When the Powers Go Mad, Wild and Chaos Reigns…

I logged onto facebook this morning (early in the week) in a spare moment.  One of the first things that hit me was a post that said: ‘Remember Australia – a change of prime ministers means change your smoke alarm battery.’  (Another today said: ‘Only 3 Prime Ministers until Christmas.’)  I couldn’t help but re-post it.  It was funny but also pathetically sad as we experience yet another chaotic time of posturing for power and position in the halls of power in Oz.  We’ve been through it all before – too often and in both parties.  The worst of it is the sense of vengeance, payback, retribution or retaliation that seems to underlie everything.  It was the ‘Yorkshire cat’ grin of Tony Abbott that made me feel almost as sick as the thought of Peter Dutton becoming Prime Minister after his complete lack of compassion and care towards vulnerable people.  What is this all about?  Policies that are important are retracted and used as political pawns to garner support from scared and anxious backbenchers who feel the pressure of their own precarious positions in the electorate.  Fear, anxiety, power, revenge breaks these ‘teams’ open and creates havoc.

Whilst there may be particular people in the background and there is a face to the conflict, the machinations feel much darker and more mysterious.  There are systems and psychology that fuel movements and ideas that grow in the spaces between people and escalate or amplify individual motives and capacity through a group-speak/action narrative.  There is a spirit within a group or organisation of people that represents something bigger and more than the sum-parts of the individuals.  This ‘spirit’ gives voice and expression to the collective and drives the whole towards an end – sometimes for good and sometimes for evil.  We can think of the spirit inherent in Nazism and the way an insidious evil took control of people, groups, and a nation.  It didn’t always appear dangerous or fully evil but grew into something so horrifically evil that it is hard to comprehend how human beings could be part of the actions perpetrated under Hitler.

We can also think of the spirit within movements building for the common good and human rights and justice – Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr, or Nelson Mandella.  We could also think of Mother Teresa and countless other leaders who have gathered people into movements of love, grace, compassion, peace and justice.  Within these movements there has been a spirit of grace, love, courage and hope that has grown and flourished in a manner greater than the sum-parts and it drew others into a beautiful vision of community, inclusion, belonging and hope for all people.

There is a power, a force in groups that can be a profound force for good or evil.  These profound forces are present in organisations, institutions, board rooms, parliaments, churches and anywhere people gather together or express power and authority.  Theologian Walter Wink calls them the ‘Powers that Be’ and says:

“All of us deal with the Powers That Be.  They staff our hospitals, run City Hall, sit around tables in corporate boardrooms, collect our taxes, and head our families.  But the Powers That Be are more than just people who run things.  They are the systems themselves, the institutions and structures that weave society into an intricate fabric of power and relationships.  These Powers surround us on every side.  They are necessary.  They are useful.  We could do nothing without them.”

He goes on to suggest that these powers are responsible for all manner of things, good and evil in human life – it is the stuff of the evening news.  The processes that conspire to treat vulnerable human beings as second rate or non-human.  The story of Munjed Al Muderis who appeared on Anh Do’s ‘Brush With Fame’ recently, is a profound example of Australian authorities treating very vulnerable people as second-rate humans.  He was locked away in a detention centre that was disgusting, and dangerous because when people are treated worse than animals they lose hope and become desperate, depressed, angry and act out.  His story is profound in hope and patience against all that the powers and authorities of this world, from Saddam Hussein to authorities in Australia and everyone in between.  He is a world-renowned  Orthosurgeon, specialising in prosthetics surgery.  He had to fight, struggle and prove himself move than others.   It is hard to overcome the Powers that Be and they can create devastation in human life, communities and our world (Hitler, ISIS, terrorism, hard-line political stances that are prejudiced, racist etc).

One of this week’s reading is from Ephesians 6:10-20.  It is written 2000 years ago in the language and framework of the time.  It speaks of spiritual powers in the heavens as powers against which we fight and struggle.  Australian Biblical scholar, Bill Loader says:

When the author declares that our fight is not against flesh and blood, at one level that is simply being consistent with what has gone before: standing in Christ’s shoes, as it were, we reach out to people not to strike them or push them away, but to bring them the fulness of God’s goodness, which the author sees as God’s great plan: filling the world with love. At another level, the author is saying that there are forces at work which stand in direct opposition to this good news which are bigger than simply what individual [people] do…

…The notions [here] are vague, but they express the sense of vulnerability of human beings to forces far beyond their control. In the ancient world such experiences usually merged the world of spirits and the world of political or military powers which they were believed to control. Each ruler was said to have its heavenly angels or spirit…

…These, then, are the forces that divide, that create barriers, that discriminate, that set people against each other. We fail to appreciate the radical nature of these assertions if we reduce Ephesians here simply to worry about evil spirits and dark forces in the spirit world, unrelated to everyday life. Nor should we simply read our different understandings of such powers back into the text. We can identify with the vulnerability which their demonology expressed while articulating it in our different terms. We might speak of dynamics of power, systems at work through vested interests and political powers, destructive forces at work in humanity without needing to embrace a demonology.

