Law and Love…

Some years ago, I was asked to offer some support to a fellow – I will call him Tom.  Tom was probably in his 50’s and extremely intelligent.  He has a PhD, the name of which I couldn’t pronounce, let alone understand.  He was also limited by psychological issues that caused him some degree of paranoia and obsessive behaviour.  Tom wasn’t able to work at a level that his training suggested he should be capable due to his psychological disability and his need to provide care for ageing parents.

Within the poorer part of the neighbourhood where he lived, he was taunted and made fun of, threatened and felt unsafe.  Young blokes would drive close to him as he walked home from the station – he walked everywhere.  They yelled out insults and so Tom became disengaged and paranoid about those around him.  Tom was caught up in an incident where he was wrongly accused of doing something against the law – neighbours were behind this.  The evidence pointed towards him being involved, even though he was completely innocent, and he was ultimately charged.

Tom’s intelligence and education took him into a variety of areas of study, including the law and he strenuously refuted the allegations and charges.  A photographic memory ensured that he could recount every detail of every event and conversation, including times and places.  Tom suffered through this drawn out process, confused and feeling like a criminal.  He was angry, indignant and fearful.  He felt powerless and without a voice.  Tom’s life was difficult with the bullying and intimidation within the neighbourhood and the difficult allegations and charges against him.  He didn’t know how to deal with it.  He wasn’t sure who to turn to or what he could do.  He also felt that he was being pushed to the fringes of communal life, excluded from society through the bullying and the fear he felt.  Tom had little money and lived a very simple life on limited resources.  He struggled to find the support he needed and a place where he could belong.  Tom really was a marginalised person.

A combination of legal processes that were applied legalistically and Tom’s mental health issues meant that the court process was difficult and unacceptable to him.  Whilst he was essentially cleared by the court not recording any convictions against him, he was ordered to pay some legal costs and perhaps a fine.  Tom was indignant, feeling that he had done no wrong and could not see why he had to pay costs and be treated as having done the wrong thing.  He protested and felt the weight of the world against him.

In a real sense, Tom was bent over, weighed down and crushed by life and its inherent injustices that seem to oppress the poorer and more vulnerable people.  Tom needed the support of people who would take him seriously and whom he could trust.  He also needed a community where he could belong and one that would accept his unique personal traits and vulnerabilities.  Tom couldn’t always express himself well and he was uncomfortable and even clumsy in groups of people.  It took time and focussed effort to engage with him and it took time to build up trust and listen to his story.

He was welcomed into our local congregation and a few of us were able to walk with him through some hard and difficult times.  It was a difficult journey as we engaged health issues, vulnerability, fear, the legal processes and the multitude of emotions and angst he felt.  I found myself feeling very helpless before the heavy legal processes as I was drawn into the court hearings.  I was out of my depth and others provided further, more expert support.  It was very clear that the law had a fixed agenda and was not open to listening to the person, hearing their story, understanding the underlying pain, fear and reactions in order to ascertain a truth deeper than pure law.  I felt very much frustrated and angry that this vulnerable person needed protection, support and care rather than being treated as a criminal and made to feel an outcast.  Tom was bent over.

I was reminded of Tom as I read the Gospel story this week (Luke 13:10-17).  It is the story of a woman who had been physically bent over for many years – 18 in all.  She could not look up and walked with a severe leaning, looking only down at the floor.  Such a person was vulnerable and quite helpless in her society, as she might well be today.  This woman could not work and was pushed to the margins.  She was oppressed by her physical deformity and lived a difficult life, seeking some relief, peace and hope.  She needed to be released from her oppression and this was the healing and salvation she needed and yearned for.

One morning in the synagogue on the Sabbath Day, this unnamed woman ventured in.  We do not know whether she was regular or was seeking something out of her desperation.  On this day she encountered Jesus.  He came to the Synagogue this morning and saw the woman.  Others probably looked at her and past her, never really noticing her as a person – only a deformed individual who was hard to engage because her focus was always downward.  Jesus noticed the woman and engaged her.  She didn’t ask him for help, she probably only saw his feet.  Jesus offered her relief from the oppression and weight of life.  She needed release, relief and to be embraced back fully into the community of God’s people.  As a deformed woman she was outside the real life of people and her community.  Jesus saw her and responded with grace, lifting her burden from her, easing the weight and oppressive forces from her and restoring her to right life and back into fellowship with other people.  This was salvation and life!!

Meanwhile, the leader of the synagogue took umbrage at Jesus’ restoration of this woman on the Sabbath Day.  He was within his rights to complain.  The law explicitly forbade work and the various interpretations indicated that healing was not permissible on the Sabbath Day!  There are 6 other days in the week when this could happen and no need for healing on the Sabbath!  He was right – well at least within the literal framework of the law.  Within the spirit of law and grace, he was out of step.  Jesus responded by commenting on how you would release an animal from its night shelter to drink on a Sabbath animal, giving it freedom – how much more significant is it that a person finds life in the embrace of God’s grace.  This, whether Sabbath or any day!  This woman had been physically suffering, excluded and struggling for 18 years – perhaps she could have waited one more day but that is not grace!  It is outrageous legalism and abusive control.  Jesus saw the woman, engaged the woman and released the woman out of love and kindness, mercy and compassion, justice and peace.  He reacted without hesitation because she needed help and love – now!  That is the way if God, whose desire is for love and grace!  There are many who need peace and restoration in life, many who struggle, and the literal ‘law’ keeps them trapped.  Love is the response that brings release and life!  Love is the way of Jesus, the way of God and the deepest need in our world today!  Love!

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By geoffstevenson

Perhaps Things Must Get Worse Before They Get Better!

Let me tell you a story I thought of this week, one told me some months ago.

We were gathered around our outdoor BBQ area, enjoying a wonderful meal.  Around the table were three generations of my family – my parents, my wife and I and our 2 children and their partners.  The conversation flowed back and forth with laughter and shared stories – it was good.  Younger generation male then told about how he had space in uni lectures a week or two earlier and decided to attend a Uniting Church rally organised in the Sydney Town Hall.  He turned up and was amazed at the diversity of people who were there – people from the Law Society and associated legal groups, Medical Societies and organisations, community organisations and the church. 

He told us that it was really good and about Drug Law Reform, which had support from many parts of the society – even Sir Richard Branson was there, along with a UN expert.  He said that they were advocating the decriminalisation of the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs that would be for personal use and was about to explain this as a health issue rather than a legal one, when older generation male interrupted with a broad ranging tirade that went on for 15 minutes – he didn’t even seem to draw breath.

I could see younger generation male and female (and partners) becoming more and more angry and ready to explode as older generation male kept upping the anti and complaining about ‘that church.’  Fortunately, older generation female realised the heightened tension and rising temperature and intervened by hosing down the situation and I quickly grabbed younger generation male and female to help with dessert and more drinks.  We got on with the afternoon, but tensions remained raised.

