The Way into Deeper Life and Being!

I remember hearing from the captain of a British Lifeboat who had been called out on numerous occasions to save the lives of people who found themselves floating in the freezing waters of coastal Britain.  He recalled that he had never met an ‘atheist’ when they were floating in the freezing waters minutes from death – all had prayed.  He went further to indicate that when people are confronted with the near and certain death experience it doesn’t matter who they are, what they have, or what they have achieved – none of that will save them from freezing to death in that moment.

He said everyone he had pulled out of the waters were desperately ‘praying’.  Some to a God whose name was familiar and others who found themselves in a lifechanging, overwhelming moment of clarity.  Through this desperate moment there was nothing left to them but to pray – it was all they could do!  It often became a fast learning experience as people realised that prayer is something that comes from the deepest places of the human being, a deep and desperate yearning or a cry of desperate hope in the midst of fear, anxiety and pain.

There are many modes and notions of praying.  For the most part, praying occurs at some distance, a point removed from real life or hovers around little, even miniscule things, in the context of broader life and living.  People pray for a parking spot to open before them or lights to change when running late.  Others pray for more money or stuff to fill their already overfull lives.  Often, we throw off serious prayers for people we don’t know in situations that seem dramatic and difficult and over which we perceive we have no power to change.  It is heart-felt but helpless and I often wonder what I/we believe, or hope might happen.  Sometimes prayer seems to be like some form of magical incantation, that if we say the right words in the right way, with the right earnestness God will do what we want and make everything right.  Some people believe this works in their life and much has been written and preached along these lines.  There are many who have prayed, believing, and have not seen the miraculous they wished to experience and so the questions around the efficacy of prayer rage on.  Never-the-less, most if not all people pray at some point in some way or form.  Sometimes prayer is directed towards the Divine and aligns with a religious form.  Sometimes prayer is unaligned to religious faith and life and is in the form of mediation or contemplation – mindfulness is the latest term.

This week we encounter Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-13).  These aren’t people ignorant of praying – they were Jewish.  They knew the forms of prayer and praying but still they asked to learn.  I presume that they saw in Jesus a deeper praying, a deeper experience that gave him a presence of deeper peace, wisdom and an experience of living that transcended that of anyone else they had ever met.  Prayer, in Jesus’ life, led him into the deepest place of living and being and he was more whole, compassionate, present and grace-filled than anyone they ever met.  So they asked him to teach them.

The prayer form Jesus gave them began with words, familiar words to many of us.  We call it ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.  In Luke it is a very brief form (we are used to Matthew’s version, longer and fuller.) but the essential elements remain.  This prayer is the significant prayer of Christian faith but never mentions Jesus/Christ, church, Bible or really anything pertaining to Jewish of Christian faith!  It really is a prayer for the world as it picks up the essential elements of life and being.  It names the Holy, the sacred and seeks the coming of the reality of ‘heaven,’ the way that reflects justice, love, peace and holiness in the world.  It speaks of bread for the day – bread for the body, but also of mind and spirit.  It also speaks of indebtedness and the forgiveness of our debts – as we forgive those indebted to us.  Bread and debt was part of the daily grind and struggle of the ordinary people of 1st century Palestine – as it is for the majority of the world’s population today.  Bread to survive this day is an imperative for many people, all of us really, although those who have too much overindulge and lose their lives in the forms addictive accumulation and greed.  Indebtedness is also the daily bind for many people and nations in our world.  Financial debt keeps people bound and deprived of life.  Indebtedness is used by powerful and wealthy to gain power over people and ensure they gain more wealth.  The prayer invites us to understand how bread and debt symbolise the essential elements of life and how we live together in relationship with one another.  Ultimately, who ‘owns’ the wealth and produce of the world, the minerals and resources?

The prayer seeks deliverance from the trials that test us, or perhaps deliverance through the trials that test us, form us and push us towards a more self-aware and compassionate life that opens our being to other people and the earth itself.  The deliverance through testing and trial creates more deeply humble and gracious human beings, with the realisation that we cannot save ourselves and that we are not the centre of the universe – we need other people and we need life beyond the life we live as a gift from God, through the presence of the One who loves us profoundly.