The author uses the metaphor of armour to describe our resistance and engagement with the powers – here armour is used in non-militaristic, non-violent ways.  The elements are truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, gospel of love.  The author invites us to pray and be active in breaking down barriers that divide – hatred, fear, violence, exclusion, prejudice…  We are invited into ways of love, hope, peace, joy and to walk in the power of God’s Spirit that draws us into life.  So, pray and be active – our nation needs it!!!

By geoffstevenson

Wisdom, Humility, Power and Responsibility

There’s a story that Jesus told, one I’ve thought of many times lately.  We know it as the Prodigal Son, an uncreative and unhelpful name for this profound archetypal story.  It speaks of a young man who negotiates to receive his share of his father’s wealth (his inheritance) before the old man is even dead.  He gets his hands-on great wealth – at least by his own standards – and sets off to experience the big wide world beyond the parochial little farm on which he’s been stranded for all his life.  It is the classic journey outward, one we all need to embark upon.

This journey takes us beyond ourselves into the world of freedom and possibility.  We shuck off any restraints we can, crashing up against boundaries until they fully resist, or we break through.  It is the journey we all make – especially young males who are driven by testosterone and boundless energy, high risk and recklessness.  This journey is about ego and discovering who we are in this big world.  It is about pushing the boundaries as far as possible in our drive for ambition and success.  It is about ‘me’, my self-understanding and self-image.  It is about becoming the ‘me’ I am driven to be.  In our individualistic age it becomes even more self-focussed and narcissistic.

For many this becomes an endless journey because they never find the end-point – there is no end-point!  The journey of ego-driven becoming, of ambition and acquisition is endless.  There never seems enough to gain, to have, to control.  We see this in too many leaders, corporate, political and even religious, where wealth, power, success, fame… drive people further and further.  The end-point never arrives because there isn’t one.  Accumulation of wealth, power and anything else can be an endless drive – when is enough, enough?

For others, the end-point of the ego-driven journey outwards comes when they encounter failure, loss, grief, pain, struggle, crisis.  In the story Jesus tells, the young man recklessly spends all his wealth and is left with nothing and no-one to support him.  In absolute despair and desperation, he takes up work feeding pigs for a local farmer.  It is humiliating work for this Jewish boy and pitiful.  He reaches the low point of life where everything comes into clear focus.  He has stuffed up.  He isn’t as clever as he thought.  All his dreams were built on superficial hopes and hollow expectations.  Even the wild, exciting life he has lived offers him no deep or real meaning or perspective.  It was a moment of fun and bliss that fades as quickly as fairy floss in one’s mouth.

In this deep and profound moment of absolute vulnerability, he draws the conclusion that home wasn’t so bad and even the servants there have more than him.  He resolves to return home and beg forgiveness of his father and to be made a servant in the household.  The story concludes with the scenes of the father expectantly, hopefully looking out for him and running to embrace him.  The boy discovers he has never been anything less than the father’s son and is restored to this relationship in the household.  Jesus says this is our story if we want to recognise our place in God’s heart as the place we call home.

It is in the journey home that we begin to draw upon wisdom and fill the vessel of our life with that which is true and real and good – that which is wise.  We only come to this place through vulnerability and humility.  We actually need a crisis, pain, loss, being out of control or engaging in an experience of deep, profound wonder or love that humbles us and helps us to push our own egos down and recognise ourselves as vulnerable human beings equal to others and sharing this fragile earth together.  Not everyone makes this transition to the journey back home, to a place of humble wisdom and deep life.  This is not only the point of Jesus’ story but of much of the wisdom of the Bible and other wisdom literature from across the world.  After all, truth is truth wherever we find it.

This week’s Bible reading is a story that resonates with this archetypal story.  It comes from the ancient book of 1 Kings (2:1-12, 3:3-14).  It is part of the story of King Solomon.  This figure is a mixture of profound humility and wisdom, as told in this story where he comes before God as King of Israel.  In a private prayer he seeks not wealth or power but wisdom.  God grants him wisdom and the other stuff seems to flow to him as well.  He is remembered as one of the great and wise people of history.  He built the majestic Temple in Jerusalem and reigned over the nation of Israel, seemingly well.

