Whose Team Are We On – Really?

In our strong individualist culture, there seems to be a strong tendency towards being in control and holding onto our own power and seeing the differences between ourselves and others.  As life becomes more confusing through immense changes and the turmoil of a society that feels in a time of transition, we look to defend our turf, our world-view, our powerbase and what we can control.  It is a way of establishing some order in a confusing, difficult world.  It is a way of finding some firm and secure base when everything swirls around us.  It is a means of maintaining some sense of control when everything feels out of control.  In such times we look for our own tribe, those who are like us, believe like us, act like us, look like us…  This tribe is safe – or feels that way.  It is familiar and we need a place to belong and be connected.  It is also a place to affirm our own beliefs and expectations around life and society.

This desire for control and to belong to like-minded people and maintain some sense of control over something in life can be a positive way of surviving the chaos of life.  It can also be a source of more chaos and internal destruction of groups.  I remember hearing about a school P&C organisation.  Their clear focus seems to have been on raising funds for the school to benefit their own children. Everyone, it seems, had ideas and put energy into things to be done.  For a time it was good and I undertand considerable funds were raised.  As new people came into the group and wanted to contribute and also add some of their own new ideas, tensions began to surface.  The newer people joined in and took on roles that existed and participated in various fund-raising activities but sometimes changed things or took lead roles or added new aspects to old ideas…  The old guard stood up and defended their turf, ‘the way we have done things’.   They also tried to pull back control from others were doing what they done and did it in their name – the school P&C.

The situation grew out of control.  From the stories I heard, there were evil stares at 20 paces.  There were stories and gossip shared in the playground.  Rumours flourished and meetings were deep, dark places filled with tension and abuse.  I was saddened to hear the story but understood it form my own gentler experiences of this.  What amazed me most was that everyone actually wanted the same thing – more funds to purchase more resources for their children at this school.  It was the need for control, mistrust and people feeling others were usurping their power or role that broke this effective committee apart and focussed their energy onto fighting rather than pooling resources for a common good.

Of course it isn’t only school P&C’s that experience this.  We have watched as the Liberal Party (and Labor before them) have tried to tear theselves apart through power sturggles and competing needs for control.  Although our political parties claim to be aligned and focussed on a common goal, they inwardly struggle, fight  and channel energy everywhere but into their proclaimed goals of serving and leading the nation forward.  Perhaps this week’s ABC shenanigans are also part of all of this struggle for control – of power, order, truth and belief systems.

In so many ways we defend our turf and challenge anyone who seeks to impose themselves or feels different.  I find the saddest expressions of this within the church, where groups tear themselves apart over beliefs and belief systems, where energy is not directed towards serving the world in God’s love but internally directed against one another – because we now seem different.  The invitation of Jesus to walk in a way of love and compassion, peace and justice, joy and hope seems lost when Christians start fighting each other and defending their turf.

In a very strange story (Mark 9:38-50), Jesus is approached by disciples who tell him they have been trying to stop other people doing things in our name.  They are helping people and bringing healing to people in Jesus’ name but aren’t following him with the disciples so the disciples don’t trust them.  You can almost feel the frustration in Jesus’ response.  He is moving close to his death and trying to get this group of people to get over themselves, understand the way of God and get on with it but they keep getting in the way and looking for power, control, security and perhaps being important.  He tells them that if anyone is doing good in his name (or probably just doing good!!)  then they are serving God and on his side, his team.  The goal is to make the world a better place in God’s love and grace and to proclaim peace, healing, life and joy.  If other people have gotten this message and are getting on with it, then excellent!  At least someone is doing something so don’t stop them or get in their way.

I wonder how many times we get in the way of people doing good things because they are different?  I wonder how often we tear ourselves apart because we see things differently, despite having similar goals?  I wonder how often ‘my ideas/beliefs’ get in the way of working with people who are different or believe differently but want the same goals as me?

