Becoming More Truly Human…

There’s a bloke that sometimes stands on a corner opposite Westfields Parramatta.  There, at the lights, he spruiks his particular line of religious belief with passion and desperation.  Occasionally someone will sidle up and engage him in a conversation that encourages and affirms his hard-line, narrow stance.  Very occasionally there is someone who has time and energy to take him on, but he gives no ground.  His size and fierce, passionate manner can be intimidating but on the whole, most people simply ignore him and can’t wait to cross the road.

The rhetoric of this fellow is fire and brimstone and filled with dire warnings of what will happen to sinners, of which he assumes everyone attending to the lights, awaiting the green, are prime examples.  We are all sinners, for whatever reason – most likely that we have a different view on life or faith or something to this man’s belief system.

Sinners, it isn’t a word used terribly much these days except in particular religious circles where there is a pejorative implication warning of the wrath of a vengeful god who is only appeased by believing in their particular views of faith and narrow interpretation of the Bible.  We encountered this rhetoric in Israel Folau’s excruciating social media outbursts that condemned pretty much everyone – certainly that is the view of his father, who takes a hard-line view around the Bible and faith and what is true, false and worthy of Divine judgement.  We are all sinners, claims such people but the basis of such sinfulness is the denying of particular ‘expressed truths’ that they adhere to.  There are belief systems that people hold to, religiously, and use them to define who is in, out, lost… Sin, according to these overly zealous religious people, is grounded in doing what God doesn’t like and such actions, beliefs, thoughts… are worthy of judgement.

Is this true?  Is this what it is all about?  Is there a God sitting in some sublime heavenly residence watching the people below and marking out who is right, wrong, good or evil and prescribing appropriate judgement upon them like a Divine version of Santa Claus?  Is this really what Christian (and Jewish) faith are all about?  Is this the way Jesus lives and what he teaches?  Does he not lift up those who are caught in cycles of life that are unhealthy to both the person and others around them and bring new life and vitality and self worth?  Jesus, it seems, portrays a God who loves and nurtures in grace, so that human become the very best they can be – their truest self!

There’s a story Jesus tells this week (Luke 18:9-14), where two men go to the Temple to pray.  A religious leader steps into the public area and before those gathered prays loudly and proudly.  He thanks God that he is a good person who does all the right things and isn’t like the second man who is a tax collector.  The religious man rattles off the long list of his virtues and proudly stands before God, justifying himself for all his goodness.

The other man, a tax collector who has probably ripped off his own people, collaborated with the Roman occupiers and transgressed several laws and cultural taboos, simply stands aside, bowed down low and seeks the mercy of God upon him as he is a sinner.  Jesus, perhaps somewhat surprisingly to his hearers, suggests that it is the tax collector, not the religious figure, who goes away justified.

Two men go to the Temple to pray and only one goes away transformed and his self-descriptor is that of being a sinner.  It seems, in Jesus’ actions and rhetoric, that God is less concerned with fulfilling belief systems and legal requirements – the religious man did all of this to near perfection.  The man justified before God was the one who demonstrated a depth of self-awareness, to recognise his own personal failures in fulfilling his own sense of humanity.  This man, it seems, recognises how he has failed himself, others and therefore God – this is not so much in transgressing laws but in becoming and being someone much less than the person he is created and enabled to be.

This, I suspect is the true nature of being a ‘sinner’.  Whilst we deflect from this descriptor for all the negative connotations noted above, there is a deeply necessary recognition that we are drawn into life choices and lifestyles that deny us our true potential.  The religious man in this story understands the legal requirements of his belief system – ‘believe this, do that, think something else and all is good in God’s world and I am one of the good guys (not like him, a tax collector!)’.  This position lacks compassion, relationship and self-awareness.  Does his belief system include people who are different, have a different experience of God, life, culture or see the world differently?  It also presumes God is about law but the clear revelation of God in Jesus is about love, grace, mercy, compassion and inclusion.  Jesus was relational and drew people into a relationship that offered a nurturing, growth-promoting potential within them.  Jesus invites us into a place where we can recognise who we are and to gain a vision of who we can be.  He treats people upwards to become who they can be, rather than to be judged through the distorted lenses of other people or the cultural norms that push us into categories that often demean and exclude.

There is a beautiful story that Biblical theologian, Marcus Borg tells in one of his books.  A couple bring their new-born home and put him into his cot to sleep.  Their 3-year old daughter asks if she can spend a few minutes alone with him.  The parents are suspicious but they have an intercom between the baby’s room and their bed room so agree.  The girl ushers them from the room and closes the door.  They rush to their bedroom and listen in.  She gently walks to the cot and then asks her new-born brother to tell her what God is like because she has almost forgotten.

