Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Healing – for the World!

Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Time Rice wrote the successful musical, ‘Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat’.  It is the ancient story of Jacob (who became Israel), Joseph and their family as told through the song and a modern interpretation.  The biblical story is a maze of convoluted family interactions that captures the nuances and challenges of life together.  There is the doting father who holds Joseph as the favourite son and lavishes him with the precious coloured coat.  His other sons feel the pain of rejection or being secondary in the familial relationship.  They get the harder work, the prejudice and feel envy.  This envy and hatred towards their brother is exacerbated when he exhibits sheer arrogance and egotistical behaviour.  He flaunts his favoured status before them.  He has a unique talent in dreaming and interpreting dreams, although it comes across early as mere arrogance and patronising put-downs towards his brothers.  He elevates himself above them and they feel increasing anger and hatred.

At an opportune time, the brothers were working away from home and Joseph is sent to check up that all is well. His brothers saw him coming and plotted to kill him, though the oldest brother intervened and spared his life.  They locked him away and sold him to slave-traders heading for Egypt.  They tricked their father by dipping the coat in goat’s blood and returning it to their father who believed his beloved son to have been killed by a wild animal.  Life went on.

In Egypt, Joseph’s life spiralled down from comfortable favouritism at home to being imprisoned on false charges.  Life was grim.  Through his downslide and impoverishment, Joseph seems to have metamorphosed from arrogant, egotistical boy with affectations, to a more humble, vulnerable maturing young man who realised he wasn’t so great after all.

It was his ability to interpret dreams that finally got him out of prison when Pharaoh had a troubling dream.  Joseph was able to tell the Pharaoh that famine was coming; after 7 good years there would be 7 bad years.  Pharaoh put him in charge of the program to store enough food for the hard times.  When the bad times arrived, so did his brothers – eventually.  They like many others came to Egypt in search of food.  Joseph recognised them and played with them.  He challenged them, tricked them, tested them and caused not a small amount of grief for them and their father.  Joseph seems to have had a mixture of anger and vengeance, along with a desire to see who these men had become.  Ultimately, he realised that they were different, and they were his brothers and he yearned to be reunited.  He revealed who he was and allayed their fears when they thought he was going to destroy them.  There was reconciliation and he brought his family to Egypt to save them from the famine.  (This story will be re-visited by Matthew in the New Testament when he tells of another Joseph hearing God through dreams at Jesus conception and birth and then travels to Egypt with his family to save them).

This convoluted story features all the stuff of life.  Most families and communities can identify with some elements of this tale – favouritism, envy, arrogance, egotism, conflict, alienation and separation, hatred, violence, reconciliation, healing, trust, forgiveness…  This is reality, our reality.  The story of Joseph as he moves through arrogant egotism and ambition into vulnerable humility and the recognition that he isn’t able to save himself or do what he thinks he can, is the journey of life into maturity.  We move into a place where our egos are squashed down, and we become humble and open to the world around and other people as equals.  We begin to live with a different outlook and embrace paradox and mystery – especially the ultimate mystery revealed in the Divine.

It is through this journey that Joseph begins to trust and be trustworthy.  Whilst he tests and taunts his brothers, he is ultimately driven to reconciliation through forgiveness.  There is healing within this broken, divided family.  Throughout the story God seems to move in the background using what happens to move things forward.  Joseph and Jacob, who becomes Israel, ultimately understand God’s grace through their story.  God does not make it all happen but works with people and their choices, revealing love, life and grace within their openness.  Joseph cannot hear God’s true voice until he is humble enough to recognise he isn’t ‘God’ or even god-like, until he recognises his own dependence.

This story invites us into a place to ponder our own lives, the choices we make and our journey into a place where we become more humble, vulnerable, and open to grace and love.  In this place we begin to see and feel what is before us – the people, the wonders, the mystery.  We gaze upon the mystery and wonder of God and see glimpses in the shadows of this mysterious hand of grace that holds us and urges us through possibility and potential – even when we resist and choose alternately.

In the Gospel reading this week (Luke 6:27-38), Jesus continues to teach the disciples a most profound and impossible ethic grounded in love rather than hatred and violence.  He invokes an ethic of love towards enemy and doing good to those who oppose us.  The centre-piece of his teaching is the ‘Golden Rule’: ‘Do unto others what you would have them do to you.’  This classic rule appears in similar variants amongst most religions in the world and through history.  We are invited to consider life from another person’s perspective and understand why they do or believe what they do, what makes ‘them, them.’ We are to act out of the perspective that we are all humans with our own hang-ups, strengths and weakness, prejudices… and respond in love that builds up rather than divides and breaks down.  This is difficult!!

