Law and Love…

Some years ago, I was asked to offer some support to a fellow – I will call him Tom.  Tom was probably in his 50’s and extremely intelligent.  He has a PhD, the name of which I couldn’t pronounce, let alone understand.  He was also limited by psychological issues that caused him some degree of paranoia and obsessive behaviour.  Tom wasn’t able to work at a level that his training suggested he should be capable due to his psychological disability and his need to provide care for ageing parents.

Within the poorer part of the neighbourhood where he lived, he was taunted and made fun of, threatened and felt unsafe.  Young blokes would drive close to him as he walked home from the station – he walked everywhere.  They yelled out insults and so Tom became disengaged and paranoid about those around him.  Tom was caught up in an incident where he was wrongly accused of doing something against the law – neighbours were behind this.  The evidence pointed towards him being involved, even though he was completely innocent, and he was ultimately charged.

Tom’s intelligence and education took him into a variety of areas of study, including the law and he strenuously refuted the allegations and charges.  A photographic memory ensured that he could recount every detail of every event and conversation, including times and places.  Tom suffered through this drawn out process, confused and feeling like a criminal.  He was angry, indignant and fearful.  He felt powerless and without a voice.  Tom’s life was difficult with the bullying and intimidation within the neighbourhood and the difficult allegations and charges against him.  He didn’t know how to deal with it.  He wasn’t sure who to turn to or what he could do.  He also felt that he was being pushed to the fringes of communal life, excluded from society through the bullying and the fear he felt.  Tom had little money and lived a very simple life on limited resources.  He struggled to find the support he needed and a place where he could belong.  Tom really was a marginalised person.

A combination of legal processes that were applied legalistically and Tom’s mental health issues meant that the court process was difficult and unacceptable to him.  Whilst he was essentially cleared by the court not recording any convictions against him, he was ordered to pay some legal costs and perhaps a fine.  Tom was indignant, feeling that he had done no wrong and could not see why he had to pay costs and be treated as having done the wrong thing.  He protested and felt the weight of the world against him.

In a real sense, Tom was bent over, weighed down and crushed by life and its inherent injustices that seem to oppress the poorer and more vulnerable people.  Tom needed the support of people who would take him seriously and whom he could trust.  He also needed a community where he could belong and one that would accept his unique personal traits and vulnerabilities.  Tom couldn’t always express himself well and he was uncomfortable and even clumsy in groups of people.  It took time and focussed effort to engage with him and it took time to build up trust and listen to his story.

He was welcomed into our local congregation and a few of us were able to walk with him through some hard and difficult times.  It was a difficult journey as we engaged health issues, vulnerability, fear, the legal processes and the multitude of emotions and angst he felt.  I found myself feeling very helpless before the heavy legal processes as I was drawn into the court hearings.  I was out of my depth and others provided further, more expert support.  It was very clear that the law had a fixed agenda and was not open to listening to the person, hearing their story, understanding the underlying pain, fear and reactions in order to ascertain a truth deeper than pure law.  I felt very much frustrated and angry that this vulnerable person needed protection, support and care rather than being treated as a criminal and made to feel an outcast.  Tom was bent over.

I was reminded of Tom as I read the Gospel story this week (Luke 13:10-17).  It is the story of a woman who had been physically bent over for many years – 18 in all.  She could not look up and walked with a severe leaning, looking only down at the floor.  Such a person was vulnerable and quite helpless in her society, as she might well be today.  This woman could not work and was pushed to the margins.  She was oppressed by her physical deformity and lived a difficult life, seeking some relief, peace and hope.  She needed to be released from her oppression and this was the healing and salvation she needed and yearned for.

One morning in the synagogue on the Sabbath Day, this unnamed woman ventured in.  We do not know whether she was regular or was seeking something out of her desperation.  On this day she encountered Jesus.  He came to the Synagogue this morning and saw the woman.  Others probably looked at her and past her, never really noticing her as a person – only a deformed individual who was hard to engage because her focus was always downward.  Jesus noticed the woman and engaged her.  She didn’t ask him for help, she probably only saw his feet.  Jesus offered her relief from the oppression and weight of life.  She needed release, relief and to be embraced back fully into the community of God’s people.  As a deformed woman she was outside the real life of people and her community.  Jesus saw her and responded with grace, lifting her burden from her, easing the weight and oppressive forces from her and restoring her to right life and back into fellowship with other people.  This was salvation and life!!

