life and creation and relationships with people and the earth itself.  They come from different worlds and yet each contains deep truth and speak to each other.  These stories are held in a mystery and unknowing and our response is to be quiet, stop talking and sit in the midst of wonder, awe and mystery.

As I looked, touched and wondered at Uluru and Kata Tjuta, there was this deep sense of mystery.  All the science was important but didn’t speak to the spirituality that surrounds these amazing places and draws us in.  All the head knowledge couldn’t surpass the profound experience we had in the presence of these rock formations at the heart of our ancient land.  What gives them their life?  What imbues them with significance and wonder?  What mystery lies at their heart and how can I live with this mystery and wonder?  Untold numbers of people have experienced these significant and sacred places and have felt this sacredness and wonder in different ways.  For some it is a conscious time of deep reflection and entering into the deeper mystery of life.  For others it becomes a more spontaneous ‘wow!’ moment that touches them briefly before they move on.

As I wander through local bushland along the Toongabbie Creek most days with our dogs, there is the changing world around me.  The sense of wonder and mystery may not be as captivating as Uluru or Kata Tjuta and I have to look more carefully and contemplate what is before me.  Trees with vibrant and beautiful colours, a sky radiant blue in winter or smoky, hazy blue in the heat of summer, a creek that fluctuates with the rain or lack thereof and the plethora of flowers and shrubs that bloom in seasons, are all before me.  There is a sense of mystery to this bush or the gardens we pass on the way.  Dogs respond differently each day with joyful delight or ponderous sniffing.  Each day, each walk is different and there is something profound and wonderful in this journey that becomes a prayer in its own right, one of praise, wonder, silence and joy before the deeper mystery we call ‘God’.

This term, ‘God’, is a word that encompasses so much and yet is ultimately holy mystery and sacred wonder.  Can we neatly define God and fit God into our tidy liturgies, neat prayers or packaged thoughts?  Can we know this God who is beyond all knowing or is this human arrogance and the fear of losing control?  How do we live before and within this mystery without the need to hold onto absolutes or define truth and doggedly defend and protect our belief system?  Is it possible to live in faith, and faithfully, and yet demand certitude of belief and absolutes in definition and knowing?  After all, faith is faith and belief belongs in the giving of ourselves into the depths of this mystery in a trust that the One who is this all-embracing mystery and love will also hold us in love.  Faith is a risk that demands something of us and takes us beyond the limits of knowing, being in control and certitude, into the realm of faith and life lived in God.  It is a vulnerable and humbling way in which we realise that we cannot control life or the world but are liberated to live fully into the moments we have and to fully embrace the freedom and joy that comes in such letting go.

In this week’s lovely Gospel reading, Mark 4:26-34, there are a couple of beautiful parable stories that lead us into reflection and faith that is awed by mystery and recognises that we don’t need to ‘know’ in order to deeply live and have life.  Jesus speaks into the lives of the people who yearn and hunger, inviting them to wonder in the mystery of God’s Reign that is surprisingly present all around us.  He speaks of the man who sows seeds and then sleeps, rises and so on.  As he lives each day, there is an unfolding mystery that happens beneath the soil as seeds germinate and grow.  This tiny miracle, if that is what we choose to call it, happens without out control or even knowing and eventually crops rise from the ground all around this farmer.  Even in our scientific world that can profoundly answer our questions on what happens across the life of this seed, seedling, and plant, there is wonder that it actually happens – if we have eyes to see.

Having a scientific background has actually helped me to embrace even more wonder in the world around me.  The profound things I have seen through microscopes, both light and electron, fill me with more wonder and awe.  Whilst I can gain knowledge and hold that knowledge in a way that removes the ‘miracle’, the enchanted wonder of the world, I can also recognise that knowledge and knowing never fully contains the truth nor has the wisdom to live into the deeper truths of life.  Before the plant that grows in the soil from the tiniest seed, I behold the wondrous nature of life.  I am humbled before the beauty and diversity that surrounds me (and which I often miss seeing).

