Light in our Darkness!

One morning this week Nico and I set out for the morning wander, closely followed for a bit by Susan and Nebo (until the variety of smells and warm weather slowed him).  I looked up and realised that for the first time in several weeks, the sun and sky were clear.  I couldn’t look at the sun, even in the early morning – it was too bright: brighter than it had been for weeks.  The sky was blue and clear and even the gentle clouds in the distance stood out clearly and brightly.  I recognised that for so many weeks the sky had been hazy, filled with smoke and everything a little darker.  Some days there were clouds and smoke and the combination made the day darker still.  This day, however, was bright and I found myself squinting through the brightness – it was almost uncomfortable.

We have lived through several weeks of bushfire smoke swallowing the day, darkening the skies and bringing a ‘darkness’ across the land as it has engulfed us in crisis and overwhelming our resources.  We have despaired at the stories, even as those caught in the midst of the catastrophic experiences have been enveloped in ominous darkness.  The darkness became almost ‘normal’ as we endured the unfolding and broadening chaos that engulfed Eastern and Southern Australia.  Story upon story, image upon image drew us into the deepening crisis that, though relieved somewhat through some rain, continues on.

Darkness is a very real metaphor for our days and nights of catastrophic bushfire crisis.  A friend described the apocalyptic experience of being caught in the midst of a community threatened and evacuated.  The days were dark, eerily and threateningly dark, as smoke thoroughly consumed everything.  The only light was the glow of the threatening fire-front and the gloomy glow of a hidden sun that barely broke through.  Darkness was physical and emotional as it clung to people and filled them with fear, confusion and impending dread.  Darkness consumed us all as we watched on helpless or for those who worked on the scenes, fighting flames or holding people in their despair.

In the midst of our darkness we yearned for light, hope, or something to break through with relief and deliverance.  We glimpsed ‘lights’ glowing through in the human spirit expressed in courage, sacrifice, generosity, community, sharing and communities supporting each other and demonstrating resilient determination.  We longed for the brighter lights of leadership to help us find a way forward, but our leaders were as confused and overwhelmed as the rest of us.  The shadow side of humanity deepened the despair as we realised that many of the fires were deliberately lit, as people looted and stole property of those evacuated from home and business, and in the greed of those who impersonated caring charities and stole donations from well-meaning people.

The metaphor of darkness is pervasive, and I feel its cold tentacles seeping into the recesses of human life and experience across our society.  There is the dark side of life that shatters our normality through grief with its long and dark shadow that overwhelms us.  The grief of loss, the shattering of our secure and comfortable lives in various ways that rocks our foundations and blocks out light and hope as we are forced to renegotiate who we are and how we live and be in a world that is suddenly so different.  There is darkness in poverty as people are caught in cycles that are desperate and run out of control.  The powers that be are often part of the problem, imposing restrictions and barriers to people trying to get out of life-denying oppression.  Illness, mental health issues, disability or life in minority groups brings obstacles that can darken the experience of human life and deny freedom and hope.

In two readings this week (Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23), we hear stories of hope, light and a courageous response to the powers and principalities of the world.  Isaiah claims that people living in darkness have seen a great light.  He speaks of one who comes and leads or rules with a different order, a different way, one that is grounded in hope, justice, peace and inclusion.  It is a Reign promised time and again and yearned for in every human heart.  It is a Light that penetrates through the darkness of human despair, of rampant injustice, and of hopeless desperation.  Matthew continues the story of Jesus following his temptations in the wilderness.  These temptations are essentially about conformity to the ways of those who are powerful, wealthy and create the story that is seductive but superficial, a story that draws people in and maintains the world as it is – dark.  It becomes easier to walk in the darkness, our eyes adjust to the dimness and even become comfortable with the way things are.  Sometimes it is just too hard to summon the energy to resist, even if we have the vision and desire.

Jesus proclaims that the Reign of God is here and calls us to turn around, reorient life and hope, desire and being towards this Light that shines.  I confess that this Light can be discomforting and hurt our eyes – and being.  It calls forth something new and uncertain from us.  It challenges me to choose a way of giving up in order to find life in a deeper, richer fullness.  This Reign doesn’t mince its words nor deceive through superficial and seductive words.  This is no snake-oil salesman but one who is desperately pointing the way to life – for those who have the courage, the wisdom and/or the desperation to follow.