Meanwhile, the leader of the synagogue took umbrage at Jesus’ restoration of this woman on the Sabbath Day.  He was within his rights to complain.  The law explicitly forbade work and the various interpretations indicated that healing was not permissible on the Sabbath Day!  There are 6 other days in the week when this could happen and no need for healing on the Sabbath!  He was right – well at least within the literal framework of the law.  Within the spirit of law and grace, he was out of step.  Jesus responded by commenting on how you would release an animal from its night shelter to drink on a Sabbath animal, giving it freedom – how much more significant is it that a person finds life in the embrace of God’s grace.  This, whether Sabbath or any day!  This woman had been physically suffering, excluded and struggling for 18 years – perhaps she could have waited one more day but that is not grace!  It is outrageous legalism and abusive control.  Jesus saw the woman, engaged the woman and released the woman out of love and kindness, mercy and compassion, justice and peace.  He reacted without hesitation because she needed help and love – now!  That is the way if God, whose desire is for love and grace!  There are many who need peace and restoration in life, many who struggle, and the literal ‘law’ keeps them trapped.  Love is the response that brings release and life!  Love is the way of Jesus, the way of God and the deepest need in our world today!  Love!

By geoffstevenson

Perhaps Things Must Get Worse Before They Get Better!

Let me tell you a story I thought of this week, one told me some months ago.

We were gathered around our outdoor BBQ area, enjoying a wonderful meal.  Around the table were three generations of my family – my parents, my wife and I and our 2 children and their partners.  The conversation flowed back and forth with laughter and shared stories – it was good.  Younger generation male then told about how he had space in uni lectures a week or two earlier and decided to attend a Uniting Church rally organised in the Sydney Town Hall.  He turned up and was amazed at the diversity of people who were there – people from the Law Society and associated legal groups, Medical Societies and organisations, community organisations and the church. 

He told us that it was really good and about Drug Law Reform, which had support from many parts of the society – even Sir Richard Branson was there, along with a UN expert.  He said that they were advocating the decriminalisation of the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs that would be for personal use and was about to explain this as a health issue rather than a legal one, when older generation male interrupted with a broad ranging tirade that went on for 15 minutes – he didn’t even seem to draw breath.

I could see younger generation male and female (and partners) becoming more and more angry and ready to explode as older generation male kept upping the anti and complaining about ‘that church.’  Fortunately, older generation female realised the heightened tension and rising temperature and intervened by hosing down the situation and I quickly grabbed younger generation male and female to help with dessert and more drinks.  We got on with the afternoon, but tensions remained raised.

When the older generation left, we debriefed the younger generation who could not grasp the ripping anger and irrational tirade of older generation male.  Younger generation male was confused (and angry!) as he asked why his grandfather was so angry when he was trying to listen to Jesus and do things he would try to do.  He listened to the stories of people living with addictions and their families and felt the Church had gotten things right – this is the way Jesus would approach things.  So why was his grandfather so ignorant and irrational when he was always talking about Jesus and how we needed to listen to him…

This is not a new or unique story.  It happens all over the place as different generations engage in a world that is changing, often with different forms of information from science and the humanities, new theological or ethical insights and so on.  I found myself smiling at this account as I have been questioned and challenged by my own children and others of their age and generation who see the world differently, who know people in different ways and who haven’t as yet absorbed too much ‘tradition.’  They are less burdened by ‘what used to happen’ or ‘what has been true’ and approach things with a more open mind, often seeking the way of justice or love because they know people in the various ‘categories’ that we lump people into.  They don’t speak with any sense of surprise about equal rights for women/gender equality, people of different sexual orientations, a true place in Australia for the 1st Peoples, the critical issue of climate change and the environmental crisis.  They recognise people of many races and faiths and have engaged with such people from early childhood.  They can see the differences between rich and poor, both here and in other nations and cannot understand the political machinations that deny people justice and what they need to live.  They readily accuse people of greed and are puzzled when some people earn mega-salaries for doing similar levels of work to those who earn much less.

