The Journey into Life through Love and Grace

Like all of us, I have made many journeys in life.  Some have been simple and straightforward and others more complex and challenging.  Some have been physical journeys that have taken me away from home on some adventure or a retreat into a peaceful space.  Some journey’s have been emotional and challenged my world view, challenged everything and left me breathless and confused, grieving and lost.

Sometimes the journey has been simple and lovely, such as the little journey we made today around Toongabbie Creek on our daily walk with the dogs.  Susan and Nebo ventured as far as the bridge.  The old fellow decided he didn’t need to go far today.  Nico, meanwhile, wanted to venture as far as possible, to explore the creek, the parks, bark at or greet other dogs and people along the way.  This little journey isn’t so much a physical challenge but a source quiet and reflection in the wonder and beauty of the early morning world.

Sometimes the journey is emotionally or physically demanding.  It stretches me by confronting me with my own limitations and powerlessness.  The journey through my mother’s illness and death so many years ago, was extremely confronting and emotionally challenging.  The resultant grief and sense of loss became its own journey to understand, recalibrate and recognise my own limitations and mortality.  I also recognised that I cannot do this life alone.

‘Journey’ is a metaphor that is readily present in all cultures to describe the movement through life that engages us.  Most cultures, religions and philosophies seem to speak in terms of a journey at some point.  The great archetypal story is of the outward journey we all make, leaving home to take on the world and build our own sense of being.  This metaphorical (and sometimes physical) journey is about the individuation of self, of experimenting and testing the world and working out who we are.  It is necessarily self-centred and ego-driven.  It revolves around ambition, striving, testing and pushing boundaries.  It is the life of the adolescent who is naturally self-absorbed as they try to define and express their emerging identity.  Sometimes this is a wild journey (‘sowing wild oats’) that pushes everything as far as possible.  There may be rebellion and anger. vulnerability and naivete in the push and pull of home versus independence.  This is the story of the Garden of Eden and the journey outward into the world away from the fantastical world of childhood.  It is about rebellion and pushing boundaries and rules and the movement into personhood – Adam and Eve gained names and individual identity at this point in the story.  They enter a world that is harsh and filled with toil and struggle, along with the joy of relationships and life lived.  This is also the beginning of the journey that will eventually bring them home into a place of peaceful acceptance, of relational equanimity when engaged with integrity!

The outward journey we make into life is one that builds the container of our being.  It is the building up of who we are and is formed in the dreams, hopes and adolescent longing of ego, ambition and the seductions of the world in which live.  We are tempted with fame, fortune, power and the accumulation of ‘stuff’.  We become driven to ‘be someone’ even though we have no clear idea of who we are.  The compulsions and addictions we acquire as we struggle through this journey drive us onward until we fall into vulnerability and humility.

When we are confronted by a great suffering and have to live through it we recognise our own powerlessness and inability to ‘save ourselves’.  Sometimes a great sense of awe that brings us to our knees and reveals the smallness of who we are in this vast universe – the world does not actually revolve around ‘me’.  It may be a great love that draws us into a vulnerable, humble place before which we recognise that we are not the centre of everything.  These kinds of experiences, when engaged with and allowed to form us and change us, squash down the ego into a healthier place where it doesn’t dominate everything.

We then begin the 2nd journey of life, which is about filling the container of our lives, the one built up in the 1st journey.  We learn wisdom, community, generosity and love.  We begin to understand that we are part of the webs of life on this vulnerable planet.  We are no better or worse, no greater or less than other people – we are unique, and everyone has their place.  We are all in this together and must share the resources and learning we have acquired along the way for the good of all.  This is some challenging journey and one that not everyone makes!  The best leaders the world has known were making this journey in life whilst the worst, ego-centric leaders are still negotiating the 1st journey and do not understand what life is about – not yet.

This week’s story comes from Luke 15:11-32, which is the story often known as The Prodigal Son.  It is a story of the 2 journeys.  The young son confronts the world of home and wants out.  He wants to push the boundaries, experience life and test the seductive promises of the world beyond home.  His father obliges and he leaves on his adventure.  All seems good until he realises it actually isn’t.  Money gone, friends moved on and desperate he falls into crisis and suffering.  It is somewhere in this fallen state of pain and crisis that he realises he can’t do it and home looks pretty good.  His father’s house cares for all who are there.  He returns home.  He could not do that until he came to the humble realisation that he was powerless to change anything about his life.  He could not do it alone and needed home!

