Seeking Asylum from Powers of Violence!!

We are in the midst of the 12 days of Christmas, the Christmas Season.  Whilst the world around us will quickly move on, rushing relentlessly forward to the next party or celebration or distraction, there will also be the unbearable struggle that characterises the lives of so many people for diverse and varied reasons.  Within Australia there will be the ongoing pain and implications of bushfire and drought that continue to ravage so many communities.  We have been confronted with this grim reality but unless you are in the midst, the true extent of the task before these many communities, families and individuals remains bewilderingly difficult and uncertain.  The apocalyptic conditions that have beset our state has drawn our attention more deeply into this dreadful crisis.  At the same time, life in all of its diverse expressions of joy and pain continues with relentless abandon across the world.  The extreme crises that hold people in unending struggle are unrelenting and intense.  The crises facing our world are all compounded through war and oppressive regimes that use violence against people.  Climate change is another factor in displacing many people as fragile habitats and communities experience extremes in weather patterns and life becomes unsustainable where they live.  This factor will only grow in influence until the dominant nations listen and take real action, rather than play economic games and hide their heads in the sand of apathy, ignorance and entitlement.

A major crisis that continues to impact the lives of far too many people is displacement from their home.  There is estimated to be over 70 million people who are displaced from home and community across the world!  Around 40 million are internally displaced through many causes.  Within our own local communities, the impact of bushfires has caused some degree of internal displacement.  For others across the world the displacement is deeper and more serious for the long-term.  People driven from homes through ethnic cleansing, warfare and other dangerous and violent causes has a serious impact upon their physical, psychological/emotional and spiritual well-being.  There are around 30 million Refugees, driven from their homeland and seeking refuge in other, unfamiliar places.  Many are Syrian refugees, suffering the impact of war and violence.  Many have found temporary refuge in Lebanon and other surrounding nations.  Finally, there are around 3.5 million asylum seekers, people who are in imminent danger within their homeland because of political, cultural, religious and other repression and rejection.  They are subject to threats of violence, imprisonment… and seek asylum in safe places for their families.

Two stories:

Shafaq fled her home in Dera’a, Syria and is currently living with her family in Bekaa, Lebanon. She shared her story through the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which provides emergency support to newly arrived refugees in Lebanon. Shafaq is 14 years old.

“I used to have a peaceful life and live in my amazing home in Dera’a. I enjoyed the nature around my house and the food coming from the land. I woke up every morning to the sound of birds singing. The brutality of the civil war forced my family to leave this house and to start the journey to be refugees.

“Since the start of our journey, we moved a lot in Lebanon and I attended different schools. In the end my family decided to go close to the border with Syria. We came to this area because just we want to survive. My father is working as an electrician and this is the only income for our family. All of my family we are living in a tiny house with one bedroom, a small kitchen and a bathroom. We are considered illegal because we don’t have official documents.

“I am behind two years in school because of moving from one school to another. I am still doing very good in my school and I will continue to do that. I want to finish my education, to help my family, and to help other people they want to learn. I consider myself lucky to have Al Jalil Center. I got a lot of educational, emotional, and psychological support. I am also really sad because of the unknown future waiting for me. Every day I wonder where I will be tomorrow. Yes, it’s an unknown future.”


Alia fled her home in Aleppo, Syria and is currently living in Damour, Lebanon. She shared her story through Gruppo Aleimar, an Italian NGO which provides free nutritious meals to refugees in the Damour area. Alia is 7 years old.

“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. To calm me down, my grandfather told me they were mean people, but I still prayed for them, because even if some considered them mean, they were still dead human beings. Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before.”

Perhaps you are wondering why all this talk on refugees and displaced people in this reflection during the Christmas season?  Surely there are more uplifting and ‘nice’ messages and stories to tell – and there probably are, except…

Except that this week’s Gospel story (Matthew 2:13-23) speaks of the holy family encountering the evil violence of a jealous, malevolent king!  In this story King Herod realises he has been outwitted by the Magi (‘wise men’) and he doesn’t know where the young king whom he believes may be a threat to his reign, resides.  Herod has a reputation for readily disposing of anyone who threatens his power – friend, family or foe.  Herod, in the image of the Pharaoh of the earlier story of Moses, has all the young males 2 years and under killed.   Joseph receives a warning in a dream and takes Mary and the young Jesus (between 1-2 years old by now) off the Egypt for their safety.  They are displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, running for their lives to remain safe from an evil, petulant, abusive power-broker.  This is an ancient story that is very current for many people in our world.  Power, violence and fear are the tools of powers and principalities now and through history.  God’s vulnerable love revealed in Christ is the hope and peace we yearn for before such violence and hatred.  Love is the only way to transform our world and bring peace!