I remember being invited to meet with a group of Muslim men one Good Friday.  They gathered each week for prayer and they used a room in the church hall where I was a minister.  They were the most gracious and peaceful group and they wanted to hear what Christians experienced and believed about Good Friday, what it meant to us.  The Senior Minister and myself went along and shared with them.  We spoke about our differenr Scriptures together – some were the same.  These men then asked about the mission activities that our church were responsible for and we shared our stories.  They finished by saying that they wanted to build their group and worl with us to make Parramatta a better, safer, more communal place and to care for the poor and struggling – together.

One commentator Ir ead this week says:

The longer I’m a Christian, the more awed and overwhelmed I am by the radical nature of Jesus’s openness, inclusivity, and hospitality. Every time I think I’ve made my circle of inclusion wide enough, Jesus says, “Nope. Make it wider. Your circle is still too small and stingy.” Every time I think I’ve drawn an appropriate line in the sand — between us and them, saint and sinner, saved and damned — Jesus scatters sand all over my line until it disappears. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever doesn’t oppose the beautiful and salvific works of God — mercy, love, kindness, justice, liberation, peacemaking, healing, nurturing — is on Christ’s side. How mind-blowing is that? How challenging for us Christians who love our institutional, denominational, doctrinal, and socio-cultural cliques so very, very much?

In Jesus’words I hear a call to not get in the way but to be open, hospitable, welcoming and to work with each other without the power struggles, need to control.  Love each other!

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By geoffstevenson

What is Greatness? Who is Great?

One of the sound-tracks growing up through the 60’s and 70’s was that of Mohammed Ali, the world champion boxer.  I confess that I wasn’t much interested in boxing but saw enough of his ducking and weaving through interviews and his larger than life media circuses.  He was chacaterised by his rhyming couplets and his egoistic, arrogant pronouncemnets, with flashing eyes and ending in the signature line, ‘I-I-I-I am the greatest!’  His voice rose in volume and pitch until it shreiked that final word, drawing it out to its full potential and claiming his authority as ‘the greatest!’  I’m not fully sure of what the limits of his greatness, in his own mind, actually were.  Was it only boxing or was he great beyond that?  Can’t say, really.  All I know is that his over-active ego and arrogance carried him and drove him and ensured that whether he was loved or hated, he commanded respect and interest.

Ali, like every other mortal succumbed to age and illness and the ‘Great one’ descended into very poor health, probably as a result of his beltings and beatings in the ring – too many punches to the head.  There is no doubting his athletic ability in his chosen sport nor his stand as a black person in a predominantly white world and his name will be remembered in the annals of boxing and perhaps the world of sport – but ‘the greátest?

It seems that ‘greatness’ is claimed, assumed and sought by many people whose egos drive them and whose self-importance and arrogance lifts them, at least in their own minds, above everyone else.  Does it take an over-indulgent sense of self-worth, an arrogant self-belief or an ego of immense size to attain and achieve that which mere mortals only dream of?  This is what we are lead to believe in watching sporting ‘super stars’ who draw attention to themselves like a preening peacock, strutting with a self-assured sense that they are the centre of the world – perhaps the universe.

It isn’t only sporting types who are ‘graced’ with super-egos and strut before fawning fans who ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ and faint or reach out to touch greatness and have it cover them in reflected glory.  The airwaves are replete with egotistical and arrogant people who demand attention and seek vain glory – actors, music types, politicians, adventurers, corporate leaders, wealthy plaboys and girls, the rich, fmaous and beautiful that others wish they were.  Oh how we are lulled into a fantasy world of wonder and dream-like surrealism, believing that greatness is gauged by beauty, wealth, power, fame or the use of some unique skill or talent that just happens to be entertaining.  How are we so deceived that we would pusue this vain glory in the hope of achieving some fragile ‘greatness,’ the stroking of the ego and the 15 seconds (or minutes, hours, days oe even months!) in the limelight?  Do we long to be envied by another, to be honoured and held up for our own greatness?  For the most part in most of our lives we recognise our very ordinariness; that we are just the same as everyone else – even if we long to rise above and be different.