The part of the story that confounds us and turns expectations upside down is when he gets close to home and we are told his father had looked out every day and when he saw his son he ran and grasped him with tears in his eyes and love in his heart.  The son tried to confess, apologise… but the father pushes it aside saying, ‘You are my son, you’ve always been my son.  You were lost but now your found; dead but now alive.’  This is grace!  It is undeserved, unmerited love that recognises the boy has endured the 1st journey and is now ready to come home to where he belongs as the unique individual he can be.  He doesn’t need to be ‘punished’ just accepted and loved!  He has been to ‘hell’ and back home.

His older brother never left home and has never known the deep pain.  He has lived in safety and judges his brother severely!  He refuses his father’s grace and wants retribution towards his brother.  He cannot accept grace.  He cannot see that the deeper a person falls and suffers, the deeper their need for grace, love and acceptance.  This is a story of God’s grace and love that is there for everyone, free and lavishly bestowed on all who understand their need and humbly open themselves to receive it!

The older son becomes real in our own experience when there is judgement of  others who need grace and love – asylum seekers, our Indigenous brothers and sisters, those who struggle with poverty, both here and overseas… – people who have great needs, physical, emotional/psychological and spiritual, which at some point is most of us.  The older son is those who from a sense of entitlement judge other people who are in another place without walking with them to understand their life.  The older son refuses to come to the celebration and wants to deny grace to others.  Such grace and love is confounding and antithetical to the priorities of our world, where vengeance and retribution dominate our responses to life’s challenges.  Forgiveness and grace, though, are the way of healing and peace for all.

By geoffstevenson

An Invitation to Take A Second Chance?

There’s the story of a young man on death row in the USA.  Even his mother, ashamed and disgusted at his crimes (rape and murder), had given up on him.  He was described as perverted, twisted and even rejected by his own mother.  His name was Jimmy Lee Davis and he was sentenced to death, imprisoned on death row.

A young Christian in Melbourne read his story in a newspaper and for some reason was moved with compassion for the young man, a man no-one else thought anything of.  He felt deeply that God loved even this despised and despicable young man – that no-one, even this cold and perverted criminal, was beyond God’s capacity to love.  The young Melbourne man believed that if only Jimmy could experience and know God’s love as it had come to him; if only he could know the depth and beauty of God’s love, he would change.  He wrote a letter to Jimmy in his prison and told him in his simple way that Jesus loved him and that had made all the difference in his own life.

The young man was amazed that within a couple of weeks he received a reply.  It said: ‘It’s the most wonderful letter I’ve ever received in my life.  I do wish that I could know Jesus in my own life like you do.  I’ve made such a mess of it.  You have given me hope.’ 

The young man from Melbourne got yhe idea into his head that he had to go to America, that God was in this and he needed to go.  He was determined to go and meet Jimmy and share God’s love with him.  He prayed about it and talked to some friends.  Before long all sorts of donations were coming in from different places and he soon had the fare to America. 

He landed in Jackson, Mississippi, knowing no-one, hoping to get into death row and meet with Jimmy Lee Davis.  A whole series of events unfolded that led to him receiving permission to enter death row, twice a week for four hours a visit, for a couple of months.  He took his guitar with him.  He sat in that cell in death row with Jimmy.  They talked, he sang Christian songs, they cracked jokes, they laughed and came to behave like brothers.

Jimmy grew into his awareness of God and became committed to Christian faith and the way of Jesus.  Over a couple of months, the two men had deep fellowship as close friends and brothers in Christian faith.  The last visit was Jimmy’s baptism.  A Christian magazine carried a picture of Jimmy and the prison chaplain coming out of the small pool dripping wet.  The young man’s visa had expired, and he had to leave.  They hugged each other and said their goodbyes.

He returned to Melbourne and for two years Jimmy awaited his fate.  In the meantime, they wrote letters to each other.  Jimmy was growing deeper in faith – there had been a remarkable transformation in his life.  He was truly a new person.  In one of his letters he said: ‘There is one thing I’m not going to do.  I’m not going to dishonour the gospel of God by using my conversion to escape the death penalty.’

One day a phone call came through to Melbourne and the young man’s wife received the call.  She rang him at work and asked to come home at once because Jimmy had permission to call from his prison cell – he’s being executed tonight.

