Can These Bones Live??

The strangeness of this new world continues to enfold us, causing discombobulation, confusion, uncertainty and a sense of unreality.  We know it is real and some feel the fear or panic.  Others are caught in the midst of illness and a life and death struggle.  Most of us don’t really know what to think because everything seems to have happened so quickly.  In this pandemic, we know there is an ‘enemy’ if you like, but we cannot see it.  With flood, fire and other disaster experiences, we can see the danger coming.  It is physical and there is warning as it approaches.  With this pandemic, we cannot see where the virus is or how it might invade our body – or what its presence may mean to us.  We cannot gather with other people in the midst of impending or actual emergency and danger, but are required to stay apart, distanced from each other, knowing only that the virus comes through people and the droplets in their breath.

We are driven into homes, isolated from others, with many businesses, organisations and other familiar activities shut down.  It is preventative and hopefully will help break the escalating cycle of virus spread.  This world is so different!  So much has happened in just a short time and we have our churches and other organisations closed for the first time in living memory.  ANAZAC Day will be so different for so many people, the gathering with friends and comrades of war to support, recount and remember together won’t happen.  The Royal Easter Show is gone this year, along with the Olympics and many other sporting competitions and events.  The world has changed in weeks.

Most of us are struggling to make sense of this fast-paced change in our lives and where it will lead.  What businesses will remain at the end of this and in what form?  What are the economic implications of the necessary shut down and how will we emerge from this?  What are the changes that will become a permanent part of our lives?  How will things look when this is all over and how will this experience change us?

This week Christians will gather in strange and exiled ways across the world and many will read an ancient story that is strangely prescient for our current time.  It comes from an age so different from ours and in a place far away in terms of distance, culture and world view.  Somewhere in the mid-6th century BC, a man living in exile along with many of his countrymen and women, spoke into their new world of despair and hopelessness.  They were exiles from the Kingdom of Judah, after the Babylonian armies conquered their homeland and destroyed the walled city of Jerusalem and took many inhabitants (artisans, craftsmen/women and leading citizenry) into exile in Babylon.  In this new land they were given relative freedom and had food, shelter and some work.  In this new land, they were lost in a foreign culture, foreign language, different food, climate and world.  They were grieving and lost.  They felt deflated and defeated, and they despaired.  The people felt that all life had been taken from them – how could they live?  Psalms, like Psalm 137 reflect the grief and sense of lostness they felt:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our     tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

Into this despair, grief and sense of being lost, various prophets rose up; ‘voices of God’ who brought hope and renewed vision to the people.  One of these was a man called Ezekiel and he was probably with the early exiles taken into Babylon.  He had a message of hope and life from God.  In the story this week, Ezekiel is taken in a vision back to Judah, to a large valley.  As he looked across the valley in this vision he saw a vast number of bones, dried, lifeless human bones.  These were probably the bones of his people following another of Babylon’s raids on Jerusalem and the bloody battle that ensued, leaving a valley of death.  The bones had been picked clean by birds and wild animals, and left to dry under the hot sun.  The image was barren, lifeless and desolate – just like his people!  In this vision, the Spirit of God asks him: ‘Can these bones live?’

What a question!  Can these bones live?  Is this not the very question we ask of ourselves?  Perhaps not in those precise words, but the sentiment is the same – how can I go on?  What is going to happen?  How can we exist?  These thoughts and questions flow through situations of grief and loss, pain and struggle, illness and despair.  Can these bones live?  Can we continue on?  If so, how?

Ezekiel can’t answer and puts it back onto the Spirit – ‘you know.’  He is then told to prophesy, to speak into the lifeless valley of dry bones and speak a work of hope – to tell the bones and bodies to reform.  He does and there is a rattling sound throughout the valley.  Bones move around reforming into skeletons and then sinews, muscles, flesh all form around the skeletons leaving lifeless but whole bodies.  Then the Spirit tells Ezekiel to speak into the valley and tell the breath to come and reanimate these dead bodies with life.  Ezekiel speaks and there is a sound like wind as the breath of God blows through bringing new life out of death and the bodies are alive!

‘This is your nation, your people,’ says the Spirit – they are dead and lifeless, but I will breathe life into them and restore them and give them their land back.  It is a profound message for people who are in a strange place, feeling lost and exiled.  Most, if not all of those who were taken into exile will not live to see the promise fulfilled but the very word of hope breathes life and hope into their being and they are encouraged to live with expectation and faith.  In the midst of confusion anguish, fear and uncertainty about whether God is alive (was God killed by the Babylonian God whose army won the fight??) and present or even interested in them, this word comes to them.  In the midst of change and brokenness, the word of God reaches them to lift them up, to breathe life and hope into their flagging bodies and spirits.  They are not abandoned!

