Lost, Found, and Seeking in the Darkness…

Have you ever been lost?  How do you feel when lost or you lose something or someone?  Several years ago, in our first Christmas in a new home, we returned home on Christmas night – to a very quiet house!  The problem was that there should have been friendly faces at the gate, barking and jumping with delight to see us home.  Normally our two dogs, Naomi (x Collie) and Nehemiah (Golden Retriever), would hear the car and run around to the gate.  Perhaps they had fallen asleep on the other side of the house or ventured underneath the house out of the heat?  We quickly took the tired children inside and unloaded the car.  My grandmother was with us and as we looked around the yard and called the dog’s names, she put the kids to bed.  We discovered a gate open and no sign of the wild beasts we were expecting to greet us.

We quickly told Nan of the situation and for her to keep the fort whilst we went looking.  One drove, the other walked the neighbourhood looking for roaming dogs.  After an hour or so we had found Naomi, and she seemed relieved to be taken home and fed.  We plodded the streets for a while longer but could not find the missing Golden Retriever.  He could be anywhere!

We went home and went to bed, concerned, worried about the beloved, young dog.  Sleep was not easy to come by but eventually we slid into exhausted slumber.  We arose in the morning, wondering where Nehemiah was now.  Was he been completely lost and wandering aimlessly?  Had he ventured onto a main road and been hit by a car?  Did someone find him and lock him up to take to the dog pound?  As we were pondering his where-abouts, Susan opened the front door and there he was sleeping on the door mat.  We let him inside and he drank a large quantity of water then went back to sleep.  We have no idea where he was or what he got up to – except there must have been food associated with it because he was not hungry!

To us, the dogs were lost.  They were not where they should be and we, the owners, didn’t know where they were.  I’m not sure how you read the minds of dogs, but I can’t help wondering if they experienced a sense of being lost?  Did they always know where they were and where home was?  Did they experience their freedom as something natural and an adventure that would finally return them home?

I don’t know the answers to these kinds of questions, but I do know that the sense of being lost can be disorienting, confusing, scary and can engender deep concern.  I know that losing something or someone can be an experience causing deep worry, anxiety and even fear.  If the person/object stays lost, then sadness and grief prevail.

Being lost feels strange.  I have had the experience of not knowing where I am and having no landmarks to help me.  I remember one night returning home from a meeting in a place that was unfamiliar.  I set off home on the reverse route to that which I’d taken to get to the place.  All was good for the first 10-15 minutes and then I was confronted by an intersection that looked different from this direction and in the dark of night.  I chose one path and after several kilometres realised I wasn’t where I thought I should be.  In fact I didn’t know where I should be – nor where I was.  Should I turn around and try to retrace my ‘steps’?  Should I just keep driving until I recognised something – surely there would eventually be a familiar sign or landmark?  It was the days before mobile phones and Google maps and voice telling you where to go.  I thought about the street directory but I was on a main road and couldn’t stop – should I turn off, stop and read?  As the minutes went by, I felt deepening desperation and anxiety, such that I didn’t think very clearly.

Finally, I took a deep breath, calmed down and recognised that I needed to head to the left because that was the direction I should be going.  I found a major kind of road, turned left and found somewhere to pull over and tried to look at the directory.  It was dark and hard to read but I got a sense of the neighbourhood I was in and the direction I needed to take.  I found a main road to follow that would get me to somewhere I knew and I could go from there.  Eventually I found familiar territory and made my way home.  I was lost before I realised I was lost and when I realised it I began to panic and feel overwhelmed and confused, concerned and anxious.  When I calmed down, I realised I was heading in the wrong direction and needed some guidance.  Eventually I recognised familiar places and was able to get home.

This week’s gospel (Luke 2:41-52) comes after the stories of Jesus’ birth and the wonder and joy of this news.  His parents have gone through the religious traditions of dedication in the Temple and cleansing rituals.  This story ends the cycle of Luke’s introductory section and is situated in Jerusalem and the Temple.  Jesus’ family and relatives have been in Jerusalem for the religious festival of Passover.  Following the festival, they are part of the large caravan of travellers returning home to the region of Galilee.  After a day’s journey Jesus’ parents realise Jesus is not with them.  They search the caravan but to no avail – he is missing, lost!  They were filled with fear and anxiety and returned to Jerusalem to search for their lost son.  After the third day (do you get the reference?) they found him in the Temple and his mother gave it to him!!  Every parent of an independent teenager knows how this goes – ‘Why did you do this to us?  We’ve been looking for you everywhere!’ Jesus is perplexed because, for him, it seemed obvious he would be in ‘his father’s house.’  The story tells of how he is listening and asking questions, making observations and decisions and everyone in the Temple is amazed.

The story seems simple enough until you realise that the theme of being lost reverberates through the narrative.  Who is lost?  Is it Jesus in the Temple?  At first, this is the obvious indication – he is lost from his parent’s perspective.  But as the story evolves, the roles seem to reverse and perhaps it is his parents, religious and devout but lost, whilst Jesus finds himself in the space of God’s Reign.

Throughout the Gospel, Luke will tell stories of being lost – a lost coin, a lost sheep and a lost son (aka The Prodigal Son).  He will indicate that the adult Jesus has come to seek and save the lost.  This story invites us, in the midst of Christmas hubris, to ponder whether we have found ourselves in the Christmas story or do we remain among the lost of the world, seeking, always seeking but not always realising we are lost.