He tore home from work and got through to the prison in America two hours before Jimmy was due in the gas chamber.  He said he just broke down and cried on the phone.  However Jimmy, on the other end of the line, said, ‘I love you man.  Thank you for all you’ve done for me.  I’ve got to go now.  Goodbye.  Be seeing you.’ And Jimmy hung up.

I have used this story before.  Every time I read it I feel a mixture of emotions.  There is the revulsion we feel when we hear something of the violent, evil crimes this person has committed.  After revulsion, I continue to read the story and wonder what possessed the young man from Melbourne to see beyond the revulsion that we feel and believe there was a human being in there somewhere.  Why did he write?  What did he expect?  What did he see and what enabled him to see, to feel and to respond?

The journey that followed and the experience of both men leaves me feeling confused, amazed and wondering.  What happened and could this be a reality for more people in such horrible places in life?  What do I miss in judging people so readily and especially against what they have done?  What do I miss when I believe that what a person has done must define them forever?  A moment of stupidity or loss of mind or control should not be the whole story of a person’s life.  Whilst there may need to be retributive action or ‘justice’ applied to particular situations, how might we respond to people in more compassionate ways, learning to go deeper, to listen and to act from love.  Not to love the actions or the heart that perpetrated evil but to love the heart that shows remorse and seeks forgiveness and, if possible, restitution.  Perhaps it goes even deeper and understands that love is the beginning of transformation and such radical love in the midst of the retributive cycle of society’s response to evil, may yield the most astounding and transformative responses.

Jimmy experienced unconditional love from a young Christian from Melbourne.  He encountered the love of God through this man and it changed him.  As God’s love broke into his being and melted his hardness and evil, he was slowly changed.  It was a second chance.  He still submitted to and faced the legal requirements of the state for his crime and was put to death.  The one who died was a different person to the one who committed the crimes.  It is reminiscent of the stories of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who were put to death in Indonesia for drug trafficking.  Their lives were changed dramatically, and they were making a difference to the lives of others in prison – a second chance to do something significant with their lives before facing the death squad.

The passage this week (Luke 13:1-9) contains a story where Jesus speaks of a fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit.  The owner wants it removed because it is a waste of space.  The gardener calls for one year’s reprieve – a second chance.  If they dig around the roots, put down some manure and give it another chance, perhaps there will be fruit next year.  The owner consents to a second chance.

This story contains a couple of calls for repentance, a complete change in mind, attitude, action and being.  Initially Jesus confronts the issue of bad things happening to good people.  He tells them that bad things are not punishment and they happen to good and bad people.  So, change your mind and stop judging other people because of what has happened to them, what they look like, do etc – Repent!   The second call is for repentance in our lives such that we live into a new way of being.  We are offered second chances so take them but be changed through the experience!  Don’t waste the chance.

I wonder how we respond to people who are different?  How do we respond to people who have made mistakes or have made choices we don’t consider respectable or reasonable?  How do we respond to people who have gotten things so badly wrong and messed up their own and other’s lives?  Can we be gracious and offer a second chance?  Do we know God’s love deeply enough to be able to be gracious and loving towards others who are despised?  Do we believe that we are indeed deserving of a second chance in God’s grace?  It changed Jimmy, it can change others and us!

By geoffstevenson

Turning from Fear Through Love…

On our daily wander along the bush tracks of the local creek, we encounter many birds and animals along the way.  In most cases they are wary of a human and a dog and get out of the way.  Some watch from a distance and there is uncertainty, fear, in their eyes.  They retreat rather than attack.  Even the black snake in our path the other day.  It was caught out, lying in the sun and didn’t move soon enough.  As I looked, from the safety of a few metres away, it seemed to me that it went into a defensive mode, fearing these larger creatures bearing down upon it.  The fear was not only within the snake – I kept my distance as the thought of a close encounter with poisonous fangs was undesirable.  The ducks, water dragons, skinks, cockatoos, parrots, and other creatures keep their distance.  The ducks with their young in spring are extremely wary of everything and the parents will attack anything that threatens their ducklings.  There is a mixture of defensive fear and angry aggression in their eyes.

