Respite on the Long, Winding Road of Life

Last Sunday at our monthly ‘Jazz on Hammers’, a gathering where there’s some light jazz, food and conversation, I offered a brief reflection after we (band) played ‘The Long and Winding Road’.  This song was written by Paul McCartney at his Scottish home and was one of the last hits from The Beatles.  He says it isn’t a song about any particular person or place but a song that captured the sadness in his being as he reflected on the break-up of this iconic band, as they fell apart.  It speaks of a long road that winds ‘to your door’.  I reflected on this road as the journey we all take, the journey of life and being in this world.  We wander, journey, travel and make our way.  The road twists and turns, sometimes through harsh and difficult terrain and sometimes through places of wonder, joy and peace.  There are many side paths, tracks and appealing ways that lead us somewhere else, into other places of life.  On some of these we find ourselves lost and alone.  Other paths look and feel good – at least for a time.  We discover that they don’t lead anywhere – well nowhere we really want to go.  We inevitably have to wind our way back to the ‘long and winding road,’ to follow to where it leads.

On this journey, this long and winding road, there are strong and windy nights that batter us and tire us in our being.  We feel life crowding in, suffocating us with expectation, demand and emotional overload.  We feel the weariness in our being.  We feel tiredness in our bodies as we tire from the journey and the physical toll exerted on us.  We long for refreshment, renewal and hope.  We long for respite and peace along the way.

I remember climbing a hill.  It was reasonably high and had a path and stairs to the summit.  The path began gently, a slight sloping path that was easy to walk.  It quickly changed and became quite steep and the way was harder.  The stress and strain and my legs began to burn; the humidity began to sap energy and I was thirsty.  Up ahead was I noticed a seat, a stop along the way and made my way to it.  I didn’t sit but stopped, looked around and noticed the beauty of the scene before me, one that was harder to appreciate when pushing along and watching the path.  I took a drink and breathed in for a few minutes.  I was filled with wonder as I looked out across the bay and realised I was only half way – what would the view from the summit be like???  The respite, the renewal, the breath and drink, the view and reminder of the journey I was on and where I hoped it might lead were enough to enable me to continue the journey.  My legs began to ache again and the humidity was overwhelming but there was a vision, a hope about where I was going and the rest and respite had been enough to reinvigorate me in the journey.  The summit was more than I expected.  On the way up, I only saw out in one direction, a widish vista but nothing like the 360-degree view from the top – stunning!!

At various points along the way of life, I need to stop, to breathe, to drink in the ‘water of life’ that refreshes my whole being – body, mind and spirit.  I need to be reminded of who I am and what this life of being human is about.  I need a renewed vision and hope for the journey because I am tired, lost, overwhelmed, distracted or running in circles.  Sometimes life becomes the treadmill I find myself on – the faster I walk or run, the faster the treadmill goes and I only wear myself out, whilst finding myself in the same place.

I need to remember where the long and winding road is heading; what might the ‘doorway’ where it leads represent?  What is the place, the experience, the destination of life really about?  Where do I really expect my journey through this life to end up?  What are my hopes and dreams, my deepest yearning for myself, those around me, this world?  What are the possibilities?  Is my vision, my belief or faith or hope, big enough, broad enough, generous enough?

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, we read a story that is in the middle (Matthew 17:1-9).  It comes at a time when there is weariness in the being of Jesus – teaching, healing, confronting the powers of his world and their opposition, lifting up the weak and helpless, the powerless and oppressed.  The more he goes forward, the more there is to do.  The crowds gather in and surround him, make demands of him and expect much more of him.  He teaches and preaches, nurtures and guides but do people get it?  Is he making headway?  Is it all working and where to next?  Up ahead in the unknown future there is the inevitable clash between the Reign of God with its justice and inclusive love, over and against the powers of the world, religious and political leaders who felt threatened and were readying for the final confrontation.  Jesus was in the middle and would be hung on a cross – was that the ‘door’ that his long and winding road led to?  How does one journey forward facing that inevitable painful conclusion?  How does one engage in living with the knowledge that death is staring you in the face?

Matthew (in line with Mark and Luke) tell a story that is puzzling and confusing.  It seems other-worldly and strange.  Jesus took three disciples (Peter, James and John) up a mountain and there he was ‘transfigured,’ metamorphosed and glowed white.  In what Matthew calls a vision, he was joined by Moses (the great Jewish deliverer and lawgiver) and Elijah (a great Jewish prophet).  They talked.    Peter eventually asks if he should build shelters for everyone for the night – Peter wants to contain and hold onto this experience.  Whilst he was speaking a cloud enveloped them and a voice declared: ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him!’

