From Borderland to Life!

‘Borderlands’ is a fitting metaphor for many people as they exist on the fringes of being.  The borderlands are the spaces between the places of life, where the lost and lonely, grieving and displaced, confused and powerless inhabit.  Sometimes it is a journey that takes us through the borderlands, such as in the process of grief, where we journey into the dark and lonely place, ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’  It is a strange, confusing, complex world where we are in the liminal, black hole, kind of space where we can’t function and cannot move forward nor back.  It takes time and care to find our way back to the future and be able to re-engage in life anew.

Sometimes the borderland is the place where people live – mental, physical or spiritual illness, intellectual or physical disability, poverty, age, or social isolation.  Borderlands can be the place where people are driven because of who they are or what they believe or think or are able to do.  Others fear or distrust them.  Society excludes them.  Religions condemn them.  They live in borderlands, lost and alone.

I just finished Andrew McMillan’s book, Strict Rules, the story of the ‘iconic tour that shaped the Oils’.  It follows the amazing 1980’s tour of Midnight Oil and the Warumpi Band through Central and Northern Australia, bringing rock music to ancient and isolated Aboriginal communities and seeking to engage and learn about their life.  So much of the story describes the borderlands where too many people, especially younger generations, find themselves lost between the ancient wisdom and ways of life and the Western culture that has infiltrated and partially transformed them.  So many people are caught between what was, what is and what might be – without the resources to get there.  They live between the places, on an ancient land that their culture is more adept at surviving and living in harmony with this harsh, beautiful land.  They also have ancient lore, law and tradition that has survived millennia but are subject to Western culture, law and expectations that don’t always easily fit and work together – especially without resources, education, wisdom and the empowerment to be part of the decision-making processes.

Even more disturbing has been the well-meaning but ignorantly patronising interventions of whitefella institutions that have ‘taken children away for a holiday’ and never returned them to family and land.  The institutional removal of children and the colonising, civilising actions that denied land, belonging and hope from ancient and proud people and cultures, has them barely surviving in borderlands, the place between the places.  The sadness in the story is that many descend into hopeless powerlessness.  Addictive lives driven by boredom, confusion and existential alienation lead to desperate and hopeless young people.  And they remain forgotten and lost in distant communities.

The news of the day holds many sound bites and grabs of borderland people lost in the darkness of political decisions, military might, powers and principalities beyond their control that overwhelm their lives.  For others the severity of nature’s wrath overwhelms them as the fury of storms and cyclonic wind and rain create destructive havoc and total chaos, such as in the Bahamas.  Domestic violence is seriously deadly as women, in particular, continue to face brutality within their own homes.  Sixteen people each year die from quad bike accidents and legislation has been introduced to prevent it.  Current statistics indicate that 1 woman a week is killed by her partner, with many more suffering other forms of violence and abuse.  This is a serious borderlands issue – and there appears too little is really being done to change the culture of violence and abuse in family homes.

As a society we live in the borderlands of change due to the increasingly changing environment of the earth and its eco-systems.  Despite the firm denial by many politicians, a few ignorant nations and some corporations, the science continues to support the reality of a changing climate that is exacerbated by human civilisation and our impact.  The key compound is CO2 – Carbon dioxide.  It is rapidly accumulating in the atmosphere, severely changing the dynamics of water chemistry and heat exchange across the earth.  There are gross changes in water temperature and cycles of currents of warm and cooler streams impact the air currents and spread of warm and cool air, the creation of cyclonic conditions and so on.  The warming of the earth and waters reduces ice masses in the polar regions and raises the ocean levels.  Increased CO2 increases water acidity, which bleaches coral and changes the chemistry of water across the globe.  We live in the borderlands!

This week a simple story (Luke 17:11-19) has Jesus wandering along the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria.  The Jewish side was kosher.  The Samaritan side unclean and filled with hated enemies.  The Samaritans were hated from ancient conflicts and isolated from Jewish people.  As he wandered through this borderland, he encountered 10 lepers.  These 10 men were suffering from any of a range of skin conditions (probably not the modern form of leprosy called Hansen’s Disease but any contagious skin disease).  They were excluded and lived further in the borderlands of rejection, isolation and aloneness.  They had to stay away from other people and call out ‘unclean, unclean!’ if anyone came too close.  It was a warning to stay away.  These men were really beyond the borderlands and excluded from the life of the community in every way.  When Jesus came wandering down the great divide, they went to him, begging mercy and grace.  He sent them to the priest to show themselves as being clean – they would be returned to normal life; brought in from the wastelands beyond the borders and given life!