It feels to me that fear drives many responses in the animal world.  Often it is a healthy, respectful fear that ushers the animal away from danger.  Sometimes when the threat is close up and endangering, a full-on defensive assault follows – it can be all or nothing.  It is the same with people.  As I hear the daily news and ponder some of the stories, I recognise defensive fear in the violent actions of many people – even, and perhaps especially, the violence and abuse of power over other people.  I have come to understand that a person made vulnerable or one not fully mature will often react strongly to protect their own vulnerable or immature sense of personhood.  Often those appearing strong, macho and ‘in control’ feel insecure and any threat to them, whether physical, or especially emotional is met with a strong defensive stance that lashes out in an offensive manner.   When a person’s ego is threatened, we tend to be defensive and respond out of fear.  We feel the insecurity to do everything to maintain our equilibrium and feel secure and in control.  For most of us, being in control and controlling situations is very important.  Any threat to our sense of control or order is challenged.  The flight or fight syndrome functions well into this space.  We are overwhelmed with adrenalin and either run or stand up to fight.  It can be fast and furious, without any reasonable, considered thought, a spontaneous lashing out with fists or words…

Look into most of the reactions in the news stories and ponder what lies behind the violence or response.  Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, for example, are very similar even whilst being very different.  Both resist any challenge to their sense of authority and anything that questions them or challenges their large, under-developed egos, will result in fierce reaction.  Putin’s reactions are incredibly violent and cold-blooded, whilst Trump’s violence tends to be through words or some show of might that casts people aside or threatens finance.  Many of the violent events that we see are ego-driven or defensive reactions from people whose power, authority or ego have been challenged in some way, even unintentionally.  When people seek to control power (and therefore are usually controlled by power) and seek to control others around them, any challenge to that power and sense of authority stimulates a strong, often violent reaction.  It is defensive and fear-driven because we will do anything to shore up our wounded or threatened ego, when our life revolves around ego-centricity.

I have been challenged by the person of Jesus in many ways and in the many stories from his life and teaching.  Jesus acts purely out of love – not fear.  There is no threat to his physical being or his psychology/emotions or sense of being that will evoke a defensive, violent stance.  He is sometimes surprised when people come back at him.  He listens and changes direction, embracing the truth of what he sees and hears.  In the story this week (Luke 13:31-35), a group of religious leaders come to warn him that he is seriously off-side with the local king – a puppet of Caesar.  Herod Antipas, who has already beheaded John the Baptist has Jesus in his sights.  What is it about this simple Rabbi, teaching, healing and casting out daemons, that gets under the skin of local powers and authorities?  He preaches love and embraces all people into the heart of God, a place of life and hope, inclusion and belonging.  It is a place where we discover ourselves in the deepest ways and learn to live alongside each other celebrating each other’s gifts and uniqueness.  Jesus’ way, the way of God, challenges the use and abuse of power – power over and power against.  Herod is frightening to most people, but Jesus sends a message back to him calling him a fox and indicating he will leave when he is finished and not before.  There is no fear in Jesus’ response to the threat offered.  He is not offended by slights or anything that challenges his ego because it doesn’t control and dictate who he is and how he lives in the world.  Herod, on the other hand, is threatened by anything and anyone who opposes his opinion or challenges his power or won’t bow to his authority.  He will lash out murderously as he did with John – still Jesus is unmoved.

Well, actually he is moved, but not by Herod.  Jesus is moved to grief at the appalling state of the people in Jerusalem, the holy city that houses the grand Temple of God.  Jesus mourns the prophets and messengers who have come to this famous, wondrous city and delivered God’s word of love, grace and justice, but who have been ignored.  He grieves the streets that have run with the blood of martyrs – for Luke writing beyond the time when this Temple was destroyed, no doubt adds to the emotional import of how this city has lived and died, along with its prophets and messengers.

Jesus longs to gather the people together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings to protect and shield them from the dangers that threaten.  Like the ducks down the creek, Jesus wants to protect the little ones from the dangers that come through political machinations, the abuse of power and the threat to people’s well-being.  This protection isn’t just from physical danger but the danger that asserts itself through cultural expectations and the seductions of life that lead people into complex paths that do not yield life. For Herod, the Roman political, religious and ideological agenda was paramount.  They reigned through fear and the wielding of immense, threatening power.  They drew heavy taxes and the wealthy grew ‘richer, the poor got the picture’.  Jesus challenged the very heart of this world-view, of ego-centric lives and abusive power, violence, injustice and marginalisation.  He proclaimed a way of life for all, grounded in love and yearned to gather everyone under wings that would shield them/us from the seductions that deal false hope and drain the very life from us.