As the world turns and yearns, zigs and zags and seeks its way, Christmas lingers for a few more days yet, inviting us into a place of life and joy, peace and hope, love and grace.  The Christ-child born into the darkness of the world radiates light for all who will look, see and respond.  Jesus grew in wisdom and favour with people and God, as he gave himself more fully into God’s grace – the way for you and me as we seek life and hope.

By geoffstevenson

It Is Christmas!

And Christmas comes in the unexpected, strangeness of Divine mystery.  There are the stories of Matthew and Luke that tell of virgin and baby, backwater Bethlehem, fluffy animals and distant visitors, insignificant people amidst power and might.  There is also a profound story in John (John 1:1-18) that takes us back farther into the time beyond time, the Realm beyond space the before that was before anything.  John says that there was the Word, a form, a blueprint at the heart of everything that could and would ever be.  This Word was with God and was God (but what is God? – another word that betrays a mystery that is deeper and more profound than we can comprehend?).  This Word embraced flesh, the physical, material world that emanated from the Word in the beginning when time first became and 3-dimensional space was.  This creative Word, a blueprint of God imbuing all being, embraced flesh and moved into our neighbourhood – pitched tent and lived among us!  The Word that is God so blessed the material that the Word became us and lived with, in and through us as flesh and Spirit, as enchanted, sacred mystery that fills life with wonder, awe and rich beautiful meaning!

This Christmas story is not replete with the symbols we so dearly hold and know, as familiar – the tree, the baby, the simple parents in a cattle stall, kings bearing gifts, the star and angels…  This Christmas story has a raw power to tear through our desire to control, define and know.  When we want to hold everything in stunning simple clarity, this story declares paradox, mystery and invites us to let go and gaze in wonder at the love that is at the very heart of everything that is.

Christmas comes to us in profound moments of enlightenment, when our eyes open, our ears hear and our spirits encounter the mystery of wonder we call God.  This may be in the very simple beauty that inhabits our world, that which we take for granted, the daily miracles of life and living.  Christmas may come in the momentous occasions that change us through a deep grief, a profound love or an awe-inspiring wonder that hold sus transfixed.  Christmas is an inner transformation, an experience that transcends the ordinary and connects us into the deeper power of Love in which we live and move and have our being.  This Love is the relational reality of God, the flow that holds Father, Son and Spirit (Creator, Christ and Spirit) in creative community and emanates out into everything that is.

Christmas is not in the symbols or even the story but to the experience to which these point – the experience of grace in which we are face to face with God and glimpse the profound love in which we are truly held.  Christmas is the experience of hope and joy in which we know profoundly that whatever happens nothing can separate us from this Love that holds us.  Christmas is the opening of our eyes and hearts and hands to embrace others into our care and compassion with generosity and freedom.  We are delivered from fear and exclusion, the desire for conflict or hatred and judgement of others as we live and move and find life in this Christmas reality and the presence of God breaking in again and again and again!

May you encounter the profound life and Love at the heart of everything as you contemplate the coming of the Christ in the special celebrations of Christmas and in every day beyond.

A Christmas Poem

A Eucalypt blossom signals summer’s arrival.

It floods the tree with bright orange-red and stops me each day.

I pass it and wonder at its simple beauty; it is profound.

There are the abundant Jacarandas decorated in mauve beauty,

A carpet of plush purple flowers lines my path along the creek.

Parrots swarm and screech, singing of summer’s arrival with lusty joy.

The creek flows steadily downstream through bushland beauty.

The sun filters through the trees that glimmer in early light.

This is a rich place, filled with enchanted wonder and awe,

…with the Divine.

In the beginning before there was anything, there was – a mystery,

… a Word, a force or power or non-being Being

– a relational community of Love, we call ‘God’

From this Divine Community, a Mystery of life burst out in a Big Bang explosion of Loving creativity

And all became; order, life, everything we know, became.

This Word embraced flesh and moved into the neighbourhood

To live with and in and through us – Divine love and mystery

 

We celebrate the imprinting of human life with Divine blessing

We celebrate Divine enfleshment in a baby’s birth

A simple, young woman blessed above the powerful

A backwater town in meagre surroundings

So the story goes, Word and flesh kissed, a Divine mystery

Lowly shepherds celebrated

Pagan Magi worshipped and a despot ruler murdered

A star lit the sky as the Light of the World radiated our darkness

An angel chorus sang and the world was blessed

 

Now lights fill the night, displaying sleighs, a red-dressed man

Snow, reindeers, tinsel and trees.

Parties and gifts, feasts with family

Cards and greetings, and hopeful expectation

As we await – Christmas.

Beyond this excitement the Christ gently arrives

To touch each life with blessed, sacred, Divine life,

A gift to renew and lift and reorient, to inspire and enlighten

A love that arrives from the heart of everything to hold us in grace.

 

 

By geoffstevenson

A Christmas Song that Turns Everything Upside Down!

Well I’ve now sung/played carols a couple of times (less than most years I must say) and wandered through shopping centres with stores decorated from respectable and nice to garish and gaudy.  One pop-up shop in the local mall has the widest range of Christmas decorations possible and they are mostly way-out awful.  I have tasted the Christmas muzak, a painfully nondescript, sentimentalised range of ordinary music aimed to not offend anyone and yet supposedly lighten one’s mood – it doesn’t help me!