For these people, there is the reality that life is different and will not revert back to how it was – even when they or their children and children’s children return to their own land.  Life will never go back to how it was!  They will have to negotiate this new world and God is with the to give strength, hope, surround them with love and life if they will receive it and live into this hope and grace of God.

For us, there is much similarity as we look at the world through different eyes and try to figure out what is happening and make sense of where this will all lead.  We are feeling the stress and confusion and a whole lot of other feelings.  The word of God breaks into our lives in this time and place to restore life, hope and love within us.  We are invited to live in this presence of God and find a place of joy, hope, peace and life.

By geoffstevenson

Seeing Anew in an Age of Confusion and Change

The world feels quite strange at the moment – confusing and uncertain.  Over the last few days the responses to Coronavirus have ramped up considerably and I have found myself in the middle of decisions around our congregations across Western Sydney and whether they remain open or suspend gathering for Sunday worship (and other activities).  Across the week the message has become more focussed and real.  On Monday we were thinking in broader terms that remained somewhat open and then from yesterday we are encouraging congregations to suspend their worship and look for ways to connect that are remote and happen in other ways.

This strong suggestion is difficult for many people, especially those who are older and have strong traditions, routines and dependence upon the regularity of gathering in the familiar surroundings of church and participating in the familiar and calming influence of rituals they have spent their lives following on a weekly basis.  Suddenly, there may be no church on Sunday and the familiar ritual and participation will not be there.  The world will be different – it will feel different and that feeling will reflect a reality that all of us experience in this strange time in which we live.

For many of us, the familiar routines of our lives are suspended.  Work practices are changing as many offices choose to work from home.  Gathering in larger groups has ceased and we have to get used to not reaching out to shake hands or move too close to each other in social settings.  I noticed people standing farther apart in the lift this morning at the local shopping mall.  Some people are wearing masks and maintaining an extra distance.  Shops are using copious amounts of hand sanitiser, as I understand are school classrooms.  Sport will be very different as a bunch of players run around in an empty stadium where there is no atmosphere – one wonders how long this can last?  Holidays and celebratory occasions are being postponed and those overseas are returning home.  Many people who work in various service, hospitality and entertainment industries are threatened with no work and the economy is facing deep impact for some time.

This Coronavirus crisis is changing how we live and act and think about various parts of our lives and how we engage with each other, work and play.  For some there is alarm, fear and panic – many particular shelves in the supermarket were empty and the cashier just shook her head in exasperation – ‘How much do you need to stockpile?  When is enough, enough?’ We won’t be able to supplement our dog’s dinner with rice after this week because there is none available.  Pasta will have to do – and it will do.  Things will be and are different and perhaps that will make me think about life, the universe and everything in a somewhat different way.  Perhaps it will cause me to stop a little and be grateful for what is around me – the beauty of this season, the trees, sun, sky, animals, birds, flowers and people (who I may only engage from a distance).  Perhaps I will take time to enjoy some music or some silence or ponder where I see God in the midst of everything.  Perhaps I will take time to think about the people I will not readily see and make more significant, meaningful contact.

I wonder how I might ‘see’ differently as a result of living through this crisis and despite the pain and struggle that will consume particular people in specific ways and our society as a whole?  How might this experience and my response to it alter my frame of reference and influence how I live?  Certainly, within our churches there will be changes.  As we experience this disruption in ‘life as normal/usual’ we will begin to change because we can’t not change.  The world has changed and we are sometimes left behind, pretending or hoping that it will all be restored to the way we were but it won’t and can’t because when we see something differently it is very, very hard to go back to seeing things as we used to.  So what will change for us?

This week’s story from the life of Jesus comes from John 9:1-41 is about a man born blind.  The disciples ask the typical question of the time: ‘Who sinned that this man was born blind – him or his parents?’  Jesus’ response indicates that the man’s blindness isn’t about sin but this is an opportunity to experience and ‘see’ how God responds with compassion and love to the world.  Jesus made mud with spittle and put it on the man’s eyes.  He told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam, which John translates as ‘sent’.  In an act of faith, the man did as he was told and his eyes saw!