When the older generation left, we debriefed the younger generation who could not grasp the ripping anger and irrational tirade of older generation male.  Younger generation male was confused (and angry!) as he asked why his grandfather was so angry when he was trying to listen to Jesus and do things he would try to do.  He listened to the stories of people living with addictions and their families and felt the Church had gotten things right – this is the way Jesus would approach things.  So why was his grandfather so ignorant and irrational when he was always talking about Jesus and how we needed to listen to him…

This is not a new or unique story.  It happens all over the place as different generations engage in a world that is changing, often with different forms of information from science and the humanities, new theological or ethical insights and so on.  I found myself smiling at this account as I have been questioned and challenged by my own children and others of their age and generation who see the world differently, who know people in different ways and who haven’t as yet absorbed too much ‘tradition.’  They are less burdened by ‘what used to happen’ or ‘what has been true’ and approach things with a more open mind, often seeking the way of justice or love because they know people in the various ‘categories’ that we lump people into.  They don’t speak with any sense of surprise about equal rights for women/gender equality, people of different sexual orientations, a true place in Australia for the 1st Peoples, the critical issue of climate change and the environmental crisis.  They recognise people of many races and faiths and have engaged with such people from early childhood.  They can see the differences between rich and poor, both here and in other nations and cannot understand the political machinations that deny people justice and what they need to live.  They readily accuse people of greed and are puzzled when some people earn mega-salaries for doing similar levels of work to those who earn much less.

When the church speaks about Jesus and what he said and did, many expect the church to do these things and are confused when our words are not matched by our actions.  When some younger people raise questions or want to stand up and make a statement there is a furore.  For example, the protest of school students who are going to strike in protest over the lack of action on climate change.  I have heard too many older people criticise these students and those who are encouraging them, suggesting they have no idea what they are talking about.  Yet when I engage young people over these issues, they not only surprise me, they inform me!  This is one issue that they feel very passionately about because the world they will grow into and perhaps bring their children into is looking very, very grim.  They are angry at political and other leaders who refuse to acknowledge there is a problem or listen to the science and then make a commitment to work through the difficulties and questions to find a real, workable solution.

The fact is that whenever issues of deep justice and struggle are raised there are various interests and those who enjoy the benefits of the status quo are not always willing to engage and certainly not to change – despite others struggling and having access to less resources.  When Martin Luther King Jr led the fight against racism, he was attacked, as were those in the movement, imprisoned and finally assassinated.  In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, those who disagree with him and offer an alternative view of justice and truth, are imprisoned or murdered.  Donald Trump rubbishes and belittles people who disagree with his views or suggest an alternative path of justice, truth and love.  Whenever anyone decides to swim against the current of tradition, accepted ‘truth’ or the status quo, it is a heavy task and filled with opposition and struggle – often from those you know or love.

In this week’s surprising story from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 12:49-56), Jesus doesn’t pull punches in warning his listeners that following him will be fraught.  He isn’t a pacifier, one who came to bring some anaemic pseudo-peace where everyone pretends all is good even though two-thirds of the world suffer from poverty and millions of refugees are homeless and suffering, the earth is warming and indigenous people across the globe are being excluded from the land they called home before colonising powers pushed them off.

Jesus’ words reveal that his way cuts through the rhetoric of status quo and pretence to bring justice and life to all people – not just the privileged.  He warns of the intergenerational conflicts that his path will engender as people follow and then find themselves at odds with parents or children, friends and society.  The way of true peace means that things may just get a little worse before they get better!  Jesus’ way might unsettle the way things are and free us to embrace a truer, more generous and inclusive path together.  It sounds good but it isn’t popular because when the rubber hits the road and people realise they may have to give up something – money, power, privilege, position… they fight back and resist and all hell will break loose!  Sometimes, suggests Jesus, things may just get worse before they get better.  It takes loves, courage and faith.

By geoffstevenson

The Relentless, Restless Possibility of Faith.

I read some reflections of a woman whose family immigrated from India to the US many years ago.  The woman was only a few months old when they arrived so has no real memory of India or the move, but she described her parent’s experience.  For decades after bringing their family to a new country in the hope of better opportunities and a better life, they were still caught in the ‘in-between’.  They felt restless to her, as they sought a place to belong and to ‘become’ whoever it is they could or would be in this new land.  This ‘becoming’ was caught between, on one hand, the nostalgia and experience of being Indian, of the heritage, culture and expectations that were deeply part of who they were (added to this were the looks and expectations of those in the new country who saw them as ‘other,’ as different and often treated them so).  On the other hand, they had hopes and dreams of what might or could be and life drifted endlessly between these extremes.  Ultimately, it was this hope that stirred them to look forward and embrace the sacrifices, struggles, difficulties and discomfort that became the path through which they lived and moved, struggled and strived to achieve this life they dreamed of for their family.  This hope and promise kept them looking forward and moving in that direction, despite the many obstacles.

Isn’t this a story for all of us in some way or another?  Not that most of us are immigrants to new countries but we do migrate into new phases and paths in life.  We make decisions for the future, sometimes grounded in the past but more often seeking to transcend a past and move into the next phase of life and a brighter, or even brighter, future.  Don’t we make sacrifices for our children, seeking new opportunities in an emerging world that feels so different from that which we have grown in and embraced for ourselves?  We choose new paths, new careers, new possibilities in the hope that something bigger and better may emerge.  Sometimes we are thrust into situations where we have to decide, to choose a path from two or more options.  Sometimes there is no choice because the momentum and force of life thrusts us into the new and we find ourselves in the relentless thrust of living.

Living in the hope and promise of something without the certitude of being able to guarantee the outcome we want or expect, is the nature of faith.  Faith obviously requires some element of trust or belief in someone or something on which we lay the promise, the hope.  It may be the belief in possessions or power, fame or fortune.  It may be education or enlightenment, technology or ‘truth’ (of some form or another).  The list of possible trustworthy options is endless, and faith of some description is required for us to trust a particular path and live in expectant hope and promise.  Such faith takes us beyond blind belief or sure certitude – an exercise of the mind that seeks to know and define, control and order.  This is not a mind exercise, but a life lived.  It is about pouring our life and living into something we will give ourselves to in the hope that it has the power to deliver against that hope, that promise, our faith.  Sometimes it does and sometimes we are left with empty longing and lost in a hope unfulfilled.  The family above trusted in the life they heard of and believed in from stories and people in the US.  They trusted that there would be a place for them, and their family and it was worth placing their hope in this promise, this belief and they did.  It seems that their faith was justified but, of course it took much hard work, struggle and restless longing and striving.