In our trip to Central Australia I took endless photos.  I tried not to ‘capture’ places and pictures but to interact with the beauty and wonder I felt and saw and create something that expresses the mystery and wonder.  It became something of a meditation that focussed on looking, seeing, contemplating on the beauty and changing wonder before me.  I appreciated the mystery of the world and felt myself ‘letting go’ before the One who creates and recreates in artistic, diverse beauty.  I felt the presence of Holy Mystery, that I name ‘God,’ in the wonder and beauty of this world.  Jesus invites us to live in the Reign of God, to let go and live in wonder, joy and the love of God.

By geoffstevenson

A Liberating, Life-Giving Family – That Includes All People!

I recently heard the long and convoluted story of a family – aren’t all family stories long and convoluted when we are willing to risk the truth?  It was told by the last surviving sibling from three children and tried to explain the sometimes painful and difficult life of her sister.  Her parents lived through the wars in Europe and experienced the deep despair and pain that personal involvement in war brings upon people.  Their father had post-traumatic stress disorder, as is common amongst returned servicemen and women.  The children had an overtly rigid religious upbringing that contributed to the deep struggle and dysfunction they experienced in their young lives.  Both parents succumbed to alcoholism as they sought to anaesthetise their pain and brokenness.  Their father became very difficult and explosive, and the children learned to live with the unpredictable behaviours.  Life was very hard in many ways for these children.

The eldest sister took it upon herself to try and exert some order and meaning into the horrific situation and ultimately felt the shame and guilt that many such children feel and know.  Her journey through life was often difficult as the ripples of her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood surged into her adult life exerting a powerful torrent of confusion, pain and alienation.  This woman wrestled with her own vulnerability and brokenness in various ways and fought off the demons that plagued her as best she could and with whatever resources were currently available to her.

The 12 Steps programs that support families with alcoholic and drug-affected members, were of great support, as was the community of these fellow broken, vulnerable people.  This woman found love in different men over the course of her life and also in her beloved animals as well.  The sisters spoke very regularly and shared a deep relationship on their journey through life, each engaging with the imposed pain and brokenness in their own ways and offering one another care and wisdom.

The older sister visited a variety of faiths and religious traditions, philosophies and places of human wisdom in order to make sense of life and find the resources to cope and live.  Spirituality came from different voices in her search for wholeness and truth, but it seems that there was always some sense of the God from her Christian traditions, albeit evolving and particular.  She drew deeply on the meaning of love and grace and she found expressions of grace in many of life’s experiences – these held her and sustained her, especially in later life.

The younger sister found her life in Christian traditions, although different from the cult-like origins she experienced as a child.  She has continued to explore and broaden her Christian faith and to garner deeper existential meaning and hope.  This has given her courage to honestly face her life and the lives they have shared.  She kept this conversation going with her sister and the grace and love of God became a common element in their relationship, offering hope to each.  Both sisters have searched for the authentic place where they can become who they truly are and find their liberation from the continuing flow of broken thoughts and memories, the demons, that have taken up residence in their being.  They have sought a place where ‘family’ can be realised in their lives and give them a sense of belonging, healing and security that had been denied them in their early lives.  I suspect they have both found these places at different times and in different ways, but it isn’t an easy journey for anyone.

It is this sense of us all needing an honest home, a place to be safe and secure where we can explore our own sense of being in a vulnerable, caring, supportive environment, that I also hear in our Gospel reading for this week (Mark 3:20-35).  It is a puzzling reading that has different layers of meaning and where the author sets two stories over and against each other such that the one interrupts the other, but they mutually interpret and develop each other.  It follows on from Jesus’ growing mission expressed in liberating work amongst those who are broken, hurting, sick and in the language of the 1st century, demon-possessed (though the reality of the demonic is no less real in our own world as the story of the sisters illustrates.  We could add the demonic nature of war, oppression, injustice, poverty, addictions…).  Jesus’ ministry was to proclaim the liberating Reign of God grounded in love and grace for all people.  He became an instant threat to the powers that be who sought ways to silence him and protect their authority, power and position.