People around asked if this was the blind man who begged from them – some said it was and others, it wasn’t but looked like him.  They asked and it was him – he told them what happened.  The story escalates and religious leaders, good, faithful and serious people seeking to honour God and God’s law were brought into the conversation and were something akin apoplectic as they questioned why someone would break a law of Moses and heal on the Sabbath.  They questioned the man, who told them his story, witnessing to grace and healing from Jesus.  As things develop the religious leaders interrogate the man’s parents seeking confirmation that he was blind.  They affirm he was blind but now sees but have no clue why or how.

The man was initially confused and unsure about Jesus – he gained physical sight but could not ‘see’ clearly what had happened to him.  As the story unfolds and he was questioned, he gradually had the experience of recognition – Jesus is of God for no-one could do this if God was not in him.  His words cut across the way of the religious people and he leaves their presence to follow Jesus.

It is a wonderful story of gaining sight (and spiritual insight).  Through the experience of Jesus living out the Reign of God through healing, compassion, love and justice that draws him into a relationship and experience of the Living God, the man ‘sees’ anew and more clearly.  The religious leaders who refuse to engage in this man’s story, remain in darkness and confusion.  They do not see and there is no change or life.

As I reflect on this wonderful story, I recognise that in the midst of the chaos we have experienced over the last 6 months and beyond (drought, bushfire, flood and Coronavirus), there is an invitation to listen and ‘see’ anew what is happening in our world and how we might live more fully, creatively, lovingly and justly – and how we might live more fully in the presence and reality of Christ.  Will we allow our eyes to be opened to ‘see’ – to see God in the world in all the frailty and beauty, wonder and vulnerability?  Will we walk in a new way that is light and gentle, compassionate and gracious – and cares for people and the earth?  Will we act with kindness, love justice and walk humbly with God?

May God be with you and care for you gently through this strange, confusing time!

By geoffstevenson

Within a Toilet-Paper Crisis, What Is It That We Deeply Yearn For?

I hope that you have enough stockpiled toilet paper, hand sanitiser, flour, rice, pasta…  I was puzzled and disbelieving when I heard that there was a rush on toilet paper and then news stories of violence and conflict over people trying to get toilet paper in various shops – pushing and grabbing and struggling over toilet paper (and worse!).  I heard of a couple of people who had pre-ordered boxes of toilet paper ordered from a charitable group that uses profits to build toilets etc in developing countries, had their order stolen from their front verandah!!  Toilet paper, who’d have thought it??!!

This situation is a highly individualistic response to threats that come from beyond us.  The Coronavirus is spreading in ways we don’t know and can’t control and it generates fear and uncertainty.  A small panic escalates and there is widespread panic as people try and bring some small measure of control to their lives.  It sometimes blows out to a ‘me versus them’ response that is defensive and about protecting me and mine.  This stands in stark contrast to what we experienced through the bushfire crisis where there was a profound level of community built in, through and around the crisis.  Everywhere one turned there were stories and experiences of people working together to overcome the dire threat and the catastrophic impact of raging bush fires.  What is it that determines whether the responses we make are generous, inclusive and build deeper community to work together for a common good?  What causes us to dissolve into irrational, fearful divisive life where we view others as ‘other’ or different or enemy?

It would seem that tribalism and formation of exclusive groups is a common trait for humans.  We see and experience it everywhere, from families that break apart into splinter groups opposed to, and fighting, each other to conflicts within and between nations, where fighting and animosity, division and hatred are rife.  There is a healthy rivalry and competition that doesn’t take itself too seriously, where we identify with a group of people and find a sense of belonging and are identified separately from another similar group.  When this rivalry becomes too ideologically defined and the boundaries to solid and exclusive, violence ensues.  Mostly this violence is in the form of exclusive behaviours and rhetoric but sometimes escalates into more serious forms.

Over time tensions form traditions and hatred solidifies and there is historic division and exclusion.  Barriers, boundaries and armies are employed to maintain the ‘integrity’ of the separation.  Traditional tribal and other loyalties reinforce hatreds, divisions, suspicion and hatreds.  This is much of the story of humans and our history.  Everywhere we look, there are examples of such tensions, conflicts and exclusive behaviours – even when a virus threatens and we cling to our own toilet paper or cast ‘blame’ onto other ethnic groups and shun particular people out of fear and suspicion – and difference.