This week there are stories of people who know this longing, the looking forward with a nostalgic past in their minds.  In the great chapter on faith (Hebrews 11) we hear of Abraham who was invited to journey to a new land.  He left the familiar and journeyed into the unknown to a place he didn’t know and made his home as a stranger, a foreigner.  He was invited to ‘look into the future’ and imagine the land before him as the home of his descendants, a rugged, untamed land that was foreign and new.  On top of this invitation to dream was the stark reality that he had no children and his wife had been unable to bear children – what descendants?  What future?  What hope?  On what would this invited promise be based?  Who was this ‘God’ who called and invited?  What was this path into an unknown, unsubstantiated future?  What would or could possibly happen if he placed one foot in front of the other and began the long walk into the mysterious future?

The story goes on.  Abraham saw the land, but it was not filled with his descendants in his lifetime – that was for a long, long time into the future.  He journeyed believing a voice from a God he couldn’t see or touch or feel, but who felt close, even within him.  The voice of deep resonating love and truth that comes in the dark moments when we are open to hearing.  Too many times the voice speaks into an empty, abandoned silence, a heart that wants certainty of belief, assuredness of success and a definitive, controlled outcome, sign, sealed and delivered.  Other times the voice encounters cynicism, weariness and confusion.  We find it hard to believe, to trust and to put our life into something so unsure and unclear.  The world is a harsh and chaotic place.  We need security, not uncertainty.  We need safety not reckless faith in something that calls more from us than we can believe we have.

Those who live into this faith find they are drawn along in the flow of a river of wonder.  It takes us to places we never imagined and to do things that, in our own strength or imagination, may never seem possible or likely.  We venture into a place of possibility, hopes and dreams, a journey into a future that might be.  This isn’t certitude but faith that takes us into such places because we put our lives in the metaphorical hands of this God in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus invites us to be ready (Luke 12:32-40), watchful and expectant that God will break into our ordinary existence with extraordinary grace and love.  We are invited to live with expectation, hope and faith because God is.  The One who is the source and life of everything is surely to be trusted but we are required to let go of our need to know, to define, to control.   Faith puts its hope and trust in this God, even without our knowing the whole way or necessarily seeing the fullness of the outcomes.  It is the impossible possibility of belief and hope against all the odds and that which we see before us.  We live and grow into this faith through a faithful, trusting life that abandons all into the restless, relentless journey that challenges us to be more than we ever dreamed of being and to do more than we ever believed we might.

Abraham left everything he knew and ventured out into an unknown, unimaginable future in faith.  His life opened into the unusual, wondrous paths that may never have materialised if he had opted for security and certainty.
What about you?

By geoffstevenson

The Way into Deeper Life and Being!

I met a woman once, a lovely woman who lived her life and wanted the best for herself and her family.  She lived in a particular neighbourhood that was somewhat impoverished, a street within a suburb dedicated to social or public housing.  It came with stereotypes and expectations – and discrimination.  It was a nice street and the people there were mixed.  There were neighbours who were mixed up, confused and struggling.  There were others who had it more together.  Some had lived there for years and others newly arrived.

She told me her story.  It took courage to tell this outsider her story and trust herself to this conversation.  I was somewhat naïve I suppose but listened with intent.  Really there wasn’t a whole lot of difference to her neighbourhood than those around where I lived except more of us lived in homes our families owned or rented privately.  She told me of her background, and that of her husband.  Good times, hard times but formed within a culture of certain hardships and expectations.  She played down education as the institutions of her life were always challenging and harsh – perhaps not to be trusted.  She left school when she could with the basics in place, but little more, as did her husband.  No-one in their respective families had ever really engaged with the school system and there were certain suspicions and expectations, beliefs that they could not and would not overcome.  School was for smart people, other people but not them.  They met, married and moved into social housing because that is what you did.  Their parents, grandparents and most friends had done this.  It was normal.  They moved between work they could find and unemployment but that too, was expected for who would really want to employ them.  Their parents, grandparents and other relatives had lived with unemployment and the pattern was well-formed within them.  What else would they expect?  Sadly, her husband really did want a job but no-one would give him one.

She talked, I listened, and I came away with an appreciation of the life she lived, hard at times, painful and joyful, in equal measure.  There were friends in the street and one over and there were those they didn’t like and didn’t relate to at all.  The general way of dealing with those you don’t like is to move, but they wouldn’t – yet.  They found their neighbours a few houses down a mystery, a lovely mystery because they were ministers and they broke all the expectations of everything.  They had two cars, which made them seem rich but no VCR, which made them sound poor.  They cared for people and had no enemies, even when others talked about them.

I thought of this as I read through some interesting readings for this week (Luke 12:13-21).  There’s a story about a man running up to Jesus and asking him to make his brother deal with the inheritance issues fairly.  Jesus refused and told a story about a man who accumulated grains and built bigger and bigger barns to store everything up so he could relax and enjoy himself.  It was at that point, says Jesus, that he died.  Interestingly I pondered whether his death was symbolic and metaphorical or physical.  I wondered what it meant and a couple of us chewed it over.  My colleague suggested that it made him ask: ‘What gives meaning to our life?’ What is it that defines our lives and to what do we give ourselves?  This woman and her family were defined by the cultural and familial expectations of the world they inhabited.  It was a world of low expectations and poor self-esteem.  It was a world of little education and relatively no ambition – well none of the ambition generally applied to those with aspirational thinking.  They never expected to be anyone important because no-one ever thought they could be.  Their world was small and confined but they lived within that world-view and did their thing.  I didn’t find her especially unhappy or upset with her lot in life.  She made the most of it and found joyful moments, alongside the difficult ones.  She yearned for other things but this was her life.

I confess that this woman wasn’t less happy and content than many others I have met who have had much, much more in terms of privilege, wealth and power.  She got money in, bought the necessary things, splurged the very little left over and enjoyed it.  I have met others who are indebted up to the hilt with big homes and bigger mortgages who cannot afford to furnish the multitude of rooms in this McMansion and are only one crisis away from losing everything as the economy rocks and rolls and their own precarious grasp on employment waxes and wanes as the company they depend upon moves through cycles of structure and restructure.  They live with more worry and fear, still believing that happiness will be connected with more and more.

What does give our lives meaning?  What defines who we are and what we expect from life?  Where do we turn for expected joy or hope or contentment?  Do we expect it?  All of us are formed through the culture, experiences and expectations of family, friends, culture and increasingly, media.  We take on subconscious expectations never really aware of what is directing us and nurturing our appetites.  We are seduced by addictive possibilities, some acceptable and others taboo, and give ourselves over to symbols of ultimate meaning and hope.  Whether we sit for hours before the pokies expecting a big win at any moment, or flutter on the horses in a bid to make a motza and solve all our problems.  Perhaps, work fills our agenda, time and effort or the hobby that takes every last moment and cent we have.  Perhaps we yearn for power, control and fame and yearn to be known and honoured, universally loved and showered with adulation – and the expected wealth that must surely follow. Everything around us has possibility and potential and can be a reflection of the deep beauty at the heart of all things.  Everything around us can also become an idol in our hands, usurping the power and possibility to which it points and to ultimately define and contain us, tying us in knots and slowly draining life and hope from us.