It’s a funny time of the year.  There are more conversations and well-wishing, questions and hope, but also more stress and rush, tiredness – and storms.  It was in the middle of this diverse, sometimes confusing plethora of images, emotions and expectations, that I picked up a novel I’d read some years ago.  It is by Susan Howatch and one of a series on prominent features and people of the Church of England in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The current novel is called ‘Glamorous Powers’.  It deals with an Anglican Priest who has been an Anglo-Catholic Monk for 17 years following his wife’s death and his children having left home to pursue their own lives.  He receives a vision and believes he is called by God to leave the monastic life and re-enter the world to engage in a new and different ministry.  After a very deep and searching process with his spiritual director and the Abbott-General of the Order, he is released from his vows and leaves with the order’s blessing.

I was struck by the observations the priest made on re-entering the world after 17 years in a very disciplined life, somewhat isolated from the world and focussed on deep and significant issues, including offering counselling to many people who were struggling in life.  He spends his first week with his married daughter, who is a busy house-wife raising their two children and keeping the home. His son-in-law is an executive on the rise, and also very busy.  Their life revolves around the home, work and ensuring they are keeping up appearances with their friends and neighbours.  In the background is WWII and the increasing difficulties faced in London with bombings and the war-effort.

When Jon, the priest, is picked up by his daughter from the station, he is surprised by the lavishness of their car (he calls it a ‘motor’) and on the ride home, his daughter talks incessantly – about very little in Jon’s opinion.  She says: ‘…and how excited you must be to return to the world at last after being cut off for so many years.’  After he protests that he wasn’t cut off, she goes on: ‘But you couldn’t do any of the real things, could you, like going to the shops or listening to the wireless or chatting with the neighbours about the weather.’  Jon cuts in saying, ‘That’s reality?’  He reflects that she is like so many people who talk about everything but say nothing.

The strangest thing for him is her excitement about their new refrigerator.  She speaks of it in such glowing terms that he is confused and astonished.  It is only a refrigerator!  She talks about everything but most of it feels superficial to one who has spent 17 years wrestling with the deepest questions of meaning and life, whose limited conversations have revolved around topics of profound significance, both for individuals engaged in counselling and with brother monks seeking to be the very best they can be before God.  Their lives embrace the profound spiritual reality that they see in everything – their garden, their work, their engagement with people in need, their prayer and worship, their reading, their prayers for the world and its struggles…  From their perspective of engaging deeply with the inner, spiritual life and engaging in the Life and Being of God, there is a different way of viewing life and the world, one that challenges conventional wisdom and common experience.  It is a way that seeks compassion, mercy, community, and equality in God.

As I read these reflections of a priest re-entering the world of common life, I was challenged by my own daily expectations, concerns and even hopes.  I realised how easy it is for me to be caught up in trivia, engaging in debate or ‘serious’ conversation about things that may not be of ultimate importance or even necessary.  It is easy to have my expectations and priorities formed by the public discourse and media ‘reporting’ or social media and anything that makes an appearance on the screen I am holding in any particular moment.  How many of these priorities, issues and expectations are really important?

In the back of my mind, as I read and write, I have the particular song that makes its appearance every year at this time.  It is called Mary’s Song (or the Magnificat) and is found in Luke’s story of Jesus (Luke 1:37-56).  In this story, Mary receives word from an angel that she will give birth to a son and he shall be of God.  Mary, young, single (but engaged), insignificant Mary, visits her cousin, Elizabeth who is also pregnant with another great leader – John the Baptist.  When they embrace it is Elizabeth’s child who ‘jumps in the womb’ and Elizabeth exclaims that she is blessed because the Lord’s mother has visited her!  Mary, simple Mary launches into a song of praise.  In it she praises God who would deign to choose her, a simple, innocent, insignificant young girl, to bear the Christ-child.  Of all the people in this world who are more significant and worthier of such a grace, she is chosen!

The profound nature of this story is that Luke names, through his first 2 chapters, the important, powerful and significant people of his world – and the places they inhabit.  There are kings, rulers, priests and of course the Emperor!  They live in palaces, large cities and they are surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power.  These are important, powerful and significant people.  Alongside these, Luke names a host of insignificant, powerless people who rise to the top of Luke’s world and understanding.  In the 9th decade of the 1st century when Luke was writing, it was these lowly people who were remembered with reverence and awe, for they were the ones through whom God worked!

Mary sings about God’s upside-down values and world-changing ways.  The rich and powerful will be brought low and the lowly lifted high.  The hungry will be fed and those who have too much food will go hungry.  Mary of all people is lifted high and honoured despite being a nobody in the world’s eyes.  Mary’s song is a profound challenge to the stories that populate the daily papers, the evening news or the flashes of updates on social media.  Like Jon leaving his monastic life, Mary reveals a deeper reality that lies beyond the superficial realities of daily living.  These things of life are not unimportant, but they find deeper purpose and meaning in the bigger story of life, faith, hope and love that flows from the heart of God.

There is simple wonder and profound awe to be experienced all around us in the world and its beauty – plants, trees, lakes, streams, animals, birds, relationships, simple meals, laughter and joy.  Life is to be lived and savoured in simple and profound ways and in the presence of the One who holds all in grace, love, hope and peace!  That is Christmas!

By geoffstevenson

Will Christmas Come This Year? It’s Up to You!