I wonder what such love and grace means for those who seek asylum in our country?


By geoffstevenson

Christmas Poem 2019

Blood-red sun filtered through smoky skies…

The horizon glows and embers flash – ‘Christmas Lights 2019’.

Apocalyptic days, overwhelmed by smoke laying thick..

Ash floats down, eyes and lungs struggle – Christmas 2019.

Firies, SES and other voluntary groups abound, working long,
fighting the blaze that never dies.

Scorched earth and ashes, lives broken and lost…
communities ravaged, blackened, ash-drenched, grieving…

Christmas 2019!


Christmas is coming – LED’s light the night-sky
tinsel covers the world and parties abound…

Full of food and too much drink, forward- rushing into hope we go.

We sing with gusto and chat nonchalantly through the carols and the hapless speaker turning a spin on a story old and simple.

Letter box filled with papers and potential gifts for those who have everything, and it gets harder each year.

Harder to choose and understand how Christmas fails to meet the expectations of a world hell-bent on…

On pain and destruction, feeling the heat of change
the heat that rises from an earth under stress and human weight.

We hear the stories of violence of humans towards each other…
violence, physical, emotional and in words…
Violence that hurts and breaks and kills
Violence is the answer and end to everything…

… it seems…


In the quiet places of struggle and simplicity bubbles another force…

A force more powerful but one more gentle.

A force that nurtures, comforts and includes.

It is a force that arises from the heart of the Divine Community…

This Community of gracious love at the centre of all things,
that we call ‘God’.

As we wrestle, grieve, live with confusion or anger or yearning;
as the world bakes and boils; a battlefield for human egos

that struggle for dominance and power

Searching for answers that do not come
because we won’t let go, won’t collaborate and love…

As we decorate the world and fill it with sugar-coated or saccharine stories, cute and cuddly and like fairy floss in the mouth,

We miss the point and the profound reality at the heart of CHRISTMAS!

The Christ-child revealed in a baby small amongst poor and impoverished,
entering the mess and chaos of human existence to say:

God is with us!  God Loves us!

In the mess of our lives, when all falls apart
in the chaos of a world struggling in despair
in the midst of life, God comes!

God breaks in and promises an alternate way of being and living.

God breaks in and holds us in grace, a party of being and belonging.

God breaks in and dwells amongst us, valuing who we are
and believing in who we can be!

We don’t need to accumulate more things – money, education, achievement, knowledge, houses, power, status…

We don’t need to pretend nor prove but only ‘be’.

To be who we are and can be.  To become the one unique being that is you and me and us – together in a Realm that is love and justice,
peaceful and joyful.

Christmas is the story of Love embodied in a Christ-child born in vulnerable anonymity to rise up and flood us with effusive, generous
love and grace.

This is who we can be and for what we yearn – receive it, own it, be it!



May God’s grace be with you through Christmas and the year ahead.

Much Love and Peace

Geoff and Susan Stevenson

By geoffstevenson

The Simple, Profound Story We Tell…

As I write, I am surrounded by apocalyptic skies and radio warnings of imminent and present destruction.  Fires, terrifying communities and people, described in tones of Armageddon; a destructive force that seems unstoppable.  A State of Emergency with catastrophic conditions exacerbated by extreme heat and wind.  Sydney and NSW burn as Christmas comes.  The only light, it seems, is red hot in brutal flames.

The pain and intense struggle is impossible to comprehend when we are not in the midst of the conflagration.  Images on screens and the countless stories of loss and intensity of experience overwhelm us and we feel helpless.  In the midst, there are the obvious stories of courage and sacrifice, of people demonstrating the very best in humanity – even as we hear that the very worst of humanity is behind many of these fires.