Jesus invites some fishermen to come and follow this way.  Fishermen were near the bottom of the social order.  They were caught up in a system dominated by the Empire, the powers of Rome, who controlled the waters of the lake in Galilee – all the fish belonged to Rome and high taxes were imposed upon the fishermen.  This was their life, their way and it was hard and desperate, but they conformed to the world order because, well there was no choice!  Jesus’ invitation was to come and follow his way; to leave their fishing and discover a new way on the road.  This is both real and metaphorical – some leave normality of life and ‘go on the road’.  Many others will maintain their lives but understand who and what they live for and where their loyalties lie.  We will not be governed by economics and our own needs.  We will not be seduced by the rhetoric of desperate leaders or marketers who want us to ‘need’ (and purchase) their products.  Climate change/the environment, refugees, Aboriginal Australia, budget surpluses, caring for poor and marginalised, inclusive community that respects people, militarisation and many more are the central issues that define whether we follow the status quo that denies life to so many and holds to unjust and often violent structures, or follow a new and different way that ushers in peace, hope, love and life – for all!

Jesus’ invitation is to fish for people, which in the Biblical tradition is about exposing people to a new way, to bring into an uncomfortable ‘new world’ of Light that is challenging but hopeful and liberating.  I wonder what this means for us on Australia Day?  I wonder what it would mean for us to choose this radically different way for our nation?

By geoffstevenson

Come and See!

My inbox, my letter box and the spaces between sporting moments or documentary/ comedy/drama on television are filled with various forms of marketing and sales gimmicks all promising the world if I venture into their store or to their website and make purchases.  I will be happy, fulfilled and find a depth of meaning obviously missing from my life.  Other sales-type people highlight the shortcomings or that which is lacking from my life and promise the world through their ideologies, products or experiences.

I recently heard a Russel Morris version of his 1969 classic, ‘The Real Thing’.  It was written by Johnny Young and produced by Molly Meldrum and became an Australian rock Classic.  It is a strange, psychedelic song that uses a multiplicity of techniques, forms and vocal and instrumental contributions to create a unique and fascinating song.  It is also one that I have wrestled with at times: What does it mean?

The first verse says:

Come and see the real thing/Come and see the real thing/Come and see

Come and see the real thing/Come and see the real thing/Come and see

There’s a meaning there/But the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing
Come and see the real thing/Come and see the real thing/Come and see

I am the real, thing
Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow

Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, Oo-mow-ma-mow/Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow

What is this real thing?  To what does it point?  An article on ‘The Real Thing’ says: ‘Johnny Young later revealed the inspiration for the lyrics. “The song came from the thought that so many people were thrusting things in your face that were supposedly ‘the real thing’. They said that as long as you’re buying this or doing that, your life will be complete. Ultimately, the only real thing is yourself.”’

A young immigrant musician seems to be wrestling with the plethora of images and superficiality of messages that confronted him claiming to be real.  In another place it says he used the slogan for Coca-Cola, which claims to be the real thing.

So what is the real thing?  What is real – is it me or you or us?  Are my ideas, perspective, understanding of the world or life more real than yours or that of someone else?  Is our nation more truth-filled, right and engaged in reality than others around us or across the world?  Is the West and its system of capitalism and everything that goes with it (greed, materialism, acquisition, security, comfort, wealth…) more real than other systems in other parts of the world or through history?  Am I more real if I have this or that car, wear this or that type of clothes, live in a particular neighbourhood, have particular types and levels of education or career…?  Is there a path of truth that leads to that which is more, most or truly real?

In the song, Morris sings: Come and see…  It is an invitation to come and see that which is real.  But I‘m not sure where he is pointing, what it is that we are invited to ‘come and see’.  There are so many voices that tell me what is true and right and best and what will make me happy but are they real?  Who do I listen to and whose message do I heed?

How do we know that what we are hearing is real or whether the voices are peddling snake oil?  How do we know which amongst the complex melange of voices and ideas and thoughts is real and which is just more superficiality dressed up to look real?

I ponder these questions amidst the great issues that confront our nation and communities in this time: Asylum seekers; Indigenous Rights; Climate Change and the Environment (and especially how this relates to the bush fires); the Depression and suicide pandemic; the deepening levels of anxiety and stress; Sustainability of resources; the widening gap between wealthy and impoverished here and across the world…  I wonder what in the complex arguments, passionate rhetoric and defensive responses is real – where does the reality and truth lie?

One thing I have discovered is that often the medium of the message, the person who embodies the rhetoric, gives a sense of the authentic (or otherwise) to what they say.  Look into one’s life and if the message is reflected in their being, embodied and reflects something that is deep and contains values that are rich and strong, then perhaps the message has some level of trustworthiness.  Trouble is, the media of so many messages does not engender trust and confidence – especially when you look more deeply into their lives.  There are several world leaders, for example, who pontificate on various issues, but their lives are intrinsically superficial, or they are simply abusing power and privilege.  They use that power of position and the authority it gives to convince us of the rightness of their way.  Others use their ‘authority’ to engender fear and uncertainty and keep the proletariat desperate and focussed on common enemies thus maintaining their power.