As I ponder those who seek and claim great glory and the title of greatness, I confess to being fearful of what they will do with that greatness, that fame or power.  Too many world leaders and hyped-up media types present a very narrow understanding of life and little wisdom to complement their knowledge or lack thereof.  Too many egos run the show around the world and are tyrranical, sefl-obsessed, narcissists claiming greatness where there is only ignorance and abuse.  This, sadly is always the way when ego drives us and arrogance asserts itself.  Ultimately fear and envy will override any sense of sharing of power or humility.  The need to be in control and remain in control pervades history as rulers rise and fall, inflicting violence and abuse as they journey through their fantasies of being someone actually important.

In contrast there are figures who transcend ego and arrogance.  Through the very journey into the valley of death’s shadow, the experience of overwhelming pain or loss, love or awe, their ego is driven down and humility and vulnerability fills their being.  It is then that they begin the journey that is truly great because it leads them into love, compassion, peace and beauty of life and joy – even when everything turns upside down and life is tough.  I think of some great leaders such as Nelson Mandella or Gandhi, Mother Teresa or a little Carmelite sister I read of recently – St Therese of Lisieux.  Therese lived simply, loving God, the sisters in her convent, the children in their school and her family.  She reached out to people beyond through letters that brought healing and peace.  She died at the age of 24 from tuberculosis, a seemingly insignificant person who was unknown but for the few who knew her.  She was asked to write her simple autobiography and this unknown nun spoke into the hearts and lives of millions of people with her simple faith, love and hope.  She was made a saint less than 30 years after her death and then a Doctor of the Church on the centenary of her death – 1 of 3 women.

I also think of the simple children and young people I worked with at the Hills Special School, children with intellectual and physical disabilities who were very simple and trusting.  They valued friendship, loved music and singing along, doing simple things and having fun.  Despite the difficulties life presented they were mostly joyful and loving.  Working with them gave me a sense of joy and I received far more than I gave.

Jesus’ disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them (Mark 9:30-37).  Overhearing this Jesus confronted them and they were appropriately embarrassed.  He said to them, gently but firmly, if you want to be truly great then become like a child, for only those who are really child-like and humble will understand and know what God’s Realm is like, will recognise their own vulnerability and not be afraid of it.  Only those who are humble and simple, completely trusting, like a child, will be able to recognise and undertand their need of others and appreciate other people and what they can do; that which is unique and wonderful about them.  Only those not burdened by the obsessive need to stand apart and be better than everyone else will find their own true unique and wonderful contribution to life and the world.  Only those who give up control and understand that they are no better or worse than anyone but the equals of all people, regardless of position, power, privilege, wealth, fame or anything else, will be free enough to bring freedom and life to others.  Only those who lose themselves in the true and deep love, the compassionate, gracious love, that holds the universe and is the energy within every relationship of people, creatures, and particles, only those will find the life and meaning that they yearn for and the joy and hope it brings.

This compassionate love is the essence of God.  It is humble, vulnerable and expressed in the life of Jesus.  This vulnerbale way is echoed by the child-like people who follow and find the way of wisdom, life, compassion and joy.

By geoffstevenson

Who Do You Say That I Am?

‘Who do you say that I am?’ Who am I to you, or you to me?  What do we see or think and perceive in encountering another?  Are there a bunch categories I or you or the one over there can fit into?  Can we be squeezed into a pre-formed, prefabricated category that will hold me, define me and make me or you or them more usable and useful?  More identifiable and understandable?

Who do you say I am?  Who do you want or need me to be?  Can I be squeezed into your belief system and so confirm your world view?  Should I try to capture you within my own need or want system and the beliefs that support it?