Peter, James and John were mystified, afraid and confused.  They fell on their knees, overwhelmed by the holiness and presence of God in this place.  The vision ceased and Jesus touched them, inviting them to stand.  They were going back down the hill.

As we read this strange story, do we recognise how the vision and experience of this holiness was both terrifying and renewing?  I can only imagine that at this point on Jesus’ journey there was a sense of renewal, affirmation and energising – ‘you are my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased…’  This is a vision of resurrection and points beyond the pain and struggle of the winding road ahead to the door into the reality beyond.  Resurrection is transformation and speaks into something new that emanates from beyond the physical, material world.  It is more than resuscitation or lingering as spirit but a new creation beyond time and space in the mind-boggling realm of the eternal.

This is a sustaining vision for Jesus and the disciples that is bigger than their confused or weary expectations can imagine.  It is affirmation that God is in this and that the Love at the centre of all things holds them in radical grace and life.  Whatever happens on the journey, there is a destination that is open, inviting, loving, inclusive, gracious, hopeful and joy-filled! This place is the heart of God, that holds everything in an eternal presence that breaks into our lives in simple and profound wonder and invites us onwards in grace.

By geoffstevenson

Building Walls or Building Love??!!

I find myself caught between rules and structures and freedom.  Sometimes it is me who is pushing the ‘rules,’ whether they be traditions, expectations, ‘traditional values’ or the rules, regulations or laws of a society, an organisation or a group.  Sometimes these rules are unwritten, expected and understood implicitly – at least by the long-term members.  Sometimes I am the one who is pushing up against expectations and the expected rules of engagement, whether at a national level or through organisations and groups in which I am part.

I confess that I am continually frustrated the expectation that ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ or ‘that’s just the way it is,’ or ‘that’s what the rules say.’  I am frustrated by myself when I use this rhetoric on others and realise belatedly that I have not understood a person’s life and not acted within relationship but built boundaries and barriers, small and large.  I shared with a congregation last week as story of when I was a youth leader many years ago.  There were a group of street kids, young blokes who wandered the streets of our suburb, harassing shopkeepers and other people, sitting in the parks drinking – if they could get hold of something – and generally bored and lost.  They connected with a couple of us somewhat accidentally and decided the join the youth group – it was something to do and we’d accepted them.

They didn’t really know how to act or what expectations there might be in a youth group or even how to behave in a church building.  They were pretty wild and outrageous and created some very interesting and difficult moments.  They were the centre of much frustration and also important moments of learning and experience.  Amongst the many situations and experiences I had, there is one that stands as a reminder of how my own expectations (think rules, requirements, values…) are not always universally understood nor helpful.

We were in youth group and one of the leaders was trying to give a bit of a talk – I can’t remember the topic.  The groups was large and there was the usual distractions as people settled down for the 10 minutes or so.  One of the young blokes was a little off his tree and somewhat hyperactive.  He was laughing and making inane comments and acting out. I and others gently asked him to stop and ‘behave’.  He didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t.  After a bit I lost it and yelled at him, something about having respect or behaving properly not like an idiot…  I can’t remember but it was probably over the top.  It had the desired effect of shutting him up and allowing the youth group to get on with the talk.

After the words were out of my mouth, I somewhat regretted it.  This guy was one of the street kids we’d built a rapport with but I didn’t really know him as well as others – he was a follower and just egged the leaders on.  I looked over and saw him with his head in his hands, sulking and not so much angry as hurt and shamed.  I didn’t feel very good at that point.

When the talk finished and all the kids moved off to the games or activity, whatever was next, I went up to the young bloke who hadn’t moved and apologised.  He didn’t look up or acknowledge me – just continued to sulk.  I laid it on and expressed my regret for having done the wrong thing and was sorry.  Slowly he moved out of his sulk and we began to talk.  Perhaps he was feeling vulnerable and just went with it.  He told me his story of how he lived in the constant threat of being beaten up by a stepfather who came home drunk, dragged him out of bed and beat him up – especially Friday and Saturday nights.  The stepfather would often hit this young bloke’s mum and he would try to stop it and get hit himself.  Sometimes, if nothing was happening or he was really tired, he and his dog slept in the garage out of the way.