This week’s Gospel story (John 4:5-42) is a wonderful story that captures this historical and traditional conflict between two groups of people who were from one historical family but fell out and developed ideologies that excluded one another.  The Nation of Israel divided in 922 BC.  Ten tribes in the north seceded from the nation and formed the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaritans).  War ensued and they were victorious, cementing the divide.  They developed traditions that varied from the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Jews) and ideology, tradition, law and ritual developed to enshrine difference and exclusivity.  Each made claim to their own authenticity as descendants of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  As time and distance, history and geopolitical interactions in the world around, moved on the differences and enmity grew.  In Jesus’ time there was a radical and deep divide such that Jews travelling through the region would not walk through the region of Samaria (Northern Kingdom) but travel around it.

One day Jesus did travel through the region and stopped at a traditional well that derived its name and origin from Jacob, one of the patriarchs.  It was a special place but also represents a place of courtship, drawing on traditions from early Genesis stories and traditions (eg Genesis 24 and 29).  Sitting in the warm sun at noon, his disciples off in the village, he encountered a Samaritan woman who came to the well to draw water for her family.  Against the cultural norms and ethnic traditions of the time, Jesus engaged this woman in conversation, asking her to give him a drink.  She was surprised and commented why he, a Jew and male, should break with cultural norms and cross ethnic barriers and talk to her, a Samaritan woman.  Males would not engage females in conversation without other male family members present and Jews would never talk to Samaritans – male or female.  Hatreds that build slowly and intensely and are never easy to break down but in this encounter, Jesus opens a conversation with an ‘enemy’ and ignores cultural rules to build a relationship and respond to this woman as a human being loved by God!

The conversation ensues and builds as they speak about water that brings deeper life.  It is a metaphor for the deeper and richer spiritual truths and experiences in God that all seek and yearn after, but which is often lost in maintaining divisions, ideologies and status quo.  The woman yields to her yearning for the true and deep spiritual life that is promised in the traditions and hopes of her people and the faith of the patriarchs (and matriarchs).

Jesus’ offer of ‘Living Water’ that will refresh her soul and bring life eternal is something that touches her deeply and she is eager to embrace his offer.  Through the conversation Jesus pushes aside the deep and ideological divisions that separate people and create suspicion, hatred and violence.  In a metaphorical moment he asks about her husband and she replies that she has no husband.  Jesus suggested that she has had 5 ‘husbands’ and the current ‘man’ is not her husband.  This dialogue refers to the 5 cultural groups imported into her homeland centuries earlier (722 BC) when the Assyrians conquered the land and forced intermarriage of the people.  She and her people share the bloodlines of these 5 foreign cultures and the current ‘man’ in her life is the Roman Empire that holds her people in its rule – without inter-marriage.  Jesus offered this women the deep joy and hope of identity and worth as being truly human and this grace and love broke open hostility and exclusiveness and embraced a connected, inclusive life grounded in a deep experience and connection in God.

The woman embraced the offer and in a transformative moment she transcended her bounded exclusive life held by traditions and hostilities and opened to life in all of its fullness and wonder.  She rushed into her village to share this news of love and freedom, inviting a gracious and eager response to hear for themselves from this One of God who brings life, peace and worth to each person, drawing all into a deep sense of human community that is held in the heart of Divine love.  This is the hope we yearn for and need!

By geoffstevenson

Led Astray By Seductive Temptations…

Many years ago, when I was a young teenager with 2 younger brothers, our extended family on mum’s side gathered for a celebration (Christmas I think?) lunch at the local Revesby Workers Club.  It was a buffet lunch, which to the eyes and ears of growing teenage boys is paradise!!  All you can eat and the only rule we had was: ‘If you put it on your plate you have to eat it!’  No worries, we thought.

The array of food was mindboggling to us hungry gluttons.  Our eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when we saw the selection available.  There were soups and the like as starters (I think we sacrificed these to get stuck into the real food), salads and cold meats, a large array of hot food and a whole section of desserts!  Our eyes lit up, our stomachs rumbled, and salivary glands worked overtime – we were ready!

It is amazing how the plates filled up as we sampled a bit of this and some of that a little of that over there.  We rationalised things believing the plates were small and dug in.  In no time at all the plates were cleaned and we were off for the second course, just as exciting and diverse in options.  We returned with brimming plates, ready to dig in and clear these up, which we did.  Finally, we were ready for dessert and the options were sumptuous – things we’d never seen but wow, they looked, and tasted, good!  We devoured these culinary delights in rapid time, not allowing our bodies to actually register how much we’d eaten – there was no time for warnings that we were already full.  The soft drinks that came through the meal further filled the last spaces within our alimentary canal.  By the time we were ready to leave we began to feel uncomfortable.  Walking was okay – but not too fast.  By the time we got home we realised that we were uncomfortably stuffed and could only sit around all afternoon regretting, somewhat, our gluttonous feasting.