Here we go again, the annual roundabout of the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Everything is lights, baubles, tinsel and happy muzak.  There is good cheer, gifts, parties and the world certainly lightens up in these weeks.  Perhaps it is the heat and humidity and the relaxing of everything because we can’t be bothered and there is the space (at least over the Christmas-New Year break) to do nothing but eat, drink and lie around.  Of course, there is the rush, the activity of preparation that falls to some and there is frantic activity and stress in trying to ‘get everything right’.  But right for what?  For who?  Why?

I sense something in the air, an expectation that underlies the rhetoric and festivities.  Perhaps a hope that something might change but for the most part we are clueless of what that might be.  I confess to deep frustration at celebrities and advertisements that profess to tell me what Christmas is really all about.  Sure, they name some good things – family, friends, sharing, love – but they keep it superficial as if they want or need to define it carefully, so we don’t get to deep, to religious.  After all we wouldn’t want to bring religion into Christmas, would we?  Actually, I would prefer we didn’t get too religious about Christmas, whether ‘religious’ in our obsessive behaviour or religiously following a belief system that never penetrates to the reality of a changed life for which we yearn.

By the time we get to Christmas Day, the religious images that understandably prevail are of a cute baby in fluffy straw with cute animals and adoring parents.  All is quiet and quaint.  There is an angel above and sometimes the angel-chorus singing the heavenly version of the Hallelujah Chorus.  A star radiates light and three kings on camels make a majestic appearance in the distance.  A beautiful nativity that defines everything and keeps it neat and controlled.  Jesus, as a baby, is our preferred version because he can’t talk or challenge us, as he does when older.  So, these images disappear before Jesus has a chance to grow up into the counter-cultural, prophetic voice that challenges the world with an alternate path of love, justice and compassion.

We really don’t need ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Away in a Manger’, lovely as they are.  We need the confronting, challenging words that will cut through our comfortable lives that leave us bored and tired or stressed from keeping up with everyone’s expectations in the hope that one day we’ll make it – somewhere!  The truth is that the materialistic life we’ve been sold is a dead end.  I read a quote from a Willie Nelson song, called ‘Tired’.  It says:
I married Rebbecca back in seventy-seven
And I still love her and I guess she loves me too
We go to church on Sunday ’cause we want to go to heaven
Me and my family, ain’t that how you’re supposed to do?

But I’m tired, Lord I’m tired
Life is wearin’ me smooth down to the bone
No rest for the weary, ya just move on – And I’m tired

The song is about going through life and realising that we are tired.  It is the same, day in, day out and we are growing tired.  It is a bored kind of tired.  Working the same job for years on end but feeling little meaning or hope.  It is like those who build their big houses and then buy other ones and keep getting bigger and bigger or more and more.  One day all of this wealth and property accumulation will mean something – BUT it won’t!  That’s the point: life is not about material and physical realities alone – it is spiritual, deeply spiritual as well.  Some of those cultures we look down upon understand this far more than we Westerners, with our cultured and enlightened world view.  It is unsustainable, both in the limited resources of the earth and in our own humanity that yearns for something beyond, that is beautiful and soulful.  That’s why we have all the mess and chaos, the rise of groups like ISIS, fear of asylum seekers, tenacious denial of climate change and the fear and violence that pervades.  Add to this the pandemic of depression and suicide, loneliness and isolation and the angst prevalent within us and it all points to existential alienation – a lostness of spirit and being that leaves us tired and yearning.

This week, as with last week, we encounter the eccentricity of John the Baptist (Luke 3:7-20).  His wild ranting in the desert places strikes to the essence of what it is we are missing through the Christmas season.  As Christmas approaches his words shake the pot and stir everything up.  They are not words that anyone much wants to hear, really (this includes most of us in comfortable churches).  He confronts the religiosity and materialistic tendencies in his world.  People who held to religious behaviours and belief systems, claiming what was right and wrong were told to get out of their pious lives and into the mess, living with compassion and justice.  Basically, according to John, God didn’t care too much about people’s beliefs if they weren’t lived out in ways that were loving and just.  Equally, to those who were wealthy and comfortable in material ways, he orders them to give away their wealth-accumulating schemes and be generous to those around them.  Give away your stuff when you have more than you need.  Don’t take advantage of people but act in love and justice.  He speaks about giving away a second coat to someone who doesn’t have one.  Generally, the second coat was especially for the Sabbath worship – God would prefer justice and compassion over religious piety.

John calls for repentance, another word we would rather avoid.  It is about turning our lives around, reorienting them to the way of God, the way Jesus will embody.  If you are tired, tired of the nonsense around you, tired of the routines that go nowhere, tired of believing things (religious or secular) that make little difference, then repent, turn around and try a new way.  It won’t be an easy thing.  Give up the work you don’t need and give time to people or a project that is lifegiving and rich.  Spend time in quiet reflection taking in the beauty and wonder of the world.  Take time to love others who are different and live with compassion towards people – doing things that will make a difference in people’s lives.  Take up a cause and give yourself to something that works for justice.  Sing a new song with your life and be thankful for what you have rather than believing you need more!

Open your eyes to the wonders that fill the world and experience God’s Spirit alive and breezing in and out of our lives inspiring awe, wonder and a sacred openness to life and people and the earth.  For God’s sake, says John, (and for your own!) turn your life around and live.  Open your eyes, change your hearts and start living, start loving and start responding to the people around you with compassion and justice – that is what Christmas is really all about!!  If we miss John’s words, we will surely miss Christmas yet again and it will be another Groundhog Day, another year of the same.  So, get with it and live!

By geoffstevenson

Life, Hope and Joy – in the Wilderness!

