2 Systems – Love or Alienation…

One of my favourite U2 songs is, ‘When Love Comes to Town.’  It speaks of the before and after of the transformative experience of love.  It is a love that comes to us from beyond and bursts into our lives with power to transform.  Eyes, mind, hearts open to a new view of the world and life through the power of love.  The words are:

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea/I was under the waves/Before love rescued me
I was a fighter, I could turn on a thread/Now I stand accused of the things I’ve said

Love comes to town I’m gonna jump that train/
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down/But I did what I did before love came to town

I used to make love under a red sunset/I was making promises I was soon to forget
She was pale as the lace of her wedding gown/
But I left her standing before love came to town

I ran into a juke joint when I heard a guitar scream/
The notes were turning blue, I was dazing in a dream
As the music played I saw my life turn around/That was the day before love came to town

When love comes to town I’m gonna jump that train/
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down/But I did what I did before love came to town

I was there when they crucified my Lord/
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side/But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide

When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that train/
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down/But I did what I did before love came to town

When love comes to town…  Love has a transformative power to change us in ways that we can’t always imagine.  Love, whether romantic love that swirls through us breaking open our ego boundaries, or the overwhelming love we experience when we look into the eyes of a baby, realising the vulnerability, dependency and sheer wonder of this new life, transforms.  There is a love that surrounds us when we stand before absolute wonder and want to express our sense of awe and delight.  It is mysterious and wondrous.

There is love that we experience when we stand before another person sharing their pain or experience in vulnerability and we suddenly understand more deeply, something of this human being before us.  We feel the inspiring hope in a wonderful story that lifts us and carries us into another place, another world that seems and feels different.  It is this love that lies at the heart of Jesus’ words and actions and his invitation into deeper living, in the life of love itself, the Trinity of Love.  This is the experience that lies at the heart of Paul’s powerful and passionate words that echo through the New Testament.  He experienced the inbreaking apocalypse of love on the road to Damascus.  Paul (or Saul as he was then) breathed fire and brimstone, an agenda of persecution towards the Christians he saw as heretics that were bringing down the law, the holy and wondrous law that was the heart and soul of his life.  Saul was fanatical about the law given to Moses.  It was a belief system that held him tight and he sought to protect it with everything he was. 

On the road to Damascus to round up Christians and imprison them, love came to town for Saul.  A blinding light and a voice broke through him with apocalyptic intensity and turned hi life around.  The passionate defender of law was overwhelmed by love and grace and became the tireless missionary of love, grace and the way of Christ in the Reign of God.  He gave everything to this mission and his passion, hope, joy and journey into the depths of love ring through in his words and life.

This week I have been challenged by Paul’s words in Romans 6 (12-23), where we delve into the middle of a strenuous argument by Paul about the dangers of allowing sin free reign in our lives.  Much of his language jars in a modern world where the haranguing of fire and brimstone preachers and the like have made sin a word we avoid through deep misunderstanding.  Sin, as Paul recognises, is that which leads us into alienation with others, the world beyond, God and ourselves.  Commentator, Bill Loader says:

“It is in the light of entering this new life with its dynamic generation of love and goodness that Paul now declares: so don’t let yourself be ruled by the competing system which generates sin. Paul sees sins as the fruit of relationships with God which have gone wrong resulting in alienation from God, from others and from ourselves. When we enter the new life with its new possibilities the old patterns and systems do not shut down. The destructive ruts and routines are still there. Paul is saying: you don’t have to surrender to them because the new life can lift you beyond them. In 6:12 he identifies them as having their roots in our human bodies, in particular in our appetites. In this he shares the views of many of his time. For Paul the body is not evil; nor are its desires, but when we allow our lives to be determined by satisfying our cravings without any thought for the consequences for ourselves or others – whether that is as unsophisticated as sexual abuse or as sophisticated as ripping off the developing world through hogging wealth and resources – then we are caught up into a power network which produces destructive behaviour. Paul is thinking about two different systems: sin and death on the one side and goodness and love on the other.”