When we are governed by fear, it might be a sign that we need this grace to grow through fear by receiving the profound, generous love and grace of God!

By geoffstevenson

A Journey into Love and Life…

We have just entered a different season.  For a few days I didn’t notice anything much different, but today after the cooler change and storms of last night, it feels decidedly autumnal.  Yesterday we entered a new season in the cycles and rhythm of Christian faith.  It is the season of Lent and began with Ash Wednesday this week.  Lent is a time of preparation and reflection on life and who we are.  Whilst many who ‘are not religious’ may ignore or avoid this period of reflection, they do so at their own peril for this is a time where we can connect more deeply with our own true self and the Spirit within.

We live in a world of distraction and much superficiality.  The radio is playing in the background and the news is distracting me right now – I turned the radio down.  The phone is in another room and distracting notifications are turned off – I think??!  There is quiet and as always in the silence, my mind wants to race ahead and interpret, predict, analyse and solve.  It is functioning in the past and future but finds it very difficult to be fully in the present.  More than that, left to its own devices, my mind conjures all kinds of responses to people, situations, and the world around.  I judge, compare, define and compete.  This is the normal way we work, business-as-usual, the way we are conditioned in our ego-driven world that protects and builds up the ego.

At some point in our lives there comes a realisation that we can’t do this ‘life-thing’ alone, that we are not as good, great, independent or in control as we would like to think or expect we need to be.  We are just one more person amongst 7 billion others – no better, no worse.  We feel the same things, we bleed the same way, we hurt, we laugh, we struggle, and life is a journey through joy and pain.  When we push down on the ego and refuse its overindulgence we begin to grow in other ways because we recognise that we are unique people, with unique and beautiful gifts that light up the world when we allow ourselves to shine rather than compare and judge and focus on other people and what they have/have not, can or can’t do… and find ourselves drawn down comparative, envious pathways.

This moment of realisation comes through a transformation of our mind and our inner being.  Often it is a great crisis, something deep and painful that reveals our vulnerability and the futility of power, position and materialistic ways.  As we endure the crisis and grow through it, confronting our mortality and humanity, we are drawn down and into a deeper place.  We recognise fellow travellers that share our journey, people we need to depend on because alone we do not have everything we need – and nor does anyone else!  Sometimes this moment of realisation comes through encountering an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder, something that brings us to our knees, that engages us in the deepest way and the world lights up and we ‘see’ differently.  A great love is another pathway that draws us out of our individualistic life with its need to be ‘right’, be in control and invulnerable before the world.  Love can reveal our vulnerability and break through the barriers we present to the world as we reveal ourselves in our naked reality before another.  Such Love that breaks in through the birth of a child revealing the miracle and profound wonder that is life.  A small, new life is so helpless, and we feel so vulnerable before this child who is dependent upon us for everything.

The journey into deeper, truer life is always a journey that requires courage and strength and makes us feel increasingly vulnerable and humble before the world.  Spiritual director and author, Richard Rohr, speaks of the pattern of traditional initiation rites for males: ‘…trial, testing, facing and experiencing death, and coming out with a new identity and mission.’  It is the lack of such initiation in our modern world that contributes to the domestic violence and abuse of power, as immature people lose control of emotions and are so self-absorbed, and ego-centric that they use and abuse people and hurt them, physically, emotional and spiritually.  Rohr’s work with men in helping them to engage in the deeper work of personal transformation and being open to their inner life of Spirit and humility leads these men into the place of love, compassion, mercy and justice.

This, of course, is the pattern through which all great leaders must journey in some way as they grow in wisdom, maturity and love.  Nelson Mandella, for example, left behind his anger and bitterness, his need for revenge and ‘justice’ (that is really vengeance in disguise) through the crucible of imprisonment over 27 years.  His imprisonment didn’t break him.  It formed or re-formed him.  As he lived through the pain and struggle of being locked away, reduced to lowly status, Mandella grew through trial, testing, and confronting his humanity and mortality.  He gained a new identity and mission and as he left prison, it was as a wiser and more deeply human, spiritual and compassionate person.  This doesn’t ‘just happen’.  We have to engage in the journey and learn to ‘let go’ of our anger, our need to control and define and rule.  We have to let go of the pseudo-power we believe we have or need and recognise that true strength is in weakness and wisdom comes through vulnerability and compassion – and suffering!

