The Journey into Wisdom and Love!

The major stories in our news of late have been the loss experienced in bushfires in NSW and Queensland.  Great loss has been experienced and intense suffering for many as the bushfires burn in windy conditions that spread the flames and exacerbate the impact of fires.  Of even greater impact was Cyclone Dorian that ravaged and devastated the Bahamas, in particular.  The path of destruction is immense, and images convey almost complete devastation of parts of Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands – it is truly incomprehensible.  Over 70,000 are left homeless and the over 2,500 people are listed as missing.  Most of us cannot conceive of such complete loss of home, possessions, community and infrastructure.  Walking through Darwin a couple of months ago, I tried to imagine walking those streets following Christmas 1974, when Cyclone Tracey flattened the city.  There are some structures left standing from that event to help us visualise something of the complete devastation – a city flattened.

Loss.  Loss is part of our lives at very many points.  Sometimes loss is experienced intensely – we have no choice – and it leaves us breathless, lost, confused, and often powerless.  The consuming grief that we feel in the wake of deep loss is a dark path that we try to avoid at all costs – and sometimes do.  It is, however, a necessary path if we are to finally embrace our pain, grow through it and become more deeply who are created and born to be.  Pain and suffering are something that we all try to avoid, of course we do!  When it comes to us – and it will! – we can walk through that dark valley with its shadow of death and find that we are not alone in our vulnerability.  Or, we can run in every other direction, finding distraction and avoidance in every addictive, distractive path available.  We may avoid the pain, but we embark on a path whereby this softer pain festers within and through us, burning into our being and breaking out in subconscious and harmful ways that prevent us becoming and being our true selves.  This latter path also denies the yearning that lies at the heart of each of us, a yearning to fully become who we can be – it is the existential yearning that all people feel, although not all recognise or yield to it.

Life becomes a series of journeys into and through loss and growth – or as Jesus put it, dying and rising, death and resurrection.  It is only through dying, letting go (especially of our egocentric fears and desire for control, power and privilege), that we discover the path into deeper life where humility and compassion grow and flow, where love and grace are central, and mercy and justice characterise our way with others and the world.  The path through loss, in all its varied forms, is a path through grief and letting go – of people, possessions, dreams, fears, career, home, ego…  It is a testing path and one that takes courage.  It is a journey and becomes the journey of our lives – a two-fold journey that leads ‘away from home’ and back into the place we rejected, our ‘true home’.  We begin the journey through adolescence when our egos burst into life and take us out into the world to experience everything we can.  We are driven by ambition, possibility, lust for experience and encounter and the challenge to become what we can be.  We are seduced by fame, fortune, power, privilege and everything that the world around and our materialistic society throws at us.  We push against boundaries and make all manner of mistakes through the impulses that drive us.  All the time we are building and forming the vessel that is our life, our being.  These experiences give expression to who we are or might be and we experiment with ‘being’.  This journey ultimately goes nowhere.  It leads us out into the world and is necessary – we cannot avoid it, but if it is the only journey we make, we feel the alienation, loneliness and lostness of life.  We will always be seeking something more, something to ameliorate the existential yearning within, but never really find it.  That, sadly, reflects many people in our society who have never been helped to engage in struggle, pain and crisis and learn the deep lessons there.  Suffering becomes the crucible of our becoming.  It is the place through which we are formed and grow, build resilience and character and discover that which is ultimately meaningful and significant.  When we are reduced to the fundamental ‘nakedness’ of our being, of life, through loss or suffering, we have a glimpse of that which is truly important.  Our eyes are opened as we traverse life in its darkest moments and confront the fear that has controlled us: the fear of losing a person, a thing, a reputation, a perfect persona, power, position and the potential insecurity and confusion that pervades our life.

The second path or journey opens up before us in the wake of becoming dis-illusioned, naked before life, vulnerable in our crisis and suffering.  We begin to recognise, if we yield to the experience, our powerlessness to save ourselves or to be ‘a self-made person.’  We tread the journey into wisdom and deep life when we realise that we need salvation beyond ourselves – this is love, integration, wholeness and relational life that finds itself embraced by the sacred and holy.  We are led into places where we begin to move and live in the moment, appreciating what is, ‘now’.  We open to the experience of being and the awareness that the Divine is reflected in all things and that we belong to the universe that finds life, being and sustenance in the heart of the Divine – that Paul calls the Christ in whom all things exist.  Not everyone walks this path!