In the story this week (John 1:29-42), John the Baptist points to Jesus, declaring him to be the One promised by God.  The next day he points to Jesus once more and two of John’s disciples follow after Jesus.  When he notices them, he asks what they are looking for.  They seem taken aback and ask where he is staying – perhaps they are keen to watch and listen to him more closely.  His response: ‘Come and see.’  It is an invitation to come and see for yourself.  Don’t trust John’s words or even what you hear from my mouth but look and see who I am and what I do.  ‘Come and see.’

The disciples do ‘come and see’.  They follow Jesus for a day before declaring that this is the one they’ve been looking.  This is the One who embodies deep truth, justice and hope.  In the life and being of this One, they discover ‘the real thing!’  So much so, they run off and bring friends and relatives claiming that they have found this real thing of God that they have all been hoping for, searching and yearning after.  ‘Come and see!’

I wonder what we are looking for and how we look for it?  I wonder how far we go in looking into that which promises us something – whether person, idea or object to buy or own?  I wonder what we look for, how we look and what we find at the heart of ideology, the crass consumerism and material acquisition we are urged to pursue, or the broad-ranging rhetoric that fills our social media pages, the airwaves or written/print media?  I am often surprised by how easily I am drawn into well-delivered rhetoric, possibly because it agrees with and builds on my assumptions, right or wrong.  When I stand back (often forced) I see the hollowness of the message and the medium.  I have not embraced a ‘come and see’ approach.  When I have accepted this invitation of Jesus to  ‘come and see’ I have found the deepest, richest sense of being, a hope and love that transcends everything else.  In him there is an authenticity that is very real and I want to follow because it is true!

By geoffstevenson

Where Will We Encounter the Divine in Ordinary Life?

Tex Sample, a United Methodist Minister from the US, tells a story of himself as a teenager doing work after high school as he prepared for college.  Tex was employed on a truck, along with an older black man.  They were a team and 18 year-old Tex was the ‘boss’ because he was white (despite knowing very little about the work!).  Their job was to follow along behind a drilling team a few days after their work.  The drilling team were searching for oil and Tex and his ‘offsider’ (Jim) went in and pulled the pipes out of the holes to be re-used.

On one particular day, the water can they used to provide drinking water through the course of a very hot and dry work, was missing from the truck.  Ignorant, arrogant and naïve Tex said they needn’t worry as there would be somewhere on the road to buy water or drink.  Old Jim silently went out the back of the station and found a rusty old tin can, slapped the excess rust and mess from it and filled it with tepid water from a tap.  He got in the truck and carefully placed the tin can between his feet.  Tex inwardly gloated as he cast a glance at the dirty tin can with water and floating flecks of rust and a thin film of oil.  Old Jim just looked straight ahead – this was the time of segregation and before Civil Rights.  Jim knew his place.  He also knew how to be prepared on a hot day.

The first drilling hole came up soon enough and they worked hard to pull the pipes from the hole.  It was tough work and took an hour.  Even thought the morning was still early, there had been little decrease in the heat overnight and they were sweating profusely by the time they finished.  Back in the truck, Tex was thirsty but stoic and confident there would be soon a shop.  Meanwhile, Jim quietly blew the flecks and oil film back and took a deep drink.  He finished and carefully placed the tin back between his feet, always looking straight forward.  This happened another two times and by late-morning, Tex’s stoicism had become sheer stupid stubbornness, exacerbated by the racism of his age.  He was suffering serious effects of dehydration and heat stroke.  He had a worsening headache, his vision began blurring and he no longer sweated, despite the hot sun.  They got back in the truck and Jim carefully pulled up the tin, blew flecks away and drank of the water.  Tex knew he had to have water – he was in desperate trouble.  He didn’t know what to do or how to do it.  He had never drunk from the same cup as a black man and he didn’t know how to ask for help from a black man – it was not in his experience and always the other way round.

In the midst of this crisis, Tex’s racism could not be sustained and his need for water was more vital than maintaining status quo.  In a broken and vulnerable voice, he asked:
‘Uh Jim could I… can I… would you mind if I…uh…had…a drink from your can?’