Christmas is the bitter-sweet time of the year when joy and hope mingle with pain, mild or intense, as the hard edges of life become stark against the celebrations.  Grief, broken relationships and the struggles we engage in touch us deeply in this time of festivity.  Gaps at the Christmas table are real and obvious, memories stir, wondrous and sad.  Christmas highlights the extreme edges of life, even as the world covers everything in tinsel and decorations and lights distract our attention.  Sometimes there is a manger and the story, made cute and charming, is told – almost like a fairy story for children.  Lovely, nice and a simple truth for the young, but more sophisticated people, well…

Christmas comes in a head-long rush towards the end, driving anticipation and hope in a world where hope is needed.  There is a ‘hush of expectation’ that imbues many elements of our Christmas celebrations and the quiet moments when, in touch with our vulnerable feelings, questions and doubts, we wonder.  I see it in the faces of people, their assured responses that are tinged with question and uncertainty, and the pursuit of something more.  Our world oscillates around the search for more that takes myriad forms in the lives of individuals, communities and nations.  More knowledge; more possessions and wealth; more success; more education; more meaning; more power; more control; more competition and victory over others; more…

Behind the search for something more is the universal journey we are all part of.  It is the journey through life, much like the outward and back-home journey of the ‘Prodigal Son’ in Jesus’ parable.  The journey of all people is from our creation ‘in God’ (eg Psalm 139) and birth out into a world of possibility, distraction, seduction and choice.  The journey is around hearing the inner voice of love that draws us back into the Life at the heart of all things – the Trinity of Love, the One in whom we live and move and have our being (whether we understand this or not).

I see something in people’s eyes, in their interest in carols by candlelight and the religious symbolism and language that emerges even amidst the more atheistic or agnostic minds.  There is a glimmer of something, a curiosity or wonder that lights the world a little – it is often covered over and distracted by all the décor and food that floods our little worlds in this season.  There is an expectation that emerges but is finally quenched as it fades into insignificance by Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve.  New Year’s resolutions, a personal resolve to do something more or better to improve who we are or the world around, replaces some potential transcendent hope in a Divine Love that may have just been real but sadly seems not to be there at all, for many people.

It is into this holy mess, this human chaos of meaning, hope, control, certitude and competing interests that the story lies in vulnerable being, awaiting the vulnerable heart and mind to embrace it and ponder in wonder.  The story emerges in hearts and minds that are gripped by despair and pain.  The story emerges in crisis and wonder, in struggle or love, in life lived and relationships nurtured through compassion, mercy and grace.  Where justice flourishes, the story glows and Christ is revealed in the little places, the hidden places and the vulnerable places of the world.

The story is simple and profound.  It is simple, lowly people in a world of power and violence, wealth and oppression.  Mary and Joseph represent the lowly ones who are anonymous but who represent the great reversal in God’s economy where the little ones are lifted up and the great ones are brought low; where rich and poor are brought into a place of sharing resources equally and everyone has enough and we are in relationship.

It is also a challenging political story in the context of the Roman world with its Roman Imperial Religion that gave credence to Caesar Augustus as Divine-like and ‘Son of God’.  The much-trumpeted Pax Romana (‘Peace of Rome’) came at the end of a spear or sword and was delivered by the Imperial Roman Army.  Caesar was the self-proclaimed one who brought peace to the world and held everything together.  These titles and descriptors were exclusive to Caesar and ‘good news’ applied only to him – until the Christians told their story and transferred these titles to Jesus, the Christ.

Good News, for Christians, was contained in this story of incarnation, God embracing human flesh and dwelling amongst us in vulnerable, humble love.  Christ revealed in Jesus brings peace through his life, death and resurrection as a path back into the life and being of God.  ‘Jesus is Lord,’ became the political cry of Christians who therefore denied the Roman expectation that ‘Caesar is Lord.’  It is a story that defies the ways and paths of secular wisdom, that power, wealth, might or birth-rite are the signifiers of privilege and entitlement.  It is a story where a young, innocent and poor woman takes centre-stage, a reversal of culture and expectation.  In our own world we have been blessed and challenged by two very young women (girls) who have spoken out and raised critical issues of justice before the world.  Greta Thunberg (Time Person of the Year, 2019) and Malala Yousafzai (the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) have given us challenging and courageous messages of hope for the world and its poor.  These young women are modern versions of Mary, singing the song of justice, love, peace and hope for the world.

This simple story has depths of possibility for the curious and questioning and those who search for deeper being and a better world.  In the light of fires burning out of control and a world where there is pain and suffering, alongside joyous wonder, this little story leads us beneath the tinsel, lights, parties, gifts, and carols into a place where we can encounter the Christ-child in innocence and wonder, in vulnerable, powerful love that transforms and grows and forms us as more deeply, truly human beings.

Christmas comes to us at any time, and whenever we open ourselves to love, compassion, justice, peace and joy, we encounter God who is all of this and more.  Christ is in all things and we are ultimately held in this grace – and this is Christmas!

By geoffstevenson

God With Us – In the Mess!!