Borg suggests that this and a myriad of similar style stories reminds us that our origin is ‘in God’.  We are formed (‘created’) in God but as we are born into the world that is filled with distractions of all forms, we lose this connection and our lives are about finding our way home into the place and form of life we were first drawn into.  Our lives are a journey into becoming more deeply and truly human and that is ultimately life ‘in God.’  Such life is not characterised by legalities and belief systems but in compassion, relationship, peacefulness, justice and inclusion.  It is about love.  Love is the essence of who God is and it is love into which we are drawn more deeply when we open ourselves to the possibilities and potential God has put within us.

The tax collector seems to have understood his failure to live into the fullness of his being.  His life has wounded and impacted many, including himself as his greed etc has diminished his humanity, his true sense of being.  He is not at peace but he recognises this within himself and seeks mercy.  This is the path into deeper life and being – God!

By geoffstevenson

The Life-giving Power of Persistence (and Prayer)!

This morning, like all mornings, our 2.5 year-old Short-haired Border Collie X Cattle Dog was very keen to go for a walk.  As soon as I am up and about, he is persistently nudging or licking me and then looks into the laundry where his lead is.  He repeats this in the late afternoon as well, if I am around.  Nico loves his daily walk(s)!  I can offer him food or a walk and he will choose the walk every time (our Labrador will choose the snack!).  Nico is persistent with a capital ‘P’.  Inevitably I will give in.  It is easier to get the shoes on and go walking, whether the long or short version depending on time, than to endure his persistent nudging and his pleading eyes.  Then, I am usually grateful to walk!

Sometimes persistence pays off.  There is a wonderful story about Keith Jarrett, the world-renowned jazz pianist.  Vera Brandes was the youngest concert promoter in Germany and worked part time for the Cologne Opera House.  She had a dream to stage a late-night improvised jazz concert.  She received permission for the Opera House authorities and signed Keith Jarrett to play.  He requested a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano to be provided for the show, but the piano removers wheeled out the wrong instrument for the night and left for the day.  When Keith Jarrett and his musical director arrived to prepare for the concert, Vera Brandes ‘introduced’ him to the concert hall and the piano.  It was in very poor condition – muffled low notes, high pitched, tinny high notes, a couple of black keys not working in the middle, sticking pedals and it was too small for the concert hall – and it was horribly out of tune.  The piano tuner did his best to fix the piano, but it was still far below Jarrett’s expectations and requirements.  He was tired, sleep-deprived, suffering a painful back and generally very unimpressed.  He threatened to walk out unless a proper piano was provided.  It was impossible and Vera became desperate.  Jarrett was outside sitting in his car awaiting news and preparing to leave.  In pouring rain, the teenage Vera Brandes cajoled, begged, encouraged, begged some more and persistently urged Keith Jarrett to play.  Looking through the window of his car at a dripping wet teenage concert promoter begging him to play, he finally gave in, ‘Remember always – only for you!’

At around 11:30 pm, wearing a back brace, Keith Jarrett strode out onto the stage and sat before a very imperfect instrument.  For the next couple of hours, he mesmerised a concert audience of 1300 people, providing a brilliant performance that worked within the constraints of the instrument.  It necessitated him changing his style, playing in different ways to overcome the extreme limitations and it was the performance of a lifetime.  The recorded album went on to become the highest selling Jazz solo album and the highest selling piano album in history.  It is a brilliant concert.

This story reflects how persistence and hope, dreams and passion, and urgent desire can lift someone to do something more than they feel they can or want to.  If Vera Brandes had given up and recognised it was useless, impossible or hopeless, her own career as a concert promoter would end that night, and there would be 1300 patrons who would be left angry, frustrated, disappointed…  And, the world would not have such a fine and brilliant performance!  For Keith Jarrett, the persistence of Vera Brandes cajoled him into doing something that seemed so ridiculous and so ludicrous (and impossible!) that given his own physical state and that of the piano, he would never have attempted it.  That Vera Brandes was so persistent and wore his resistance down meant that Keith Jarrett was forced to face a profound challenge – how to make good, sublime, music from an instrument that had so many limitations.  It forced him into working within the capacity of the instrument and finding a way through that allowed his own skill and talent to shine through – together to create something uniquely beautiful!