Jim replied, ‘no, suh, Boss, help yourself.’ He handed the can to Tex who looked into the dirty can where there was more concentrated rust flecks and oil but a couple of inches of water never looked so beautiful!  He drank the most delicious water he had ever had and Jim looked carefully ahead.  There was no gloating, no arrogance only humility.  As he drank, it occurred to Tex that this was Holy Communion.  This dirty, rusty can was the chalice with the wine, symbolic of Christ’s blood and he had just drunk and experienced life.  The warm, rusty water was a gift of life and somehow, mysteriously, God was present in this experience.  Somehow God was present in this strange place where a black man and a white teenager had shared a rusty tin can with water – something that would never happen in real life beyond this place.

Tex thanked Jim and they drove off to find a shop and more water.  They bought food and sat under a shade tree and ate together – they broke bread.  Tex expresses his shame in the way things played out between himself and a black man, the racism inherent in the system of his life that was to change as he grew and began to understand.  Never-the-less, in this moment grace broke in and enabled something that was deeply profound in his world.  Jim’s gift of water saved him from serious health problems that day.

This week we read the story of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17).  It is simple in the telling but profound upon reflection.  Jesus identifies with the ordinary people who have come forward seeking meaning, forgiveness, healing and life.  He enters into the way of people drawn to John and seeks baptism, committing himself into this way John speaks of and invites people into.  John protests that he should be baptised by Jesus but Jesus rejects this and submits to John’s ministry.  As he comes up through the waters of the Jordan River, the heaven part and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove upon him and a voice calls from heaven: ‘This is my own dear Son, my beloved.  With him I am well pleased.’  Jesus is then driven into the wilderness to be tempted and tested for 40 days.

Jesus submits to the way of God and God’s voice affirms that Jesus is beloved and pleasing.  In this God affirms the way of Jesus as the Divine way in the world.  The radical paths that Jesus will take are the identified ways of God – eating with ordinary and lowly people, those with bad reputations and caring for outcasts.  He stands against the powers that oppress and calls for mercy and justice.  He says the wealthy must share with the poor – to give up their money (and greed).  Jesus calls for all people to give themselves into the way of love, justice, peace and hope and to be inclusive and generous to friend and stranger.  He also urges us to pray for and forgive those who hurt us and be people of forgiveness and reconciliation.  The way of humility, vulnerability and service are affirmed as God’s way in the world

In this story we encounter the 3 persons of the Trinity represented in baptised ‘Son,’ descending ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Father’s’ voice of blessing.   We are invited to share in the blessing that is proclaimed and live into the life that God has created in us and for us, a life of inclusive grace where there is enough for everyone.  All creatures – and the earth itself – live within the generous peace and abundance of God.

In this story we encounter God in the simple that becomes profound – water and baptism that cleanses, renews and invites us into something new and bigger, more profound.  We are told of the Spirit’s descent as a dove and a voice from heaven that calls out love and blessing.  Through this season of Epiphany, we will encounter wonder and mystery in the simple things that reveal the Divine in awe-inspiring moments and experiences.  As Tex Sample experienced grace in the midst of deep thirst from an unexpected place, so we may find God lurking in the simple and ordinary and yet unexpected.  In the simplicity of water that quenches thirst, Tex saw revealed the wonders of grace – Holy Communion, the blood of Christ come to him through a black man’s generosity and wisdom.  Where will we experience the mystery and wonder of God?

By geoffstevenson

What Will I Worship?

The dog and I were walking this morning along one of the bush tracks, creek on one side and scrub, trees lining our way.  I was daydreaming, wondering at the smoke laying low and the places it came from.  I was taken aback by the beauty of some of the trees that seemed to glow against the grey, hazy sky.  In a moment the lead yanked hard and pulled me in another direction.  Nico had smelled something and was captivated, sniffing, circling and fully engaged and me dragging along in his wake.  A few moments and his curiosity, his obsessive desire seemed to be satisfied, assuaged and he was willing to return to the gentle stroll.

There were other moments when he was drawn into another place, a curiosity, a need, a smell, a sound, another dog or the scurrying of a lizard and he was obsessed.  It was as if something deep within him triggered him to life and he was off.  Everything was focussed on the distraction or inner desire that drove him – and by implication, me on the other end of the lead.  I wondered quietly to myself what it was that captivated him.  I wondered what caught his full attention, what it was within him that caused everything to be focussed on this one thing and then how it could be switched off and turned somewhere else.  I wondered…