Paul speaks of 2 systems that are at work in our world.  One system is grounded in love and generosity and reflects the generosity and love of God.  It is characterised by forgiveness, mercy, compassion and justice.  It is inclusive and liberating, inviting us to look (and move!) beyond self into a world of wonder, beauty and life. The other system is characterised by sin and the ‘death’ that ensues when we are alienated.  There are signs of this all around us as people cling to their belief systems that are related to wealth, power, and celebrity.  The addictive strands of our lives that elevate ordinary things to idols we give ourselves to until they rule our lives and we find ourselves enslaved – gambling, perverted sex, lust for money and power, ideologies and politics that are hate-filled…

Paul speaks of being slaves – either to love in God or to sin and the alienation that ensues.  One is a liberating ‘slavery’ that finds liberation as we allow ourselves to be drawn into the depths of love.  The other path is desperate and often despairing as we find our lives out of balance and alienated from others, the earth and ourselves – and God.  This alienation is everywhere around us – suicide, climate change, racism and war.  Everywhere around, but often missed is the embrace of love and grace and the invitation to life!

By geoffstevenson

A Life Lived – with Passion, Love and Justice…

I wondered, this week, why there is such a reaction against someone who speaks and stands up for love and justice, inclusivity, equality and compassion?  I thought of people like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King jr, both of whom stood up for justice.  They spoke the way of love and sought equality for different groups of people and both were cut down, assassinated, because of who they were and what they spoke out for.  It does seem that the world can’t always deal with love or justice and many people can’t face being challenged over our own prejudices or place in the world. We feel uncomfortable being challenged about how we perceive the world or our place within it.

There is much going on at the moment to challenge my ways of thinking and being.  The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and protests have awakened within our society questions and struggles.  I have been very challenged as it comes at a time when I have been reading Dark Emu and realising the profoundness and sophistication of the most ancient culture in the world – the Australian Aboriginal People.  I am disturbed to read how the white colonial culture of this land assumed that the Indigenous people were savages, and ignorant natives who were not organised nor had they any culture, sophistication or ordered life of agriculture – or anything else.  Despite the evidence before the eyes of early explorers and landholders, they chose to ignore it or interpret it otherwise.  The prejudices of a white colonial system in the Age of Discovery, where the culture was to overwhelm and dominate native peoples across the world and claim lands for the Empires of the West, denied the reality that people who looked and lived differently were and are equally human.  The massacres and enslavement of native people, including our own Aboriginal people, are truly horrific and white culture has benefited, in a material sense, from the demise and destruction of indigenous ownership and culture.

When this is spoken of there is reaction and accusation and the status quo strikes back.  We are uncomfortable and need to shift the blame or responsibility elsewhere.  When the history stories many of us learned at school last century are challenged there is resistance, with phrases such as ‘the black armband view of history.’  When protests and voices spoke out to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ there were other voices who wanted to claim that ALL lives matter.  This is true: every life is important, significant and valuable.  The point of those who call for Black lives to matter are not claiming that black lives are more important than any others.  They are asking for black lives to matter as much as other lives!

In our world, it is clear that some people and people types have less value than others.  The wealthy and powerful have more privileges and control the systems of power that maintain the status quo.  They are very hard to resist and decision-makers listen to them very carefully.  There are many people across our world who work incredibly hard to feed and house their families and they only just make ends meet.  I know of people in West Papua, our nearest neighbours, who are oppressed and dominated by the powerful Indonesian rulers who ‘own’ the land.  The Indigenous West Papuans are wonderful people who struggle to live and provide safe and good lives for their families and when they speak out for justice, the powers rise up and resist with weapons and punishment.  Their homelands are ruined by mining companies who wreak havoc on the environment and leave it destroyed and dangerous.

When people speak out against these kinds of evils there is resistance and violence.  When politics, cultural expectations and assumptions are challenged, there is reaction and anger. When the church, or anyone, speaks out against injustice, racism, exclusion, violence and impoverishment, there are excuses and resistance and we are told to get back in our box and speak about God who loves and stop making trouble, dabbling in things we know nothing about.  At this point I want to respond that Adolph Hitler told the church to be quiet and talk about ‘God is Love’ but not to comment on his regime – and most of the church, in fear, complied, along with many other parts of society. 

In the passage this week (Matthew 10:24-42), Jesus continues his speech to the disciples he is sending into the world.  He wants them to go and proclaim the Good News of God’s Reign of love and justice for all, to heal the sick, cast out demons and evil, cleanse lepers, bring sight to the blind; to proclaim in words and actions that the Reign of God is here!  It is a good message, one that ought to resonate in a world of struggle and hardship but he warns them that they will be rejected by many, cast out of towns and brought before judges and magistrates.  They will, if they pursue this ministry of love and justice, follow where he is going – to his death.  Ultimately, some of these followers of Jesus will be killed because they dare to name the evils in society and proclaim another way that includes and loves, and brings justice and peace – for all.  There will be those who are the status quo and they will resist with all their power.  Jesus ended up on the cross!