In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 18:1-8), there is a story told by Jesus about a Judge and a persistent widow.  She has been wronged, probably taken advantage of because of her vulnerable estate, being a widow.  In the context, widows (and orphans) became highly vulnerable when they had no male to look after their interests and care for them.  The wealthy and powerful often took advantage of such people.  If a women’s husband died, the powerful leaders (including religious leaders) would offer help and take a large cut of the estate.  Others may take it all.

The woman experienced injustice and went to the judge for help.  He couldn’t care less for her (it says he had no respect for people nor God).  The less he cared or listened to her, the more persistent and determined she became.  Every day she went and knocked on his door, asking for justice.  He inevitably gave in because she wore him down (the Greek version speaks of him fearing her giving him a blackened eye, until the end of time) – he recognised she would not give him rest and her persistence may cause other difficulties.

Luke introduced the story by suggesting that Jesus told a parable to encourage people to pray and not lose heart.  Later, Jesus asks, if an unjust judge does this, how much more will God give justice to those who ask.  It is an interesting question because, as most of us know, God doesn’t always answer our prayers and certainly doesn’t provide instant answers to even just causes.  How many of us pray for really good things for other people – freedom for refugees, relief from drought, food for the hungry, relief from war etc – yet these things seem to continue unabated.  God doesn’t seem to respond in such simplistic ways to our praying, even persistent praying.   It is clear that God is not the kind of cosmic magician often portrayed by Christians who make the universal claim to prayer’s efficacy.

This is not an endorsement to make prayer an expression of lists of things we want/need God to do for us – or the world.  There is nothing wrong with expressing our deep hopes, yearning, fears, grief… before God but such lament or confession is about expressing ourselves before God’s grace and we are ultimately drawn more deeply into this presence that overwhelms us in love.  The struggle of life is part of the journey and God walks with us through such valleys to nurture new life and being in the crucible of suffering.  It is also about drawing a rich community of love, grace and care around people to share each other’s burdens.  Perhaps, God is more like the woman in the story and is persistently urging us into an engaged way of justice and life.  Perhaps God is drawing us out of our closed world to engage with the issues we want to pray for and not ‘expect God to fix.’  Scott Morrison indicated he is praying for drought-stricken farmers and for rain.  Perhaps the answer to his prayers lies within his power to bring some relief and support and that is what God expects??!  What about you and me?  How and where will our praying lead us?  What persistent hope, anticipation and passion lies behind our praying and how might that lead us to action for the sake of God’s world?  Does prayer lead us into God’s presence?

By geoffstevenson

From Borderland to Life!

‘Borderlands’ is a fitting metaphor for many people as they exist on the fringes of being.  The borderlands are the spaces between the places of life, where the lost and lonely, grieving and displaced, confused and powerless inhabit.  Sometimes it is a journey that takes us through the borderlands, such as in the process of grief, where we journey into the dark and lonely place, ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’  It is a strange, confusing, complex world where we are in the liminal, black hole, kind of space where we can’t function and cannot move forward nor back.  It takes time and care to find our way back to the future and be able to re-engage in life anew.

Sometimes the borderland is the place where people live – mental, physical or spiritual illness, intellectual or physical disability, poverty, age, or social isolation.  Borderlands can be the place where people are driven because of who they are or what they believe or think or are able to do.  Others fear or distrust them.  Society excludes them.  Religions condemn them.  They live in borderlands, lost and alone.

I just finished Andrew McMillan’s book, Strict Rules, the story of the ‘iconic tour that shaped the Oils’.  It follows the amazing 1980’s tour of Midnight Oil and the Warumpi Band through Central and Northern Australia, bringing rock music to ancient and isolated Aboriginal communities and seeking to engage and learn about their life.  So much of the story describes the borderlands where too many people, especially younger generations, find themselves lost between the ancient wisdom and ways of life and the Western culture that has infiltrated and partially transformed them.  So many people are caught between what was, what is and what might be – without the resources to get there.  They live between the places, on an ancient land that their culture is more adept at surviving and living in harmony with this harsh, beautiful land.  They also have ancient lore, law and tradition that has survived millennia but are subject to Western culture, law and expectations that don’t always easily fit and work together – especially without resources, education, wisdom and the empowerment to be part of the decision-making processes.

Even more disturbing has been the well-meaning but ignorantly patronising interventions of whitefella institutions that have ‘taken children away for a holiday’ and never returned them to family and land.  The institutional removal of children and the colonising, civilising actions that denied land, belonging and hope from ancient and proud people and cultures, has them barely surviving in borderlands, the place between the places.  The sadness in the story is that many descend into hopeless powerlessness.  Addictive lives driven by boredom, confusion and existential alienation lead to desperate and hopeless young people.  And they remain forgotten and lost in distant communities.