Jesus takes the teaching further by drawing us into a story of desperation and how that desperation results in persistent longing that moves to action.  His simple story is of one who has a desperate need for bread to feed family and visitor.  The person knocks on his neighbour’s door to seek help.  If she is desperate, she will continue knocking until the door is answered, even if it is late in the night.  Prayer becomes enacted prayer where the desperation of the heart becomes an action as fulfilment of that prayer.  I remember being told once: ‘Do not pray the poor be fed, lest you are willing to provide the bread!’  The essence of prayer and praying is to move us into a new and different place.  We come into the presence of God, and if we stop to listen and experience, we find ourselves drawn into the Divine heart where everything changes.  We see differently and recognise ourselves humble, and alive in the vulnerable power of love that flows from God into human lives opened to such flow through prayer, contemplation, reflection and meditation.  Eventually we move beyond words to ‘be’ in the presence and find ourselves in a moment that is true and deep, rich and pure – we will never be the same.  We are invited to knock, seek, ask and that journey arises from a heart-experience that grows deeper as we learn.

Jesus concludes his teaching by promising that the Spirit of God will be given to anyone who asks – this is the only promise in this teaching moment.  It is an invitation into grace, to journey into that deeper place and to receive the rich joy and peace of being’ in God.  This is prayer of the heart and is the life Jesus invites us into!

By geoffstevenson

Distracted Beyond Life!

I ventured out this week into Sydney, the CBD and travelled by bus and train.  It is always interesting to travel by public transport, with a multitude of others where focus is not on driving, the road and other cars.  I packed my bag in preparation with that which I needed for a meeting and that which I presumed would occupy my time on the journey there and back.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to read or do in the couple of hours travel time so covered a few bases and set off.

I stood on the bus and couldn’t read and the all-important (by the standards of other commuters) mobile phone was locked in my bag and hard to access.  I watched and thought and pondered my co-travellers.  There was much looking and watching, listening and flicking of screens.  A few carried on one-sided conversations, well one-sided from my perspective.  No-one really spoke, except into these phones.  Kids had tablets or phones, screens to amuse and silence them.  I watched and wondered and looked beyond the windows to the creek and bush we passed, some newer factories, hospitals and cars and people on the footpaths.  I saw people do stupid things on the road and others demonstrate thoughtful and gracious actions.

There was a world beyond the world of the cacoon of the bus – and then train.  It was a world that was as mysterious and silent as the passengers on this bus and train.  Houses, units, workplaces, hospitals, university, aged care centres and shopping malls all passed us by on-route to our own destination where, presumably, we would re-enter the human race and become relational beings.  Who were the people who lived out there?  What were the silent cries of pain or loneliness, confusion and struggle that went unheard in the vacuum of life in a closed-off world?  Everywhere I looked we were distracted, even in my thoughts there were distractions leading me off in every new direction, inventing stories about people I saw – the youngish woman with the tattoos and multiple piercings taking several long and quick draws on her cigarette as the bus pulled in.  What about the family of mixed race struggling to get on and off, holding toddlers in check whilst pushing a pram and heading for the hospital – what was their story?  Was it illness?  Was it visiting or treatment?  There was anxiety or was it tiredness and frustration on mum’s face and dad was going through motions, checking messages with one eye and kids with another.   Who were these people, my neighbours, perhaps – certainly those who lived in the same general region but people I will never know, nor speak to?

The stories and thoughts flowed with the rocking train into the city with its changing landscape, higher density and more crowding, people closer together and yet seemingly more separate, distracted and alone.  As I emerged from the train and had time to kill, I sat with a coffee as people rushed by.  All muted and dispassionate looks on their faces, bored or going through the motions of life.  Distracted by lights and colours and screens in hand and all around.  Distracted by shopfronts and sales and the spruiking of desperate marketing that promised everything – and nothing.  I was so distracted by the passing hordes and the wonder of their lives I almost forgot to taste the coffee I was drinking.  It is too easy to be distracted.  As I sat and thought I realised that I was on my way to a meeting with people from across the state to share stories, struggles and decisions that would be for the well-being of church and society and the world – if we got it right.  I was distracted and unfocussed.  What was important?  What was real?  What should I focus on to make my meeting more significant and effective – what really was important?

In my thoughts I wandered into an ancient and known story, a simple story that led me into another world, another place.  In this simple tale told by Luke (10:38-42) a pair of sisters welcome Jesus and his troupe of disciples into their home and shared a meal.  Mary up and plonked herself, ‘male-style’ before this rabbi from Galilee and hung off his every word.  Presumably he spun tales and offered wisdom on life and living and responded to questions and discussion and Mary delighted in this rare foray into the patriarchal world of learning and spirit and faith.  Meanwhile in the ‘back of house’ centre of functionality, Martha held sway over the time-honoured and valued work of women in providing hospitality.  She cooked and cleaned and made the space open and welcoming.  She served and served and served.  Service in Luke is a highly valued role – Jesus came to serve – but Martha is distraught and left fuming over her sister playing the male game and not lifting a finger to help.  Martha is tired and distracted by the many things that need doing – whether they need doing or not!!