The man who wanted Jesus’ intervention betrays the dysfunction of his family and his own inability to relate to his brother or deal with his brother well and honestly.  He wants someone else to take his responsibility.  The man in Jesus’ story is so absorbed in himself and his ownership that he becomes disconnected from everything (including the earth that grew the grain!) and everyone.  He dies within himself.

Jesus’ invitation is to cast off the things that falsely define us and find deeper being and reality in the source or everything, the One who gives and sustains all life.  Paul tells us, ‘There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!  In the eternal Christ, all things find themselves in their rich and full reality of being.  This is deeply relational, grounded in profound love, grace, justice, peace, joy and hope – for all!

By geoffstevenson

The Way into Deeper Life and Being!

I remember hearing from the captain of a British Lifeboat who had been called out on numerous occasions to save the lives of people who found themselves floating in the freezing waters of coastal Britain.  He recalled that he had never met an ‘atheist’ when they were floating in the freezing waters minutes from death – all had prayed.  He went further to indicate that when people are confronted with the near and certain death experience it doesn’t matter who they are, what they have, or what they have achieved – none of that will save them from freezing to death in that moment.

He said everyone he had pulled out of the waters were desperately ‘praying’.  Some to a God whose name was familiar and others who found themselves in a lifechanging, overwhelming moment of clarity.  Through this desperate moment there was nothing left to them but to pray – it was all they could do!  It often became a fast learning experience as people realised that prayer is something that comes from the deepest places of the human being, a deep and desperate yearning or a cry of desperate hope in the midst of fear, anxiety and pain.

There are many modes and notions of praying.  For the most part, praying occurs at some distance, a point removed from real life or hovers around little, even miniscule things, in the context of broader life and living.  People pray for a parking spot to open before them or lights to change when running late.  Others pray for more money or stuff to fill their already overfull lives.  Often, we throw off serious prayers for people we don’t know in situations that seem dramatic and difficult and over which we perceive we have no power to change.  It is heart-felt but helpless and I often wonder what I/we believe, or hope might happen.  Sometimes prayer seems to be like some form of magical incantation, that if we say the right words in the right way, with the right earnestness God will do what we want and make everything right.  Some people believe this works in their life and much has been written and preached along these lines.  There are many who have prayed, believing, and have not seen the miraculous they wished to experience and so the questions around the efficacy of prayer rage on.  Never-the-less, most if not all people pray at some point in some way or form.  Sometimes prayer is directed towards the Divine and aligns with a religious form.  Sometimes prayer is unaligned to religious faith and life and is in the form of mediation or contemplation – mindfulness is the latest term.

This week we encounter Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-13).  These aren’t people ignorant of praying – they were Jewish.  They knew the forms of prayer and praying but still they asked to learn.  I presume that they saw in Jesus a deeper praying, a deeper experience that gave him a presence of deeper peace, wisdom and an experience of living that transcended that of anyone else they had ever met.  Prayer, in Jesus’ life, led him into the deepest place of living and being and he was more whole, compassionate, present and grace-filled than anyone they ever met.  So they asked him to teach them.

The prayer form Jesus gave them began with words, familiar words to many of us.  We call it ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.  In Luke it is a very brief form (we are used to Matthew’s version, longer and fuller.) but the essential elements remain.  This prayer is the significant prayer of Christian faith but never mentions Jesus/Christ, church, Bible or really anything pertaining to Jewish of Christian faith!  It really is a prayer for the world as it picks up the essential elements of life and being.  It names the Holy, the sacred and seeks the coming of the reality of ‘heaven,’ the way that reflects justice, love, peace and holiness in the world.  It speaks of bread for the day – bread for the body, but also of mind and spirit.  It also speaks of indebtedness and the forgiveness of our debts – as we forgive those indebted to us.  Bread and debt was part of the daily grind and struggle of the ordinary people of 1st century Palestine – as it is for the majority of the world’s population today.  Bread to survive this day is an imperative for many people, all of us really, although those who have too much overindulge and lose their lives in the forms addictive accumulation and greed.  Indebtedness is also the daily bind for many people and nations in our world.  Financial debt keeps people bound and deprived of life.  Indebtedness is used by powerful and wealthy to gain power over people and ensure they gain more wealth.  The prayer invites us to understand how bread and debt symbolise the essential elements of life and how we live together in relationship with one another.  Ultimately, who ‘owns’ the wealth and produce of the world, the minerals and resources?

The prayer seeks deliverance from the trials that test us, or perhaps deliverance through the trials that test us, form us and push us towards a more self-aware and compassionate life that opens our being to other people and the earth itself.  The deliverance through testing and trial creates more deeply humble and gracious human beings, with the realisation that we cannot save ourselves and that we are not the centre of the universe – we need other people and we need life beyond the life we live as a gift from God, through the presence of the One who loves us profoundly.

Jesus takes the teaching further by drawing us into a story of desperation and how that desperation results in persistent longing that moves to action.  His simple story is of one who has a desperate need for bread to feed family and visitor.  The person knocks on his neighbour’s door to seek help.  If she is desperate, she will continue knocking until the door is answered, even if it is late in the night.  Prayer becomes enacted prayer where the desperation of the heart becomes an action as fulfilment of that prayer.  I remember being told once: ‘Do not pray the poor be fed, lest you are willing to provide the bread!’  The essence of prayer and praying is to move us into a new and different place.  We come into the presence of God, and if we stop to listen and experience, we find ourselves drawn into the Divine heart where everything changes.  We see differently and recognise ourselves humble, and alive in the vulnerable power of love that flows from God into human lives opened to such flow through prayer, contemplation, reflection and meditation.  Eventually we move beyond words to ‘be’ in the presence and find ourselves in a moment that is true and deep, rich and pure – we will never be the same.  We are invited to knock, seek, ask and that journey arises from a heart-experience that grows deeper as we learn.

Jesus concludes his teaching by promising that the Spirit of God will be given to anyone who asks – this is the only promise in this teaching moment.  It is an invitation into grace, to journey into that deeper place and to receive the rich joy and peace of being’ in God.  This is prayer of the heart and is the life Jesus invites us into!

By geoffstevenson

Distracted Beyond Life!

I ventured out this week into Sydney, the CBD and travelled by bus and train.  It is always interesting to travel by public transport, with a multitude of others where focus is not on driving, the road and other cars.  I packed my bag in preparation with that which I needed for a meeting and that which I presumed would occupy my time on the journey there and back.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to read or do in the couple of hours travel time so covered a few bases and set off.

