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

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

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