In the first part of this week’s story, Jesus’ family arrives to take him away.  He has clashed with authorities and they feel a growing sense of shame and urgency.  Their son and brother has obviously lost the plot and needs an urgent reality check – perhaps a time in a sanatorium?

As his family seeks to quietly remove him, the authorities from Jerusalem arrive and the situation explodes.  They are angry and afraid and fearful, powerful people should never be underestimated.  They immediately attack Jesus with a deeply offensive, charged accusation of his being on the side of Satan or Beelzebul – an agency of the deepest evil and opposed to everything good, religious, God-fearing people seek.  In modern idiom Jesus is a ‘Terrorist’ or treasonous or ‘un-Australian’.  In a classic strategy these powerful leaders scapegoat Jesus to protect their own patch.  He has revealed in practical, loving, gracious and profound ways that God is love and that love extends to all people, is liberating, inclusive and just.

The powerful always seek to demonise the innocent or weak as they distract attention from their own flaws and imperfections or vulnerabilities.  It is always someone else’s fault and problem and here Jesus is the target.  He counters their violent abuse, exposing the fallacy of their words but that only deepens their anger and intent.

Jesus’ family finally arrived at the scene that was already out of control.  They son and brother was, out of control, mad, confused, deluded…  They sent for him but he replied: ‘Who is my mother, my brothers, my sisters?  Those who do the will of God!’  He looked around at the strange and diverse group of ordinary people clinging to his words and hoping in what he offered.  He claimed this rag-tag group of people as his family because the family of God includes all who will open themselves to grace and love and become vulnerable before one another and God and grow together as a supportive, inclusive community of God’s children.  No-one is excluded but not all belong by virtue of their own self-exclusion – they do not want to be part of this life-giving community.

The sisters in my story are not unique for their story reflects something of all of our stories and reveals our need to belong in a supportive, diverse, extended family of grace that we call God’s people.  It isn’t perfect but it is a home in which to find love and life.

By geoffstevenson

Love Over LAW, Compassion Over Ideology!

It is a strange world in which we live.  In Australia the Banking Royal Commission that we weren’t supposed to have needed has revealed some truly awful, unjust, immoral and, for some people, devastating practices.  Many of those who have fronted the Commission have not thought too much about the rightness or otherwise of their institution’s systems.  They have not really considered the justice issues related to their despicable practices, nor the consequences for innocent people.

Meanwhile, a 71 year old Australian Nun who has served the poor in the Philippines for 3 decades is possibly to be expelled because she seems to be a threat to the Duterte regime.  Sister Patricia Fox has worked and fought for justice, human rights and for the poor and oppressed.  She has spoken out at times for the sake of justice and that seems to be against Duterte’s politics.  There may be a backflip here and that would be just, but it reveals how speaking out on issues of justice can rankle the powers that be.

On one hand we have the status quo living and breathing injustice and immorality without batting an eyelid.  They are surprised when called to account and don’t seem to be concerned about who they may have hurt along the way to making excessive profits.  On the other hand, the status quo is very quick to act when called to account by an insignificant, elderly nun.  It is a strange world.

In both these stories it is the ordinary people who are intended to bear the brunt of the powers’ narcissistic path, as they accumulate power, profit and whatever else they want.  The powers run rough-shod over ordinary people who endure the consequences without much opportunity to resist.  Philippine’s President Duterte has proven himself a vindictive, violent man who wields power ruthlessly and the innocent or ordinary suffer.  Some of our large financial institutions have proven just as ruthless and ordinary people have suffered.