I stood on the bus and couldn’t read and the all-important (by the standards of other commuters) mobile phone was locked in my bag and hard to access.  I watched and thought and pondered my co-travellers.  There was much looking and watching, listening and flicking of screens.  A few carried on one-sided conversations, well one-sided from my perspective.  No-one really spoke, except into these phones.  Kids had tablets or phones, screens to amuse and silence them.  I watched and wondered and looked beyond the windows to the creek and bush we passed, some newer factories, hospitals and cars and people on the footpaths.  I saw people do stupid things on the road and others demonstrate thoughtful and gracious actions.

There was a world beyond the world of the cacoon of the bus – and then train.  It was a world that was as mysterious and silent as the passengers on this bus and train.  Houses, units, workplaces, hospitals, university, aged care centres and shopping malls all passed us by on-route to our own destination where, presumably, we would re-enter the human race and become relational beings.  Who were the people who lived out there?  What were the silent cries of pain or loneliness, confusion and struggle that went unheard in the vacuum of life in a closed-off world?  Everywhere I looked we were distracted, even in my thoughts there were distractions leading me off in every new direction, inventing stories about people I saw – the youngish woman with the tattoos and multiple piercings taking several long and quick draws on her cigarette as the bus pulled in.  What about the family of mixed race struggling to get on and off, holding toddlers in check whilst pushing a pram and heading for the hospital – what was their story?  Was it illness?  Was it visiting or treatment?  There was anxiety or was it tiredness and frustration on mum’s face and dad was going through motions, checking messages with one eye and kids with another.   Who were these people, my neighbours, perhaps – certainly those who lived in the same general region but people I will never know, nor speak to?

The stories and thoughts flowed with the rocking train into the city with its changing landscape, higher density and more crowding, people closer together and yet seemingly more separate, distracted and alone.  As I emerged from the train and had time to kill, I sat with a coffee as people rushed by.  All muted and dispassionate looks on their faces, bored or going through the motions of life.  Distracted by lights and colours and screens in hand and all around.  Distracted by shopfronts and sales and the spruiking of desperate marketing that promised everything – and nothing.  I was so distracted by the passing hordes and the wonder of their lives I almost forgot to taste the coffee I was drinking.  It is too easy to be distracted.  As I sat and thought I realised that I was on my way to a meeting with people from across the state to share stories, struggles and decisions that would be for the well-being of church and society and the world – if we got it right.  I was distracted and unfocussed.  What was important?  What was real?  What should I focus on to make my meeting more significant and effective – what really was important?

In my thoughts I wandered into an ancient and known story, a simple story that led me into another world, another place.  In this simple tale told by Luke (10:38-42) a pair of sisters welcome Jesus and his troupe of disciples into their home and shared a meal.  Mary up and plonked herself, ‘male-style’ before this rabbi from Galilee and hung off his every word.  Presumably he spun tales and offered wisdom on life and living and responded to questions and discussion and Mary delighted in this rare foray into the patriarchal world of learning and spirit and faith.  Meanwhile in the ‘back of house’ centre of functionality, Martha held sway over the time-honoured and valued work of women in providing hospitality.  She cooked and cleaned and made the space open and welcoming.  She served and served and served.  Service in Luke is a highly valued role – Jesus came to serve – but Martha is distraught and left fuming over her sister playing the male game and not lifting a finger to help.  Martha is tired and distracted by the many things that need doing – whether they need doing or not!!

Finally in a fit of fury, Martha marches on Jesus and lets fly with vindictive rebuke of him and her sister who is letting the side down and crossing all manner of boundaries…  Jesus, as always gently slides into the response and honours her work but calls her out for her distracted life.

There are many things, Martha, that worry and trouble you, that distract you from that which is most important.  Mary has chosen to do the more important thing.  The story ends and my mind revs into gear.  There are so many thoughts that tear around inside my mind.  Mary breaks social and patriarchal conventions and does the very thing women have been deprived of for centuries – and in many places still are.  She wants to learn, she wants her place in the world, valued and equal to others, whatever gender or race, or creed or orientation.  She wants her place as a person before this holy one of God.  She wants to sit in the presence of the Divine and listen – just listen and become.  What courage or desperation or faith does it take for Mary to break with protocol, expectation, culture and the pressure upon her and stop with tradition and honour Jesus with her presence?

I wondered as I sat in a busy space near Town Hall station and watched some of the scattered human race rush by.  Do we really understand what is important?  Do we take time to hear the cries all around us – of the poor, the Indigenous people, the asylum seekers, those caught in violence – domestic, in the workplace, in society… – those who live with mental illness or disability or chronic illness…?  Do we look into the cup of coffee and hear the cries of those who suffer to produce the beans or those who sweat life away in sweat shops to make clothes or…

Perhaps, like Martha we are distracted by the many things that consume us, worry or trouble us, some of which are vital and important and some of which are not the real thing, the main game of life.  We may accumulate the world and lose our lives, our souls, our being, distracted and busy.  Or, we may put aside our distractions and focus on the source of life that is love, grace, joy and peace.  The One we call God.

By geoffstevenson

How Far Love??

Five Jewish students, two from New York, travelled Hebron to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs, revered by the Abrahamic faiths as the resting place of Abraham.  It seems they took a wrong turn and drove into the Palestinian part of the divided city.  As the lost students travelled through the West Bank, their car was set alight with fire bombs and they were pelted with stones.  They frantically left their car and began running away, desperate and hopeless.  A Palestinian man heard the cries from inside his house and ventured out.  He saw them running in fear from other Palestinians.  The Palestinian man, Fayez Abu Hamdiyeh, rushed to them and spoke in Hebrew, reassuring them and ushered them into his house to protect them.  He called police and protected the students until they arrived.  When it was suggested he was a hero, Abu Hamdiyeh said, “I did what needed to be done,” he added, “That’s how everyone should behave. We have no problems with the Israelis and we don’t want to have any.”

I wonder what the students first thought when they saw a Palestinian man rushing at them whilst they were trying to escape other Palestinians.  I imagine that they felt threatened and more fearful and scared of him, one of the ‘enemy’.  There are many risk-taking stories of people crossing over social and other divides to provide help and support to someone who is ‘different’ and perhaps a natural enemy.  In the midst of a divided world there are many barriers and much fear – there are many ‘enemies’ and Jesus’ call to love is a profound challenge!

In contemporary Australia it is unsurprising to encounter fear-based anxiety and the exclusion of those who appear or sound different, those who are not understood and those are ‘not like us.’  From Indigenous Australia to asylum seekers, to those who look different, have a different faith system or those who are impoverished – economically, educationally, socially or who live with mental illness of physical disability.  Those who appear different are either ignored, rejected or treated with suspicion and excluded from ‘our world,’ out of fear, judgement or some sense of superiority.  Some of this is conscious and some exists in our subconscious minds. None of it is love, as Jesus calls us to live.