Earlier this year Susan and I visited Uluru and Central Australia.  It was a kind of pilgrimage into the heart of Australia and to a place of deep spiritual significance.  It has been a deeply spiritual place for indigenous people for millennia and more recently for pilgrims from many other ethnic cultures, including non-indigenous Australians.  Our visit to Uluru and Kata Tjuta was profound and deeply moving.  We experienced what the Celts called a ‘thin place’, a place of deep transcendence and a deep sense of the spiritual.  It is an awe-inspiring experience to look upon Uluru from a distance and observe this magnificent rock that stands tall in the surrounding landscape.  Its mood changes as sun and light reflect off its surface giving different effects across the day.  It moves from hauntingly beautiful and gentle in first light through bold red and deep brown across the day back to the hauntingly beautiful and gentle darkness against the bright but fading light of sunset.  It lives and breathes and changes and invites the pilgrim to come closer and feel and know and experience something deeper and more profound than much of the superficial life we know and engage in within urban cityscapes, locked away in climate-controlled buildings of glass and steel and our technological existence.

Kata Tjuta was equally awe-inspiring and profoundly moving.  Its colour changes were as dramatic and beautiful.  It is bigger, vaster, and impossible to fully grasp.  We watched as morning sunrise brought the rocks to life.  They began to glow red in the early sun with sparkling grasslands in the foreground.  We stood and watched as the sun rose and Kata Tjuta was held in stark contrast to the glowing sky, flashing reds and gold as the sun struck its surface.  Again, this was an immensely spiritual experience that grounded us and drew us into the deep places of reflection and life.

These desert or wilderness spaces stripped life back to its raw fundamental beauty.  Before such wonder and awe we feel small and any sense of self-righteous importance or significance fades.  We recognise that we are a small part of something bigger, more vast, ancient, beautiful and connected.  Touching Uluru and Kata Tjuta felt like being connected to something bigger and more profound, something intangible that transcends time and space, ethnicity and draws me more deeply into my own humanity.  There is something wise and true in Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

I contrast this experience to hearing the news that emanates out from the centres of power in our world, whether Washington, Moscow, London, Canberra or anywhere else.  So much in these places is power making decisions that maintain status quo and don’t generally understand or engage the desperate and needy in the world.  Thursday’s politicking denied people who need medical support being transferred off Manus Island and Nauru.  In raw human terms, this is despicable inhumane.  Surely enough is enough but like so many established powers in the world, politics and status quo seem more important that compassion and justice.  The economics of power drives an agenda where the few hold control of the wealth and the many struggle.  In the cut and thrust of busy city life, we are drawn into the economics of a system that seeks to extract as much as possible from wherever it can – the earth, other people/nations, the workforce…  Aspiration and wealth promotion are high on the agenda of political leaders and those aspiring for top jobs.  As we’ve seen in the Royal Commissions (Finance and Institutional Child Sexual Abuse), money and power control many a decision and justify injustice, evil and abuse.

We all get drawn into the rhetoric that more is better, and acquisition is necessary, and we’re sold the lie that we need more than we really do.  The bigger lie is that we will be happier and more fulfilled when we finally have more but there is always more and more and more – it never ends, and fulfilment never really arrives.  If we aren’t happy in our own skin with what we have, we won’t find it when there’s more.

Sometimes it isn’t until we ‘hear the voice of wisdom’ in the wilderness, in the quiet, simple and desert places, that we recognise deeper truth and the path to richer, more joyful, fulfilling life.  In listening to the voices emanating from the centres of power around the world, I seldom hear wisdom, joy and life.  Few of these voices articulate a vision of justice, compassion and life for all people – even those within their sphere of responsibility!  It is in the back blocks that I encounter wisdom and life; amongst the intrinsically beautiful, wondrous world or amongst ordinary people who struggle day in, day out, to feed their family, share in the work of the community, embrace others generously and live with humility and awe before the Wisdom at the heart of everything.

In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 3:1-6) we have the annual return of the fiery and eccentric prophet called John the Baptist.  Before we can allow Christmas to gently slide into nice and languid acquiescence, John comes stumbling and rambling through our lives to remind us that Christmas is really about transformation and new life.  It is about turning around and becoming who we truly can be, more deeply and profoundly human.  John went into the wilderness and heard the voice of God.  He preached in the wilderness and people came to him like a rock in the midst Judea, piercing the world with an alternative vision of what can be.  He interrupted the fine-tuned rhetoric of powerful voices and went to the heart of life and living.  If you really want to live, then turn around and stop listening to the rubbish of the powers.  Turn to compassion, justice, sharing generously and looking out for one another.  Don’t be rigid and hard-hearted, looking at the outer appearance but at the heart and be merciful and loving, kind and caring.

Luke names seven powerful people from seven places of power, from the local religious and political world through to the dominating power of Rome but wisdom and life was not found in them.  The people had to venture outside of normal their lives into the wilderness to hear the way-out, strange prophet who lived what he preached and invited people into the life of God.  He spoke about repentance and turning from sin – and people did!  We hear these words and turn from them and the speaker.  But before we write John off as a backward and irrelevant to the 21st century, we might understand that he suggests that sin is the refusal to become truly human.  It is anything that prevents us from being opening to other people, to creation, to God.  It is alienation from self, people, creation and God and anything that gets in the way of relationships preventing us from believing in others and engaging with them.  Sin is giving up and believing there is nothing better or that change is not possible – accepting things as they are in a powerless, futile way.  It is apathy and lack of creativity.  It is being closed off and rigid, judgemental and exclusive.