One, realising he was cleansed, returned to Jesus, threw himself to the ground and expressed his deep gratitude!  This one, was a Samaritan – an outsider who had received healing, welcome and inclusion in more ways than the others could comprehend.  This inclusion and welcome into the Realm of God’s grace was very real for him.  It was life-giving!  In Jesus’ gracious presence that day he understood what it means to be embraced into God’s Reign, know life and suddenly experience a place where there are no divisions, no ‘in and out.’  It was to be drawn out of the borderlands and into the place where life can be lived and all are embraced without fear or prejudice, superiority or judgement.  It is the place where love operates, and difference adds spice to the variety we experience in the diversity of people – held in a gracious unity of being.

It is perhaps a man who is desperate, has nowhere to go after being healed because he is still an outsider, who truly understands that his life will only find full expression and being, full identity, in Christ – in God’s loving embrace that will free him and enable him to become and be who he truly is.  This is identity and belonging.  This is grace!

Surely this is the hope and dream of so many in the borderlands.  I wonder what it will take for us to live into the welcoming, healing, loving communal way of Jesus?

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By geoffstevenson

Relationships, Forgiveness, Love and God’s Community…

Last Saturday we celebrated the wedding of our daughter.  It was a really wonderful day – the service, the celebration afterwards and sharing with family and friends.  This event brought two families together through the wedding of Katelyn and Andrew.  We came together as a ‘new entity’ through the marriage service, celebration and rituals, feasting and the sharing of stories.  People, family, from across three nations (Australia, New Zealand and England) have been connected through this wedding and the clans extended, broadened and relationships forged.  It was wonderful on the day to meet people from ‘across the ditch’ and recognise new connections, new relationships, and to realise that we are drawn together as ‘family’.

Such connections are essential to life and who we are as people.  At every level we find ourselves connected – to people, place, the earth and its creatures, culture, and the Divine that pervades all life.  Founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr, says that ‘The universe is relational at every level, and even between levels.  Relationship is the core and foundational shape of reality, mirroring our Trinitarian God (eg Genesis 1:26-27)’.  He makes the point that the essential nature of the universe and all things is relationship – everything is relational.  The very atoms that make up all matter are relational structures where neutrons, protons and electrons are held in relationship.  The power of the atom lies not in its constituent parts, but in the relationship.  That is why so much energy is released when atoms are split because the power lies within the relationship.  Our bodies are built on relational systems of organs and tissues that work within each system and together to make our bodies function.  The earth has eco-systems and all life is part of a web that connects us all.  At this deeper level, we are all connected and everything belongs because we are held in the deepest, most profound relationship that is grounded in perfect love.  We call this relationship, the Trinity, the Divine heart from which all things originate, belong and return.  The pattern of all things is derived from Divine relational community and is imbued with relational life, being and grace.

Indigenous cultures are more attuned to such relational being, through their deeper connectedness to the earth, its creatures and the world in which they live.  Their relationships are complex and profound and have sustained culture and communal integrity for millennia.  When we learn to appreciate the world around and understand that we are connected to every part of life and the world, through sharing the air we breathe, the water that sustains, and the sun that shines upon us.  Atoms in our bodies have been part of rocks and trees, animals and rivers and originally stardust, recycled through breakdown and renewal – the dying and rising, death and resurrection inherent in all life.

This week I have wrestled with a tough passage from Luke (Luke 17:1-10).  It follows from the previous chapters of Luke where Jesus speaks of God’s response to that which is lost – a lost sheep where the shepherd leaves 99 and seeks out the 1.  A lost coin whose absence breaks the integrity of the whole collection from which it comes – when 1 of us is lost, we are all impacted.  He tells that wonderful, archetypal story we call the ‘Prodigal Son’ (others refer to as the ‘Profligate Father’).  A boy makes the outward journey away from home, family and the place of origin, birth and belonging.  He goes with the egocentric certainty that typifies all of us as we begin processes of individuation.  He treats his father as dead, denying, ignoring and rejecting him BUT the father never forgets nor gives up on the son!  Every day he seeks to son and when he returns welcomes him as the son he has always been – this is grace!