As I listened to this and more, I recognised there was a lot of other stuff happening in the background of this young fellow’s life, stuff I had no clue about.  Whilst his behaviour was not helpful, nor really acceptable in the context of a youth group, in some ways he didn’t know much better, was not attuned to regular behaviours and expectations and had a lot gong on in his mind and being – far too much for a 15 year old.  I realised that rules and structures are important, but they are not an end in themselves.  Expecting this young bloke to sit quietly and act nicely in accordance with the ordinary expectations of a youth group was probably naïve to some degree but more-so not what he really needed. More than that, my frustration at his transgression of expectations and laws boiled over to actions that were not helpful and even harmful.  I learned that rules and structures are important and necessary and most of the young people were able to work within them.  There were occasions when individuals needed something else.  Their lives and their contexts demanded understanding and relationship.  This young man probably needed to be taken out and the deeper conversation had earlier.  He needed to be able to shed his tears, reveal his pain and receive compassionate understanding and care.  I doubt he really needed the youth group talk that night but we tried to fit everyone into the formula and then ‘punish’ them when they didn’t fit.

This week we continue reading through the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus (Matthew 5:21-37).  In an extraordinary passage Jesus breaks the law open and deepens the significance in order to engender relationship above duty or black and white regulation.  He cites murder in a typical formula he uses in these chapters – “You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit murder’ but I tell you…  He goes on to draw us more deeply into what a healthy relationship is about, saying that even holding anger and hatred towards another person is tantamount to ‘murder’.  In other words it isn’t just the act of physically murdering another person that is wrong, but the attitudes, intentions and feelings of hatred that we hold towards each other where the real, enduring damage to people and our relationships occurs.  Through our feelings of hatred and anger towards other people, we erect barriers and boundaries to inclusion, love and compassion.  We nurture conflict and tension and exclusion – and destroy community, unity and relationship. As the passage continues, Jesus raise various relational situations and draws us into an understanding that a break in respect, love and relationship through actions and attitudes is life-denying and lies at the heart of many problems we experience.  Love and relationship is the very heart of Jesus teaching and life.  When rules, regulations and expectations get in the way of relationship, we are invited to pursue relationship.

That’s what I learned with the young bloke in the youth group.  It was more important for me to nurture a relationship of compassion, love and understanding and help the young man to grow into the one he was created to be – not force him to be something else.

By geoffstevenson

Law – Inclusive Grace versus Exclusive Legalism?

I was driving along a road that I had understood would take me from one part of Sydney’s north-west to another area.  I had looked it up and all was good.  I found the road and was happily driving along – until I came a barrier, a fence that blocked my way.  The road, it seemed was incomplete.  A long section at one end and another long section at the other but the middle was incomplete.  I couldn’t find my way around and had to back track and find an alternative route.  I felt frustrated, angry, annoyed and would now be late for a meeting I needed to be at.  This barrier was ultimately just an annoyance and my frustration built upon incomplete maps and information.  Other barriers are not so simple nor fair.  They are not straightforward and are used to divide and separate people.

I am reading the very sobering autobiography of Aboriginal singer/songwriter, Archie Roach.  It is called ‘Tell me why.’  This phrase is a refrain throughout the story so far.  Tell me why all this happened to me and my family.  Please explain why government people came and took me, my brothers and sisters away from our parents, separated us and crushed the spirits of our parents.  Tell me why I was placed with an abusive family and experienced pain before receiving love and kindness from another.  Tell me why I don’t know who I am or where I belong; why people looked at me differently and called me racist names when I was young – and still do now I’m older.  Tell me why the police looked at me differently than they did white boys my age.  Tell me why.

There have been sad and awful barriers across the varied paths of Archie’s life in the story I’ve read so far.  It is heart-wenching and I feel the shame of our society who have treated Aboriginal people with such disdain and broken their spirits.  Much of Archie’s pain was borne on white laws that reached out and condemned people of colour as being lesser than white people.  Archie spent 7 months imprisoned though he was innocent – the fellow he was riding with was guilty but ran from the scene when police showed up.  Archie was asleep and had no clue what was happening.  He was hauled off to the Police station and charged without any legal representation.  He was black and different expectations applied.  The laws could be used however those in power wanted and they could be, and were, used against people of colour.