As we enter into Lent, we read the story of Jesus being led into his own wilderness, a place of silence, devoid of the usual distractions (Luke 4:1-13).  The wilderness throws up all manner of delusions, temptations, and the daemons of the mind that finally have space to move around and confront our conscious mind that can’t hide in distractions.  Jesus was tempted in 3 ways that appear to be archetypal in terms of humans confronting their destiny and being before the world.  The first temptation was to doubt his essential being as a ‘child of God.’  This is our essential reality, though most would deny and reject any sense of finding our identity in God.  Perhaps that is why there is such great existential alienation persistent within our society – anxiety, depression, suicide, addiction… are pandemic.  We are out of touch with who we truly are and running from a deeper sense of the Spirit of all things within us, holding us and loving us.

The second temptation is about recognising that God’s Reign is an ever-present reality that becomes real to us only when we open ourselves to its possibility and the essential nature of becoming humble before love.  The Reign of God is for us in the most profound ways, but we too often remain beyond its influence and love, through our rejection of it.

The third temptation is about belief and recognition that God is for us, around us, in us and for the world.  Signs and wonders will not engender belief and faith, but faith will allow us to see with new eyes the true wonders before us in the world.  Everything will come alight with the radiant beauty and wonder that flows from the heart of God.

We all share this journey into life with Jesus.  We don’t all engage it with the same openness nor follow it to the end.  This is an invitation into a deeper sense of our humanity and into life that is abundant in love, joy and hope.  It is the journey of life into God.

By geoffstevenson

The Way of Wisdom, Life and Love…

One of the frustrations of age is seeing.  I can see well and don’t wear glasses – except for reading.  It is becoming more necessary to have glasses, which I generally forget to take with me anywhere, to read things in lesser light or smaller print.  I have been caught in restaurants and cafes, unable to read the menu.  There is too little light, or the print is smaller.  I have tried to fix things and unscrewing small screws is difficult because I can’t see where to put the screwdriver.  Reading instructions or things on the phone (emails, texts…), looking at nutritional data on food in supermarkets, puzzles in newspaper or books, some data on the computer on a smaller screen… are all more difficult and frustrating.  Seeing is important.  The thing is, I can see but I can’t always see clearly.  I can read and fumble through and mostly get it right when I have forgotten my glasses, but I also get it wrong.  I usually think I can see better than I really can sometimes, and then when I put glasses on to check, the world changes and I see something quite different from what I thought I was reading or looking at.  Sometimes I see what I thought was there but then there are more details and other things I didn’t realise were there.

As I reflect on ‘seeing’ I also realise that there are different levels of seeing and sight.  I have only spoken about physical sight but there is ‘sight’ that is beyond physical.  There is seeing that ventures into deeper knowing or wisdom, an ability to ‘see’ and understand what is happening around us in deeper ways.  It is about seeing beyond what is, a looking beneath the superficial reality that presents or is presented by the world around us, to that which underlies this seeming reality and reveals a bigger story or picture.

For example, I remember coaching netball or helping out with cricket and soccer.  Teaching kids particular skills or techniques or teaching them moves and strategies in the game, is often confusing and different kids will ‘get’ some of it and others won’t.  Some kids immediately ‘see’ and understand what we are describing, and others struggle for some time.  I remember trying to teach some boys how to trap a soccer ball and then pass it on with the side of their foot.  One watched me and got everything backwards, using wrong feet in the wrong way.  He trapped with the wrong part of his foot and kicked it in the wrong direction.  He saw what I did but something didn’t compute or perhaps he didn’t really ‘see’?  His brain and body did not reproduce what he saw in any way.  When I tried to describe to my netball team a strategy for playing against a particular team, sometimes they got it and sometimes there was no demonstrable evidence that they got what I was saying, that they could ‘see’ what I wanted them to do.  In the game they could not ‘see’ what was happening and therefore didn’t respond to it,

The issue of ‘seeing’ is bigger than kids at netball or soccer, though.  We have leaders across our world who think they can ‘see’ but their vision is either very fuzzy or extremely limited.  The various Royal Commissions have delivered scathing reports on various people and organisations, revealing the blindness, ignorance or pure arrogance of those who make unethical or evil choices that impact innocent people in terrible ways – whether the sexual abuse of children or the ripping off of customers of financial institutions, or the abuse of elderly…  Seeing extends into how we ‘see’ other people, especially those who are different, challenging or desperate.  When we look into the face of another human being, what do we ‘see’?  I remember Mother Teresa talking about the people she worked amongst, the poor, sick and desperate.  These people were dirty, sick and often very difficult.  In them she saw the face of Christ!   She looked at people that most others avoided, cringed at and rejected, and she saw the face of God in their broken, dirty face.  How was it she ‘saw’ something different in these marginalised, desperate people and was able to respond with compassion and grace, whilst many others either couldn’t or wouldn’t ‘see’ these people?  Why is it some people respond to asylum seekers with openness and compassion whilst others see only ‘boat people’?  How can some walk through the streets of the poor parts of town and ‘see’ the people who are hurting and struggling whilst others retreat in fear or loathing?