Jesus invites these ordinary, lowly people to follow his way because, although it will be harsh, difficult at moments, it will be a life lived.  It will be a life lived in God who holds everything in grace and no matter what people do to these faithful disciples, they will never be able to separate them from the profound love of God.  There is also nothing else that will ever be able to fill the yearning and hope in the centre of their being and give them a sense of being alive!  I read a reflection called ‘Journey With Jesus’ by Debie Thomas.  In it she says:
“What should we be most afraid of?  Not insult.  Not change.  Not persecution.  Not death.  What we should fear, these passages of Scripture tell us, is a life half-lived.  A life of blandness and niceness, a life of disengaged devotion, a life of piety without power.  What we should fear is any Christianity that is not cruciform.”

I was struck by these words and wondered about them.  How many of us live lives that succumb to the culture of our world and give up the dreams or hopes that lie within our hearts?  How many of us give in to the powers of the world and believe the rhetoric that seeks to keep us all in our place?  How many of us are confined by fear – fear of change or the powers or punishment…?  How many of us glimpse other possibilities but aren’t sure about what we might have to give up and never follow where they lead?

In these words, Jesus is quite firm, saying that there is a way in God that requires courage and faith, that demands we take a stand and step forward into something deep, rich and confronting.  When I read the stories and words of Paul in the New Testament, this is a man, alive.  When I hear Jesus’ words I recognise a wisdom and passion that draws me on to wherever he will lead and whatever that might mean.  It is the invitation to find life in God and the recognition that God’s Spirit will guide and strengthen.  Will we go?

By geoffstevenson

The Gentle Art of Letting Go…

It was an Autumn Day, warm and sunny.  I was working with some young people to prepare a significant event that they were to lead.  Our work was slow, and we seemed to be going round in circles and time was running out.  In the midst of this I received a call from a colleague who asked me to go to the hospital and offer care for a family whom he knew.  They were there with their young child who was diagnosed with a serious illness and things looked dire.  He has offered some support from a distance, but they needed someone to be there with them – would I go, now?

Everything in me wanted to say no, that I was up to my neck in important work and couldn’t leave it.  Everything in me wanted to say that they needed someone else, someone with the right skills and expertise and training…  Everything in me wanted to say that I couldn’t do this, and he needed to ask someone else.  I wondered why he even asked me?  I responded saying that I would go and meet them.  I needed a few minutes to sort things out, but I’d go very soon.  He gave me their details and I went back to organising the young people.  We quickly divided some of the work and I left them to it.  I ran around in some circles wondering what I needed to take with me; what ‘tools’ would be helpful.  There was nothing I could find, nothing I could think to take – it was just me.  I felt very vulnerable and uncertain as I drove to meet this struggling family.  What would I say?  How would I respond?  What would I do?  How could I be of use?

On the way I prayed – I can’t remember what I prayed for but certainly for help to be helpful and useful to these people, an instrument of God’s peace and grace, perhaps.  I went, filled with anxiety and uncertainty, wanting desperately to be there but also not wanting to go.  I suppose part of my anxiety was being confronted by deep pain and suffering that I understood they were feeling.  I had young children and couldn’t imagine myself in this family’s place, how I would be and what I would feel, think, say or do. 

I arrived and found the family.  My colleague had told them I would be coming, and they were waiting.  We introduced ourselves and they began to tell their story.  There were tears and sadness and fear in their words and faces.  Their young child was very ill and there was no guarantee that he would come through.  They told me all that had happened so very quickly and how their lives changed overnight.  They shared their fear and confusion and their absolute powerlessness.  They moved back and forth between where we were sitting and their child, to ensure he was still sleeping and okay.  The conversation went around and around, and I just listened.  I wanted wise and profound words to say but there weren’t any that came.  I wanted to be able to reassure them or do something to turn everything around, and make it good again, but there was nothing I could do.  I felt their powerlessness and wondered if, as a minister, there wasn’t something I should be doing to make this okay??!  There wasn’t.  I felt a sense of being out of control, just as they did.  The control and order we all desired in our lives felt so far away and there was no way to regain that order, that control.  I had been forced to ‘let go.’ 