The complexities of life can be overwhelming.  In recent weeks I have experienced something of the complexity and internal conflicts of various organisations (– and lives).  I have experienced something of the questions, uncertainty, fear, hope and struggle that people within our many organisations, institutions and agencies wrestle with.  There are the complex array of legal requirements, along with various compliance and risk assessments, the many concerns that leaders and people within organisations have to consider.  It can be overwhelming and absorb large amounts of time and energy.

I have heard stories from within the agencies responsible for fighting fires or having oversight of particular tracts of land and how sometimes competing interests or ideals get in the way and create more stress and strain, often interfering with the work on the ground.  As governments, their departments and agencies develop policies and strategies around all manner of issues, there are competing interests and needs and inevitably those who will suffer and struggle from decisions made.  Economic ideals seem to dominate so many decisions and determine what is ‘right and wrong.’

Life and the world is made more complex by our access to increasingly more knowledge, available at any time through mobile phones and other technology.  Such technology is also the interface for many of us with much of the world each day.  It is through this technology that we communicate, hear versions of news, relate to and meet people.  Technology increasingly controls more aspects of our lives and reduces the human component.  The new Metro trains are driverless and there is a growing move towards less human involvement in transportation and other industries.  Technology is deemed more reliable and able to acquire data and ‘make decisions’ more effectively than humans.  We rely upon technology more extensively across the breadth of our lives.

Into the midst of this increasingly complex world, we await Christmas and its simple message and stories seem so far removed from the complexities I have met with over recent weeks.  This week we read the very simple story of Jesus’ birth as presented by Matthew (Matt 1:18-25).  It isn’t the story we usually hear, with shepherds, angels, a journey, cattle stall and a manger… – that basic story comes from Luke’s version.  Matthew’s story is about Joseph and his dilemma at discovering his fiancée is pregnant.  He receives an angelic message through a dream that all is strangely, mysteriously okay and God is at the centre of this critical event and he is to be reassured that all is as it should be.  Joseph is presented as a good man, a righteous man who has felt cheated by another man and the cost of adultery is divorce.  Joseph will not pour more humiliation on his wife to be but sets out to ‘quietly divorce’ her before the intervention of the angelic dream.

So, what do we do with this story?  How does Joe’s story and dilemma, good actions and journey touch our lives or the complex world in which we live?  As I have wrestled with this story and tried to tell and retell it over the years, I have recognised that this is not such a simple nor irrelevant story.  In the suburbs and cities of our nation and world, there are countless relationship struggles and tensions, many hidden behind closed doors.  Many will result in domestic violence and some in death.  Others will result in growing tensions and conflicts that tear relationships apart.  Children will be born and brought up in homes where love is absent, and life is tense and harsh.  People will break, hurt and feel crushed.

For Joseph, there are many different implications in terms of inheritance, ownership of land and future well-being of his family, if another man has fathered Mary’s child and that family has claims on Joseph’s land.  There are honour/shame issues and trust.  Matthew presents his story of Jesus with this more complex array of possibilities hidden within its simple form.  Only then is there the revelation that God is involved in this child’s birth. God appears in the midst of the confusion, questions, doubt and chaos.  It is a strange story where God’s alternate possibilities emerge within the mess rather than beyond the mess.  That is the key to Christmas and how God works in human life.

For our modern world where we consider ourselves more sophisticated, we wonder about this story and its poor science (the male seed was implanted into the woman and became a child – she only the incubator).  We wonder what this means, and what we do with it.  We ultimately turn to anything else for salvation and help.  We turn to technology, economics, consumerism, medicine and science, politics, or anything else that makes some concrete promise of well-being or hope.  Christmas becomes a succession of parties, tinsel and lights, a world covered in colour and bright music, lots of food and drink and ‘happiness’ – well, for some and only until it fades into new year.

If we are willing to sit with this story we encounter the presence of the Living God who comes!  This God comes in human form, vulnerable and dependent – everything Roman Emperors and modern-day ‘gods’ aren’t.  God doesn’t break in with power and authority, promises or words, but is revealed in weakness amidst good people who are simple and poor.  The name of this child is ‘Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’  This is the counter-cultural and vital message we need to hear – God is with us!  God embraces human flesh and is revealed in a baby in the Christmas story.  God is also revealed in a young girl who is caught up in a profound blessing that threatens her honour through scandal and shame.  God is revealed in a man who is good and tries in every way to do the right thing – he ultimately trusts his fiancée and the dreams he receives.  God is revealed as being ‘with us,’ in our midst and present to us in ways that technology cannot be.  God does touch us and communicate through technology, I’m sure, but ultimately through a human face and sits with us in the mess of life as we question and struggle.  God is with us!