This week’s reading from Jesus’ life comes from Luke 15:1-10 (11-32).  It is a series of stories that address loss.  The movement is through loss of things.  When we realise our loss, we begin the search and in finding there is celebration, whether significant coins or sheep, that are lost, searched after, and found.  The additional story (Luke 15:11-32) is the well-known story of the ‘Prodigal Son’.  It is a story that holds the mythic truth of the 2-fold journey of life that we have described above.  Jesus tells of a son who asks for, and receives, his inheritance.  Effectively denying his father’s existence, he runs off to experience life beyond the provincial town and back-water farm that has been his life.  Life is lived to the fullest expression whilst there is money in his pocket – wine, women, song, and friends aplenty.  When it runs out, he finds he is alone and lost.  He realises that he yearns for home and returns.  The miracle is that the father was always awaiting the son’s return – he always was and is a son.  Home is where he belongs.  These stories speak into God’s yearning for the lost to be found, to find ourselves in the journey of wisdom and love.  It is a recognition that God is present to us wherever we are and whatever we are doing but our own sense of ego and personal choice often makes God redundant to our life and experience – we reject any sense of our need for God, for the sacred, the Divine and the spiritual path that leads into deeper being and belonging in God.  Regardless of what we think about God, it doesn’t change the deeper reality that God is always with us, for us and holding us in grace!  ‘Home’ is in the heart of God who is perfect love and grace!

By geoffstevenson

The Way of Wisdom, Life and Faith Passes Through Dark Places!

A story(s) and thoughts from spiritual writer, Anthony de Mello:

“Have you heard of the man who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his expedition to the New World and kept worrying the whole time that he might not get back in time to succeed the old village tailor and someone else might snatch the job?”

“To succeed in the adventure called spirituality one must have one’s mind set on getting the most out of life.  Most people settle for trifles like wealth, fame, comfort and human company.”

“A man was so enamoured of fame that he was ready to hang on a gibbet [a gallows] if that would get his name in the headlines.  Is there really any difference between him and most business people and politicians?  (Not to mention the rest of us who set such store by public opinion).”

In pondering some severe and very difficult words of Jesus this week (Luke 14:25-33), I though of these stories – and another!

There was a king who visited the monasteries of a great spiritual master.  The king was surprised to find more than 10,000 monks living with him in the monastries.

Wanting to know the exact number, the king asked, ‘How many disciples do you have?’
The master replied, ‘Four or five at the very most.’  True seekers are rare!

I had this image in my mind of Jesus, a great spiritual master (amongst other things!), walking down the road.  He was followed by a multitude of people who all wanted a piece of him.  They hung off his words and found something insightful and life-giving in them.  He was popular!  I imagined Jesus turning around every now and again, facing the crowd and saying, ‘You can’t be my follower unless you…’  He said this three times and each time there is a cutting edge to his words.  The first is ‘…unless you hate your family.’  The second is ‘…unless you take up your cross.’  The third is ‘…unless you give up your possessions.’  Hard words indeed.  It comes across almost as if he didn’t want people to follow him but is really the warning about embarking unthinkingly upon the journey of spiritual growth and life.  It is not an easy journey, which is why most don’t make it.  It is, as de Mello says in his story, for the rare true seekers who are willing to engage in the harsh and hard journey through struggle, suffering and letting go before entering into the place and space of true life and being.

Three times Jesus warns those would-be followers that being a disciple is not for the faint-hearted, those who want complete control over their lives and want to hang onto the things they own.  Jesus’ point is that the harder we cling to things we possess, the more possessed we are – whether that be family, life-comforts or wealth and physical possessions.  Most people hold ‘family’ as sacred and we therefore we feel angry and resistant to Jesus’ words about ‘hating family…’  The sense of his warning is that when we idealise family (and other relationships) we tend to idolise them as well.  We do not look honestly at those relationships nor the people behind them.  We fail to question the experiences of family and people close to us, or the assumptions and expectations that come to us through family and close relationships.  We fail to engage with the very real issues that exist within families and family structures.  In failing to honestly understand our relationships and the people close to us, we fail to understand ourselves and the unquestioned assumptions that guide and motivate us.  Unless we free ourselves from such assumptions, expectations and the culture of family, we will never truly appreciate and love those who are our family or friends – nor ourselves.  In some families the culture is violence and abuse.  In other families it is high expectation around education or professional success (as reflected in movies such as ‘Dead Poets Society’)…

