A Reign that Transforms Everything!

Again, this week, we have experienced the continual burning of forests across Eastern Australia.  For a few days this week, Sydney has been covered in smoke – as has much of the state.  Nearly 500 homes in NSW have been destroyed to date, along with many other buildings on properties engulfed in fire.  There have been lives lost and a great deal of suffering and pain.  Many, many people have worked tirelessly to fight fires (far too many deliberately or accidentally lit by humans), care for homeless and those evacuated, consoling the bereaved and struggling, providing food and resources…  This deep crisis has brought out the strength and compassion, courage and co-operation to fight against the powerful forces of fires burning out of control.

Into this painful crisis where exemplary traits of humanity have surfaced, another voice has used this as a platform to ‘warn’ Australian society of ‘a coming wrath.’  Israel Folau has posted a sermon he preached at his father’s ‘church’ (‘The Truth of Jesus Christ Church’) in North-Western Sydney.  In that sermon, Folau says (amongst other things):

“Look how rapid, these bushfires, these droughts, all these things have come, in a short period of time. You think it’s a coincidence or not? God is speaking to you guys, Australia, you need to repent.

“What you see right now in the world is only a little taste of God’s judgment that’s coming, it’s not even a big thing.”

Folau said the natural disasters were “no coincidence” and the solution was for people to “turn from their wicked ways”.

Of course, Israel Folau has crossed many lines of decency and integrity over the last several months but has now pushed things too far.  To suggest that the broad suffering of so many people and communities through this current crisis is some kind of judgement upon them for government and other decisions is not only absurd but terribly abusive and insensitive.  At a time when the very best in human response (including that of faith-based people and organisations) is compassion, mercy, and care, Folau brings only judgement and rebuke – and he does it in the name of God, whom he claims to worship.

This Sunday is known throughout the Christian Church as ‘Reign of Christ Sunday’ and is the last Sunday in the church’s year – next week being the 1st Sunday in Advent.  On this last Sunday of the year we are encouraged to ponder the nature of God’s Reign and what this represents, what it looks like and how it challenges us to deeper compassion, justice and grace.

In a world where there are powerful leaders who dictate, dominate, use power and might, violence and force to exert their will, we are invited to consider a different way in the world.  The testosterone-fuelled megalomaniacs that often dominate the world-scene, leaving pain and suffering in their wake, are too-often countered in the religious sphere by ‘all-powerful’ and violent gods who vanquish their foes and trample them into the dust.  Far to often, religious fervour is fuelled by such literalised and unbridled images of power and violence that overcome the ‘enemies’ of the divinity worshipped.  Suicide bombers and other martyrs, along with militaristic forces engage in crusades against those who are perceived to be opposed to their religious views, belief systems and therefore their god.  Sadly, religious history is full of such crusaders and the ‘armies of gods’ who seek to impose their views and beliefs – and their god’s judgements – upon a world often ignorant and unengaged with their particular religiosity.

Amongst the plethora of responses to the bushfire crisis are people of faith and no faith – so many groups of people from across the religious landscape and those who are not aligned with any faith have responded with compassion and love.  This brings out the deepest and truest elements of being human and the very best and truest elements of religious life, whatever form that takes in people’s lives.

For Christians, of which Israel Folau and his family count themselves, we are challenged to hear the stories of Jesus and consider where and how he would be engaged in the lives of people through the crisis and tragedy of life.  How would Jesus respond to the multitude of suffering experienced across this land in bushfire, poverty, marginalisation and exclusion, violence and abuse, the destruction of culture, illness of body, mind and spirit, relationship conflicts, addictions and the many other experiences people face?

In the strange passage read in churches this week from the life of Jesus (Luke 23:33-43), we encounter him hanging on a cross between two criminals.  He is scoffed, rejected and scorned.  One of the criminals challenges him with cynical derision, whilst the other recognises that there is something different in this one and seeks mercy.  Jesus’ own words are not condemnation nor violence but forgiveness and seeking God’s grace upon his enemies and those who have nailed him to the cross, laughed at him and rejected him.  Above his head is a sign: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

What sort of king is this who accepts a way of sacrifice and giving of himself for the sake of others, who chooses a way of love and mercy over the violence, domination and force that his enemies exhibit?  What sort of king embraces vulnerable humility, a path of servanthood and shares life and meals with the marginalised, lowly, outcasts and rejected?  What sort of king chooses a path of wisdom and grace over certainty, power and control, who encourages people to live in freedom from materialism, addiction, worry and the competitive forces that work against community and relationship?  What sort of king chooses the path of suffering and death in order to show a world how life can be embraced through resurrection into new life and new being?  What sort of king weeps for those who are lost and burdened by the forces and seduction of power, whose heart is deeply moved by struggle and suffering and who reaches out in vulnerable love to embrace all into God’s soft and gentle heart where we find peace, hope and life?