Why can some ‘see’ the pain and struggle of the earth and want humanity to respond to science and the evidence of problems in the warming of the earth and changing climate, whilst others reject this as a passing phase in the earth’s cycle?  How is it that some people walk the same paths as others but see a world of beauty and wonder, rich in miracles of life and colour, intricate design and sacred presence?  Others walk these same paths and only see ‘some trees…’  Why do some hearts move with emotion and compassion as they experience a story that is lovely and filled with rich humanity, struggle and love, compassion and courage, while others are not much moved?

This week we venture to the mountain top with Jesus (Luke 9:28-36) in a story called ‘The Transfiguration’.  It is a wonderful story of a mystical visionary experience on a mountaintop.  There is an emphasis that points towards ‘seeing’ and ‘sight’.  This is a major focus for Luke (in Jesus’ inaugural sermon, he speaks of ‘…recovery of sight to the blind…’).  From direct references to seeing to the allusions in this story to the Moses story of him on the mountain receiving the 10 Commandments (for those who will ‘see’).  Luke uses these to invite us into a place of ‘seeing’ but what are we to see?  For many there is the wonder of Jesus’ changed appearance, his glory that shines.  Surely, we encounter this glorious form of ‘faith’ in various expressions of Christianity that highlight glory, victory, heaven and urge people to seek blessing of God that is accompanied by material blessing and comfort.  But is this Luke’s point?

The words that precede this story are about Jesus’ own revelation that he will be going to Jerusalem and to his death on a cross.  His path into ‘glory’ is via the cross, through the way of suffering and struggle.  Death precedes resurrection and he speaks of this way of ‘dying-rising’ as the pattern for deeper, richer being, living and ‘seeing’.  The only way to life is through dying to the patterns and superficial realities that we have invested in or had imposed upon us.  It is the uncomfortable way of letting go of that which holds us captive and keeps us from ‘seeing’.  Jesus invites all of us into this ‘way of the cross,’ a way that is unpopular and probably unattractive in its raw description, until we realise that many of those we admire and inspire us have walked this path of dying-rising, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering that precedes wisdom, life and ‘seeing’ more deeply and with compassion, grace and love.

We will never ‘see’ truly whilst we allow our egos to drive us or we avoid the road less travelled.  It is into this path that Jesus set his face and travelled.  He invites us to journey with him on this way, a way of wisdom, life, compassion and love.

By geoffstevenson

A Tale of 2 Fathers…

A relatively young man climbed a mountain with a few friends.  He was filled with awe and wonder and the 4 boys had a mystical experience.  Glowing figures, inspiring, confusing words and awe!   And they wanted to hold to this mountain-top experience.  They wanted to stay there forever, to hold to the wonder, the feelings, the glory… but as happens, time moves on and things change and the glow fades.  This time it was an overwhelming cloud that enveloped them – a strange experience!  Then, a voice, the voice of the young man’s father, filled with pride and joy: ‘This is my own dear son, my chosen one – listen to him!’  Listen to him?  What has he said?  The father’s joy was powerful and compelling.

Another father, this time down in the valley, the place of the ordinary.  No spectacular views or thin places where heaven and earth kiss, not here.  This father was filled with pain and sadness because his son was not up to climbing mountains or living normally.  He succumbed to severe epileptic-like seizures that overwhelmed him and threw him to the ground.  He writhed in pain and his father held him in helpless abandon through tears and fear and desperate cries of help.

Two sons, two fathers.  One son surrounded by glory and wonder and a father ‘on top of the world.’  The other father, sorrowful and helpless, feeling the pain and struggle of the son he loved.  He cried out through tears and desperation whilst the other father’s voice thundered with compelling pride and urgent warning – to listen.