When the church speaks about Jesus and what he said and did, many expect the church to do these things and are confused when our words are not matched by our actions.  When some younger people raise questions or want to stand up and make a statement there is a furore.  For example, the protest of school students who are going to strike in protest over the lack of action on climate change.  I have heard too many older people criticise these students and those who are encouraging them, suggesting they have no idea what they are talking about.  Yet when I engage young people over these issues, they not only surprise me, they inform me!  This is one issue that they feel very passionately about because the world they will grow into and perhaps bring their children into is looking very, very grim.  They are angry at political and other leaders who refuse to acknowledge there is a problem or listen to the science and then make a commitment to work through the difficulties and questions to find a real, workable solution.

The fact is that whenever issues of deep justice and struggle are raised there are various interests and those who enjoy the benefits of the status quo are not always willing to engage and certainly not to change – despite others struggling and having access to less resources.  When Martin Luther King Jr led the fight against racism, he was attacked, as were those in the movement, imprisoned and finally assassinated.  In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, those who disagree with him and offer an alternative view of justice and truth, are imprisoned or murdered.  Donald Trump rubbishes and belittles people who disagree with his views or suggest an alternative path of justice, truth and love.  Whenever anyone decides to swim against the current of tradition, accepted ‘truth’ or the status quo, it is a heavy task and filled with opposition and struggle – often from those you know or love.

In this week’s surprising story from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 12:49-56), Jesus doesn’t pull punches in warning his listeners that following him will be fraught.  He isn’t a pacifier, one who came to bring some anaemic pseudo-peace where everyone pretends all is good even though two-thirds of the world suffer from poverty and millions of refugees are homeless and suffering, the earth is warming and indigenous people across the globe are being excluded from the land they called home before colonising powers pushed them off.

Jesus’ words reveal that his way cuts through the rhetoric of status quo and pretence to bring justice and life to all people – not just the privileged.  He warns of the intergenerational conflicts that his path will engender as people follow and then find themselves at odds with parents or children, friends and society.  The way of true peace means that things may just get a little worse before they get better!  Jesus’ way might unsettle the way things are and free us to embrace a truer, more generous and inclusive path together.  It sounds good but it isn’t popular because when the rubber hits the road and people realise they may have to give up something – money, power, privilege, position… they fight back and resist and all hell will break loose!  Sometimes, suggests Jesus, things may just get worse before they get better.  It takes loves, courage and faith.

By geoffstevenson

The Relentless, Restless Possibility of Faith.

I read some reflections of a woman whose family immigrated from India to the US many years ago.  The woman was only a few months old when they arrived so has no real memory of India or the move, but she described her parent’s experience.  For decades after bringing their family to a new country in the hope of better opportunities and a better life, they were still caught in the ‘in-between’.  They felt restless to her, as they sought a place to belong and to ‘become’ whoever it is they could or would be in this new land.  This ‘becoming’ was caught between, on one hand, the nostalgia and experience of being Indian, of the heritage, culture and expectations that were deeply part of who they were (added to this were the looks and expectations of those in the new country who saw them as ‘other,’ as different and often treated them so).  On the other hand, they had hopes and dreams of what might or could be and life drifted endlessly between these extremes.  Ultimately, it was this hope that stirred them to look forward and embrace the sacrifices, struggles, difficulties and discomfort that became the path through which they lived and moved, struggled and strived to achieve this life they dreamed of for their family.  This hope and promise kept them looking forward and moving in that direction, despite the many obstacles.

Isn’t this a story for all of us in some way or another?  Not that most of us are immigrants to new countries but we do migrate into new phases and paths in life.  We make decisions for the future, sometimes grounded in the past but more often seeking to transcend a past and move into the next phase of life and a brighter, or even brighter, future.  Don’t we make sacrifices for our children, seeking new opportunities in an emerging world that feels so different from that which we have grown in and embraced for ourselves?  We choose new paths, new careers, new possibilities in the hope that something bigger and better may emerge.  Sometimes we are thrust into situations where we have to decide, to choose a path from two or more options.  Sometimes there is no choice because the momentum and force of life thrusts us into the new and we find ourselves in the relentless thrust of living.