I realised that as I had travelled to the hospital, I was actually starting to let go of my sense of being in control.  My initial reactions were around the fear of being out of control, being in a place where I couldn’t fix things or make them ‘right.’   I couldn’t make their child well and help him to be restored to proper health.  I couldn’t make their pain go away and I couldn’t hide from the pain of life and the feelings that situations like this raise within me.  I had to let go of my need to be in control and that is so hard! 

The paradox was that when I let go and allowed myself to be vulnerable, the couple found they were able to talk and be present.  They didn’t want or need me to ‘do anything.’  They wanted someone to sit with them, to be there, to listen and to share their burden and pain.  They wanted someone who would pray for them because they could not articulate prayers and didn’t have energy to draw on other resources.  They had doctors who were working to restore their son, but they needed someone who shared their vulnerable place and show them faith and hope, a light in the midst of their deepest darkness.  They didn’t need all the words and empty promises but the presence of one who would sit alongside them and witness to love and grace in the silence and acceptance of their vulnerability.

I thought of this and the many other times when I have found myself out of control, both in my own life, through the experience of pain and struggle, and as I have been invited to share the vulnerable and dark places of people’s lives.  As with most of us, I like some sense of order and control and find letting go difficult.  Sometimes there is no choice but to let go.  I thought of my mother and grandmother, of letting go of them through death.  I thought of our previous dogs, of sitting in the vet’s surgery as these dear friends breathed their last.  Letting go is so difficult when it is giving up people and animals we love into the mystery of death.  Letting go of my control in many other situations is also very hard. 

I thought of this as I read Matthew’s story of Jesus this week (Matthew 9:35-10:10) where Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the good news of God’s Reign and to cast out evil, heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, bring sight to the blind…  He sends them out vulnerably – they are to take nothing with them but just go and rely on the grace of those who receive.  They are to go, much as I was asked to go to the hospital, with nothing in hand, feeling unprepared and out of control – and to trust.  Jesus didn’t sugar-coat the task.  There would be people who rejected them and ridicule them.  The task was not easy as they were sent into a pain-filled world to be agents of hope, peace, life and grace – in God.  I can imagine their feelings, their questions, their anxiety.  Having just been announced as disciples, their joy and pride may well have turned a little sour and they may have wished Jesus had chosen someone else – I certainly was wondering why I was asked to attend to the family at the hospital!

They went.  They did what they were asked to do, and they did it in the grace and love of God.  It seems that was enough!??!  They were invited to let go of their need to be in control and ‘do’ something.  They were to witness to what they saw, experienced, and knew through the ministry of Jesus.  They were to witness through lives of love and grace, words and actions, to the Reign of God that was at hand – all around.  This Reign that promises life, hope, peace, healing, justice, belonging, is there and we are invited to participate in it by letting go and allowing it to happen to us.

I found, in attending to this family in their deep pain, that there was something profound and mysterious present in our vulnerable space.  God’s Reign entered into our experience and drew us into the hope and life it promises.  There were tears and struggle but also a sense of calm and peace as we journeyed through the boy’s treatment together – in God.

By geoffstevenson

The Divine Heart of Love – For All!

Across our world there is the combination of struggle and uncertainty mixed with tentative hope and angry demands for freedom from restrictions and the economic implications of Covid-19.  The world wrestles with what to do and how fast to ease back the isolation and physical distancing, how to re-emerge and how quickly to do it.  Tentative steps are met with hesitancy or all-out excitement and expectation.  What will come of this is unknown and the various experts in health and epidemiology are working hard to try and control outbreaks and infections.  In some nations these people are very well supported by national and state leaders and others they are ridiculed and ignored.  In some places the populace feels that they have a better grip on reality than health workers and epidemiologists, and national leaders are happy to follow suit.  It is a strange and difficult time.  In the midst of the most serious pandemic for over a century, the US has added to the plethora of regional protests on Covid-19 restrictions with the extraordinary protests and chaos surrounding the unjust treatment and murder of George Floyd.  The US seems to have descended into chaos and there are few significant voices able to speak into the void with wisdom and compassion. 