In the wilderness of life we may encounter the God of transformative love and open ourselves to another way, one that leads into deeper, more profound loving life!

 

By geoffstevenson

Life and Hope in Apocalyptic Change and Chaos!

The sky lit up like cracker night.  The elderly Labrador began shaking and frantically wandering around the house.  There were booms and flashes and our neighbourhood was enveloped by thunder, lightning and then pouring rain.  Across the city flash floods, roof leaks, water damage that threatened, animals scared and stressed, children frightened.  The morning was chaos as we were ravaged by the storm.

The sky grew dark and the air filled with smoke, making it impossible to breathe.  Embers flew all around and a wall of heat and flame, kilometres off, ravaged its destructive path towards the town.  Heat, smoke, eery shadows, apocalyptic skies and threatening fire – fear, chaos and imminent danger.  These apocalyptic images came to me via someone who lived through a bushfire and saw his world consumed in flame and heat.  He could not fully convey the overwhelming fear, the confusion, and sheer powerlessness he felt.

Apocalyptic images pour across screens daily as somewhere in the world there is devastation and pain, conflict and suffering.  These apocalyptic experiences are external as we observe these events in the world around, natures ominous power or the violence and destruction of humanity.  We also experience internal catastrophe and pain through personal crises that change our lives and our perception of the world.  There are personal crises of health, grief, work, relationships, powerlessness and the significant changes in the world that confuse and disorient us in so many convoluted ways.

We use apocalyptic language, colourful, big, overwhelming words, and phrases to convey the significance of the experiences with which we engage, those that threaten life and hope.  In the slipstream of apocalyptic change and crisis, we often feel as if we are being thrust along helpless and out of control.  When things slow down, and exhaustion catches us up, fear and disorientation overwhelm us.  Without sources of hope, there is ongoing despair and alienation.  We all experience these things when we feel out of control, powerless and chaos overwhelms our being.

It is always tempting to avoid the further processes of disorientation, of fear and painful awakening to the reality before us.  It is tempting to minimise the struggle if we are able and quickly move on to another place with the pretence that what is happening (or happened) is not so real or significant, to hide our pain and seek a world that is light, bright and happy – ‘Don’t worry, Be Happy!’ as the song suggests.  But we do worry.  In the deep, dark hours when we can’t hide from our thoughts and feelings, it lurks and haunts and opens-up our hidden wounds.  When we are stressed and tense, the anger and rage that lies untapped, slowly growing within, bursts out in rabid fury where it has no place to safely exhaust itself. Our overreaction looms like an apocalyptic event, an echo of that primary encounter with the darkness that has left us disoriented, fearful and hopeless.

The world is full of people who refuse to deal with the pain that fuels their desires and addictions, their anger and obsession.  The world is full of leaders who use powerful positions to inflict vengeance and rage upon those who symbolise their obsessions and hatred.  There are those whose experience has unleashed such fear that they use power to violate the other, the innocents who naively invade space or seek more than it is felt they ought.  They use violence to resolve the chaos and restore the order they feel has been denied them.  They believe that peace will only come when the ‘other’ is punished, vanquished and cast adrift.  But it never does.  They never find the external peace they believe will come through violence and power and they never experience the inner peace that will liberate them and give them life.

This week the church begins a new year in the season we call Advent.  It is a period of four weeks that leads us into the celebration of Christmas.  The journey leads us through the rich tapestry of human life, with all its joy AND pain – the realities that encompass human living in this complex world.  The Gospel writers, reflecting the life and teaching of Jesus, do not participate in the superficiality and unreality that so much of contemporary life seeks to do.  We live in a world of distraction, where the expectation is towards comfort, ‘peace’ and happiness, whatever these things mean.  We are presented with 2-dimensional lives or ‘heroes’ whose main attainment has been on a sporting field, silver screen or music studio.  When we penetrate many of these ‘heroic’ lives they are filled with hopelessness and pain due to the existential alienation of their lives.  Elvis, Marilyn or even Freddie Mercury (as seen in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody), had success, fame and fortune but found their lives lost in a confused chaos of greed and abuse from many around them and internal confusion about who they were and what their true worth was.

As we move towards Christmas, the story of a baby born, surrounded by cute, fluffy animals will be told.  Lights and tinsel, parties and gifts will overflow around this babe and subsume his story in blessed unreality and niceness.  Jesus will be innocent, peaceful and silenced and we will party, give gifts and ho, ho, ho through the season.  It is fun and there is love and hope and brightness for a season, but it doesn’t last because it never penetrates into the reality of human life.  The story is there but we don’t want too much reality of Jesus inviting us into a new and different way because change, or the confronting possibility of change, is more painful than our current reality.  Jesus’ journey is into the dying-rising way of life.  He speaks of dying to the belief systems that hold us, religious, ideological, political and anything else. He invites us to embrace the fullness of being in the God in whom we live, move and have our being.  He invites us into the place where we find ourselves to most truly, freely and wholly exist – the heart of the relational community we call God, the Trinity, who is overflowing in deep love!