Living in the hope and promise of something without the certitude of being able to guarantee the outcome we want or expect, is the nature of faith.  Faith obviously requires some element of trust or belief in someone or something on which we lay the promise, the hope.  It may be the belief in possessions or power, fame or fortune.  It may be education or enlightenment, technology or ‘truth’ (of some form or another).  The list of possible trustworthy options is endless, and faith of some description is required for us to trust a particular path and live in expectant hope and promise.  Such faith takes us beyond blind belief or sure certitude – an exercise of the mind that seeks to know and define, control and order.  This is not a mind exercise, but a life lived.  It is about pouring our life and living into something we will give ourselves to in the hope that it has the power to deliver against that hope, that promise, our faith.  Sometimes it does and sometimes we are left with empty longing and lost in a hope unfulfilled.  The family above trusted in the life they heard of and believed in from stories and people in the US.  They trusted that there would be a place for them, and their family and it was worth placing their hope in this promise, this belief and they did.  It seems that their faith was justified but, of course it took much hard work, struggle and restless longing and striving.

This week there are stories of people who know this longing, the looking forward with a nostalgic past in their minds.  In the great chapter on faith (Hebrews 11) we hear of Abraham who was invited to journey to a new land.  He left the familiar and journeyed into the unknown to a place he didn’t know and made his home as a stranger, a foreigner.  He was invited to ‘look into the future’ and imagine the land before him as the home of his descendants, a rugged, untamed land that was foreign and new.  On top of this invitation to dream was the stark reality that he had no children and his wife had been unable to bear children – what descendants?  What future?  What hope?  On what would this invited promise be based?  Who was this ‘God’ who called and invited?  What was this path into an unknown, unsubstantiated future?  What would or could possibly happen if he placed one foot in front of the other and began the long walk into the mysterious future?

The story goes on.  Abraham saw the land, but it was not filled with his descendants in his lifetime – that was for a long, long time into the future.  He journeyed believing a voice from a God he couldn’t see or touch or feel, but who felt close, even within him.  The voice of deep resonating love and truth that comes in the dark moments when we are open to hearing.  Too many times the voice speaks into an empty, abandoned silence, a heart that wants certainty of belief, assuredness of success and a definitive, controlled outcome, sign, sealed and delivered.  Other times the voice encounters cynicism, weariness and confusion.  We find it hard to believe, to trust and to put our life into something so unsure and unclear.  The world is a harsh and chaotic place.  We need security, not uncertainty.  We need safety not reckless faith in something that calls more from us than we can believe we have.

Those who live into this faith find they are drawn along in the flow of a river of wonder.  It takes us to places we never imagined and to do things that, in our own strength or imagination, may never seem possible or likely.  We venture into a place of possibility, hopes and dreams, a journey into a future that might be.  This isn’t certitude but faith that takes us into such places because we put our lives in the metaphorical hands of this God in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus invites us to be ready (Luke 12:32-40), watchful and expectant that God will break into our ordinary existence with extraordinary grace and love.  We are invited to live with expectation, hope and faith because God is.  The One who is the source and life of everything is surely to be trusted but we are required to let go of our need to know, to define, to control.   Faith puts its hope and trust in this God, even without our knowing the whole way or necessarily seeing the fullness of the outcomes.  It is the impossible possibility of belief and hope against all the odds and that which we see before us.  We live and grow into this faith through a faithful, trusting life that abandons all into the restless, relentless journey that challenges us to be more than we ever dreamed of being and to do more than we ever believed we might.

Abraham left everything he knew and ventured out into an unknown, unimaginable future in faith.  His life opened into the unusual, wondrous paths that may never have materialised if he had opted for security and certainty.
What about you?

By geoffstevenson

The Way into Deeper Life and Being!

I met a woman once, a lovely woman who lived her life and wanted the best for herself and her family.  She lived in a particular neighbourhood that was somewhat impoverished, a street within a suburb dedicated to social or public housing.  It came with stereotypes and expectations – and discrimination.  It was a nice street and the people there were mixed.  There were neighbours who were mixed up, confused and struggling.  There were others who had it more together.  Some had lived there for years and others newly arrived.

She told me her story.  It took courage to tell this outsider her story and trust herself to this conversation.  I was somewhat naïve I suppose but listened with intent.  Really there wasn’t a whole lot of difference to her neighbourhood than those around where I lived except more of us lived in homes our families owned or rented privately.  She told me of her background, and that of her husband.  Good times, hard times but formed within a culture of certain hardships and expectations.  She played down education as the institutions of her life were always challenging and harsh – perhaps not to be trusted.  She left school when she could with the basics in place, but little more, as did her husband.  No-one in their respective families had ever really engaged with the school system and there were certain suspicions and expectations, beliefs that they could not and would not overcome.  School was for smart people, other people but not them.  They met, married and moved into social housing because that is what you did.  Their parents, grandparents and most friends had done this.  It was normal.  They moved between work they could find and unemployment but that too, was expected for who would really want to employ them.  Their parents, grandparents and other relatives had lived with unemployment and the pattern was well-formed within them.  What else would they expect?  Sadly, her husband really did want a job but no-one would give him one.