The law is used to define who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.  Laws and rules are applied to keep people in boxes and are often barriers to people, whether these be the laws of the land or the rules we apply, formally and informally, to groups and organisations and to our ordinary life.  Whether it is the rules of the game in the playground that often exclude specific people who we want don’t like, or the rules of establishments that exclude people they don’t like.  I once worked for a very prominent doctor who contributed much to the well-being of society but he was excluded from elite clubs because he was of a particular religious faith.  We have created and used rules and laws in the past (and often the present) to keep women from particular positions or the young or old.  Different levels of scrutiny are applied to people of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities and we create, in our own minds, rules of inclusion and exclusion.  The law is also used as a harsh tool to deal with people who exhibit social patterns of behaviour that are disturbing, as if we can beat poor behaviour out of people.  Perhaps it is thought that all people have an equal background and ‘act out’ purely due to personal choice?

There is no doubt, that so far in the story, Archie is acting out.  He is a young lost soul who doesn’t know his story, his family, his background.  He and his real family that he finally discovers are lost in a world that is confusing.  Most of the children can’t remember their parents and never saw them again.  They don’t know their clan and can’t connect with their ancestors, their people and they are lost.  But the law treats them as lepers who do not belong and looks with suspicion upon them.  There are barriers created through laws, rules and ideology that restrict Aboriginal people in ways their white cousins never have to contend with.

I have been reading this confronting story with the words of Jesus echoing in my mind – especially the words of the Sermon on the Mount and the passage for this week (Matthew 5:13-20).  In it Jesus speaks of law and of him not coming to abolish but fulfil law.  His mission is to help people to love more deeply and compassionately because that is the essence of what law is and does.  In the passage he speaks of Pharisees and Scribes, religious people who hold the law as sacred and study and live it with zeal and passion, so much so that they build fences around the law restricting and even excluding people.  Anyone who they sense transgresses the law or for whatever reason finds themselves on the other side of law, are excluded from participating in the life of the community, which is a religious community at its heart.

Jesus, in effect, urges that we do not reduce the law to a set of rules that define people and proper behaviour.  He never uses law to beat people over the head but understands that law is grounded in attitudes of love, compassion and justice, whether the 10 Commandments or the laws provided through the prophets or himself or Paul in the New Testament.  In the subsequent passages of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus radicalises the law from a set of definitive behaviours to a way of living and being before God and others.  The provides structures to ensure safety and inclusion of people into society, the proper sharing of resources and the maintenance of justice.  He has a typical formula: ‘You have heard it said…,  but I tell you…’  The first bit states laws the religious people articulate such as ‘Do not kill.’  Jesus takes this and goes deeper – ‘…but I tell you that if you harbour hatred then you have already committed murder in your heart.’  He moves us from final actions back into the attitudes and processes of thought that get us there.  If we harbour anger and hatred towards others, we will act violently towards them, whether that is physical, emotional, relational or spiritual.  Deal with your anger and let it go.  Learn to love people and respond to actions and attitudes that are harmful or hurtful.  Seek to restore or maintain an openness of relationship because this is the demand of love and the pattern of God.

I wonder how the lives of people like Archie Roach and many others may have been different had the laws and belief systems of people been different – loving, understanding, compassionate and gracious rather than judgemental and abusive?  I wonder what it means for us to give up our legalistic ways that exclude and define people and act with love, inclusion, compassion and gracious acceptance, helping people to become all they can be in God’s deep and wondrous grace?

By geoffstevenson

Hanging Upside-Down – The World Looks Better!

A comment by a person who has practiced yoga for some years, suggesting that the world looks so different when you stand on your head, reminded me of days gone by when we hung upside down from swing sets and watched the world go by.  People walking past seemed to glide by held in place by some strange force.  Trees grew downward and eating felt strange – drinking was impossible: brain and hands unable to function together.  Hanging upside down gives you a very different perspective on the world.