When we experience someone who challenges us at every point, love is difficult to conjure up – revenge, putting them in their place… are far more real in our attitude.  This is the story of Joseph’s brothers and then Joseph towards them.  When we have experienced violence and abuse, then forgiveness and love are virtually impossible.  How do we understand someone who engages in sexual abuse or violence towards us?  Sometimes forgiveness simply isn’t possible as there is no remorse or acceptance of responsibility.  This is the messy place we sometimes inhabit and have to live through.

Jesus’ words are certainly a very challenging way forward for our world but until we can grasp our need for an alternative way to the spiralling violence of revenge, abuse of power, warfare, hatred, fear, exclusiveness and all the ways people naturally respond to others who are different or do us wrong, nothing will change.  We will continue to spiral around violence as the means of achieving an end to violence and conflict!!??

Jesus invites us into a great reversal that sees one another from a different perspective and one that will move us toward forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.  It requires humility, putting ego aside and growing more deeply into love and the mystery of God!

By geoffstevenson

When Love, Justice and Hope Reign!

I, like many other football fans and others concerned about human rights have been following the story of Hakeem al-Araibi, the young footballer granted refugee status in Australia in 2014 and who has been living and playing semi-professional football (soccer) in Melbourne.  Hakeem was able to escape from his native Bahrain when selected to play for the national team in Qatar in 2013.  He fled through Iran to Malaysia, Thailand and onto Australia where he was granted asylum.

Hakeem was accused of being part of a violent protest even though he was playing football at the time and the match was televised.  His brother was arrested for his part in this and Hakeem seems to have been implicated by association.  He has since spoken out against the oppression and persecution of those who spoke out for democracy and freedom or who protested against the ruling family.  Persecution is especially against those of different faith from the ruling family of Sunni Islam.

In Australia, Hakeem married and sought advice before travelling to Thailand last year for his honeymoon.  He was given the all clear but Thai authorities received an Interpol ‘Red Notice’ issued by Bahrain and he was detained in prison on arrival in Thailand.  Over the last 2 months Hakeem has been protesting his innocence and has expressed his fears that if returned to Bahrain, he would be tortured or worse.  There has been significant representation and support from international authorities, including Amnesty International, the Australian Government, Football Federation Australia, The Professional Footballers Association of Australia, FIFA (International Football Association), and many, many individuals.  Former Socceroo, Craig Foster has been a very significant voice and has garnered support from football associations, journalists and raised the prominence of Hakeem’s situation.  Other supporters include the joint Australians of the Year, Dr Richard Harris OAM and Dr Craig Challen SC OAM, the two doctors who helped retrieve the Thai soccer team from the flooded cave last year.  This week (Monday), the Thai authorities released Hakeem and he arrived back in Australia on Tuesday.

This was great news and represents a ‘victory’ for freedom and hope.  It was because many ordinary people were motivated by this story of injustice and rallied around a cause for human rights.  People like Craig Foster and others in journalism and sport helped raise the profile of the story. Ordinary people added their voices and someone whose life was in crisis, who was locked away, a captive in prison, oppressed and experiencing the poverty of vulnerability, found freedom.  Those who were ‘blind’ had eyes opened to the real nature of what was happening and chose to act for justice and life.

All of these are the themes that we encounter in Jesus’ opening words in Luke’s Gospel where he says he has come to ‘proclaim Good News to the poor, release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed.’ Jesus adds that he will announce that the good and favourable day of the Lord has come.  This is what we see in Hakeem’s story and it is more poignant because he is a Shia Muslim, and that God’s love and grace are for all people but are realised when humans embrace the values of God’s Reign that is grounded in love and compassion, justice and peace, mercy and forgiveness and inclusive community.  These are the values that Jesus proclaims and lives out and demands his followers and all people embrace!