She talked, I listened, and I came away with an appreciation of the life she lived, hard at times, painful and joyful, in equal measure.  There were friends in the street and one over and there were those they didn’t like and didn’t relate to at all.  The general way of dealing with those you don’t like is to move, but they wouldn’t – yet.  They found their neighbours a few houses down a mystery, a lovely mystery because they were ministers and they broke all the expectations of everything.  They had two cars, which made them seem rich but no VCR, which made them sound poor.  They cared for people and had no enemies, even when others talked about them.

I thought of this as I read through some interesting readings for this week (Luke 12:13-21).  There’s a story about a man running up to Jesus and asking him to make his brother deal with the inheritance issues fairly.  Jesus refused and told a story about a man who accumulated grains and built bigger and bigger barns to store everything up so he could relax and enjoy himself.  It was at that point, says Jesus, that he died.  Interestingly I pondered whether his death was symbolic and metaphorical or physical.  I wondered what it meant and a couple of us chewed it over.  My colleague suggested that it made him ask: ‘What gives meaning to our life?’ What is it that defines our lives and to what do we give ourselves?  This woman and her family were defined by the cultural and familial expectations of the world they inhabited.  It was a world of low expectations and poor self-esteem.  It was a world of little education and relatively no ambition – well none of the ambition generally applied to those with aspirational thinking.  They never expected to be anyone important because no-one ever thought they could be.  Their world was small and confined but they lived within that world-view and did their thing.  I didn’t find her especially unhappy or upset with her lot in life.  She made the most of it and found joyful moments, alongside the difficult ones.  She yearned for other things but this was her life.

I confess that this woman wasn’t less happy and content than many others I have met who have had much, much more in terms of privilege, wealth and power.  She got money in, bought the necessary things, splurged the very little left over and enjoyed it.  I have met others who are indebted up to the hilt with big homes and bigger mortgages who cannot afford to furnish the multitude of rooms in this McMansion and are only one crisis away from losing everything as the economy rocks and rolls and their own precarious grasp on employment waxes and wanes as the company they depend upon moves through cycles of structure and restructure.  They live with more worry and fear, still believing that happiness will be connected with more and more.

What does give our lives meaning?  What defines who we are and what we expect from life?  Where do we turn for expected joy or hope or contentment?  Do we expect it?  All of us are formed through the culture, experiences and expectations of family, friends, culture and increasingly, media.  We take on subconscious expectations never really aware of what is directing us and nurturing our appetites.  We are seduced by addictive possibilities, some acceptable and others taboo, and give ourselves over to symbols of ultimate meaning and hope.  Whether we sit for hours before the pokies expecting a big win at any moment, or flutter on the horses in a bid to make a motza and solve all our problems.  Perhaps, work fills our agenda, time and effort or the hobby that takes every last moment and cent we have.  Perhaps we yearn for power, control and fame and yearn to be known and honoured, universally loved and showered with adulation – and the expected wealth that must surely follow. Everything around us has possibility and potential and can be a reflection of the deep beauty at the heart of all things.  Everything around us can also become an idol in our hands, usurping the power and possibility to which it points and to ultimately define and contain us, tying us in knots and slowly draining life and hope from us.

The man who wanted Jesus’ intervention betrays the dysfunction of his family and his own inability to relate to his brother or deal with his brother well and honestly.  He wants someone else to take his responsibility.  The man in Jesus’ story is so absorbed in himself and his ownership that he becomes disconnected from everything (including the earth that grew the grain!) and everyone.  He dies within himself.

Jesus’ invitation is to cast off the things that falsely define us and find deeper being and reality in the source or everything, the One who gives and sustains all life.  Paul tells us, ‘There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!  In the eternal Christ, all things find themselves in their rich and full reality of being.  This is deeply relational, grounded in profound love, grace, justice, peace, joy and hope – for all!

By geoffstevenson