This is certainly not the God or king that Israel Folau proclaims.  I can only hope and pray that Israel and his family can grow through this bitter, judgemental and violent experience and notion of God and find the compassionate, gracious and merciful God at the heart of Christian faith and all things.  This God proclaims a Reign that is all-embracing and inclusive.  It comes to us in many tones and colours through the multitudinous experience of humanity.  It is revealed in vulnerable life, the beauty of the world around us, the sacred moments of life where barriers and competitive notions fade and we ‘belong’ to one another and the cosmos, embraced in the Divine Heart.  This is a beautiful Reign, and all are welcomed into its gracious place of love, justice, peace and joy!

By geoffstevenson

A Vision of All Things Renewed!

This week we have seen catastrophic conditions and a state of emergency as extreme weather fostered fires across NSW (and through Queensland).  I have never lived through the terror of bush fire, close-up.  I have read detailed accounts and listened to those who have lived through such apocalyptic events or been involved in fighting such powerful forces of a raging bushfire.  I cannot even begin to imagine how it feels.  The descriptions alone are horrific and overwhelming.  The full force and fury of an out-of-control bush fire cannot be imagined.  For many, too many, this week it has been their horrifying experience as the costs and implications are now being absorbed and worked through in many families and communities.  I am always surprised and humbled by some of the responses that arise in the midst of such apocalyptic scenes.  There are inevitably people who sit on the burnt out remains of their lives.  With tears in their eyes and despair on their faces but also gratitude for those who have offered comfort and support, gratitude that they still have their lives and gratitude for those who tried so hard to save their property.  Gratitude in the midst of immense loss!

There are also the countless stories people who respond in diverse and wondrous ways.  The fire fighters who work tirelessly and who struggle against the elements and risk much to save the communities of other people.  There are other volunteers and professionals who provide practical care, food, shelter and comfort to those who are evacuated or who have nowhere to go, having lost everything.  It is into such apocalyptic events where life and death run closely side by side and danger threatens, that we are drawn into a deeper sense of reality, of what is real and what it means to be human – together.  The more superficial concerns of so much daily life are set aside as we are confronted by such life and death situations.  Despite the anguish and pain that surfaces, there is a sense of something deeper and more profound emerging.  We are drawn together, to work, to struggle and hold each other through the experience.  Communities of friends and strangers form and work side by side.  Barriers that often divide us, fade into insignificance.  We do not ask questions of faith or religion, politics, sexuality, status or anything else.  We are human beings standing side by side, vulnerable and overwhelmed but drawing strength from one another.

In the midst of this apocalyptic week I read two post-apocalyptic stories.  Isaiah (65:17-25) and Luke (21:5-19) both speak into situations of tragedy, struggle and chaos.  Isaiah spoke into the period that followed the devastation of Jerusalem, destroyed by the armies of Babylon and many citizens taken into exile into Babylon.  The exiles were released decades later when the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians.  As they returned to Jerusalem, they were met with decades old devastation and destruction, overwhelmed by the immensity of the task of rebuilding city, Temple and life. Isaiah spoke into their helpless, powerless vulnerability.  He spoke of hope and a belief that God’s way would bring life and restoration to people and communities.  His vision is about healing of people, relationships and with the earth itself.

The story in Luke follows the devastation of Jerusalem once again, under the Romans this time.  In 70 AD, the Jewish-Roman War reached its climactic point and the Roman forces finally destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.  The city was chaos, with blood and death everywhere and the cries of tortuous pain and despair.  Luke wrote around 85 AD but situated his story in the period of Jesus (~30 AD). He also portrays a new hope through resilience and standing firm, together.  His promise is that God will be with, in and through us as we stand for justice and walk with others who struggle and suffer.

Such promises of God’s strength, peace, hope and transformation leave us wondering – where? How? Who? What?  We look around and recognise that the world is not peaceful and too many people live impoverished lives – economic poverty or poverty of mind or spirit.  The pandemic depression, anxiety and loneliness point to the despair and alienation that we feel in our lives that are so independent and individualistic.  There is immense pressure on people to perform, to ‘be something’ and to compete with or fear others.  Addictions abound as we seek ways to contain our pain and hopelessness, something to relieve feelings we cannot deny or provide some stimulation into the boredom that too many feel.  So where is the hope and promise of God?  When will God act in accordance with the promises?  When will we see something – or has it passed us by?