As I listened to the struggles in various agencies overseeing the fighting of fires, I recognised that God was/is revealed most fully in the fire-fighter, the SES person, the chaplain, the neighbour, the simple person providing somewhere to stay or food to eat.  I realise God is revealed in the simple acts of kindness and love between people in messy, chaotic and painful situations.  God is present in the lick of the dog or the simple flower spreading colour and perfume.  God will be present in the rain when it comes but sits with us in the desolate dryness of the land, dry, burnt and struggling.  God is present to hold us and walk with us when everything falls apart and we feel lost, alone and hopeless.

We may often wish for an interventionist God who will respond to our desires, fears, and hopes in a way we want or need.  That isn’t the way of the world where human choice and freedom is a gift.  Looking into the organisations and institutions recently, I have to wonder whether we always know what is right or good for us and our world.  We try and believe but don’t always know, so, God is with us, in the mess as the presence of Love!

By geoffstevenson

Do You Want Christmas? Really?

Last week we read from the story of John the Baptist, a radical firebrand who burst into life around Jerusalem and confronted people with his prophetic words and dire warnings.  John’s rhetoric was filled with violent images, as such firebrands usually are.  Death, destruction and violent endings are the currency of such apocalyptic warnings.  John spoke of the One who is coming and whose axe is laid at the foot of the tree.  He will come baptising with Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hands and he will separate wheat from chaff and send this chaff into eternal fires.  It’s heady and full-on stuff that conjures all manner of scenes.  I wonder what the people expected of Jesus?  John, only harder, harsher, bigger, louder – perhaps one of those big professional wrestlers with tattoos, wild hair and looking the modern-day warrior, who come out breathing fire, threatening all and sundry?

So, Jesus wanders onto the scene and seems rather calm, gentle and moves around amongst the ordinary, struggling people giving hope and comfort, proclaiming love and compassion, along with justice.  His words have a sharp edge at times and there are moments of anger and he doesn’t shrink from telling people how it is, but he isn’t John!

More than that, there is no violence!  No violence at all!

This week we are still with John, but he is in a very different place – a prison cell held by the brutal, fearful, angry king whom John has challenged on moral grounds. John’s firebrand rhetoric has dried up, replaced with questions, doubt and confusion.  ‘Are you the one?’ John asks.  Are you really the one that I expected from God, the one whose path I prepared?  You don’t seem terribly strong and powerful.  You aren’t bringing in God’s transformation of the world in any noticeable manner – certainly nothing that equates with my expectation!   John’s violent introduction fades as Jesus picks up the agenda of a peaceful Reign that bears little resemblance to John’s violent images.

When John sends his followers to Jesus, asking if he is the one or should we await another, Jesus replies:  “… tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

There is a complete lack of axes, fire, winnowing fork… anything violent.  The Reign of God, as lived and expressed in the life of Jesus is about healing, peace, reaching out to the suffering, the lowly, the poor and those who need hope.  He incarnates in his being the deep and rich love of God that draws all things into the Divine heart.  It is for this love that we all yearn, and this is the hope that creates the faint light in the deepest darkness of human life.

John’s vision of God ripping through human history with violence to take down evil and bring about justice does not match the reality of Jesus – it isn’t God’s way.  It isn’t the way of love and it will not bring peace!  John was right and wrong.  His message of one who comes to expose within the human heart the false notions of greed, privilege, power abuse, exclusion and injustice is true.  His assertion that Jesus will inaugurate God’s Reign through violence is wrong.  It is the logical way humans have always thought – redemptive violence believes that peace can come through violence and warfare.  Power and control can force peace into being through threat and overwhelming strength.  That we can make other people abide by our ways, our belief systems and our status quo by strength, might, power and violence, dominates the political, corporate and even religious leadership of our world.  It is wrong.  It is evil and it institutionalises violence and injustice.

Regardless of whether the implication of John’s message was correct, his life embraces the way of suffering that will be Jesus’ own way.  The difference is that Jesus willingly embraced the via dolorosa (Way of suffering) as the path that would challenge and confront the world with love over violence and bring the true transformation of human hearts and minds.  John was led into this way because he embraced the call of God.  In our story today, he is confronting his own suffering, the injustice he feels and experiences in his being and is on the margins of mystery that deepens through doubt and questions.  Jesus asks the people in this story what they really thought they were going to hear in John’s harsh message.  Did they want someone with ‘soft robes’ (one of the privileged leaders who wore such soft robes representing power, wealth and privilege) who would give them a nice message and maintain a privileged status quo?  John’s message challenged the heart of things – if we want life in the richest way then it won’t be what we expect, and we may have to open ourselves to a level of discomfort.  If we want Christmas then we have to look more deeply than a nice story with baby and manger, lovely carols, tinsel and lights covering our world and empty words that fade with the heat and fatigue of the season.