I read an op-ed piece written by the famous basketballer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Los Angeles Times.  He writes passionately and with despair at these happenings, recognising that at the heart of the matter is an institutional racism and that people of his skin colour do not have equal lives and equal freedom to those with light skin.  That doesn’t justify the evils of anyone looting and rioting violently.  It explains the depth of pain, anger and powerlessness experienced and surfacing in the coloured communities of the US.  Of course, such racism and mistrust is not the exclusive domain of the US.  It is present across the world and many indigenous people, in particular, have experienced and continue to experience the pain and powerlessness of exclusive power and domination through institutionalised racism and abuse.

Amidst these big picture stories, there is a world that is wrestling with its sense of being.  Many struggle to understand where we fit and how we fit in, what our place and purpose is in this big and often difficult world.  There are a plethora of messages and expectations that bombard us from all directions, asserting their truth and pushing us to the next level of hopeful ideology and hope-filled expectation that will bring comfort, security, hope and happiness – as if happiness has some ultimate lasting and meaningful place in human life.  We look to the voices around us, those who look to have ‘made it’ and seek to emulate their ways, their ideals, their lives, only to find that it is another dead end.  When we look more deeply into their lives we find just as much emptiness and despair there as anywhere else.  The rich, famous, powerful and beautiful are playing the game and enjoying their moment of glory, only to find the fall down the other side long and painful.  The clinics are full of the rich and famous looking for meaning at the end of a glass or needle/line of coke…

There is more than one pandemic stressing people and claiming hope and peace across this world.  We experience a pandemic of anxiety, despair, depression, suicide and increasing mental illness.  People are stressed and life, hectic, chaotic and pressured as we seek to perform and match those around – keeping up with anyone and everyone.  It is tiring just to think about it!!  A positive in the Coronavirus world of 2020 is that we have had more time to stop and ponder, to look around us and recognise that all the stuff we have been told we need isn’t actually necessary.

Walking along the local little creek with an overly excited dog, amidst the gums and other trees, lizards, birds and the sun filtering through, I wonder what else I really need?  All around is evidence of the world beyond the world, the one I am constantly told by a modern society, doesn’t exist – the Reign of God!  All around me is the evidence of Spirit that brings life and the evolving re-creation of all things.  This Spirit speaks into this world of beauty and wonder and invites me to lift my eyes above the stuff that fills the pages of newspapers of tablet feeds, facebook posts or tweets – even presidential tweets.

This week celebrates the Trinity, which is a doctrine of the church and can be dry and tedious to work through for most people.  It can also be the most liberating and life-giving reality that we can know and experience.  Perhaps it is this latter that is most instructive – God, as Trinity, is experienced and is the ultimate reality of our lives, whether we recognise it or not.  A little scrutiny bears deep truth and brings freedom from ourselves and that which holds us captive and pressures us in this world.

In a world where there is such expectation to conform and achieve, and to find the place of belonging, it is this Presence of the Living God revealed as 3 in 1 that offers our deepest place to belong, to be and find freedom from expectation and a liberation to live!  At the heart of this experience of God is a relational community of the purest, deepest love.  Three Divine persons held in the most profound relationship of sacrificial love where each is for the other and held in perfect relational unity.  The love that flows through this Divine community overflows into the story of creation, which in the Jewish story is one of love and goodness.  We are created and formed in love, as children of the Living God.  That is our sense of belonging, our sense of being and where we find the deepest truth of life.  We are invited to live into this pure love and be freed from the individualism and stress (pressure) to conform or be something that is not true to our being.  The deep tension and inner conflict that often overwhelms us is the internal struggle between the deep sense of who we are at our core, over and against the pressure, seduction and temptation to do and be who we really aren’t.  I know that I feel it and wrestle with it – the pressure to conform and look like others pushes up against the calling and invitation to become more truly who I am created to be – in God.  The story we read from Genesis 1, a beautiful poetic story of God’s loving grace, reminds us that all creation is good and beautiful, and we are part of this whole world.  We are also reminded that we are created in the Divine image, the Divine community that says – let us create humans in our image!  The Divine ‘DNA’ so to speak, is in us.  The imprint of God is in and through humans and we are able to rise into glorious places of wonder and triumph that is selfless and beautiful. 

In Matthew’s story we are sent into the world to mirror God and show the face and way of God in the world, a way that is love.  We are invited to embrace the deep love of God and share it with a world yearning for a sense of worth and someone to trust, an end to fear and hatred, violence and despair.  We yearn for freedom that is true and liberates all people and the creation.  We yearn for God and the love at the heart of all things – the Trinity!

By geoffstevenson