Finally in a fit of fury, Martha marches on Jesus and lets fly with vindictive rebuke of him and her sister who is letting the side down and crossing all manner of boundaries…  Jesus, as always gently slides into the response and honours her work but calls her out for her distracted life.

There are many things, Martha, that worry and trouble you, that distract you from that which is most important.  Mary has chosen to do the more important thing.  The story ends and my mind revs into gear.  There are so many thoughts that tear around inside my mind.  Mary breaks social and patriarchal conventions and does the very thing women have been deprived of for centuries – and in many places still are.  She wants to learn, she wants her place in the world, valued and equal to others, whatever gender or race, or creed or orientation.  She wants her place as a person before this holy one of God.  She wants to sit in the presence of the Divine and listen – just listen and become.  What courage or desperation or faith does it take for Mary to break with protocol, expectation, culture and the pressure upon her and stop with tradition and honour Jesus with her presence?

I wondered as I sat in a busy space near Town Hall station and watched some of the scattered human race rush by.  Do we really understand what is important?  Do we take time to hear the cries all around us – of the poor, the Indigenous people, the asylum seekers, those caught in violence – domestic, in the workplace, in society… – those who live with mental illness or disability or chronic illness…?  Do we look into the cup of coffee and hear the cries of those who suffer to produce the beans or those who sweat life away in sweat shops to make clothes or…

Perhaps, like Martha we are distracted by the many things that consume us, worry or trouble us, some of which are vital and important and some of which are not the real thing, the main game of life.  We may accumulate the world and lose our lives, our souls, our being, distracted and busy.  Or, we may put aside our distractions and focus on the source of life that is love, grace, joy and peace.  The One we call God.

By geoffstevenson

How Far Love??

Five Jewish students, two from New York, travelled Hebron to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs, revered by the Abrahamic faiths as the resting place of Abraham.  It seems they took a wrong turn and drove into the Palestinian part of the divided city.  As the lost students travelled through the West Bank, their car was set alight with fire bombs and they were pelted with stones.  They frantically left their car and began running away, desperate and hopeless.  A Palestinian man heard the cries from inside his house and ventured out.  He saw them running in fear from other Palestinians.  The Palestinian man, Fayez Abu Hamdiyeh, rushed to them and spoke in Hebrew, reassuring them and ushered them into his house to protect them.  He called police and protected the students until they arrived.  When it was suggested he was a hero, Abu Hamdiyeh said, “I did what needed to be done,” he added, “That’s how everyone should behave. We have no problems with the Israelis and we don’t want to have any.”

I wonder what the students first thought when they saw a Palestinian man rushing at them whilst they were trying to escape other Palestinians.  I imagine that they felt threatened and more fearful and scared of him, one of the ‘enemy’.  There are many risk-taking stories of people crossing over social and other divides to provide help and support to someone who is ‘different’ and perhaps a natural enemy.  In the midst of a divided world there are many barriers and much fear – there are many ‘enemies’ and Jesus’ call to love is a profound challenge!

In contemporary Australia it is unsurprising to encounter fear-based anxiety and the exclusion of those who appear or sound different, those who are not understood and those are ‘not like us.’  From Indigenous Australia to asylum seekers, to those who look different, have a different faith system or those who are impoverished – economically, educationally, socially or who live with mental illness of physical disability.  Those who appear different are either ignored, rejected or treated with suspicion and excluded from ‘our world,’ out of fear, judgement or some sense of superiority.  Some of this is conscious and some exists in our subconscious minds. None of it is love, as Jesus calls us to live.

This week we have before us the well-known tale of ‘The Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:25-37).  This story and our traditionally mild interpretation have entered into the vocabulary of the wider society.  A ‘good Samaritan’ is a common reference to anyone who does a kind deed to a stranger.  The phrase is even part of the legal system that protects people doing a good deed to a stranger they believe injured or in urgent need of help – it is s ‘Good Samaritan Law’.  The phrase is used broadly in naming institutions and places where care and mercy are offered, where kindness is expected to be practiced to friend and stranger.  Good Samaritans are, apparently, people who practice acts of charity, care or kindness and this comes from a rather simple, even simplistic reading of Jesus’ story in Luke’s Gospel.