The second warning appears in a few places through Jesus’ words – ‘You cannot be my disciple if you do not take up and carry your cross.’  It is the way and path of suffering that is mostly avoided by the vast majority of people, religious and otherwise.  At first it seems bizarre to think people would want to embrace suffering!  Surely it is our duty to stop suffering and help people avoid it, but truth is, avoidance is impossible because suffering is the path into deeper wisdom, understanding, life and compassion.  The truly compassionate people of the world are humbled by their suffering, by a sense of awe and wonder at their own powerlessness, and the emerging new power of love that grows within them.  To take up our cross is to follow into the path and way of Jesus (and other great spiritual leaders).  He went to the cross, let go of everything and found the path into deeper being, a deeper reality and the heart of Love.

His third warning is to steer us from possessions, which includes the physical things we own and hold onto, protect and which ultimately own us and absorb our time, energy and worry.  In Jesus’ time (and in some cultures today), possessions also included people and relationships.  It may also include power, prestige, position, fame, and the ambitions, drive and that which forms in our dreams of success and achievement.  There is nothing inherently wrong with owning things, although our society’s capacity to accumulate unnecessarily and refuse to share resources with the broader world where profound need exists, is questionable, sad and greedy.  When we reach the stage of owning things in a clinging, desperate manner, we are probably possessed by these things or the perception that we are not a real, significant person if we can’t match others in what they own.  Being possessed leads us into alternative paths of living that are dependent and ultimately life-denying.  Jesus’ multitude of exorcisms were often about the elimination of that which causes spiritual dis-ease, emotional disconnection and the alienation of our being.

In all of this, Jesus invites people into a path that isn’t simplistic, and he doesn’t allow us to avoid the path he took.  The trouble is that the church, along with the dominant cultures in which it exists, choose the easy way, the path devoid of any suffering or need to let go.  Without letting go, without giving up, without the honest self-reflection we do not walk into the path of self-awareness and life.  We will always be defending ourselves and our beliefs.  We will always be protecting our stuff and we will always be searching and seeking for more, living with the fear and anxiety that pervades so much of human life.  Richard Rohr says: “Following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world.  To allow what God for some reason allows – and uses.  And to suffer ever so slightly what God suffers eternally.  Often, this has little to do with believing the right things about God – beyond the fact that God is love itself!”  It is this powerlessness of God that is the salvation of the world.  Those who choose this path enter into eternal life now, walk with God, see more clearly and are instruments in God’s salvation of all!

By geoffstevenson

Power, Humility and Musical Chairs!

Many people in the public space, public figures who have higher profile through their position/power, wealth, celebrity, education status… have a higher regard for who they are and what they can do than perhaps is reality.  Donald Trump, for example, cannot separate the authority, power and responsibility of his position as US President from his own persona.  It is as if he has the power, authority and everything that is held within a particular role – even to the point of wanting to ‘buy’ Greenland!  A journalist, covering his candidacy had an interview with him and he suggested she would like a photo with him!  It was an expectation.  Trump also believes that he has the right to abuse and put down anyone who would ask a difficult question, disagree with his perspective or call him to account.  He also seems to believe that he has the right be sexist, racist and to discriminate in any way he chooses.  He is not alone in thinking this.  Vladimir Putin, as I’ve commented before, is far more cunning and vindictive, violent and capable of gross evil, and holds this dominating power over and against all who would challenge him.  Many Australian (and certainly current British!) leaders have also exhibited this arrogant sense of them being all-mighty and all-wise, simply because they hold a particular position which really has greater responsibility than anything else.

High profile celebrities strive for recognition at the ‘A-list’ events – especially awards night after-parties.  The Oscar after-parties are legendary as the ‘would-be-if-we-could-be’ seek to be invited to the higher order parties, those with greater prestige.  There have been stories of people turning up to these higher order, A-list parties expecting to be let in, only to be turned away and having to resort to one of the ‘lesser’ parties.  They grieve not being seen with the elite of the social world.