As I’ve sat in a variety of different contexts, with people whose lives are so very different from mine, who live in a very different place, life looks very different.  Priorities change for people in different places.  Sitting amidst a group of indigenous people and listening to their stories turned my perspective upside down and inside out.  Likewise, a group of refugees or people whose sexuality or gender or mental health… that differ from mine, offers a confusing and different perspective on life.  I remember having a conversation with a person who experienced schizophrenia and they spoke about how different the world was from their position.  His mind functioned differently, and he saw the same world in different, somewhat strange and complex ways.  A simple ball point pen with a button that loaded the tip, became a laser beam that threatened him.  His mind was able to ‘hyperlink’ from word and concept skipping through a conversation that began at one point and rapidly jumped through history and world events by a series of oddly connecting words.  ‘I saw a cartoon this morning – Donald Duck.  He is the president of USA – Trump. I won 500 last night at home trumping my brother.  He isn’t heavy to carry but this load of books is heavy. The library has a painter today.  Michelangelo painted the Church roof…’ S0 a typical conversation went and I found it hard to follow.  His world looked and felt so different.

It seems to me that I view the world a little differently from many people and find myself getting angry at public figures who appear on the evening news proclaiming their version of truth.  Rhetoric that ‘blesses’ the rich, powerful and famous and paves the way for their well-being over and against the poor and lowly really irks me.  The language of exclusion and rejection based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, status… makes me angry and very sad.  The language of violence that often leads to violent action engenders feelings of deep despair and concern because this is the way of our world.  When I look into myself and identify feelings of fear, a need to secure everything ‘I own’ or sure up life and protect it from the invisible ‘enemy,’ I shake my head and ask what is happening.  As I listen to the privileged and entitled speak so freely about wealth and affluence I feel anxious and dismayed because I know the other side of society and how hard it is for people to make ends meet, no matter how hard they work or try.

Sometimes I feel like I am hanging upside down and the world seems to be functioning against all sanity and rational, compassionate purpose.  The world is spinning the wrong way – or maybe it is me?  But then, why so much anxiety and sadness?  Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and author (‘The Road Less Travelled’ and other well-known books) suggests that there is a healthiness in some forms of depression, that we need to hear and listen to.  There are people who feel the deep pain and crisis of the world, who live with compassion and are sensitive souls – they feel anxiety and stress at the profound implications of what is happening around them.  They are like the canaries in the coal mine, warning of danger – if only we will listen.

So, as I wonder about myself and the world, as I metaphorically hang upside down wondering what is going on and what is real and true and what is not, I listen to words that rattle down through the ages of time and space and challenge me.  They are words from Jesus in Matthew’s story – Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes.  These 8 (or 9, depending on how you number them) statements are about blessing.  The blessed, says Jesus, are those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the humble, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  The next is either an extension of number 8 or a ninth –‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

These words feel like I am really hanging upside down and inside out looking at a very different world.  Blessed are those who are poor in spirit (in Luke it is the poor!) and humble and merciful and peacemakers…  These people aren’t the ones who are noted and we don’t typically dream of growing up to be like them.  There was a bloke in Parramatta years ago.  He was homeless and lived in the men’s hostel.  He was gentle and humble, lived with schizophrenia and tried to help anyone he could – especially others who were ‘outcasts’ and on the streets.  I don’t remember anyone trying to emulate him nor did he ever receive rewards or recognition, and no-one thought him blessed or honoured.  But…

But I remember him and his name all these years later – and I can’t remember politicians (perhaps 1?) or any of the business leaders and key figures of the City, but I know Jim Carnegie’s name and hold something of his memory.  As I think, I recognise that there are many people who have transcended their station in life, the struggle of their lowly, insignificant place and spoken into a world that disdains them.  They have fought for truth and freedom, life and hope for themselves, family or minority groups threatened and rejected.  They have fought, not with power and might, weapons and so on, but with a passion and love that is vulnerable and humble.  Greta Thunberg has no power, no might, nor has Malala Yousafzai, another young woman (girl really) who stood strong against a world that rejected her and she spoke out for justice, experienced rejection and violence but her passion for justice, her ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ was real.  Greta is a teenager who can see the future and is afraid of what her parent’s generation and older are allowing to happen to the world – she speaks from the purity of heart and sees beyond what is, disbelieving the accepted rhetoric of ignorant leaders.

Jesus set out a set of values that indicated where true honour is found and where true blessing is realised.  He wasn’t so much pointing to what people should do (although that is implied) but to where blessing existed in the real lives of people.  Jesus honoured those the world despised or rejected or looked upon with suspicion or tried to silence and invited all of us into this upside down, wonderfully rich place of life together.  It is found in a community of people who believe in a different way and are willing to take the first tentative steps together.  In this place, God is very, very close; in this way of love!

By geoffstevenson