I find it easy to shake my head and ‘tut, tut’ over these kinds of issues.  People who are blinded by their systems, power, beliefs or whatever maintains them in the way they think and act.  There is much to detest, and it is easy to sit back and throw a few stones at these targets, hoping ‘they get what they deserve’ (although I doubt Duterte will ever receive the justice due him).  These, of course are not the only people who are playing light with truth, ignoring justice or oblivious to the little ones of the earth, treading all over them.  There are multitudes and whenever I get on my high horse (often!), I can be reminded that I am no paragon of virtue.  I am ignorant of ordinary people who struggle for life, can only hope for some kind of justice and long for something more – something that I probably take for granted.

Just this week I had the dreaded colonoscopy, or ‘top and tail’ as the nurse called it – both ends were viewed by the doctor.  The preparation is a nuisance and a bit uncomfortable but nothing really serious.  As I wandered back and forth to the toilet for the umpteenth time I realised how fortunate I really am.  This precautionary procedure is routine, and I am a beneficiary of it.  My doctor can check for problems and we can deal with them early.  I thought about one of the team of people we support in West Papua, one of the locals who builds clean water wells for others.  He had an abscess that quickly got out of control and he died.  He died of something that I probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid at.  After all, my procedure yesterday involved much more – but he had no access to decent medical treatment and that is normal for his people and millions around the world.

As I fasted over a day or two, I also realised how fortunate I am that I have enough fat to see me through and anyway in another day I can eat what I like – and there will be food there.  I complained about drinking plain water and then the gunk to clean me out – it was all clean and whilst I complain, the people of West Papua struggle for clean water.

I wonder what it takes for us to take on deep compassion for others and be changed?  I mean, how are eyes and ears and hearts opened to others?  What will make me drop my pretensions or change my belief systems and be vulnerable before the struggle of others?  Can I reach a point where love becomes the currency of my exchanges?  Can I open an account of love and grace and cast aside my own stubborn views or ideologies?  For it is these ideas and views that need challenging.  They get in the way of love.  When confronted by people in need there are arguments abounding that suggest ‘they don’t deserve it’.  If I allow myself to hear their contrary views or believe in my own entitlement I give in to that which is unfair, unjust and not grounded in love and compassion.

I was reminded of a line from Martin Luther King jr this week.  He said: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Sometimes I don’t really see what truly matters and so silence ensues.  I don’t hear the cries of the poor or their rumbling bellies or the innocent being trodden down because my mind is full of me and my own miniscule world.

This week I read the beautiful Psalm 139, one of the readings for this week.  It reminds me that I am pretty small and there is One who is ever present and knows me intimately.  It can be a little unnerving to realise that I might be known for who I am – thoughts, actions, warts and all.  But the psalm speaks of how this knowing is gentle and profoundly loving – I am known, and I am loved.  As I ponder this beautiful reality I wonder if this isn’t the way forward – to understand I am loved by the source of all love and this love will not let me go.  In being loved I can love – surely?

I also read another couple of stories of Jesus from Mark’s story (Mark 2:23-3:6).  Jesus runs into trouble with some fixated, ideologues who reckon he is trouble and look for any reason to bring him down.  His disciples are hungry and so they pick up some grain left from harvesting, for the poor and hungry.  But this is the Sabbath and the ideologues don’t like it – against the law they cry!  He lets his disciples run amok with the LAW, even if they are hungry!  Then Jesus wanders into a synagogue and comes face to face with a man who hand is a mess.  The man can’t work or earn money to feed himself or his family…  Jesus does the compassionate thing and makes everything okay – he fixes the man’s hand.  Trouble is it is still that wretched Sabbath and the ideologues are still watching.  They are full of themselves and their LAW.  Ideology and ‘truth’ seem more important than people.  Perhaps it is power and knowledge, a status quo that is being tested, that threatens their equilibrium, for we are told they went out and plotted against Jesus to destroy him.

When compassion and love are not the foundation of who we are and how we respond to the world, ideologies, belief systems and LAW will endure – and injustice and violence will follow.  I am challenged to walk differently through this life and seek love, compassion, justice and mercy and to be inclusive of others, despite our differences.

By geoffstevenson