I look at the screen on the wall and see all manner of figures parading across its infinite scrolling presence.  Politicians, actors, ordinary figures, the rich and famous, the poor and anonymous all have space and time on the screen of life.  I look and see and wonder, ‘Who are you?  Who am I?’  Who do I say you are or should be?  I fight at every moment to put you or them or someone else into my own prefabricated categories of need, want or expectation.  You look like one of these or those or them.  Your speech or posture or colour or language surely define you and you will fit into something that works for me and makes everything more neat and tidy; easier to understand and grasp and hold – and control.

The man on the screen has a big mouth and large ears.  He seems a horrible man because of comments he makes and things he says he believes about people and life and the world.  I shout at him and push him deep into a box that seems a little too large or small or square or round but I make him fit and every word he speaks or action he makes confirms my view.  But then I ask myself, ‘Who is this man?’  Is he really only and always what I see in a 30 second sound grab on the evening news?  I hope not, I truly do but who is he and how will I know?

I heard the woman comment on another – you really are quite capable for the background you hail from.  And what background might that be?  She’s never said anything about where she’s come from or what she has in the upper reaches of memory and experience.  Perhaps the other woman is extrapolating based on colour or ethnicity or gender or something superficial that distracts or deflects and fits into one of her prefabricated boxes, neat and tidy.  But who is this person, who do we think she will or could be or become?  Will the prefab box break open enough to allow her out and become who she is despite her differences and anomalies that make her seem someone else?

Who do you say that I am?  Who do I say that I am?  Who am I – to you, or you, or you over there?   I suppose the answer may well depend upon whom I ask?  Do I want to know the truth or only confirm my own convictions about who I am or want me to be?  If I ask the Lefty, will they confirm my social conscience, the pedigree of my activism or concern for the poor or the earth or…?  If I ask the Conservative will they tell me I am morally upright, upholding family values, or confirm my economic credentials?   If I ask another, will I get the answer that defines me the way I think I want to be seen and understood?  Do any of these views reflect who I am – and how will I know?

Jesus asked this very question of his followers – who do other people say I am?  (Mark 8:37-38) Who do you say that I am?  In a political city named for the Emperor and the local king, a city of long and deep religious fervour for the god, Pan, Jesus confronted his friends with this question:  Who do you say that I am?  Silenced they ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ until Peter, big mouth Peter blurted out that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah – the One sent by God to lead the people.  Well done Peter, top of the class, pass ‘Go’, collect $200, you’re the winner.  Or was He?

Jesus continued by telling them they were going to Jerusalem and he would be arrested by the Jewish leaders, tortured and put to death by the Romans.  Peter jumped in and rejected this nonsense.  Didn’t we just confirm that you are the Messiah, Jesus?  The Messiah was to be a military leader sent by God to restore power and glory to Israel, to free the people and glorify God in their might and strength and being.  What was this nonsense about vulnerability and dying?  How could Jesus own the Messiah label and talk like this?

Jesus retorted by sending Peter to the back of the class, even called him Satan – ‘you only have the things of humans in mind, not God.’  Peter had put Jesus into the box titled Messiah, the one he’d been given, the one defined by popular culture and Jewish hopes – a military leader and ruler, a new King David.  He was right and wrong – right by cultural expectations and wrong by God’s way.  It was a question of God’s expectations and actions over and against the ways that humans wanted, hoped, expected and believed things would, could and should be.  Jesus wasn’t what they wanted!

So, who am I really?  Do I want to know who I am and can and should be?  Or would I prefer the ‘Peter-route’ of cultural affirmation and belief systems?  Would I prefer to hear myself affirmed by the world around me in all its brazen arrogance and ignorance, the world that elects such puppets as leaders and idolises people who run around sports fields or appear on silver screens, as god-like?  Or do I want the truth?  Can I bear the truth?  Can I really avoid the truth – or afford not to seek it?  The truth, says Jesus, will set us free but is it freedom we want?  Do I want to know who I am and can be, to be released from expectation of age, gender, race, ethnicity, orientation (of any sort) and to become the ‘me’ I was always intended and created to be?