The darker side to his story involves gross wealth and abuse of ordinary people as forced labour in his building programs.  He accumulated wives and concubines in vast numbers, again an abuse of ordinary people, young girls and the families who have their daughters taken from them by a powerful king.  His rule is surrounded by vast excess, extravagant lifestyle, high taxation of ordinary people that they couldn’t bear, and pagan shrines erected to satisfy other interests.  It was ultimately a very complex and mixed rule.  Solomon did some very profound things that were breathtaking, faithful and beautiful.  He did other things that were unconscionable, violent, abusive and in opposition to everything God was on about in the world.  He was a very mixed and difficult figure.  His ambitions and drives/appetites often overcame his wisdom and faith.  Where the latter came to the fore, Solomon was a brilliant leader.  Where they were quenched he was disastrous.

Solomon’s prayer in this week’s reading struck me as a profound moment of humility and the recognition of vulnerability and helplessness.  A young king a little out of his depth seeking wisdom to reign well over this people and to serve the God who has followed him.  I suspect Solomon had many journeys in and out of ‘home’, many journeys where the ego lifted him and set him on another course at odds with the program and dream of God to ensure the marginalised, impoverished, the widow and orphan, the outcast and despised were drawn into life and community and grace.  God’s dream of justice and non-violent hope were sometimes parallel with Solomon’s program and often at odds with it.

In our modern world there are leaders who are more driven by their own uncontrolled egos and ambition.  Power, wealth, prosperity, fame and control are addictive and can subvert even the best intentions.  Many politicians and community or religious leaders enter their roles with good intentions to make a difference, but it is power and control or wealth and positional authority that undoes their best work.  Too many leaders fall into the temptation to lead from their own desires and whims, their own wisdom and belief, than from true wisdom that holds the equality of all people and justice for all, as paramount.  Too many leaders fail to understand that power must be held in humility; that authority and vulnerability go hand in hand; that prosperity and wealth are not blessings but come with profound responsibility to be generous, to share and seek the well-being of the least.  Leaders such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandella are models of love, wisdom and humility.

By geoffstevenson

Loneliness and Despair Satisfied by the Bread of Life

Last night I was home and watched ‘The Weekly with Charlie Pickering’.  There was an interview with Barnaby Joyce.  It wasn’t terribly good, and Barnaby didn’t appear to want to be there.  Charlie Pickering’s trade mark scything humour that makes you laugh but often contains a barb was in full force, although he overlooked a couple of comments from Barnaby that were quite offensive.  Pickering also gave Barnaby some space to say what he wanted to say – essentially about the book he has just released.

In several interviews, including this, he has indicated that he has made many mistakes and if he had the chance over, he’d do it differently.  In other places, Barnaby has spoken of depression that comes with rising to high leadership and the loneliness that accompanies it.  He felt very alone and at times wanted to go off and die.  He felt he was living a lie at home and was ashamed in Canberra.  He ultimately went to a psychiatrist to get some help.

Barnaby, for me, is a whole bag of contradictions.  His values and public persona came unstuck when his private life was revealed.  He changes direction, seems confused and feels very lost as I listen.  He claims to be happy but that is not how I experience him when I hear or see him in the media.  It feels more desperate and struggling to make real what remains in his world of chaos and loss.  At the same time, I hear his cry for those he seeks to represent in rural Australia, people who are also doing it tough.  His comments last night about the people on struggle street being white, was offensive and absurd because people of every skin colour suffer, struggle and experience poverty.  I suspect Barnaby has a long, long journey left before him before he finds equilibrium and the joy that he obviously yearns for – and I hope he finds it.

I mention tis story because it isn’t unique.  Depression, loneliness and feeling overwhelmed and lost isn’t only the preserve of the powerful and mighty who find themselves alone on top of the pile.  But power can do that to people and the constant fighting to maintain position and authority, respect and power must unravel even the most together leaders and cause them to lose much of their perspective.  Depression and anxiety, along with paranoia, seems to be rampant in the corridors of power, whether political, corporate or even religious.  The corruptive nature of power has been well-stated elsewhere.  As I said, depression and anxiety are prevalent across our society and affect people of all persuasions and none.  Despair and loneliness spirals down into our being until the desperation of deep inner pain becomes too much and we are broken open, whether through a break down of some description or the desperation of suicide.  Barnaby’s story reminds us that we are all in this together and none of us is immune to the struggle of life.  No amount of money, fame or fortune will spare us when we find ourselves chased by the black dog – or in Barnaby’s case the ‘wild blue cattle dog.’