This week we have before us the well-known tale of ‘The Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:25-37).  This story and our traditionally mild interpretation have entered into the vocabulary of the wider society.  A ‘good Samaritan’ is a common reference to anyone who does a kind deed to a stranger.  The phrase is even part of the legal system that protects people doing a good deed to a stranger they believe injured or in urgent need of help – it is s ‘Good Samaritan Law’.  The phrase is used broadly in naming institutions and places where care and mercy are offered, where kindness is expected to be practiced to friend and stranger.  Good Samaritans are, apparently, people who practice acts of charity, care or kindness and this comes from a rather simple, even simplistic reading of Jesus’ story in Luke’s Gospel.

The story is part of a section where a lawyer comes to Jesus seeking wisdom about how he could ‘inherit eternal life.’  This is not about getting into some future heaven beyond death but the deep experience of God’s presence in life, now.  We might ask:  How do I find deep, rich meaningful life here and now?  It is an existential question and one that underlies the deep anxiety and sense of yearning that pervades our materialistic and increasingly superficial Western World.  Despite our increasing wealth and the capacity to have more ‘stuff’ than ever before, we are, on the whole, less satisfied, less hopeful and more depressed, anxious and afraid.  Despite having access to more information about more of the world and having access to more of the world through travel (or perhaps because of it?), we seem to be more cut off from people and more suspicious and frightened of those who are different than ever before.  We yearn for an answer to the lawyer’s question.

Jesus throws it back at him, asking what he believes and his response is that which is known as the Great Commandment, found in the first 3 gospels – ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, you mind, your soul and your strength.  Love your neighbour as yourself.’ These words are derived from the Old Testament books of the law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and were apparently often connected.

Jesus affirmed the lawyer and told him that this is the way into God’s heart, the way into deep and richly meaningful life – that which is eternal and lasting!  The lawyer wants to justify himself and define his actions – how far does this call to love extend?  Where are the boundaries and limitations of love?  How far do I have to cast the net of love and who is ‘in,’ who is ‘out’?  Jesus then tells a story of a man who falls victim to robbers and is left to die by the roadside.  In a typical story ‘of three,’ two people come past and set their priorities of love in one direction, whilst a third expresses his in another direction.  Two pass by and the third gives exceptional care.  The sting in the tail is this – he is a Samaritan!

If this were merely a story of example, Jesus would neither bother with priest and Levite in the first two, nor Samaritan as the exemplar.  Any three people would do – go and emulate number and care for one of your own in need.  That would be challenge enough possibly, except that the point of love, love for God and neighbour is that we are challenged to go beyond the natural bounds.  We are challenged to break down the barriers of hatred, enmity, suspicion, fear and rejection – we are to incorporate everyone into our circle of love!  This is hard!

When the Jewish man in the gutter looked up and saw priest and Levite coming he possibly believed he was safe but they passed by.  They were bound by other legal priorities and would not allow themselves to become unclean by coming into contact with one who was bloodied and beaten.  Ritual cleanliness was their imperative and defined how they would act.  We also find all manner of ‘legal’ or other ritual reasons to exclude, deny and avoid the path of loving those on the other side of social and other divides.

When the Jewish man looked up and saw a Samaritan, a sworn enemy of his people, he probably expected a knife, a boot; the logical conclusion of his beating – death. He looked into the eyes of another human who offered grace and care, crossed barriers that divided their people for centuries.  He was caught up in love that transcended barriers and boundaries and Jesus invites us to take up this challenge of busting through boundaries on the way to love.  We are challenged to embrace the ‘other’ as friend and neighbour as offensive and difficult as this might feel and be!

By geoffstevenson

The Path to Life Takes Us into Vulnerable Places!

There’s an old, old story.  It comes in various forms and takes different directions, but the theme is familiar.  A rich, powerful man (usually a male but not always) who has guile, ambition, drive and thinks big – for himself and those he wants to impress – suffers something that causes his life and ambition to be threatened.  He tries everything in his power but to no avail.  The bigger, more difficult and exacting the solution, the more likely, he believes, there will be a positive result for him.  Nothing works.  Finally, a young, insignificant person offers a simple, unexciting solution to which the man scoffs and resists until he becomes so desperate there is no other choice.  He is confronted with something that requires humility and simplicity.  His power and wealth are useless, and he curses his powerlessness, the absolute ordinariness of what is required of him but gives in and finds new life.

There is an ancient version about a Syrian called Naaman.  He was a powerful commander in the army and well-respected.  A hard working, wealthy, powerful man, possibly ‘self-made’ and driven.  He commanded and people responded.  He decided and it happened.  His master, the King, respected Naaman and all was good – except he contracted leprosy – probably an irritating skin affliction.

Naaman sought help from every quarter – he had the resources to search far and wide, but nothing cured him of his skin affliction.  He had access to the best but nothing worked.  On one of its military raids, his army had taken Jewish servants and kept them as slaves, and he had one in his house.  She quietly suggested Naaman consult the powerful prophet in Israel – he would cure him of his disease.  Naaman probably scoffed but was also desperate and approached his master, the King, for permission, which was duly granted.  The King wrote to the King of Israel suggesting he do what was necessary to cure his commander!   The King of Israel was deeply troubled, knowing he had nothing that could fix the man’s disease.  The prophet, Elisha intervened and told the King to send the man to him.  Naaman turned up with horses and chariots and servants and gifts of gold.  He was expecting something grand and decisive and would pay handsomely for it – that was the way of his world.

Elisha didn’t even go out and talk to Naaman but simply told his messenger to tell Naaman to go and wash seven times in the Jordan River.  Naaman was cynical and angry.  Why would he wash in that filthy creek??!  It was nothing compared to mighty rivers back home and it was muddy and awful!  His desperate servants, probably sick of his ranting and anger, pleaded with him: ‘Master, if the prophet had told you to do something big and grand, would you have done it?  So why not do as he says.’  Naaman went out and stripped off his clothes, that which defined him and set him apart from ordinary people.  Naked and powerless he waded into the filthy water and washed and washed and washed – seven times.  He was cleansed.

It is a fascinating story that is really quite confronting.  It points to a powerful, influential man used to being in control having to let go and become vulnerable and humbled.  Naaman was happier trying the harder things, proving himself, earning his healing or paying for it from his own wealth – doing something in his power and control.  He is invited to do the easier, unspectacular thing and can’t cope with it.