The news of the day holds many sound bites and grabs of borderland people lost in the darkness of political decisions, military might, powers and principalities beyond their control that overwhelm their lives.  For others the severity of nature’s wrath overwhelms them as the fury of storms and cyclonic wind and rain create destructive havoc and total chaos, such as in the Bahamas.  Domestic violence is seriously deadly as women, in particular, continue to face brutality within their own homes.  Sixteen people each year die from quad bike accidents and legislation has been introduced to prevent it.  Current statistics indicate that 1 woman a week is killed by her partner, with many more suffering other forms of violence and abuse.  This is a serious borderlands issue – and there appears too little is really being done to change the culture of violence and abuse in family homes.

As a society we live in the borderlands of change due to the increasingly changing environment of the earth and its eco-systems.  Despite the firm denial by many politicians, a few ignorant nations and some corporations, the science continues to support the reality of a changing climate that is exacerbated by human civilisation and our impact.  The key compound is CO2 – Carbon dioxide.  It is rapidly accumulating in the atmosphere, severely changing the dynamics of water chemistry and heat exchange across the earth.  There are gross changes in water temperature and cycles of currents of warm and cooler streams impact the air currents and spread of warm and cool air, the creation of cyclonic conditions and so on.  The warming of the earth and waters reduces ice masses in the polar regions and raises the ocean levels.  Increased CO2 increases water acidity, which bleaches coral and changes the chemistry of water across the globe.  We live in the borderlands!

This week a simple story (Luke 17:11-19) has Jesus wandering along the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria.  The Jewish side was kosher.  The Samaritan side unclean and filled with hated enemies.  The Samaritans were hated from ancient conflicts and isolated from Jewish people.  As he wandered through this borderland, he encountered 10 lepers.  These 10 men were suffering from any of a range of skin conditions (probably not the modern form of leprosy called Hansen’s Disease but any contagious skin disease).  They were excluded and lived further in the borderlands of rejection, isolation and aloneness.  They had to stay away from other people and call out ‘unclean, unclean!’ if anyone came too close.  It was a warning to stay away.  These men were really beyond the borderlands and excluded from the life of the community in every way.  When Jesus came wandering down the great divide, they went to him, begging mercy and grace.  He sent them to the priest to show themselves as being clean – they would be returned to normal life; brought in from the wastelands beyond the borders and given life!

One, realising he was cleansed, returned to Jesus, threw himself to the ground and expressed his deep gratitude!  This one, was a Samaritan – an outsider who had received healing, welcome and inclusion in more ways than the others could comprehend.  This inclusion and welcome into the Realm of God’s grace was very real for him.  It was life-giving!  In Jesus’ gracious presence that day he understood what it means to be embraced into God’s Reign, know life and suddenly experience a place where there are no divisions, no ‘in and out.’  It was to be drawn out of the borderlands and into the place where life can be lived and all are embraced without fear or prejudice, superiority or judgement.  It is the place where love operates, and difference adds spice to the variety we experience in the diversity of people – held in a gracious unity of being.

It is perhaps a man who is desperate, has nowhere to go after being healed because he is still an outsider, who truly understands that his life will only find full expression and being, full identity, in Christ – in God’s loving embrace that will free him and enable him to become and be who he truly is.  This is identity and belonging.  This is grace!

Surely this is the hope and dream of so many in the borderlands.  I wonder what it will take for us to live into the welcoming, healing, loving communal way of Jesus?

By geoffstevenson

Relationships, Forgiveness, Love and God’s Community…

Last Saturday we celebrated the wedding of our daughter.  It was a really wonderful day – the service, the celebration afterwards and sharing with family and friends.  This event brought two families together through the wedding of Katelyn and Andrew.  We came together as a ‘new entity’ through the marriage service, celebration and rituals, feasting and the sharing of stories.  People, family, from across three nations (Australia, New Zealand and England) have been connected through this wedding and the clans extended, broadened and relationships forged.  It was wonderful on the day to meet people from ‘across the ditch’ and recognise new connections, new relationships, and to realise that we are drawn together as ‘family’.