Will I approach the One who is and was and always will be, the One who is Love itself and is before everything, who holds the eternal and temporal together and loves me before I ever was?  Will I ask the One who knows me more than I know myself and has no vested interest in anything but love, life, hope, joy and grace?  Will I dare ask the One who sings the song that drew my first breath from me and gave me the unique genetic potential that is becoming ‘me’?  Dare I go to the heart of wisdom and venture a question of who it is I really might be?  For there, only there, will I discover the truth that will indeed set me free.  It was there that Jesus knew the truth that gave him the courage to defy and deny the cultural nonsense and violence that pervaded God’s people and world.  It was only there that Jesus knew himself in God and one with God and found the way, truth and life that he became and was and is and that way is into the heart of Love itself.  Do I want to know?  Do you want to know?  Will you seek the One who holds everything in love, grace and wonder?  Will you ask God:  ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and seek the freedom of truth?  Will you look into the heart of another with grace to love and not to define nor control?

By geoffstevenson

Looking into Desperate, Human Eyes

In recent times, in several ways I have been reminded of the importance of listening to another person’s life, to look them in the eyes and hear their story, before arriving at conclusions about them.  It is too easy to jump to conclusions and judge other people especially when our belief systems, whether religious, cultural or other, are challenged by the person and their life.

I recalled my first real experience of speaking to people who had sought asylum and those who lived and struggled in a country that was hostile, oppressive and dangerous.  I had never known anyone who had come from a place that was truly dangerous and discriminating of innocent people.  I entered theological college in my mid-twenties, fairly naïve, but full of expectation and hope.  In my class were 2 men a bit older and whose lives were as far removed from my innocence as could be imagined.  One was a Methodist minister who was a Tamil driven from his native homeland of Sri Lanka.  John worked with people of his own ethnicity who were oppressed and discriminated against and the government determined that he was trouble and he quickly rose up the list of wanted people.  He (and his family) were encouraged to leave their homeland for the sake of his own life and that of his wife and children.  John came to Australia and they were embraced as a refugee family and given asylum.  He entered the Uniting Church as a minister and has served church and community here faithfully and sacrificially for over 30 years.  His story moved me and opened my eyes, as did that of Jeff, another Sri Lankan.  Jeff was married to a Tamil and trained here to engage in ministry as an Anglican priest in their homeland, working for reconciliation and peace, as John had done.  Jeff’s children were left here when they returned because of the intense danger that Tamil children faced in Sri Lanka.  The ministry and courage of Jeff and John is not only inspiring but courageous and opened my eyes to a reality I had never known.

Both continue to work with refugees and the stories of young men put on boats by their government and sent into the oceans to rid Sri Lanka of a despised culture are horrific and filled with deep pathos.  I have also looked into the eyes of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and listened to the stories they share, especially the young Rohingya man who had been denied so much freedom and education in his homeland.  His family were killed, and he has ended here, a desperate, frightened boy.  He was given an opportunity to go to school and thrived on this opportunity until he turned 18 and was told there would be no more school.  He was far behind and wanted as much education as he could receive, but our government has its rules and he lost out.  His story touched my heart and I looked and saw another human being, a vulnerable young man who has no family and for whom life is very tough and made more so by our own strict rules and discrimination.

At College I also looked into the eyes of an Aboriginal Pastor who addressed our class.  He was a humble and lovely man.  He told his story with a simplicity and grace that was engaging and moving.  It wasn’t until our lecturer pushed him further that he told us of the deeper pain and grief that he, his family and people endured.  One question was around what he felt when his homelands were mined or destroyed in some way.  He tried to deflect the questions, but the questioner was gently persistent.  He finally took a deep breath, stared into space and said that it was like having his face slit open with a knife.  His land was part of who he was, and he was part of it.  When it was taken away and he not allowed to walk it or when it was destroyed he felt it in his body and being – something in him died.  In the conversation with this man and other indigenous people I began to hear and understand something of a culture and world different from anything I had ever known, and I felt the raw, painful humanity in their stories.  I recognised cultural and other barriers.