It is fascinating to observe how ego and arrogance push people to strive further for greater recognition and honour.  Humility seems to be a ‘dirty word’ in our society.  People’s worth seems to rise with the recognition they receive through the accumulation of wealth, success in business, the arts or sport, education status, positional status and authority.  Many people feel they have greater authority, or their voice is worth more simply because they own more or control more.  There is often an unstated correlation in the public’s mind between a person’s profile and worth and the obvious wisdom they must have.  Alan Jones has celebrity and is listened to by many people and wisdom, truth, and insight are attributed to him.  Likewise, Rupert Murdoch.  Both have power but neither demonstrates any sense of humility and they expect to be heard and taken more seriously than other voices.  Their wisdom is very often lacking.

So, I come to a story that seems quite dangerous and disturbing, at least for the balance of societies like ours.  It certainly was for the time in which it was written and played out.  It comes from the ancient story of Jesus, attributed to ‘Luke’ in his account of Jesus (Luke 14:1, 7-14).  In it he tells of Jesus, as a pious, holy rabbi, being invited to a high order party held by the political/religious leaders of the Pharisee Party.  It is an invite-only dinner party where on-lookers presumably were able to listen in and observe the interactions.  The tradition, as I understand it, was that people invited those on an equal level or above them to these dinners.  The invite came with an anticipated reciprocal invitation to another dinner hosted by the invitee.  You only invited those who you wanted to impress or honour and those who would/could invite you in return to an equal event.

Somehow, Jesus was invited to this affair and he offered his candid advice through the course of the evening.  He suggested that when you are invited to a communal dinner, a wedding gathering… don’t take the higher level seats in case someone more important than you showed up and you were asked to vacate the seat and move farther down the list.  Such a situation would be shameful, humiliating and cause a profound loss of face publicly.  Instead, suggests Jesus, sit in the lower places and the host may then invite you to move further up in the more privileged, respected seats, thus honouring you publicly.

He went on to further suggest that when hosting parties, don’t just invite those who are more honourable and who can invite you back.  Invite the poor, outcasts, marginalised – those who cannot return your invite.  This is the way to deeper compassion and life, love and grace – all things of God, who will see what you are doing, and it will be valued!

At first glance, these stories seem to be gentle advice on how to get ahead in life – display false humility and you may find yourself more highly and publicly honoured!  Invite the poor and God will look upon you with approval and you will earn ‘heaven points’ from your gracious acts.  However, these are not stories designed to help anyone ‘get ahead’.  They actually upset the order of the social structure in which Jesus (and Luke) lived.  Jesus turned expectations and status quo on their head and disturbed the privilege and assumptions that surrounded such privilege in the world.

Jesus’ words are about taking ourselves, other people and God seriously and to walk into the 3-fold way/path of love, which is the only truly life-giving path.  To take myself seriously is to recognise that I am a unique individual with unique sets of gifts, skills and attributes – some are developed and contribute to the well-being of the world and others more hidden and undeveloped.  I am not better, nor higher, greater, more significant… than any of the rest of God’s children.  We are in every sense equal but not the same.  That is the humility we need to embrace – I am ordinary in the sense of being equal to all others but also special in my own uniqueness, as is each person.  We are all loved profoundly by God and in this we find our worth, our esteem, our value and our sense of being – in this alone!  Everything else is fraught – it plays with our egos and makes us feel better or worse, lesser or greater with no real basis.

When we recognise that our true worth, which is very deep and precious, comes from finding ourselves, our lives, within God, we are then able to see each other person as one uniquely created in God’s image.  We will also recognise the strengths and failures we experience in each other, but our response will not be dismissive or rejection but love and understanding.  Jesus is inviting us to recognise that we are all people and a communal gathering or dinner is not a competition but a relational place where we engage with each other as fellow human beings, each with strengths and weaknesses, joy and pain.  When we look to the vulnerable, marginalised and poor, we discover people who need a hand up, a place to belong and share life, a few shared resources that they deserve.  We also discover something about them and us when we share a meal and welcome them into our space.  We become more human and they do as well.  Jesus’ way will challenge the spaces within our social order and invite us to allow love and grace to flow and life to be lived.

By geoffstevenson