God’s  vision through both Isaiah and Luke is of a transformative community of people who grasp the vision, who respond to the challenge to be just and compassionate and build relationships together.  The vision is of people looking deeply within themselves, to hear their own deep yearning and that of others, of working together to transform the world in which they live with hope, peace, love and justice.  This is present in the catastrophes experienced this week.  People respond and work together, transcending divisions and barriers, providing compassionate actions towards friend and stranger.  In the midst of chaos and struggle, often the very best and deepest capacity of humanity comes to the fore.  This is the world we seek and yearn for at the deepest levels of our humanity.

The dream of God is for a new world, transformed and healed. It is a world where people live together in peace; where people have the right to live in their own homes without fear of powerful forces driving them out and taking it over. It is a world where everyone has enough to eat, clean water to drink, clothing, shelter, relationships in caring community. It is a world where women can live in homes or walk the streets without the fear of rape or violence, where they can be valued for who they are not what they look like. It is a world where men can be vulnerable and express themselves creatively in the diverse ways without fear of rejection or peer pressure that pushes them into violent or anti-social acts. It is a world where people take responsibility for their actions, reaching out to others to offer a hand up. It is a world where the pandemic of depressive illness, anxiety, stress and the addictive mechanisms employed to cope with such stresses are no longer necessary. It is a world where everyone has enough work, and no-one has too much – where there is a healthy balance between all the dimensions of our lives. It is also a world where the earth is valued and creation enjoyed, nurtured and cared for. It is a world where power, profits and greed are not the dominant forces or motivating factors. Rather it is a world of sharing, equality and nurturing love. It is a world where competition occurs in truth and integrity and where we accept winning or losing in grace, enjoying the competition more than the result. It is a world where justice, love, grace and peace prevail and nations share and work together for the common good of the world’s citizens.  This is a wonderful vision that depends on us being open to the life, wisdom and love of God!

By geoffstevenson

Remembering in Order to Become!

Some years ago, I had an elderly neighbour.  His name was Les and he was an interesting, somewhat enigmatic fellow.  He did his own thing and there was a kind of darkness that hung around him, even though he was quite friendly and could enjoy a laugh and joke.  Over the years I gleaned a little of his life and there were indeed, some dark and tough times.  Perhaps the overwhelming and defining experience of his life was WWII, where he was a paratrooper.  Les never spoke much about the war or what his experience was.  In a few snippets I understood that it was pretty dark, dangerous and traumatic.

I remember asking Les around ANZAC Day, if he would go to the march.  He was emphatic that he wouldn’t be there.  He hadn’t been to the march for many years – it was just too hard!  The memories came back and he couldn’t cope with the levity in some people nor the glorying, pomp and other things that typified society’s attempts to remember, honour and make something significant of the wars.  Les would spend the day at the local RSL with a few mates who understood him and his experience and he theirs.  They wouldn’t reminisce nor share stories of war – it was too hard.  They would drink and forget and avoid the ‘celebrations’ that went on around them.

Monday is Remembrance Day and thinking about this conversation with Les caused me to wonder, question and think about what I/we are remembering.  What is memory about and where does it lead?  I suspect that much remembering is nostalgic and whimsical, delighting in something that touches us in positive ways.  We mostly want to remember well, the good things of our lives, and even extrapolate into our remembering that which is most positive and hopeful from our experience.  Of course we remember things that are not positive and hopefully learn through them but I suspect we mostly push the dark and difficult things into the deeper recesses of our mind, delighting more fully in that which is good, that for which we yearn,

Despite the darkness, I recognise that in Les’ story, he was drawn to the positive things of life even through his tough and traumatic experiences.  Mates who shared the journey and were there for one another in the darkest times, were cherished.  These mates were the ones who understood, and they could share time together in a deeper connection and understanding that accepted each other for who they were without having to revisit the past events.  I think Les valued some of the simpler things in life because he had been to the pits of hell and confronted with his own mortality – and survived.