As I listened to these stories, something in me changed.  There have been points in which my own belief systems, cultural, religious and other have been severely challenged.  Cultural norms around race and ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation and other ‘barriers’ have been severely challenged and, in God’s grace, started to break down.  This has especially been the case when the stories have been told by desperate and vulnerable people.  As I have journeyed with people into new places and heard their stories, something in me always changes and moves.  Prejudices and belief systems are revealed to be ignorant or insufficient – or irrelevant!  I have had to either move or deny the humanity and integrity of another person’s life – the latter is very hard when you look them in the eye and hear a story told in humility and honesty.

This week I read the story of Jesus in Mark 7:24-37.  Every time I encounter this story I feel the tension and challenge.  In it Jesus has retreated into a private house away from the crowds and desperate people, away from the blood-thirsty religious leaders who want him dead and gone; he is away from everyone.  He is resting, praying, enjoying respite and renewal.  Into this peace and personal space, a woman burst in.  She begs him to restore her daughter to good health and is insistent.  In this story, the woman transgresses all the boundaries of gender, culture and religion.  Women do not speak directly to men.  The woman is a pagan gentile whose presence defiles the house and who has no right to speak to this Jewish Rabbi.  In every way she tramples over the norms and systems of belief, culture and gender.

Jesus reacts in a way probably expected of his culture and time.  He appears angry and hostile, suggesting that she doesn’t deserve anything because he is here for God’s people, the Jewish nation – she is a ‘dog’ (seemingly a standard Jewish derogatory term for gentiles).  Why should he feed food for the children to dogs?  The woman is not deterred but retorts that even dogs eat the crumbs under the table – so give me some!!!  Jesus looks into her eyes.  He hears her desperation and knows her a fellow human and his heart is moved.  He relents and gives her everything she hopes for – the restoration of her daughter and commends her for her faith.

Many are concerned that Jesus appears rude and ungracious but he lives and exists within the paradigm of culture, faith and gender of his day but he transcends all of this as he engages with a real person and enters her story of pathos and desperation.  He changes!

As I think of Jesus’ movement to embrace someone across all the boundaries of his day and the stories of people I have encountered I am challenged to embrace those who are different, challenging and desperately human.  I hope and pray that our government will stop its pompous politicking and offer grace to those who genuinely seek asylum and new life from oppression, pain and persecution.  I pray for those who are discriminated against and who cry out in desperation.  May I and we respond in grace and love!

By geoffstevenson

When Traditions and Culture Denies Love and Life!

There are lots of traditions, rituals and cultural practices we hold onto.  These can range from fun and whimsical to very serious traditions that define who we are and how we live – and everything in between.  In all the institutions, from family, to clubs, community organisations to churches and political parties, there are traditions and rituals that come to define us and therefore restrict us.  Some of the restriction is good.  It sometimes limits behaviour to that which is safe, respectful and life-embracing.  At other times it restricts our vision and ability to respond to a world that is constantly changing.  Sometimes traditions and rituals are held by those who seek to be in control and maintain power over others and the space they inhabit.  Sometimes rituals and traditions provide a comfortable, stable and secure structure for us to find our way.

Traditions and rituals may be life-giving or life-denying.  They may remind us who we are and how we belong, or they may inhibit us from finding our way in a world that constantly evolving.  When traditions and rituals keep me comfortable and safe that can be okay but it can also stop me from engaging with confronting and challenging experiences that will help me grow, change and mature.  Such things are usually a point of contention and disagreement between the generations as the older wants to hold to what we know and what is familiar.  The younger want to question everything and crash through traditions that make little sense in their world.