Such an array of delicious foods was one of the ultimate temptations to growing, hungry boys who were often governed by their stomachs, hunger and food.  The seduction of the presentation lured us in.  We saw and thought we needed to have as much of this as possible.  The more we tasted, the more we wanted, and it felt good, really good – for a time.  Then it didn’t and we felt regret for overeating.  Of course, memory sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t.  Did I learn from this experience?  Perhaps a little but I have often over-eaten, being seduced by the food on offer, choosing more than I need.  My eyes are too big for my belly, sometimes.  There are usually regrets – especially if it involves eating in the evening and then trying to sleep with a full stomach!

This is the nature of temptation.  We are seduced into thinking, believing, we need something, or more of that something and that it will make us happy and fill our lives with joy and contentment.  Usually there is a period of happiness, good feelings and a positive response to the thing that tempts us.  There is a time when it feels good and right – and then that fades.  I have bought many things and like most of us have lots of ‘stuff’ that is lining cupboards, stored in rooms, sheds…  I have many books – probably too many to read in one lifetime – and my computer has many files and documents, photos, music… stored.  What will I do with all of this stuff?  We have lots of CD’s and DVD’s and occasionally listen to or watch one of them.  I am bombarded with slick advertising wherever I turn (except for the blessed ABC!), all aimed at seducing me in a moment of yearning, need or weakness to believe I desperately need a new computer, TV, holiday, car, jewellery, vitamins, course of education, wine, meat, vegetables, vitamins, camping gear, clothes, house…  On and on the list goes.  Most of  this advertising goes into the bin or disappears into the ether but sometimes the slick presentation and the seductive promise captures my imagination and I find myself being drawn in.  I begin to believe that this promise will make my life complete, fill the gap, make me feel alive, rich, good, successful or whatever it is I feel I need in that moment.  Of course, that is the object of advertising – to create a need in my life and offer the solution.

Temptations come in many forms and through many processes.  At heart it seems that temptations are about filling a hole in my life that is there.  Sometimes that hole becomes obvious through grief and loss or fear or failure, or just being overwhelmed. I want to escape, feel better or have the ache filled in and made better.  Temptations come along: ‘If you do this or that; if you buy this or that; if you have this or that experience; if you give yourself to this or that ideology…  you will feel better and life will be good’.  That’s how addictions start – try this and you will feel better and you find yourself needing more and more and more and you’re deeper in to the abyss of pain and regret along a bad path.

There is, according to Blaise Pascal, a hole in the middle of our being that is ‘God-shaped’.  That hole sometimes looks ‘computer-shaped’ or ‘new car-shaped’ or shaped like a bottle of wine or holiday or a new house or the perfect partner or a heroin injection… We fill the hole with stuff but it never works and the hole remains because our deepest yearning is not for more power, more glamour, more wealth and the stuff we can buy.  The deep yearning of the human heart is for the deep presence of Divine love in which we can find our rest and our peace.

In this week’s reading, as we begin the journey of Lenten reflection in preparation for Easter, we read of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11 – the Old Testament reading is also about temptation and Adam and Eve in the garden from Genesis 2 and 3).  Jesus is taken into the wilderness where he fasts and prays.  There the Tempter seeks to lure him into an alternative path and way of being that trusts in his own power, strength and to create his own future.  Turn stones into bread because you are hungry (its also relevant and will feed people!).  Throw yourself from the highest point of the Temple and have God save you (it is also spectacular and surely people will believe in you!).  He is shown all the kingdoms of the world and tempted to make a claim for power over them by submitting to the Tempter and bowing before this one.  In all of this Jesus has his identity questioned: ‘If you are the Son of God…’  If you really are this, then demonstrate it.  Stand up outside God’s shadow and prove yourself.  Jesus does not submit to the temptations but finds his identity and being in God’s love and grace.  Food, spectacular acts, power… are not what he needs or wants.  They are not who he is and in God’s grace he recognises that he is whole and complete in ways nothing else can provide.

When I recognise the temptations that come my way, I can see that there are many things I have sought or pursued but don’t need.  They are nice and maybe fun but will not ease the restlessness in my soul.  St Augustine suggested that we will be restless until we rest in God and that is a truth I hear in the story of Jesus and discover for myself when I learn to trust in God.  If I find my peace and rest in God, everything else will find its place.

By geoffstevenson