This journey is certainly not for the faint-hearted and perhaps that is why few undertake it fully.  In this week’s gospel, Luke 21:25-36 (a new Gospel for the new year), we have the picture of apocalyptic events cascading across our minds – signs in the skies and seas, confusion and distress amongst people, who will faint from fear and foreboding.  From within these cataclysmic experiences we are exhorted through the words of Jesus to stand up and raise our heads for our redemption is coming.  Don’t turn away, don’t hide in fear but stand up, name and confront reality, embrace it and we will encounter the presence of God in the midst of our lives and our suffering.  Luke proclaims that the Christ, the presence of God comes to us in the midst of the struggle, with courage, hope and, if we engage, life!  How many of us deny ourselves the experience of truly living by avoiding life in its harshness, the place where it must be lived because there, we will find the God of grace and compassion, the God of life.  Advent is a journey into and through this place so that Christmas means something richer, deeper and more profound than we imagine!

By geoffstevenson

A Christmas Song that Turns Everything Upside Down!

Well I’ve now sung/played carols a couple of times (less than most years I must say) and wandered through shopping centres with stores decorated from respectable and nice to garish and gaudy.  One pop-up shop in the local mall has the widest range of Christmas decorations possible and they are mostly way-out awful.  I have tasted the Christmas muzak, a painfully nondescript, sentimentalised range of ordinary music aimed to not offend anyone and yet supposedly lighten one’s mood – it doesn’t help me!

It’s a funny time of the year.  There are more conversations and well-wishing, questions and hope, but also more stress and rush, tiredness – and storms.  It was in the middle of this diverse, sometimes confusing plethora of images, emotions and expectations, that I picked up a novel I’d read some years ago.  It is by Susan Howatch and one of a series on prominent features and people of the Church of England in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The current novel is called ‘Glamorous Powers’.  It deals with an Anglican Priest who has been an Anglo-Catholic Monk for 17 years following his wife’s death and his children having left home to pursue their own lives.  He receives a vision and believes he is called by God to leave the monastic life and re-enter the world to engage in a new and different ministry.  After a very deep and searching process with his spiritual director and the Abbott-General of the Order, he is released from his vows and leaves with the order’s blessing.

I was struck by the observations the priest made on re-entering the world after 17 years in a very disciplined life, somewhat isolated from the world and focussed on deep and significant issues, including offering counselling to many people who were struggling in life.  He spends his first week with his married daughter, who is a busy house-wife raising their two children and keeping the home. His son-in-law is an executive on the rise, and also very busy.  Their life revolves around the home, work and ensuring they are keeping up appearances with their friends and neighbours.  In the background is WWII and the increasing difficulties faced in London with bombings and the war-effort.

When Jon, the priest, is picked up by his daughter from the station, he is surprised by the lavishness of their car (he calls it a ‘motor’) and on the ride home, his daughter talks incessantly – about very little in Jon’s opinion.  She says: ‘…and how excited you must be to return to the world at last after being cut off for so many years.’  After he protests that he wasn’t cut off, she goes on: ‘But you couldn’t do any of the real things, could you, like going to the shops or listening to the wireless or chatting with the neighbours about the weather.’  Jon cuts in saying, ‘That’s reality?’  He reflects that she is like so many people who talk about everything but say nothing.

The strangest thing for him is her excitement about their new refrigerator.  She speaks of it in such glowing terms that he is confused and astonished.  It is only a refrigerator!  She talks about everything but most of it feels superficial to one who has spent 17 years wrestling with the deepest questions of meaning and life, whose limited conversations have revolved around topics of profound significance, both for individuals engaged in counselling and with brother monks seeking to be the very best they can be before God.  Their lives embrace the profound spiritual reality that they see in everything – their garden, their work, their engagement with people in need, their prayer and worship, their reading, their prayers for the world and its struggles…  From their perspective of engaging deeply with the inner, spiritual life and engaging in the Life and Being of God, there is a different way of viewing life and the world, one that challenges conventional wisdom and common experience.  It is a way that seeks compassion, mercy, community, and equality in God.

As I read these reflections of a priest re-entering the world of common life, I was challenged by my own daily expectations, concerns and even hopes.  I realised how easy it is for me to be caught up in trivia, engaging in debate or ‘serious’ conversation about things that may not be of ultimate importance or even necessary.  It is easy to have my expectations and priorities formed by the public discourse and media ‘reporting’ or social media and anything that makes an appearance on the screen I am holding in any particular moment.  How many of these priorities, issues and expectations are really important?

In the back of my mind, as I read and write, I have the particular song that makes its appearance every year at this time.  It is called Mary’s Song (or the Magnificat) and is found in Luke’s story of Jesus (Luke 1:37-56).  In this story, Mary receives word from an angel that she will give birth to a son and he shall be of God.  Mary, young, single (but engaged), insignificant Mary, visits her cousin, Elizabeth who is also pregnant with another great leader – John the Baptist.  When they embrace it is Elizabeth’s child who ‘jumps in the womb’ and Elizabeth exclaims that she is blessed because the Lord’s mother has visited her!  Mary, simple Mary launches into a song of praise.  In it she praises God who would deign to choose her, a simple, innocent, insignificant young girl, to bear the Christ-child.  Of all the people in this world who are more significant and worthier of such a grace, she is chosen!

The profound nature of this story is that Luke names, through his first 2 chapters, the important, powerful and significant people of his world – and the places they inhabit.  There are kings, rulers, priests and of course the Emperor!  They live in palaces, large cities and they are surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power.  These are important, powerful and significant people.  Alongside these, Luke names a host of insignificant, powerless people who rise to the top of Luke’s world and understanding.  In the 9th decade of the 1st century when Luke was writing, it was these lowly people who were remembered with reverence and awe, for they were the ones through whom God worked!