In this week’s reading (Luke 6:17-26) we hear a report on Jesus’ mission of preaching Good News to the poor, releasing those who are captive, healing blindness and bringing freedom to oppressed peoples.  He teaches people in what is called the ‘Sermon on the Plain’, which is Luke’s equivalent of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, a radical teaching that has influenced such leaders as Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr.  Jesus declares that those who are poor, hungry, mourning and persecuted because they live by his standards will be blessed.  Woe to those who are rich, full, laughing and comfortable for they have received their fill.  These are harsh words and have often been taken as a state of being beyond life in the heavenly realm, the afterlife.  Jesus does not spiritualise the state of human struggle or greed.  He does not revert to some utopian hope in another realm beyond the world we know as the true means of resolution and justice.  Jesus demands that those who ‘see’ and feel and know love live for justice and life now.  He knows in his own being the freedom and joy that comes in sharing and inclusive community where the sick, the suffering, the hungry, the poor and the grieving find others who will share life, hope and the resources they need, now.  Jesus understands the reality that when we hoard and accumulate for purely personal gain and greed, we ultimately find ourselves lost and empty – I think of several of those who have much but keep it for themselves and live mean and fearful lives, protecting what they have and remain suspicious of others.  History is full of such people whose fear results in demented, oppressive, violent and hate-filled lives.  In Jesus’ time King Herod was one example.  We could add a multitude of dictators or super- wealthy people who end up miserable and lonely.  When there is no flow of love, grace and generosity, life stagnates.

Jesus’ teaching and declaration is about the reality of God’s grace that is realised when humans release love and live for justice and peace, expressing hope and joy.  When the rich and full, comfortable and laughing recognise the blessedness of their lives and share that with others, the world changes.  The captives are released, the poor receive resources, the blind eyes are opened and the oppressed find freedom in the life of a community of love.  Jesus is not much concerned about what people believe or whether they believe themselves to ‘be in or outside God’s people’.  Jesus proclaims a reality of life and his followers will express this way of being, whether they understand everything else or not!  The way of Christ is realised when we work for freedom, hope, love, justice, peace and proclaim the Good News of God’s very real and present love for all people in this world, now.  The truth of Jesus’ words find their fulfillment in the present when people respond generously and graciously towards the suffering, poor, captive, grieving, oppressed and live for justice, hope and life – because that is what God is like!!

Hakeem’s story is an example of how God’s Reign of love can be realised in the present when people work together for justice, love and hope.  When people use their resources and care enough to make a difference.  The response to farmers who experience the difficulties of drought and flood, those who are victims of bush fire, those who seek asylum and are received, the poor and marginalised who are given resources to live, those who live with disability or illness who are embraced and cared.  This is God’s Reign realised!  We are invited into the blessedness of sharing love through inclusive, gracious community.

By geoffstevenson

Called into Richer, Deeper Being…

I heard a story some years ago about a boat, a fishing boat.  A pair of brothers, amateur archaeologists, in northern Israel, around the Sea of Galilee were digging in the mud flats – a consequence of drought and the lowering of the lake’s water level.  They stumbled upon a buried boat in the mud.  The Israel Department of Antiquities were brought in and the boat was painstakingly removed over a 2-week period.  It was carefully handled, and the delicate, ancient wood protected with various chemical treatments.  The boat has been extensively studied and clearly comes from the era of the 1st Century and is an example of the type of boat used in the time of Jesus by several of the disciples who were fishermen.

One of the possible scenarios to this story is that the fishing boat was simply abandoned during the reign of Herod Antipas, who built a new capital city on the shores of the lake and called it Tiberius after the Emperor.  The lake was commercialised, and the state governed who could fish under license and the limits of their catch.  There was exorbitant taxation and all fish belonged to the state.  The local fishermen, usually in family clans seeking to feed their family, were forced to register and hand over their catch to the state.  They were given a little money after taxes were collected and they had to buy back fish for food.  Life became very difficult for such fishermen and some simply walked away from the oppressive requirements of the Roman Empire.  Either way, stay or go, it was a tough situation.  We wondered about the original owners of this boat.  It has evidence of extensive repairs and long use.  Perhaps when everything became too economically difficult, they took what was valuable from it and walked away to another life??!  There had been security and familiarity in the family traditions of fishing on the lake.  It fed villages and sustained the micro-economic structures of the villages, clans…  Oppressive regimes tore this apart.  Life became harder and less secure.

The origins of the word, ‘Security’ comes from late Middle English: from Old French securite or Latin securitas, from securus ‘free from care.’  It is most commonly understood as freedom from threat or danger and it is prominent in most people’s minds and experience.  We want freedom from danger and threat for ourselves, our family, our community and nation.  We may dream of a hope of freedom from fear and danger for all people, even though it feels like an empty hope, a fantasy.  We seem to have narrowed this meaning down to danger and threat, from its more original meaning of freedom from care (or worry and anxiety).  There remains a pervading sense of anxiety and fear across our society – a pandemic resulting in a variety of levels of symptomology and responses.   We all live with an inner tension and high levels of stress.  We are in a state of unparalleled change and movement, of shifting technologies and expectations, of materialistic growth and focus that is unprecedented.