If we want Christmas, then we must be prepared for our comfortable world to be shaken or shattered.  The comfortable privilege of most Westerners is an unreal expectation that is simply unsustainable and is at the heart of the catastrophe confronting the world as it overheats and changes in ways we want to ignore and pretend aren’t real – but cannot.

If we want Christmas then the greed, materialism and acquisitive lifestyles we have readily embraced as normal must be radically simplified – for our own sake and that of the world.  If we want Christmas then our exclusive, entitled attitudes towards other people must change because the way of God, who is the essential reality beyond everything, is inclusive, gracious and loving.  We have to change how we respond to the international crisis of refugees – people who have no home to go to; people who have no security or comfort; people who have nothing but what they carry.  These are desperate human beings who have had the misfortune to be born in a place and time when horror and oppression reigns and violence breaks their lives open.  Our privileged and entitled corporations exploit poor nations – their resources and labour – to bring us cheap goods, and the poor of the world suffer.  Indigenous people across the globe have been trampled and abused and their culture and wisdom lost.  Those who remain become lost and alienated people caught between what was and what is, belonging to neither.

Christmas comes each year on the back of John the Baptist preparing the way, and we offer a sideways glance but prefer a world of lights and tinsel, well-wishes and nice things that never challenge our comfort or security.  It rolls on through and our deepest being yearns for the real truth at its heart, but we remain caught in a status quo that is hard to give up.  So, John rots in his prison cell wondering what has happened to justice and hope – as do the poor and impoverished of our world.  Christmas promises so much but fails to deliver what we think we want because it dares to challenge our lives and status quo.

By geoffstevenson

The Mystery of Love Embraces Confusion and Doubt

A blood-red sun has peered down through growing gloom, smoke-filled skies and building (rainless!) clouds through this week.  Driving along Victoria Road on Tuesday provided an apocalyptic vision.  Dense smoke-filled skies closed in and filled eyes, nose and lungs.  It was a ready and constant reminder of the catastrophe that has unfolded across our state and beyond.

A colleague who has been working as a chaplain within the fire-ravaged communities shared stories of pure desolation and despair – drought upon fire leaving nothing in its wake.  Lives lost and the living helpless before the ravaged land and enormous task before them.  It is deeply and overwhelmingly difficult!

‘Across the ditch,’ our Kiwi neighbours have experienced the next in a long line of tragedies and suffering as the White Island volcano erupted and wreaked its own havoc upon innocent and curious visitors.  A sad and grieving ship set sail without passengers whose lives were lost or who were hospitalised.  Fun and excitement, anticipation turned desperate pain and chaotic tragedy.  Christmas is coming!

This Sunday, of all weeks, is traditionally called Gaudete, which means ‘Joy!’  It is a week of respite in the season of Advent that leads us into Christmas, a time of preparing and hearing the messages of the darkness in a world yearning for light, hope and joy.  Our Churches read from stories of historical struggle, nations under a variety of oppressive regimes, wrestling and yearning for life and freedom – Babylonians, Romans…

Into this unveiling of the complex paradox and mystery of life, we read from Matthew 11:2-11, which tells of John the Baptist, our strange and elusive, firebrand of last week, now imprisoned.  The powers of the world have caught up with him and his honest, confronting words (‘speaking truth to power’ as they say) have brought him undone.  He told the local king he was essentially immoral for rejecting his wife and taking his brother’s wife for his own.  John bides his time in prison, having paved the way for ‘the One who comes after me.’  In his prison cell he wonders what has happened?  Things don’t seem to have turned out as expected!

After his bold and brassy proclamation of the path of God into the world, he wastes away in prison.  Is John the only one who has done good, given himself to the highest ideals and found himself punished for the experience?  Certainly not and John’s life appears to have a somewhat familiar backward trajectory.  Whilst many testimonies take us from darkness to light, unknowing to knowing, uncertainty to faith, John wonders aloud if he has thrown his hat into the wrong ring.  Is the one he baptised and believed in, the one he put his hope in, actually the right one?  John expresses the doubts that fill his mind and being.  Have I done the right thing?  Have I believed the right one?  The bold certainty that filled his open-air preaching and radical words, his sense of authority last week, seems to have deserted him this week.  Is this the right one?