Is the unspectacular easier thing always the easiest thing to do?  That was the question one commentator asked and I wondered?  I remembered a scene from The Mission of Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary and slaver, who has fought and killed his half-brother in a duel for taking his fiancé.  He is acquitted but spirals into a depression of guilt and despair.  He talks to Jesuit priest, Fr Gabriel but nothing breaks through his guilt and depression.  Finally, he is challenged to make penance.  He journeys into the territory where he has taken natives as slaves with the missionaries and climbs a muddy, slippery hill with a bundle of his armour and swords.  It is torturous and demanding and when he reaches the top, he is recognised by the natives whom he has raided.  They approach with spears raised and look into his fearful, sorrowful, sad eyes; they reach down and grasp his heavy burden.  He is forgiven.  It is the simple, humbling road that brings him life.  It is when he gives up his power and the tools of his trade that define him and is humbled by mud and dirt and struggle, when he is raw and naked before the world and looks into the eyes of the other, that he begins to live.

In the Gospel story (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), Jesus appoints and sends seventy followers to out into the surrounding country and tells them to take the love and peace they have experienced and share it with those they meet.  They are to take nothing else with them but depend upon hospitality and welcome.  When they are embraced by a village they are to stay and share grace, heal the sick and bring peace and life in his name.  If they are rejected, then leave and find somewhere else.  It is a commission to go deep, build relationship and enter into the realities of each other’s lives.  They are to break bread, share the wine and food, heal the sick, drive out the daemons of life that burden one another and hallow the space they share together.

The commission to take nothing with them, to let go of control and go, as it were ‘naked’ into the world sounds absurd and ineffective and yet, they return sometime later with joyful stories of life and hope and wonder.  It feels counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, against our best instincts.  In churches we gather before the latest gurus to help us ‘do it better’.  We seek more resources to employ the best leaders we can to lift our congregations out of the holes they find themselves in and put all our hope in particular people to ‘do it for us’.  It isn’t only in the church, but the corporate and political world seek the best, brightest, glossy and glittering new ideas, people and methods.  Not much really changes.  We move further into complexity and chaos as we tangle ourselves into knots, seeking evermore complex answers, more control and power over the situations of our lives.  It doesn’t work but the easy answer seems so unappealing, so insignificant and powerless.  And we don’t want to be vulnerable!

It is only in the naked vulnerability of life that we really discover who we are and can be.  When all the dross and baggage is cast aside and the swagger, control and dependency upon wealth, position, power or privilege, is diminished that we find the way forward, the way to life and hope – together.  We cannot do this alone and we will discover that there are people we dismiss and deride who will be significant gifts in our journey, simple people with simple lives.

God invites us into the simple vulnerable space of inclusive community that welcomes, loves, shares food and life and recognises the sacred and holy in our midst!  The ‘easy way’ is often harder because we must let go of control and power.  Perhaps we need to ‘let it happen to us’ rather than making it happen to someone or something else.  We are invited to set aside the complex, difficult possibilities that require little of us except to maintain control, power and the status quo – and choose the simple path of love.  Jesus invites us to Love God with all we are and our neighbour as ourselves.  This is all we are asked to do and in this path we discover life in God that is rich and filled with grace and hope.  We discover the healing and life Naaman did!

By geoffstevenson

Fans or Followers??

There was a man who discovered the art of fire. He discovered how to start fire, control it and use it for heating, cooking…  It was a wonderful discovery and he, such a humble, generous being, wanted to share his discovery with the world.  He wandered around the countryside seeking villages and towns with whom to share his wisdom.

He went to one town and shared his knowledge.  He taught people what to do and how to use it, but they wanted nothing to do with this new-fangled idea and drove him out of town.  He shook the dirt from his feet and moved onto other towns.  Some drove him out, but some were more receptive and welcomed him, albeit with some suspicion and uncertainty.

In one town, the man created fire in their midst and showed them how to cook.  In the cold of winter, he showed them how they could keep warm.  People gradually responded to the man and his discovery and began to follow him, listening to all his teaching on fire.

The leaders of the town became concerned because more and more people began to listen to and revere him.  Their concern grew until they reached the point when they could no longer tolerate him and planned his demise.  They saw to it that he had an ‘accident’ and disappeared.

The people grieved his loss, so the leaders set up a shrine to his memory.  They set up all the implements of fire making and framed texts of his speeches and teaching. They had paintings of the man hung around the shrine and developed rituals of remembrance for the people.  They no longer used the fire he brought to the town, but they worshipped his memory

This is a common story, whether in religious traditions or wider society.  We are moved or inspired by a person, their life, teaching, wisdom or loving acts…   When they leave us or die, we venerate their memory.  Some funerals are renowned for their glowing praise and adulation of the person.  They venerate the person and praise their memory.  People extol their virtues and honour the memory and the reality of the person’s life.  There are metaphorical fireworks and a rapturous experience and then everyone leaves, holding to the memory but not the life to which the memory and teaching, actions etc point.  This is certainly the case in the memorial services of great leaders or the holidays and holy days that remember such people.  We become caught up in the celebrations and memory but not the reality of the life and practice it represents.  Our lives don’t change, or as commentator Brian McLaren suggests, ‘we become fans not followers!’

I confess I struggled with our readings this week until I heard a few words of Brian McLaren and he challenged me to think about how I celebrate ideas and values, sometimes more than embracing them into my life.  I am inspired and challenged by the stories of people like Martin Luther King Jr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Archbishop Oscar Romero.  I could add many others like Mandella, Mother Teresa…  These people’s lives and writings have challenged and confronted me.  I revel in them but too often celebrate them like a fan on the sidelines, cheering the team on, rather than being fully engaged in the ‘game’ that is taking place on the field of life.  It is often easier to cheer from sidelines than get involved in the cut and thrust of life lived in the raw places with courage, love and faith.

Two of the stories this week (2 Kings:1-2, 6-14 and Luke 9:51-62) speak of impending endings, departures.  Elijah, the ancient Jewish prophet is leaving.  The story tells of him being taken into the heavens.  It is easy to be caught up in the questions of how, what, why of this story and lose sight of the younger ‘apprentice’ that Elijah has been nurturing.  Elisha is caught up in the moment and it would be easy to focus on the greatness of his mentor and celebrate his holiness and venerate him – become a fan.  Elisha, however, chooses to be a follower.  ‘What do you want?’ asks Elijah.  Elisha responds, ‘I want a double share of your wisdom.’  Elisha wants to live the life rather than celebrate the memory.  He wants to continue the journey they have begun and take up where his mentor has left off, and it is granted.

In the Gospel story, Jesus is facing his impending death.  He turns to face Jerusalem, where he will engage the powers of the world, powers that control, dominate and abuse.  He journeys towards that place with expectations upon his shoulders, Messianic expectations that he will lead a revolt against the Romans and deliver the Jewish people into a new place of peace under God.  They expect a religious-military leader.  As he journeys, the disciples call for fire to come from heaven and consume some enemies who reject them.  Jesus stops and rebukes them for their lack of understanding and abuse of power.  They want the fireworks and the glory but not the real life of Jesus.  Others want to follow under their own conditions, enjoy the unfolding drama from a comfortable place and not engage in the challenging moment.  Jesus calls people into the journey, not the memory.