I have been pondering a couple of ancient stories this week.  The first is around 2,500 years old and comes from the Old Testament prophet, Haggai (1:15-2:9) – probably one of the less well-known and read books.  The second is from around 1900 years ago – Luke 20:27-38.   The story of Haggai (whose name means festival, worship, celebration) comes from a time when Jewish exiles began to return from Babylon, released when the Babylon was overrun Cyrus the Persian.  They returned to rebuild the city and the Temple of Jerusalem.  They were met with all the harsh reminders of a war that had been fought and lost 70 years earlier.  The remnant citizens who remained had been focussed on survival and the rebuilding process only recently commenced.  The memory of people came largely through stories passed down of Solomon’s Temple – a grand and beautiful structure.  The stories probably extrapolated and inflated the extravagance of the Temple’s reality and so was their ‘memory.’  Their memory also focussed on the structure of the building and glorified in its supposed opulence and grandeur.  Haggai’s words recall that the essence of the Temple was not the structure but the purpose.  The glory of the Temple was not in its stones and forms but in the presence of God who filled the Temple with glory, wonder and the beauty of love, grace, justice and peace.  Haggai recalled to the people that God was the one who was the focus and centre of the Temple and the worship of God was inextricably linked to lives of peace, justice, compassion and mercy.  The true beauty that their memories were attempting to recall was the essence of God in human life!

In the story from Luke’s Gospel we have a group of religious leaders (a religious party called Sadducees) who came to Jesus in the last week of his life to trap him in theological debate.  They held no sway with the concept of resurrection and so asked a convoluted question that sought to draw Jesus into a nonsensical argument in order to gain the upper hand.  Essentially, they drew on the tradition of Levirate Marriage, whereby the brother of a deceased man was obliged to marry his dead brother’s widow.  They asked that if this happened seven times through seven brothers, each marrying the one widow who was effectively passed down to each through an older brother’s death, whose wife would she be in resurrection.  Jesus would not be drawn into the argument, instead indicating that in the life beyond this life, everything is different.  There is a new and deeper freedom and sense of being that is ‘in God’.  We are finally whole and complete within ourselves, and come into the deeper, richer sense of being that we are ultimately created to become.  The question of the Sadducees is a limited one, defined by death and the limitations of life rather than an upwards directed vision of who we can be at our very best.  Sadly, this is how much of life is lived.  We choose a downwards trajectory, focussed on the outward forms of dependency upon people who fulfil our needs, legalistic notions that enable us to control, and materialistic aspirations that make us feel ‘rich’.  The true beauty in life does not lie in having more – power/control, possessions/money, knowledge/education…

The true beauty of life, that finds its way into our dreams and through the nostalgia of memory, is in relationships with people, the earth and with the Divine heart at the centre of everything, the One we name ‘God’.  When we put more import upon outward form and structure rather than inner relationship and being together, the deep richness of life dissipates, and we crave more of that which is ultimately unfulfilling.  This accumulation mentality is an addictive path that is seeking life in the wrong places.  Jesus invites his hearers into a place where they can experience life more richly and live more deeply and truly – now.  The eternal life he speaks of is an experience that begins in the present moment.  The Reign of God, which is love, joy, peace, hope and wonder is presently available to all.  It flows in and out and all around us every day, whether we appreciate it or not – it is there, and we are all invited to participate and live within its true wonder!

When our memories help us dream and yearn for something better, perhaps we need to listen deeply to that to which they point – what is the content and true hope of the dream? On Monday, as we remember the dark places of life, we might be drawn into a deeper hope for peace and life rather than conflict and hatred.  Perhaps we can respond to Jesus’ invitation to embrace relational, inclusive and compassionate life that is rich and full.

By geoffstevenson

Treating People Upwards – to Become Who We Can Be!

I had a child in the Scripture class I taught some years ago.  He was quite hyperactive and quite smart.  It was clear he was largely bored with Scripture, which was a combined year 6 Protestant group that 3 of us co-led.  Whilst one was providing input/lesson, the others would be on ‘crowd control’.  Other leaders were more intent on sending misbehaving children from the room, which I found problematic, largely because I felt the issues were more with our style and capacity than the children’s ability to concentrate.

There was a tendency to treat these children in ways that reinforced their behaviour and our perception of them.  If a child was talkative and distracted, the problem lay with him/her and she/he needed to be brought back into line.  They were branded a ‘trouble-maker’ or a difficult child and considered beyond hope I suspect.  I always had trouble with kind of thinking – especially when we were trying to convey God’s love for the children.  And, come to think of it, I was generally bored with Scripture!

One day, one of the other leaders asked this child to leave the room – again.  He nonchalantly stood and with a shake of his head left the room.  I watched as he went and the look of satisfaction on the face of the leader, somewhat irked me and I took the opportunity to go outside and chat with the boy.  I could tell that he was waiting for me to chastise him and tell him what a ‘bad boy’ he was and reinforce that he was a trouble-maker.  I didn’t.  We chatted for a while and I said something like, ‘You are bored with this aren’t you?’  He looked up surprised and nodded and said, ‘Yes, its pretty awful.’  I sensed the boy was all too familiar with the Bible stories and discovered he did go to church but Scripture was basic, non-stimulating and boring.