John sent his followers to Jesus to ask that very question: Are you the one or is there another?  This is a question filled with doubt, uncertainty, confusion and probably self-doubt.  John has gone from certainty and bold confidence to doubt, confusion and questions within his prison cell.  His clear and certain message, his opening the path of Jesus, did not result in the transformed world he possibly imagined.  Jesus and he were the same and different.  Jesus did not look like John, sound like John and ultimately what he did and how he did it appeared different – was he really the one John expected, John yearned for; the one promised from God?

Often when we are confronted by such questions or confusion and doubt, such a despairing life, we do not attribute faith, hope or joy.  Joy may well be the last thing we associate with John, rotting in a prison cell and wondering whether his life has achieved anything of worth.  We gain a glimpse, in John, of the desperate and despairing communities in the aftermath of ravaging bushfires.  There are people whose lives lie in ashes, asking themselves and the world, ‘Why?’  Asking, ‘Where is God?  Why did God allow this?’ In such god-forsaken spaces, people cry and lose hope, they ask questions, often hard and intense, confronting questions that challenge and discomfort us.  When John confronted Jesus through his disciples, Jesus received his angry or desperate despair gently and with understanding.  Such doubt becomes the crucible into deeper awareness of the complexity, paradox and harshness of life.  Sometimes the endings are not ‘happy’ but in the darkness emerges a gentle light that despite all evidence before it, gives a glimmer of something approaching hope and even joy – in the midst of struggle..

In this story, Jesus offers his own story about lame walking, deaf hearing, dead finding new life, the poor receiving good news and invites John’s followers to share their stories and where they have encountered God in the lightness and darkness, the ordinary and profound of human life.  It doesn’t change the reality of John’s own experience and consequent death at the hands of a brutal, angry, fearful king.  It holds John’s own unique life in the struggle, paradox and mystery that is God and within the complexity of human story and history.  John will die and there is no rhyme or reason, no reasonable, rational explanation for the injustice.  In this individual life injustice and evil have won – except, John is remembered!  His story is not a limited one that has no meaning.  His words are proclaimed year after year, and we are confronted by his stunning, radical challenge.

John is also held within a deeper, richer continuum of life beyond life.  In the life of God, we have a deeper, richer, fuller existence that transcends the materiality that consumes our being in this current reality of physical presence.  The story of Jesus points us to the Eternal Christ who is revealed within and through Jesus of Nazareth whose life fills the pages of our Bibles and comes to us in simplicity and mystery in Christmas.  The Eternal Christ always was and will be and is revealed within the life of all things (Colossians 1 and 3) and especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ response to John is to allow the vulnerable, painful questions, the confusion and despair to be expressed and embraced into the larger story of grace, compassion and justice that unfolds in mysterious ways as God’s Reign breaks into human life.  It doesn’t answer the specific questions we have around justice for all.  It doesn’t resolve our anger or despair in the experience of our own pain and grief.  It simply says that as chaos seeks to take hold in our world grace intrudes and love’s face is glimpsed, and its warmth felt.  As it radiates out and draws people in, something in the world changes and there are moments of hope and joy.  Jesus’ story draws us into the eternal story where the mysterious life beyond life in the Divine heart welcomes all.  That vision can change us now as we embrace pain.

By geoffstevenson

Preparing the Way – For What?

A number of years ago I was part of a group of young people at our church who put together a version of the musical, ‘Godspel’.  It was a wonderful experience and highlighted elements of the story of Jesus from different perspectives.  The opening scene is one I remember.  It confused me at first.  I. along with others in the musical were asked to research several philosophers and we were each allocated one of them. We walked around the stage parading our thoughts and wisdom before the audience – and within that group of philosophers there was some profound wisdom and knowledge!  Suddenly a horn sounded, and a soft voice was heard in the distance (the rear of the hall), singing a repetitive refrain: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’.  Over and over, building in volume as the person walked up the aisle and onto the stage.  At first, we philosophers ignored the song, but eventually it engaged us and drew us into its simple refrain.  The words pointed not to deep rational thoughts, philosophical truth or belief systems of the world.  It pointed to One who was revealed, sitting on a ladder high in our midst.  This person gently descended into our presence and blessed and called us and we became followers of this way.  Throughout the rest of the story, we were the rag-tag group of followers of this Jesus who had come amongst us to draw us into a deeper, more profound vision of being human.