There is more insecurity, both in terms of internal feelings and stresses and outward threats and dangers, perceived or real.  There is more anxiety and uncertainty and we don’t know how to deal with this.  We feel the pressure to be in control and be on top of everything and have not learned how to negotiate mess, paradox and ambiguity.  The chaos of modern life that requires us to hold many things together and live within paradox and uncertainty, stresses us and causes anxiety because we do not know what we ought to do – and there is intense pressure to ‘know’ what we are supposed to be and do.  The younger generation, especially males, are struggling within the complex array of possibilities that keep growing and changing, to know what they are meant to do and be.

The inability to live with paradox and within mess, also challenges our ability to release ourselves into mystery and wonder, to be drawn into awe-filled moments and experiences.  This is the spiritual dimension of life that is our yearning across Western society but confused and held at arm’s length over and against the materialistic, secure systems of life that feel so much more insistent and immediate.  We feel more secure behind larger bank accounts, more material possessions, then bigger fences, stronger locks, security systems and even gated communities.  We are more secure within certainty even when we are less content, creative and joyful in our lives.  The more material values pressure us, the more we feel internal stress and the barrenness of an empty spiritual capacity.  We also find ourselves defined by these things – how much and what we have accumulated; our education attainments; our career or profession; skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, mental health…  Too often we are defined, and confined, by what we do or what we look like or our particular capacities or what we know.  ‘What do you do?’  ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Where did you study?’  These are the types of defining, comparative questions asked of each other.  They also confine us to categories that are not us.

Luke tells a story of Jesus and would-be disciples in Luke 5:1-11.  A crowd gathered and Jesus got into a fishing boat. and asked Simon to push out a little from shore, where he spoke to the crowds and taught them.  Jesus then told Simon to push out into deeper water and throw his nets over.  Simon was tired from a poor night of fishing where few fish were caught.  He began to protest but relented – something in Jesus convinced him!  The nets came up filled with more fish than they could contain, and he called for the other boat.  Both were overfilled and Simon was amazed.  In this moment he saw beyond what was, a glimpse of another possibility, something bigger, awe-filled and inexplicable.  In this moment he came face to face with deep wonder and things of Spirit.  He knelt before the wonder and Jesus invited him and the others to follow into a different, deeper way where definition broke down.  The story says they left everything and followed Jesus.

This wonderful story speaks into life that is defined and confined by powers and forces beyond us, and by what we do or have or look like or our status…  We are invited into the place where we are.  It is a deeper reality of being that recognises the freedom and joy for which we yearn is not contained in the ways we define and limit ourselves based on the superficial categories of the world around us.  I am not defined by a career or education, or asset register (or lack thereof), what I can/can’t do…  I am not a category and my freedom does not depend upon someone else who wants to express power over me or limit me.  My career or job is a means to an end, but I have a vocation that is deeper and richer and transcends work, leisure, education and everything else.  Jesus welcomed these lowly fishermen into a place where they could find life, love and being within a diverse and inclusive group of people who would journey with Jesus into the grace of God and find themselves in a new, deeper, richer way of physical and spiritual being.

I wonder about the owners of a Galilean Fishing Boat.  Did they hear a story from a 1st century Rabbi and find freedom in the midst of struggle, oppression and defining power?

By geoffstevenson

When Disillusionment Breaks Us Open to Live!

This week I am challenged to reflect on what disillusions me?  What disillusionment do I feel within my being – disillusionment about people, society, the world, religion, faith and even God?  Can I identify and accept disillusionment within myself and, if so, what do I do with it?  Do I avoid it or ignore it, hoping it will pass and all the while cling to whatever it is I want to hold onto?  Do I run with it and feel the despair and confusion as disillusionment rolls through questioning, challenging and confronting?  Such questions and confrontation perhaps lays me bare as I am forced to cast aside the ‘comfortable clothing’ I have worn, the ‘clothing’ of culture, tribe, belief system, dogma and personal perception or opinion.  Giving in to disillusionment and allowing the questions to emerge is a hard game to play because we don’t know how far it will lead or what it will require us to shuck off.  What will stand up at the end of the journey and survive the abandonment of illusions?  For that is what disillusionment is all about – the abandonment of illusions.  Illusions can define us and others.  They can provide false guides and barriers that distort, exclude and help us hide from, ignore, avoid or be blissfully unaware of the reality that lies beyond illusory life and belief.