I wondered how much like me, us, humanity this simple 3-year old dog is.  Except, he is much more connected with his passion, his being.  There doesn’t seem to be any other complicating psychology to him – he sees something, feels something, wants something and goes for it, revealing to all the world what it is.  I am rarely left in doubt that he wants, needs, yearns for something – including his morning walk or a game in the afternoon.  The old Labrador only wants a pat and lots of food and he never leaves us in doubt.  Yet, within myself I am often confused or even mistaken over what I want or need or am feeling.  I have a sense of something deeper, a deep yearning and hope but it flashes through my being, my consciousness and I don’t sit long enough with it or am distracted by the many mixed messages and miss the point.  I hear the wisdom of the world around – power, money/wealth, prestige/position, aspiration, education, success and so on.  There are so many possibilities, so many distractions, so many ways and yet, I wonder…

As I venture down various paths, try new ideas or experiences, follow other wisdom or even accept the common beliefs, I am often left with the sense that there is something I’ve missed, something important that has slipped through my distorted vision.  Other times I have the sense in my gut that there is something richer, deeper and more significant at the heart of everything and it is really this for which I yearn.  There are the sacred and holy moments where the glimpse is a richer experience of that which lies at the heart of everything.  I feel it, ‘know it’ in my being and reach out to grasp and hold onto it only for it to slip beyond me.  I want to define and control and own the experience that is so real – put a name upon it and speak of it in a knowing way – but cannot grasp it with words nor rational thought processes.  It is there but it isn’t.  I look up and the sunbeams through a tree overwhelm me with beauty.  The red-bellied black snakes writhing in a contest for dominance just off the bush track fills me with wonder.  The Squawk of the cockatoo or Bellbird song is rich in the morning air.  The reflections off the creek or the smell of eucalypts. The taste and texture of food in my mouth and the stories of a world in crisis stirring on the radio, filled with courage and pain, hope and despair.  All these things call out to me and that inner yearning, the longing at the heart of my being cries out in silent hope.  Will I be still enough to hear?  What will I do in response?  Will I move into passionate action like Nico on his walk, or the distracted apathy I sometimes feel?

Next Monday concludes the Christmas Season, the 12 days of festival celebrating the incarnation, the birth of the Christ-child into human and material existence, the revelation of infinite, eternal God in the finite, material and world of flesh and blood, time and space.  The day is Epiphany, which speaks of revelation and mainfestation, of seeing light in the darkness and being exposed to this Divine Light in all things.  It is an invitation to have open eyes, ears, hearts and minds to that which lies beyond all things and calls out to us in vulnerable invitation – from a baby born and laid in manger and chaff; from a dog sniffing through local bush; from a tree glowing in the early morning light or a bird darting down to protect its young or cockatoos squawking high in the tree-tops.  The call comes from beyond us and in us, deep down in the depths of being, where the deep yearning of the human heart quietly bubbles up and through conscious being as glimpses of light, hope and wonder draw us on and down and deep – if we are willing to attend to this call.

The story told on Epiphany comes to us from Matthew’s story, the well-known story of Wise Ones (were they men?  Probably but maybe not) who were called Magi (magicians, astrologers) from the exotic East.  We are filled with fascination and wonder at these strange visitors and their even stranger gifts.  They come, following a star to the place where the child (probably 1-2 years old) lived with his parents.  They were alerted to this event through their own ‘sciences’ of astrology.  They read the stars in the heavens and interpreted these events.  As the story is told, they understood a special ‘King of the Jews’ would be born, and they followed these heavenly directions.  It led to Jerusalem, the obvious place for a king to be born.  There a king, a horrid, vicious, jealous king who portrays innocent interest.  It was his Jewish advisors who searched their Scriptures and were able to ascribe a town of birth to a Promised new king and off the wise ones went.

These pagan, gentile astrologers were grasped by their passionate yearning; touched by an inner conviction to go!  To go and worship, to behold the sacred and holy in this One – a light to the gentiles, the whole world, and drawing people into its embrace through their own wise pursuits, honestly seeking and yearning and ultimately willing to give themselves into the worship and offering of the Divine, the Sacred that holds everything in love and wonder, mystery and hope.

What happens when I listen to that which arises from deep within?  When I stop and listen undistractedly to the inner voice of love that calls ever so gently into my life and being, what do I hear?  When everything else is set aside, or when the bushfire rages through, destroys all, what is left?  When I face my ultimate fear or pain. or desperate need or desire, where do I turn?  What do I look for?  Who/what do I listen to?

Am I willing to come in vulnerable hope, powerless and lacking control, naked, as it were, before the Christ-child, the eternal Christ who bids me come and embrace the dying-rising life where letting go opens the possibility of finding the very Light my heart has glimpsed in the darkness and has yearned for.  Will I come and worship, giving my all?

By geoffstevenson