I remember the simplicity of our becoming.  The simple singer who drew us into a song of preparing for something deeper, more mysterious and filled with possibility and hope.  I remember being caught up in the song as it lifted us out of our individualistic thinking and competitive, reactive philosophies.  I still think of that song every year at this time because I read the Gospel for the week and meet John the Baptist once more.  Every year at this time a strange figure who dresses weirdly and speaks in harsh tones makes an appearance and invites us to ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord!’ and I wonder what this means?

What does it mean for a secular world to prepare the way of the Lord – to even believe or hope?  We are surrounded by people of many faiths and none – agnosticism and various forms of atheism abound.  There are the spiritual-but-not-religious, the ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ and all who wonder what it is all about – whether that be Christmas or life in general.  What does it mean for us to prepare the way of the Lord in a world where forms of religious fanaticism become so demeaning and dangerous?  What does it mean to even consider the possibilities of the Divine breaking into human life in ways that transform and lead us more deeply into what it means to be human?  In a world where forests burn and the earth is scorched by growing drought and people feel deep distress;  a world where kids in school are shot by people living with anger and hatred or with mental illness; a world where some starve or die from lack of clean water whilst others are fighting obesity and the associated diseases; a world where millions are homeless due to war, oppression, hatred; a world where boredom, despair and alienation contribute to suicide and addictions; a world where exclusion, loneliness and isolation plague too many people’s live; a world of greed, where very few control too many resources and refuse to share; a world where power is abused and people are hurt – where domestic violence wounds and kills too many women…?  What does it mean to prepare the way for Love to break into human life, into our lives?  What does it mean to become more deeply and profoundly human, embracing other people, alike and different, the earth and the Spirit that holds all things in Divine grace and love?  How do we prepare ourselves to enter into a deeper expression of being human and a life that is richer because it nurtures body, mind and spirit? 

In this annual story of John the Baptist bursting into the life of his world, we encounter an irritating, confronting and deeply challenging voice.  His language confuses our modern minds, especially when we recoil from the judgemental language we often associate with particular forms of religion that leave us feeling fearful, guilty, judged or unworthy – and ultimately we reject it.  John’s language of judgement and sin don’t gel with our world and our the way we think about ourselves and others, although we, ourselves, are no doubt often given over to judging other people, in words or actions when they transgress our own belief systems or ideological constructs of life.

John speaks of the One who comes, the One whose way we prepare as coming in judgement to sift the grain from the chaff on the threshing floor.  Judgement!  It is so often what religion and ideology becomes!  But what if the judgement is really about discernment and perception, about seeing with clarity?  What if the One who comes, comes to see us as we are and wants to challenge us to become whom we can be?  What if the judgement is about urging us to let go of that which prevents us from entering into the deeper, richer life that we can live but aren’t?  What if judgement isn’t about punishment, guilt, fear and rejection but about seeing us clearly and sifting out the mess of life?

Similarly, when John speaks to the crowds who come and commands them to repent from their sin, is this about guilt and shame, about nit-picking the errors of our lives, the things, big and little we do or say that ‘transgress God’s laws’ and leave us feeling guilty?  I wonder if it is more about the things we do, the choices we make, that detract from our becoming and being the deepest and fullest expression of who we can be?  Don’t we too often choose to be something less than we know we can or want to be?

All of this takes place in the wilderness and it is probably in the wilderness that we find ourselves in a place where life is raw and more focussed through the struggle of barren experience, where entitlement and privilege count for less and injustice shines brightly before and sometimes within us.  Preparing the way of the Lord is about making paths straight and levelling the playing field such that justice and righteousness flourish and people are included into a new way of deep humanity that is hope-filled, life-giving and there is abundance for all.

When we embark on the strange, confronting journey of ‘preparing the way of the Lord’ it is about becoming more whole and growing into our own unique being, allowing our deep, rich humanity to shine through.  This journey leads us into wider living to prepare the way for Divine life to abound in our families, communities, workplaces, leisure and learning centres and the world we inhabit.  It is the invitation to see through and beyond the wisdom of the wise and knowledgeable to something deeper that is grounded in practical, generous, abundant love that flows through and around us and all people such that peace and vitality fills our world in infectious grace.  Preparing the way of the Lord invites to engage the questions and struggles of our world and our lives and to open ourselves vulnerably to the Living God who is love, looks deeply into us and invites us to become who we can be for the sake of the world.  This is love, grace and life!

By geoffstevenson