Mary sings about God’s upside-down values and world-changing ways.  The rich and powerful will be brought low and the lowly lifted high.  The hungry will be fed and those who have too much food will go hungry.  Mary of all people is lifted high and honoured despite being a nobody in the world’s eyes.  Mary’s song is a profound challenge to the stories that populate the daily papers, the evening news or the flashes of updates on social media.  Like Jon leaving his monastic life, Mary reveals a deeper reality that lies beyond the superficial realities of daily living.  These things of life are not unimportant, but they find deeper purpose and meaning in the bigger story of life, faith, hope and love that flows from the heart of God.

There is simple wonder and profound awe to be experienced all around us in the world and its beauty – plants, trees, lakes, streams, animals, birds, relationships, simple meals, laughter and joy.  Life is to be lived and savoured in simple and profound ways and in the presence of the One who holds all in grace, love, hope and peace!  That is Christmas!

And Christmas comes in the unexpected, strangeness of Divine mystery.  There are the stories of Matthew and Luke that tell of virgin and baby, backwater Bethlehem, fluffy animals and distant visitors, insignificant people amidst power and might.  There is also a profound story in John (John 1:1-18) that takes us back farther into the time beyond time, the Realm beyond space the before that was before anything.  John says that there was the Word, a form, a blueprint at the heart of everything that could and would ever be.  This Word was with God and was God (but what is God? – another word that betrays a mystery that is deeper and more profound than we can comprehend?).  This Word embraced flesh, the physical, material world that emanated from the Word in the beginning when time first became and 3-dimensional space was.  This creative Word, a blueprint of God imbuing all being, embraced flesh and moved into our neighbourhood – pitched tent and lived among us!  The Word that is God so blessed the material that the Word became us and lived with, in and through us as flesh and Spirit, as enchanted, sacred mystery that fills life with wonder, awe and rich beautiful meaning!

This Christmas story is not replete with the symbols we so dearly hold and know, as familiar – the tree, the baby, the simple parents in a cattle stall, kings bearing gifts, the star and angels…  This Christmas story has a raw power to tear through our desire to control, define and know.  When we want to hold everything in stunning simple clarity, this story declares paradox, mystery and invites us to let go and gaze in wonder at the love that is at the very heart of everything that is.

Christmas comes to us in profound moments of enlightenment, when our eyes open, our ears hear and our spirits encounter the mystery of wonder we call God.  This may be in the very simple beauty that inhabits our world, that which we take for granted, the daily miracles of life and living.  Christmas may come in the momentous occasions that change us through a deep grief, a profound love or an awe-inspiring wonder that hold sus transfixed.  Christmas is an inner transformation, an experience that transcends the ordinary and connects us into the deeper power of Love in which we live and move and have our being.  This Love is the relational reality of God, the flow that holds Father, Son and Spirit (Creator, Christ and Spirit) in creative community and emanates out into everything that is.

Christmas is not in the symbols or even the story but to the experience to which these point – the experience of grace in which we are face to face with God and glimpse the profound love in which we are truly held.  Christmas is the experience of hope and joy in which we know profoundly that whatever happens nothing can separate us from this Love that holds us.  Christmas is the opening of our eyes and hearts and hands to embrace others into our care and compassion with generosity and freedom.  We are delivered from fear and exclusion, the desire for conflict or hatred and judgement of others as we live and move and find life in this Christmas reality and the presence of God breaking in again and again and again!

May you encounter the profound life and Love at the heart of everything as you contemplate the coming of the Christ in the special celebrations of Christmas and in every day beyond.

A Christmas Poem

A Eucalypt blossom signals summer’s arrival.

It floods the tree with bright orange-red and stops me each day.

I pass it and wonder at its simple beauty; it is profound.

There are the abundant Jacarandas decorated in mauve beauty,

A carpet of plush purple flowers lines my path along the creek.

Parrots swarm and screech, singing of summer’s arrival with lusty joy.

The creek flows steadily downstream through bushland beauty.

The sun filters through the trees that glimmer in early light.

This is a rich place, filled with enchanted wonder and awe,

…with the Divine.

In the beginning before there was anything, there was – a mystery,

… a Word, a force or power or non-being Being

– a relational community of Love, we call ‘God’

From this Divine Community, a Mystery of life burst out in a Big Bang explosion of Loving creativity

And all became; order, life, everything we know, became.

This Word embraced flesh and moved into the neighbourhood

To live with and in and through us – Divine love and mystery

 

We celebrate the imprinting of human life with Divine blessing

We celebrate Divine enfleshment in a baby’s birth

A simple, young woman blessed above the powerful

A backwater town in meagre surroundings

So the story goes, Word and flesh kissed, a Divine mystery

Lowly shepherds celebrated

Pagan Magi worshipped and a despot ruler murdered

A star lit the sky as the Light of the World radiated our darkness

An angel chorus sang and the world was blessed

 

Now lights fill the night, displaying sleighs, a red-dressed man

Snow, reindeers, tinsel and trees.

Parties and gifts, feasts with family

Cards and greetings, and hopeful expectation

As we await – Christmas.

Beyond this excitement the Christ gently arrives

To touch each life with blessed, sacred, Divine life,

A gift to renew and lift and reorient, to inspire and enlighten

A love that arrives from the heart of everything to hold us in grace.

 

By geoffstevenson