I recently picked up a book by Michael McQueen called ‘How to Prepare Now for What’s Next’.  McQueen deals in trends and tries to forecast where things are moving.  I have only read a little but some of that has caused me to feel a little uncomfortable.  He predicts that his small children will not actually ever get a license because they will not need one.  The future of cars (in some ways already here) is of driverless cars.  The car will deliver us to where we need to be then either return home or act like an Uber car being rented out to others whilst we work, shop, visit…  I found this strange because getting a driver’s license has been part of the rite into adulthood.  It was part of experiencing new freedom where we could go where we wanted when we wanted without having to rely upon others – especially parents.  McQueen further suggests that there will be necessary changes in insurance because the owner of the car is no longer the driver and therefore an accident will not be their fault.  It seems that responsibility will belong to the manufacturer.  This and other things McQueen discusses describes a world so very different, unrelentingly different to that which I know.  The comfortable, familiar patterns of life, the traditions and rituals that feel so real and true are often revealed as hollow or temporary as technology and culture drives us forward.

There will be those who resist and fight to the end, like the person who hangs onto his house whilst his neighbours sell out to development and he is left with his old home amidst high rise development.  Change isn’t always good or comfortable but it often just is and no matter how much we want to hold onto what is, maintain some control over life, ours and other people’s, all too often we get swept along into something new, different an sometimes better.  Much of this is about familiarity, control an power – over ourselves and our life but also over others and the world around.  When our power and control are threatened, we resist and struggle.  It is, as some have described it, ‘the elegant tenacity of the status quo.’  The status quo resists, fights and wrestles to maintain power, control and to keep things as they are.

We see this in politics, church life, community organisations, clubs, families and every part of life.  Last week’s political struggles were around power and control.  The final decisive issue for Malcolm Turnbull, as with last time he lost the leadership, was energy policy and how we respond to the issue of climate change.  Some in his party refuse to accede to the science and want to hold onto what is, whether the traditional industries or the economics that support those industries.  The week was about power, control.  It certainly isn’t limited to the Liberal Party but has been manifest in all parties, major and minor.  Traditions and belief systems that people grasp onto come into conflict with the world around and with those who take more liberal views on life, culture and society.

This week I have wrestled with this issue as it arises in the story of Mark’s Jesus (Mark 7:1-23) confronting religious leaders who question his disciples regarding their disregard of Jewish traditions, legal expectations and rituals of faith.  It is initially a discussion over hand-washing before meals, something we take for granted except it wasn’t about cleaning the hands from germs but ritually cleansing hands, food and eating so that they wouldn’t be ritually unclean.  Jesus goes to the heart of things asking whether the food going into the body, moving through the digestive system and ending in the toilet actually has the capacity to make people unclean?  Surely it is what comes out of our hearts, our lives, mouths, attitudes etc that creates conflict, pain, abuse…  Jesus says: For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  

Sadly, we often enculturate these things in belief systems that create barriers of exclusion or abuse.  In our society there are various ways in which things that are wrong are legalised or overlooked.  For example, theft is taking something that belongs to someone else without their permission.  We prosecute thieves, unless they thieve in particular ways.  Clothing companies that rip off poor workers in developing world countries and make huge profits on the backs of these struggling poor have their products idolised by an ignorant populace in the West.  Large corporations dodge paying taxes that they owe in various countries by sending profits elsewhere and playing games with finances.  The issue of land theft across the developed world has been legalised everywhere such that indigenous people have few rights to appeal.

For Jesus, there was only one true way and that was grounded in love.  If belief systems, traditions, rituals, cultural norms or anything else enshrined radical, generous love, then they were of God and were worthy.  If anything created barriers and enshrined control, power and exclusivism then it wasn’t of God and should be rejected.  If traditions and belief systems held back the radical grace of God to bring transformation and hope to humans, then they were barriers to be broken down.

Jesus’ way of love is challenging because it draws me into places where I am not in control and invites me to share everything with others and to live in inclusive, welcoming community that is hopeful, joyful and life-giving.  A wonderful challenge indeed!!

By geoffstevenson