Two sons, two fathers and two worlds in which we live.  Some live closer to the top of life, in ‘heavenly’ comfort and glorious style.  Life is pretty good, easy – some bumpy bits but really, all is good as they believe it should be.  For others life is one difficult day followed by another and another.  It is struggle and pain as they desperately cling to life and miniscule hope, reaching out to feed and care for their families.  Theirs is a world where comfort and ease never show up.  Theirs is a world where rubber, and everything else, hits the road.  Theirs is a world where poverty, hunger, thirst, oppression, captivity, and despair are the constant companions.  Often these are unseen people hidden behind the barriers of the wealthy – big houses, gated communities, struggles with social security, cost of health and living, border security and the Donald Trumpesque walls that block the unwanted from our sight and experience, and our compassion.

Do the two fathers ever meet, ever know each other’s world or experience?  Do the sons ever co-exist?  Does mountain-top ever reach down into the valley of life and help transform its impoverished existence?  In this story, we encounter the first son and his friends wandering down into the valley to be confronted by the desperate father.  He expresses in no uncertain terms what he wants – can you please help my son!!??  I believe you can but help my unbelief!  This mountain-top son is Jesus, ventured to the top of the world to pray and ‘be’ in God’s presence.  A mystical experience of awe and wonder that shattered the world-view of his friends, Peter, James and John, enveloped them.  It is a wonderful story known as The Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43) because Jesus is joined by ancient figures Moses and Elijah and they appear glowing white.  The cloud is reminiscent of another mountain-top experience in the life of Jesus’ people – Moses receiving the 10 Commandments.  Such mountain-top experiences are those we cling to, the wonderful moments when the world feels right, good and on our side and we buzz with the electric joy of everything.  We feel connected and part of everything and we want to hold it forever!

There is much religion and ideology that builds itself up from this place of glory and ecstatic joy, of comfort, ease and the life of well-off ignorance that claims victory and expectation from the superficial world of material possession and the accidents of fortunate birthright.  This religion claims God to be the fount of all blessing, just waiting to give us our hearts desire and fill our lives with prosperity and material blessing (whatever that is).  Much of the developed world lives in the place of ignorant bliss with some bumps to be endured as we ride the wave of comfort and ease and overindulgence, often claiming for ourselves that which ought to belong to the commonwealth of people across the earth who have great needs and desperation.

The words of God – ‘…Listen to him…!’  invite us to curiously wonder what Jesus has said or will say.  He enters this mountain-top experience through the revealing conversation that speaks of his impending death, a choice to engage with the powers of the world who will kill him.  Jesus understands that the only path to resurrection and life must lead us through death – it is a dying-rising life.  He speaks of his followers as those who collect their cross, take it up and follow his way.  It is a path that will not avoid the pain and struggle of the world or life.  It is a path that will cast off the irrelevant things that clutter mind, being and lives and take up the challenge of the road less travelled that leads into rich and deep being.

When Jesus lands back in the valley and confronts a father and son who are in deep pain, he engages them with open compassion and love.  In this wondrous moment the boy finds healing and the two sons both have life.  The fathers are overjoyed and there is real life.  I wonder what might happen when those who are on the mountain-top engage those who exist in the valley, when they come down and meet them face to face? I wonder what happens when the well-off and comfortable, who laugh and are filled, leave their homes, security and enter into the place of deep struggle, standing alongside those whose life is messy and hard?  Could these miracles of healing, that we hear in the story of Jesus, become a reality in the lives of the desperate and helpless across our world?

As we hear this story of the two fathers, we need to embrace the reality that life is difficult and has many faces and many realities.  When faith or ideology gets stuck in one place without holding all things together, we get distorted, superficial egocentric religion and lifestyles that are ultimately empty of that for which we yearn.  Sometimes we are on the mountain and sometimes we find ourselves struggling in the valley.  Perhaps it is not until we recognise ourselves in the valley, desperate and helpless, powerless to fix things that we, like the 2nd father, cry out in desperate hope: ‘I believe, help my unbelief!’

Jesus will now ‘set his eyes upon Jerusalem’ and journey to the cross, to death and through that to the rising life in God.  He invites all who hear, to journey with him.  It is a way that seems to find few interested people but those who journey through pain and struggle, into death, find the risen life in Christ, filled with wisdom and joy, courage and passion.  Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Romero, Nelson Mandella… have all journeyed this path and we are invited into this way as well – with Jesus!

By geoffstevenson