Part of the process of growing involves necessary disillusionment as we cast aside childhood fantasises and beliefs and move through adolescence and into adulthood.  Leaving the world of childhood is to abandon the illusions of childhood and is symbolised in the story of Adam and Eve leaving the garden, moving out of the fantastical paradise and into the world of reality, joyous and harsh.  Their journey, like that of every journey that every human has to make, requires a new vision, a clear ‘seeing’ in a new way. It ultimately requires a change in heart and mind as we let prejudices and false perceptions about people, the world and life fade away.

All around us there is great disillusionment over a great many things.  There is disillusionment in the political processes as they feel unable to truly engage with and lead us through the confronting and challenging issues Australian society faces.  There is as much disillusionment within the political parties as there is outside.  They chop and change and swap leaders in a cheap response to opinion polls or idealistic notions or personal opinion and ideology.  There is disillusionment in various other institutions from the finance sector, aged care services, churches and community organisations, following the various Royal Commissions and their astounding and horrific findings.  There is disillusionment within the younger generation as they perceive the older generations have let them down by demanding a lifestyle that is highly materialistic and has resulted in greater distance between rich and poor, haves and have-nots and has made ownership of homes very difficult.  They are all too aware of Climate Change even as their elders often reject it as a nonsense despite the ever-growing scientific evidence and the obvious radical changes everywhere present across the earth.  They are disillusioned because the world they will grow into with children and grandchildren will be vastly different and more difficult because of the current trends of greed and abuse of the planet through overpopulation, depletion of resources, poor and indiscriminate use of land, water and air, and their degradation through copious waste – solid, liquid and gas emissions.  The breakdown of community as we become more isolated and insulated within homes and workplaces, cars and private life, leads to increased fear, suspicion and exclusion of those who are different.  Cruel and barbaric policies that give voice to such fears, resulting in exclusion, violence and hatred, permeate the national agenda and our international relations, foreign aid and support of those who live in poverty and oppression.

These are not things we prefer to engage with or hear.  We avoid the confronting and challenging words that ask questions of us and our attitudes.  I often balk when someone has the courage and honesty to tell me things as they are, that something I have done or said is ludicrous, hurtful, foolish or plain wrong.  I hastily build my defences and prepare to deflect or challenge back, anything but stop and hear the words of truth offered in love.  When I stop taking myself so seriously and act with a small dose of humility and allow the words to come to me, I may begin to recognise the uncomfortable truth.  That is the first step to change and growth and life.  The move through disillusionment and squashing of false illusions in order to gain a deeper sense of understanding, awareness and reality.  No growth is without the consequent struggle and challenge or pain.

This week Jesus returns home to Nazareth (Luke 4:21-30 – the rest of last week’s story).  He preached in the Synagogue and the people liked his words – initially.  They recognised him as Joe’s boy who grown up among them.  There were friends, relatives and towns people who knew him as a boy.  They had heard the growing range of stories around what he’d been doing in other villages – and they felt they deserved even more of the blessing and miracles, healing and anything else.  Jesus began well but then took a sharp turn in his rhetoric.  Understanding their tribal pride, their desire to own and define him and what he would/should do, he challenged them at the very point of their exclusive, ego-driven pride and expectation.  He told them that God rarely acted in ways that people expected or easily defined.  Whenever humans try to limit God’s actions to their tribe, their belief system, their in-group, God moved outside and worked elsewhere.  He quoted a couple of well-known stories from their tradition – a gentile widow who shared the little she had with one of God’s prophets and was blessed for her generous, inclusive love and faith.  Naaman was another Gentile, a leader and he was healed of leprosy.  Both of these were outside the expected groups.  They were outcasts, marginal people and God was expected to work within the in-group of the Jewish faithful, not among these but that was exactly where God was to be found.

Jesus confronted his home-town crowd with this uncomfortable truth – just because you know me and believe you should be God’s favourites, doesn’t make it so.  Whilst ever you want to contain God, faith, love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and justice to your own group and deny others, God will always work outside in other places where love, justice, grace and compassion is inclusive and generous towards all people – whether they are Jewish (or Christian!) or not!

This is the disillusionment that we need to grow through.  God’s blessings are not exclusively ours (whether in the local religious tribe or the national agenda)!  We simply aren’t that good.  We aren’t bad but we aren’t better than everyone else – and that is okay!  A bit of humility and reality is needed and then maybe love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy and justice may emerge more fully – and so will life in joyous abundance, for all!

By geoffstevenson