So much religious conversation within and beyond the church deals with ideas, values and argues over truths to be believed or not.  Why, for example, does Israel Folau, have to speak his beliefs into being on social media?  If he truly believes what he says – and if he does understand God as loving – why does he not actively reach out in love to help and embrace those he believes have messed up lives and are lost?  It is easy to throw pots shots at people we disagree with but much harder to follow Jesus in the way of love, grace and embracing all people into an inclusive, transformative community!  Jesus’ way is about claiming a peaceful, faithful and loving response to the world.  He challenged the expectations upon him and lived in a different, prophetic way that proclaimed love, grace, inclusion, relationship and through this, healing.  He sought to understand people and walk with them, offering a different way forward than the life-denying ways that oppressed or held them.

We need to live into these ideas of peaceful, relational, loving justice if we are to confront the major challenges of our world today.  Political and economic systems that are destroying the planet, creating weapons of death and denying many people freedom and life.  The assault on indigenous peoples throughout the world, the denial of place and home to these and other people, displaced through warfare and oppressive regimes.  It is not enough to cheer Jesus on from the sidelines or raising our voices in praise.  He calls us into a life of following him, of living the life of Christ in the world with all of its pain, struggle, joy and beauty.  We are invited into the place of hope and peace to share peace and hope with others.  It will take us into dark and difficult places.  It will take courage, commitment and love!

By geoffstevenson

When a Name Defines, Controls and Denies Life!

What’s in a name?  I think back to the ways we refer to various people at various times.  I can think of some of the more confronting and abusive names I have used for people in moments of hurt or anger or deep frustration.  I have called out at faces on the TV screen as I have heard them speak trash and their words have angered me.  I know that I have been called many things, some derogatory aimed at getting beneath my skin and causing me hurt and to help me understand how lowly I am thought of by the person or group.  Other names have been a blessing and lifted me up as someone has valued who I am and named it in me.

Names have power and often power is expressed over a person through naming them.  We use names to define people and place them in a ‘box’ where we can deal with them.  The abusive processes of consecutive federal governments have used blanket terms for asylum seekers, such as ‘illegals’, ‘boat people’ and so on.  The whole rhetoric around asylum seekers treats them as criminals who need to be detained in detention centres lest they inflict their brand of terrorism or anti-social behaviour upon our ‘free and lovely society’.  Of course, the policies are wrong.  They are unjust and contravene international human rights agreements but language, names, are used to define these people and imply they are evil (or potentially evil!).

Whilst these people remain anonymous and described by labels, it is easier for us to deny who they are and ignore them.  Then, occasionally, a person is revealed, and we have a face, a true name and identity and it becomes harder to deny the reality.  Tharunicaa is a 2-year old Sri Lankan child.  She and her family were removed from their home in Biloela in Queensland, in an early morning police raid, when they were 1 day over their visa.  Tharunicaa has spent her first 2 birthdays in a Melbourne detention centre.  Her sister is 4.  She has a name as well – it is Kopika. Tharunicaa has serious dental issues arising from lack of sunshine in the first year of detention and has been denied proper treatment.  The injustices and lack of compassion confound and yet, in all the government reports they are referred to in anonymous ways, generally ‘detainees’, that imply criminality or danger.

When we begin to provide a true name for people and therefore situations, we might begin to break through falsehood, injustice and abusive practices that limit people and keep them bound in the chains of discrimination, racism, sexism, and all the other forms of prejudice that control people.  Using the true name of a person can liberate them from the bonds that form around them, in reality or in their self-image, and bring freedom that allows them to be drawn back into relationships and ordinary life.

This week I have been contemplating a wonderfully complex and enigmatic story from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 8:26-39).  It tells of a man who is deeply lost and wounded.  He cries out in the day and night.  He beats himself with rocks and stones.  The townspeople fear him and lock him away with chains to keep him away from others and perhaps safe from himself.  He is the weird, strange, crazy man who lives amongst the tombs, the place of the dead.  Immediately my mind goes to the strange, crazy people I have encountered, especially the ones who engender fear and caution.  There are the people who stumble down the city footpath shouting abusive comments or those who look angry and are dressed in strange clothes…  I think of people addicted to drugs or alcohol or plagued with mental illness out of control who feel threatening, people I don’t understand because they are different – and nameless.  They are anonymous and I want to keep to my own safe, contained way.

This man is completely lost.  Like the Indigenous people one of the cultural guides in an Aboriginal Cultural Centre out from Darwin described.  He spoke of the sad people who dwelt in the city, lost from home and culture and drowning their pain and alienation with alcohol.  There are so many lost people all around us.  They are anonymous and helpless – yes, some appear and act in dangerous and anti-social ways!  The place where the man was, Gerasa, was in every way across the sea – it was in every way ‘over there’.  Galilee was the place of life and hope and truth.  Gerasa was across the Sea of Galilee in pagan territory.  He lived in the cemetery and his life was filled with everything that would defile and corrupt a good Jewish person.  This is the place Jesus journeyed into!   He asked the man for his name and the ‘daemons’ within him answered with the derogatory labels that were applied to him – ‘demon-possessed’… In the story he wasn’t even called a person, simply a generic term for ‘male’.  He was ‘non-person’ and didn’t rate any compassion, care, or real understanding – like so many anonymous people locked away in the chains and bonds of cultural rejection and prejudice – detention centres, for example.

Jesus would not accept an anonymous, impersonal, ‘untrue’ name and he acts to engage the person within, the hidden, lost soul within the body and mind that are out of control.  Jesus engages the ‘male’ and crashes through the labels (that may be diagnoses, categorisations, definitions, abusive names…) to discover the true human being at the heart of the man.  In contrast to the ‘city’ that this man lives in (a ‘city’ that needs a victim, a scapegoat to set themselves over and against), Jesus embraces this man into the Reign of Love that is the heart of God.  This Reign is gracious, inclusive, accepting and refuses to define, scapegoat or categorise and isolate.  This Reign recognises the person, the human within and seeks to give expression to this unique human being.

David Lose says:I find it devastating that he has no name, no identity left, except for what he is captive to…  He has been completely defined by what assails him, by what robs him of joy and health, by what hinders him and keeps him bound…”  It is this same sense of captivity that assails so many people within our world.  It comes through health crises or disabilities (psychological and physical), addictions, abuse, and the myriad forms of discrimination grounded in power abuse, fear, need to control, being different…

Finally, in our story, the man is called a human being, a man and he lives into this recognition and grace.  He becomes that which he is named.  Jesus’ expectation is that this human being of unique ability and expression will become who he is created and called to be – he is effectively ‘called into being’ through the love and acceptance of Jesus who reached out into the unknown dangerous and chaotic places and brought liberation and life.  We are invited to embrace this same way and be people who call forth love, hope and life in each other and those captive and lost.

By geoffstevenson