It is interesting to hear how Barnaby cut himself off or was cut off from other people and became isolated, lonely and couldn’t reach out to anyone.  Of course, depression does that but also the fear and anxiety of life through failure or loss drives us down, overwhelming and stressing us and pushing us further into aloneness.  So much of the competition, individualism and pretence of modern society, especially in men, creates forms of disabling aloneness and isolation.  Sometimes we may be surrounded by people but still very much alone – and not comfortable with our own company.

There are many experiences in life that drive us into deep pain and further towards despair.  We all know the deep struggle of life, whether emotional, physical or spiritual, although the latter is least well understood or recognised by most people.  Spiritual hunger and despair is as real and disabling as any other despair or pain.  There is something within each of us that hungers for the deep inner place of meaning, purpose and, ultimately, hope.  It is hope that sustains us in so much of life’s struggle, enabling us to bear what comes our way.  Hope is something that we might recognise deep within our being, arising from the deepest centre of our spiritual self.  Hope also comes through people around us sharing the journey of life and easing the strain, holding us up and pointing us toward the light that can flood our darkest moments.  Other people may also be the ones who are honest enough to confront us with the reality of who we are, what we’re doing and how we may be spiralling out of control.  Perhaps this is why women tend to cope much better in many situations than men – they are more comfortable in sharing their painful realities, their emotions and talking to each other in ways blokes often won’t.

Barnaby’s story, along with so many others cause me to ask deeper questions about the expectations that our culture places upon us, of how power and position, fame and wealth seem so very important.  We continue to idolise celebrity and envy people who seem to have everything whilst only peering from the outside unable to recognise the hollowness within so much human life.  It isn’t until we hear their story that we suddenly realise those who seem to have so much in reality have so little in their lives – they have gained the world but lost their soul in the process.

This week’s Gospel continues the story of John 6 (verses 35, 41-51).  In it the theme of bread rises through the metaphorical telling of Jesus: ‘I am the bread of life.  Anyone who eats of me will not hunger but live real and enduring life’   What do we make of this?  How might we ‘eat’ of Jesus and what kind of bread is this?   What has this got to do with the struggles of life, our world and our own being?

The story builds through John’s telling in chapter 6.  Jesus feeds a multitude and they are filled but he alludes to being fed in their spirit with a bread that will satisfy their deeper longing and hope.  As the story moves on in a cyclic manner, confusing, spiralling in wonder and breathing with life we are led to the source of all being, the One we call God.  Jesus seems to be saying that in him we recognise the face of God and are drawn into a relationship that touches our spirit with deep and profound wonder and awe that emanates in joy, hope, love and life.  It is a well of life that flows with refreshing water.  It is bread for the journey that nourishes our soul.  It is a communal meal shared with others in a conversation of honesty and trust, one that liberates us from our individual loneliness and isolation.  It is a meal that is physical, emotional, spiritual – and communal or social.  We are invited into a community where grace, love, humility and vulnerability are prescient and contagious.  It is a place where we can be who we are without pretence or fear and share with others from the deepest places of our being.

Jesus invites us to eat of this life-giving bread, spiritual food that enlightens us, calms us and focusses our being on what is true, real and rich, lasting and hopeful, joyful and loving.  We are welcomed into the community of God’s grace. Come and join the party

By geoffstevenson

Waterholes and Bread in the Midst of Drought!

This morning Susan watered the garden whilst the dog kept trying to bite the spray from the hose.  He was saturated and had a ball – simple things can be such fun and so full of enjoyment.  As they went about watering and bringing some life to the garden I realised how dry it all is.  The grass out the front is dry and turning brown, but we won’t waste water on it.  The warm days and wind will further dry things out as we deal, in a city way, with the big dry.

I am, of course, sobered by the excruciating images that come from rural Australia.  The extent and depth of the drought that is ravaging inland Australia is brutal the land is broken with thirst.  Animals, vegetation and the humans who depend upon this land are suffering immensely.  There is desperation as waterholes and feedstocks dry up.

As I pondered these images I also recognise the thirst that overwhelms many people in our land.  It is a thirst that wells up from deep within, a hunger and thirst for something that touches the spirit and imbuing life with meaning, purpose, hope and joy.  For so many, life is an endless (or relentless) passage of routine, two-dimensional living, where not much changes day in, day out.  The highs and lows can often be measured by the storyline of popular soaps or reality TV shows (or even sporting team results).  Others live under the constant pressure to perform and out-do yesterday’s results in a competitive market place or aspirational lifestyles.  Accumulation and material value become the markers of ‘happiness’ and ‘success.’  The superficial world is filled with more stuff that accumulates and builds a sense of ‘having made it,’ although internally life feels less than it ought to be – dry or purposeless.