The story is part of a section where a lawyer comes to Jesus seeking wisdom about how he could ‘inherit eternal life.’  This is not about getting into some future heaven beyond death but the deep experience of God’s presence in life, now.  We might ask:  How do I find deep, rich meaningful life here and now?  It is an existential question and one that underlies the deep anxiety and sense of yearning that pervades our materialistic and increasingly superficial Western World.  Despite our increasing wealth and the capacity to have more ‘stuff’ than ever before, we are, on the whole, less satisfied, less hopeful and more depressed, anxious and afraid.  Despite having access to more information about more of the world and having access to more of the world through travel (or perhaps because of it?), we seem to be more cut off from people and more suspicious and frightened of those who are different than ever before.  We yearn for an answer to the lawyer’s question.

Jesus throws it back at him, asking what he believes and his response is that which is known as the Great Commandment, found in the first 3 gospels – ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, you mind, your soul and your strength.  Love your neighbour as yourself.’ These words are derived from the Old Testament books of the law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and were apparently often connected.

Jesus affirmed the lawyer and told him that this is the way into God’s heart, the way into deep and richly meaningful life – that which is eternal and lasting!  The lawyer wants to justify himself and define his actions – how far does this call to love extend?  Where are the boundaries and limitations of love?  How far do I have to cast the net of love and who is ‘in,’ who is ‘out’?  Jesus then tells a story of a man who falls victim to robbers and is left to die by the roadside.  In a typical story ‘of three,’ two people come past and set their priorities of love in one direction, whilst a third expresses his in another direction.  Two pass by and the third gives exceptional care.  The sting in the tail is this – he is a Samaritan!

If this were merely a story of example, Jesus would neither bother with priest and Levite in the first two, nor Samaritan as the exemplar.  Any three people would do – go and emulate number and care for one of your own in need.  That would be challenge enough possibly, except that the point of love, love for God and neighbour is that we are challenged to go beyond the natural bounds.  We are challenged to break down the barriers of hatred, enmity, suspicion, fear and rejection – we are to incorporate everyone into our circle of love!  This is hard!

When the Jewish man in the gutter looked up and saw priest and Levite coming he possibly believed he was safe but they passed by.  They were bound by other legal priorities and would not allow themselves to become unclean by coming into contact with one who was bloodied and beaten.  Ritual cleanliness was their imperative and defined how they would act.  We also find all manner of ‘legal’ or other ritual reasons to exclude, deny and avoid the path of loving those on the other side of social and other divides.

When the Jewish man looked up and saw a Samaritan, a sworn enemy of his people, he probably expected a knife, a boot; the logical conclusion of his beating – death. He looked into the eyes of another human who offered grace and care, crossed barriers that divided their people for centuries.  He was caught up in love that transcended barriers and boundaries and Jesus invites us to take up this challenge of busting through boundaries on the way to love.  We are challenged to embrace the ‘other’ as friend and neighbour as offensive and difficult as this might feel and be!

By geoffstevenson

The Path to Life Takes Us into Vulnerable Places!

There’s an old, old story.  It comes in various forms and takes different directions, but the theme is familiar.  A rich, powerful man (usually a male but not always) who has guile, ambition, drive and thinks big – for himself and those he wants to impress – suffers something that causes his life and ambition to be threatened.  He tries everything in his power but to no avail.  The bigger, more difficult and exacting the solution, the more likely, he believes, there will be a positive result for him.  Nothing works.  Finally, a young, insignificant person offers a simple, unexciting solution to which the man scoffs and resists until he becomes so desperate there is no other choice.  He is confronted with something that requires humility and simplicity.  His power and wealth are useless, and he curses his powerlessness, the absolute ordinariness of what is required of him but gives in and finds new life.

There is an ancient version about a Syrian called Naaman.  He was a powerful commander in the army and well-respected.  A hard working, wealthy, powerful man, possibly ‘self-made’ and driven.  He commanded and people responded.  He decided and it happened.  His master, the King, respected Naaman and all was good – except he contracted leprosy – probably an irritating skin affliction.

Naaman sought help from every quarter – he had the resources to search far and wide, but nothing cured him of his skin affliction.  He had access to the best but nothing worked.  On one of its military raids, his army had taken Jewish servants and kept them as slaves, and he had one in his house.  She quietly suggested Naaman consult the powerful prophet in Israel – he would cure him of his disease.  Naaman probably scoffed but was also desperate and approached his master, the King, for permission, which was duly granted.  The King wrote to the King of Israel suggesting he do what was necessary to cure his commander!   The King of Israel was deeply troubled, knowing he had nothing that could fix the man’s disease.  The prophet, Elisha intervened and told the King to send the man to him.  Naaman turned up with horses and chariots and servants and gifts of gold.  He was expecting something grand and decisive and would pay handsomely for it – that was the way of his world.