Such connections are essential to life and who we are as people.  At every level we find ourselves connected – to people, place, the earth and its creatures, culture, and the Divine that pervades all life.  Founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr, says that ‘The universe is relational at every level, and even between levels.  Relationship is the core and foundational shape of reality, mirroring our Trinitarian God (eg Genesis 1:26-27)’.  He makes the point that the essential nature of the universe and all things is relationship – everything is relational.  The very atoms that make up all matter are relational structures where neutrons, protons and electrons are held in relationship.  The power of the atom lies not in its constituent parts, but in the relationship.  That is why so much energy is released when atoms are split because the power lies within the relationship.  Our bodies are built on relational systems of organs and tissues that work within each system and together to make our bodies function.  The earth has eco-systems and all life is part of a web that connects us all.  At this deeper level, we are all connected and everything belongs because we are held in the deepest, most profound relationship that is grounded in perfect love.  We call this relationship, the Trinity, the Divine heart from which all things originate, belong and return.  The pattern of all things is derived from Divine relational community and is imbued with relational life, being and grace.

Indigenous cultures are more attuned to such relational being, through their deeper connectedness to the earth, its creatures and the world in which they live.  Their relationships are complex and profound and have sustained culture and communal integrity for millennia.  When we learn to appreciate the world around and understand that we are connected to every part of life and the world, through sharing the air we breathe, the water that sustains, and the sun that shines upon us.  Atoms in our bodies have been part of rocks and trees, animals and rivers and originally stardust, recycled through breakdown and renewal – the dying and rising, death and resurrection inherent in all life.

This week I have wrestled with a tough passage from Luke (Luke 17:1-10).  It follows from the previous chapters of Luke where Jesus speaks of God’s response to that which is lost – a lost sheep where the shepherd leaves 99 and seeks out the 1.  A lost coin whose absence breaks the integrity of the whole collection from which it comes – when 1 of us is lost, we are all impacted.  He tells that wonderful, archetypal story we call the ‘Prodigal Son’ (others refer to as the ‘Profligate Father’).  A boy makes the outward journey away from home, family and the place of origin, birth and belonging.  He goes with the egocentric certainty that typifies all of us as we begin processes of individuation.  He treats his father as dead, denying, ignoring and rejecting him BUT the father never forgets nor gives up on the son!  Every day he seeks to son and when he returns welcomes him as the son he has always been – this is grace!

The next chapter of Luke has stories of a cunning, shrewd steward who comes to understand that relationships are more important to his future than wealth and he uses what he has to nurture relationships to ensure his future.  Finally, a story of 2 men, a counter-cultural story of the reversal of fortunes following them into death.  The rich man is nameless and suffers post death whilst the poor man is called Lazarus and he finds comfort in Abraham’s presence.  Luke’s point: Wealth blinds us and draws us away from relationships, compassion and justice as we focus on ourselves and accumulating more.

In the current story, the sense of relationship continues as we are encouraged to build and sustain community through confronting those who do wrong with their offence and then to forgive when they seek it.  Forgiveness sought and given is essential.  Jesus even suggests that if someone seeks forgiveness 7 times in a day for the same repeated offence we are to forgive (this assumes that the offence is not of an order that is criminal and violent, which requires deeper response from the community).  Relationship is paramount and to deny relationship is to cause ‘little ones’ to stumble and fall.  We are invited into the place where we seek to nurture and grow relationship at every point and place relationship above ‘goodness’ and moral perfection or belief systems.  This requires faith – the faith we already have. The level of faith that is a small as a mustard seed.  In other words it is within our capacity if we have the will!

Jesus moves on to give a harsh teaching whereby he suggests that those who are servants do their job and are not praised for doing what they are supposed to do – it is expectation.  Some in the crowd would have cheered at this recognition of levels of society, classes, perhaps.  ‘Just get on with your job and stop complaining about doing what you are supposed to do…’  Then Jesus confounds us all and suggests that we are like servants or slaves.  We should not hold ourselves up as ‘good people’ and believe we deserve some reward for being good or doing what we know is right.  Doing the right thing and having faith is good and proper but it does not make us better, more deserving or greater than those who are different.  We are who we are through grace, whether we recognise this or not.  We find our identity through the gracious gift of love, forgiveness and mercy from God, in whom we belong and derive life.  Such grace is poured upon all people but not always recognised nor received.  The sun shines and the rain falls on those who are ‘good or bad’ alike.  We are, like the younger son in the story from Luke 15, the children of God whether we understand this, recognise this or even want this.  We can choose to ignore and even reject that love and grace or live into it – this is salvation and eternal life!

The community of God’s people should be an open, radically accepting, caring and loving community where forgiveness sought and given is normal.  We embrace those who are different, who are on a different part of the life/faith journey and hold relationship as central in all things – because God, the Trinity is a relational community of love and grace and the ground of all being, of all reality, of all things.  We reflect this Trinity of love when we love enough to reprove and forgive, and to be agents of reconciling love and grace.

By geoffstevenson