The next chapter of Luke has stories of a cunning, shrewd steward who comes to understand that relationships are more important to his future than wealth and he uses what he has to nurture relationships to ensure his future.  Finally, a story of 2 men, a counter-cultural story of the reversal of fortunes following them into death.  The rich man is nameless and suffers post death whilst the poor man is called Lazarus and he finds comfort in Abraham’s presence.  Luke’s point: Wealth blinds us and draws us away from relationships, compassion and justice as we focus on ourselves and accumulating more.

In the current story, the sense of relationship continues as we are encouraged to build and sustain community through confronting those who do wrong with their offence and then to forgive when they seek it.  Forgiveness sought and given is essential.  Jesus even suggests that if someone seeks forgiveness 7 times in a day for the same repeated offence we are to forgive (this assumes that the offence is not of an order that is criminal and violent, which requires deeper response from the community).  Relationship is paramount and to deny relationship is to cause ‘little ones’ to stumble and fall.  We are invited into the place where we seek to nurture and grow relationship at every point and place relationship above ‘goodness’ and moral perfection or belief systems.  This requires faith – the faith we already have. The level of faith that is a small as a mustard seed.  In other words it is within our capacity if we have the will!

Jesus moves on to give a harsh teaching whereby he suggests that those who are servants do their job and are not praised for doing what they are supposed to do – it is expectation.  Some in the crowd would have cheered at this recognition of levels of society, classes, perhaps.  ‘Just get on with your job and stop complaining about doing what you are supposed to do…’  Then Jesus confounds us all and suggests that we are like servants or slaves.  We should not hold ourselves up as ‘good people’ and believe we deserve some reward for being good or doing what we know is right.  Doing the right thing and having faith is good and proper but it does not make us better, more deserving or greater than those who are different.  We are who we are through grace, whether we recognise this or not.  We find our identity through the gracious gift of love, forgiveness and mercy from God, in whom we belong and derive life.  Such grace is poured upon all people but not always recognised nor received.  The sun shines and the rain falls on those who are ‘good or bad’ alike.  We are, like the younger son in the story from Luke 15, the children of God whether we understand this, recognise this or even want this.  We can choose to ignore and even reject that love and grace or live into it – this is salvation and eternal life!

The community of God’s people should be an open, radically accepting, caring and loving community where forgiveness sought and given is normal.  We embrace those who are different, who are on a different part of the life/faith journey and hold relationship as central in all things – because God, the Trinity is a relational community of love and grace and the ground of all being, of all reality, of all things.  We reflect this Trinity of love when we love enough to reprove and forgive, and to be agents of reconciling love and grace.

By geoffstevenson

The Will to See and Act!

Sometimes something is right before our face and we do not (cannot/will not?) see it.  I have often looked in the fridge or cupboard for something and cannot see it.  I look and look and look but it isn’t there – well it is but I do not see it.  Perhaps it was in a slightly different position or had a different label or looked different for some reason and I didn’t see it.  I rant and rave or ask nicely where such and such is and someone else calmly replies that it is right there in front of me and I express my conviction that it certainly isn’t.  That person comes over and lifts the desired object out of the fridge, cupboard… with a knowing smile that indicates I haven’t looked or need my glasses…  That which is before us is so obvious that we look past or through it.  Sometimes the something is a person.

There used to be all manner of people who wandered through Parramatta.  There was one woman who pushed her trolley with a range of objects in it.  For the most part people ignored her, took a wide berth and probably never really noticed her until they got in her way or looked at her strangely…  She would then erupt with abuse and threatening language that would scare people off.  There were others, many homeless people, who wandered through the streets or sat quietly in parks or under bridges.  These were people who largely went unnoticed until they were pointed out.  I went walking a few times with welfare staff and they pointed out people, gave them their proper names and told me something of their stories.  These were people who had not existed in my experience or observation previously.  They were there but I didn’t see them, just as I had failed to really see those who lived with mental illness and existed within our midst in the city.  It wasn’t until we began work with people who lived with various forms of mental illness that I began to see these people, faces in a crowd who walked with head down or failed to get out at all and remained hidden.