As we chatted, I realised that this was a pretty sharp kid who was quite intelligent and probably had trouble concentrating when his mind was rarely engaged.  Scripture wasn’t challenging and he was treated like a naughty boy and so he acted into that role.  This boy acted into the way he was treated!  It made me think…

When I next led the class, I tried to engage the children in deeper ways and challenge them to think about life and faith, sharing stories of real people and real situations.  I invited them into a journey of experiencing something deeper of Jesus and what he was on about and was surprised that the children came along.  When I told engaging stories, they were with me and wanted to talk about the people and their responses to crisis and where God was in all of this.  Central to the questions and conversation was the boy who had been considered ‘naughty’.  Suddenly, when he was treated as someone with a brain, who could engage and had something to offer the class, he stood up.  I think he grew and lived into the image and sense of being the person he was expected to be.  When treated as a naughty, disruptive boy, that is what he became.  When treated as someone with a contribution to make, who had good thoughts and questions, he lived into that sense of being.  This boy is not unique!

In the story this week (Luke 19:1-10) we have another example of how Jesus treats people upwards; as the person they were created to be and who they could be.  Elsewhere there is the story of a woman caught in adultery and the religious leaders want to stone her, according to some draconian version of the law.  They appealed to Jesus and he suggested that the one without sin be the first to cast a stone.  Whilst he doodled in the dirt, they all walked away, no doubt cursing him under their breath.  When he looked up there was only the woman and he asked if no-one accused her – then neither did he.  Jesus invited her to go and live and sin no more – go and live as you can be.  Go and be the woman you really are.  Go and grow into the forgiveness and mercy, the grace and compassion of God, who calls you a child.  He does not treat her as a ‘bad person’ who deserves punishment, but a person caught up in a life that is less than she can be, and he offers her the encouragement to grow into something more – in God.

The story this week is about Zacchaeus, a tax collector.  This meant that he collaborated with the enemy, the Romans, and collected the high taxes for them.  To these taxes he added something more on top for himself – he ripped off his own people.  Zacchaeus was despised, hated, rejected, excluded and ostracised.  Jesus came into his village and everyone gathered along the streets to see him.  Curious, Zacchaeus wanted to see him as well, but he was short, and no-one would let him through to the front.  With his view blocked Zac climbed a tree to get a look.  As Jesus wandered under the tree, he looked up and saw Zac hanging from a high branch and called him down.

I imagine that Zac felt all the sense of rejection and hatred welling up within him.  Everyone else hated him, why not this rabbi?  I imagine that as he climbed down and pushed through the crowd, he wondered what tirade of abuse he was about to receive – he would cop it on the chin.  Who cared!

Well, actually Jesus did!  There was no tirade, no abuse, but an unexpected and lovely acceptance.  Jesus asked Zac if he could come to his home for lunch or afternoon tea…  This must have been the biggest surprise, even shock!  No-one went to Zac’s home.  No-one would be could dead in his presence, let alone go to his house.  This Rabbi wanted to visit him at home.  Surely this was an honour and he rushed home with this heady, wonderful feeling of being accepted, in some strange and wonderful way.

Over some food, they chatted, and through it, Zac confessed the reality of his life and the way he ripped people off and cheated them.  He promised, on the spot, to make restitution and return the money ripped off from others and to repair the relationships.  This amounted to a complete reversal in his life, his attitude, and his priorities.  In some strange and profound way, Jesus’ gracious actions towards Zac enabled him to see himself in a new way.  When treated as the human being he could be, someone who could be loving, kind and humane, he lived into this and became that person.  Whilst the people around him treated him as an outcast who would abuse and cheat them, he lived into that way.

What happens when we are treated upwards, treated as we can be rather than as we may be perceived – rightly or wrongly?  What happens when we treat others as they can be, as they are deep down, as human beings who are unique, loved and special?  When we are treated positively and encouraged to become the best we can be, we respond positively.  When we are told we are useless… then we tend to live into that designation.  Jesus always treated people upwards into the deeply profound sense of being loved in and through God.  He treated people as children of God who loves and believes in us all.  That is the challenge for us – to love others into becoming the truest and deepest expression of who they are created to be and to nurture them into living into this truest sense of self – in God!

By geoffstevenson