I read a confronting reflection this morning.  It comes from author and teacher of contemplation (meditation, mindfulness,,,) and spirituality, Richard Rohr.  He says:

Our suffering today is psychological, relational and addictive; it is the suffering of people who are comfortable on the outside but oppressed and empty within.  This is a crisis of meaninglessness, which leads us to seek meaning in possessions, perks, prestige and power – all the things that lie outside the self.  When these things fail to give us meaning, we turn to ingesting food, drink, or drugs, or we become mass consumers to fill the emptiness within.

 Bill Wilson and his Alcoholics Anonymous movement have shown us that the only way to stop seeking, needing or abusing outer power is to find real power within.  The movement’s 12-step program walks us back out of our addictive society.  Like all steps towards truth and Spirit, the 12-steps lead us downward, to power within, which the program rightly refers to as our ‘Higher Power’.

As I pondered Richard Rohr’s words I recognised the hunger and thirst that lies within many of us, a hunger beyond physical food and water that yearns for that which will fill our being with life and purpose and joyful, passionate living.  Even in those who are ravaged by our drought and the deepest, most desperate desire for rain and water, there is something deeper for which they yearn.  The drought ravages life and ushers in all the daemons that plague a human soul.  It threatens livelihood, the family traditions on the farm, the ability to feed prized stock or pay bills…  It is this loss of existential meaning that leads good men to the most desperate action, including suicide.

When we lose everything that has given us purpose or that which has promised the world, what is left?  So many people are chasing dreams that become nightmares as they unravel or expose themselves as empty.  There’s a story of two pearl merchants who arrive at a caravanserai (an inn where merchant caravans can stay for the night).  An old Bedouin watched on as the two merchants engaged one another.  They both took deliberate actions to demonstrate the size and extent of their pearls.  One deliberately dropped a very large pearl before the other, who picking it up, suggested it was a very fine pearl with beautiful lustre. ‘It is a fine pearl, actually one of my smaller ones,’ said the merchant who dropped the pearl.  On the conversation went.

Eventually, the Bedouin called out and invited them to join him in the shade for a drink.  He told them a story.  ‘I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.  I was once a pearl merchant with some fine pearls.  One day I set out with my camel train but was cut off from the rest when a severe sandstorm blew up.  I wandered in the desert for several days and my food and water ran out.  Several times I pulled all my saddle bags down and checked them again in case I had missed some food, to no avail.  You could imagine my desperation and then jubilation when I did discover a bag hidden deep inside another that I had overlooked.  I hurriedly opened the bag in hope of food or water but was left in utter despair when all there was were more pearls!

In this week’s reading (John 6:24-35), Jesus speaks to a crowd, who though have eaten and filled, physically, hunger for more.  They are desperate for the words and deeper sustenance of Jesus, that will bring them hope and joy in their tired, weary and difficult lives.  They rush after him and follow where he goes, hanging off everything he has to offer.  Jesus speaks in strange ways, describing himself as the bread of life that relieves hunger and thirst in human souls.  He points the way to God who will feed them in ways they cannot imagine but for which they yearn and desperately hope.

Jesus warns the people not to lust after things that will fade or be revealed as empty, hollow and unable to give true life.  Seek that which will feed the whole being and give us peace, hope, joy and be grounded in love and generosity.  There is only so much food we can eat, only so many toys we can own and only so high we can progress.  After we’ve provided for physical needs, what fills our inner being, our spirit?  What engages our yearning, our longing and leads us into deeper, communal living that brings peace, joy and hope to us and others?  What is the ‘water and food’ for which we long in the desert of our lives?  How do we feel when all we have is more ‘pearls’ – toys and stuff that amuses, distracts and is fun but ultimately leaves us longing for more?

Richard Rohr’s reflection points us to the Higher Power we name, ‘God’.  He invites us to ponder how we describe this Higher Power, this God of whom we speak.  Jesus invites us to eat and drink from this source of deep life, a well that never runs dry and flows through every life, inviting us to drink deeply.  We are invited to eat of the ‘bread’ that he offers, a sharing of life, community, relationship and love that has enough for all the world.  In letting go of some of our clinging to material things, we are encouraged to embrace deeper life-giving hope through contemplation, gratitude, relationship, simplicity, inclusive community and sharing what we have with each other in God’s grace.


By geoffstevenson