Elisha didn’t even go out and talk to Naaman but simply told his messenger to tell Naaman to go and wash seven times in the Jordan River.  Naaman was cynical and angry.  Why would he wash in that filthy creek??!  It was nothing compared to mighty rivers back home and it was muddy and awful!  His desperate servants, probably sick of his ranting and anger, pleaded with him: ‘Master, if the prophet had told you to do something big and grand, would you have done it?  So why not do as he says.’  Naaman went out and stripped off his clothes, that which defined him and set him apart from ordinary people.  Naked and powerless he waded into the filthy water and washed and washed and washed – seven times.  He was cleansed.

It is a fascinating story that is really quite confronting.  It points to a powerful, influential man used to being in control having to let go and become vulnerable and humbled.  Naaman was happier trying the harder things, proving himself, earning his healing or paying for it from his own wealth – doing something in his power and control.  He is invited to do the easier, unspectacular thing and can’t cope with it.

Is the unspectacular easier thing always the easiest thing to do?  That was the question one commentator asked and I wondered?  I remembered a scene from The Mission of Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary and slaver, who has fought and killed his half-brother in a duel for taking his fiancé.  He is acquitted but spirals into a depression of guilt and despair.  He talks to Jesuit priest, Fr Gabriel but nothing breaks through his guilt and depression.  Finally, he is challenged to make penance.  He journeys into the territory where he has taken natives as slaves with the missionaries and climbs a muddy, slippery hill with a bundle of his armour and swords.  It is torturous and demanding and when he reaches the top, he is recognised by the natives whom he has raided.  They approach with spears raised and look into his fearful, sorrowful, sad eyes; they reach down and grasp his heavy burden.  He is forgiven.  It is the simple, humbling road that brings him life.  It is when he gives up his power and the tools of his trade that define him and is humbled by mud and dirt and struggle, when he is raw and naked before the world and looks into the eyes of the other, that he begins to live.

In the Gospel story (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), Jesus appoints and sends seventy followers to out into the surrounding country and tells them to take the love and peace they have experienced and share it with those they meet.  They are to take nothing else with them but depend upon hospitality and welcome.  When they are embraced by a village they are to stay and share grace, heal the sick and bring peace and life in his name.  If they are rejected, then leave and find somewhere else.  It is a commission to go deep, build relationship and enter into the realities of each other’s lives.  They are to break bread, share the wine and food, heal the sick, drive out the daemons of life that burden one another and hallow the space they share together.

The commission to take nothing with them, to let go of control and go, as it were ‘naked’ into the world sounds absurd and ineffective and yet, they return sometime later with joyful stories of life and hope and wonder.  It feels counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, against our best instincts.  In churches we gather before the latest gurus to help us ‘do it better’.  We seek more resources to employ the best leaders we can to lift our congregations out of the holes they find themselves in and put all our hope in particular people to ‘do it for us’.  It isn’t only in the church, but the corporate and political world seek the best, brightest, glossy and glittering new ideas, people and methods.  Not much really changes.  We move further into complexity and chaos as we tangle ourselves into knots, seeking evermore complex answers, more control and power over the situations of our lives.  It doesn’t work but the easy answer seems so unappealing, so insignificant and powerless.  And we don’t want to be vulnerable!

It is only in the naked vulnerability of life that we really discover who we are and can be.  When all the dross and baggage is cast aside and the swagger, control and dependency upon wealth, position, power or privilege, is diminished that we find the way forward, the way to life and hope – together.  We cannot do this alone and we will discover that there are people we dismiss and deride who will be significant gifts in our journey, simple people with simple lives.

God invites us into the simple vulnerable space of inclusive community that welcomes, loves, shares food and life and recognises the sacred and holy in our midst!  The ‘easy way’ is often harder because we must let go of control and power.  Perhaps we need to ‘let it happen to us’ rather than making it happen to someone or something else.  We are invited to set aside the complex, difficult possibilities that require little of us except to maintain control, power and the status quo – and choose the simple path of love.  Jesus invites us to Love God with all we are and our neighbour as ourselves.  This is all we are asked to do and in this path we discover life in God that is rich and filled with grace and hope.  We discover the healing and life Naaman did!

By geoffstevenson