I listened to a hauntingly ominous report this morning on ABC radio about the current state of the earth as a result of climate change.  The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a panel of UN scientific experts) reported that the current situation is far worse than expected.  They say, “Sea levels are rising, ice is melting and animals are changing their habitats due to human activities.”  This latest study focusses on warming oceans and melting ice and presents the most difficult and threatening report to date.  For many, this is a ‘something’ before our eyes that scientific experts are absolutely convinced of.  The effects and impact are there before us.  We see it in the leaching of colour in the coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef due to warming waters.  We can see the impacts on rising ocean levels, along with the impact on warming oceans and currents across the world.  This is a ‘something’ that the young can see before them and want their elders, who have power and capacity to change things, to act now!  Some see clearly whilst others don’t, can’t or won’t see.

There are many other issues that are before our eyes but we do not, will not or cannot see.  Poverty within many of our communities.  Domestic violence and the harm done to many women, children and some men.  The alienation of Aboriginal people within their own lands is alarming and distressing, as is the loss of culture, language and traditions that have existed for millennia on this continent.  Poverty on our doorstep in nations such as West Papua amongst the indigenous people and especially their current suffering at the hands of Indonesian authorities.  The situation of modern slavery that is rising and impacts millions of people, many of whom make our cheap clothing, or supply our chocolate, coffee and tea.  The desperation of asylum seekers across the world is overwhelming and exacerbated by the ways they are treated through various forms of processing and the difficulties that arise for them when there is nowhere to go.

In a small and somewhat strange story this week (Luke 16:19-31), we read of a rich man who lives well.  He has plenty to eat, a comfortable place to sleep and rest and security and comfort in life.  At his gate a poor man begged.  His name was Lazarus and he longed for even the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  He was so pathetic in his poverty that the dogs licked his sores.  He died and was carried into the heavenly realm where the great Jewish patriarch, Abraham, cared for him and gave him something of that which he never received in life.

The rich man also died but in a strange twist, congruent with ancient tales from various cultures, he was taken into another place where he suffered.  There was a deep chasm between the two but they could see one another.  The rich man looked and saw Abraham and, for the first time, noticed the poor man, Lazarus, who had lain at his gate every pathetic day of his life.  He begged Abraham to let Lazarus to come and relieve him of his suffering or at least dip his finger in water and quench the horrible thirst of his tongue and mouth.  But alas, Abraham pointed to the deep chasm between them.

The rich man then begged for Abraham to send a messenger to his relatives below and warn them but again, Abraham declined.  He told the man that they had everything they needed to be warned, to understand how to live justly and rightly in the world.  There were prophets, wise ones, laws and wise writings and if they opened their own eyes they would see the injustice, poverty and struggle that existed all around them.  If they didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t, then they were not going to believe someone telling them to do right.

This is a harsh and strange story that speaks into the reversal of things.  Usually the wealthy were revered as being blessed by God (sadly this bizarre thinking punctuates some religious thinking still today!) and the poor were being punished for some unknown sin.  This story invites us into a place where we begin to ‘see’ in a new way and recognise in the face of the suffering, the disenfranchised, the poor our own vulnerable place in the world.  These are our brothers and sisters.  These are the little ones that God has a special place for; not because they are better or more deserving than others but because God is just, loving and gracious and seeks a just and fair way for all people – and for the creatures of the earth and the earth itself.  When we fail to see the reality before us, to view life from other perspectives we may well become comfortable with the status quo and protect our own privilege against the unjust suffering of another.  When we have the resources to make a difference but won’t because we refuse to see or act, we are working against the ways of God, the goodness and justice built into creation and given to humans to sustain.  Ultimately we will deny ourselves the true life and joy we believe we are hanging onto.  As we deny life to people and the earth itself, we are destroying our own well-being and the relationships that will help us survive and thrive.  We nurture fear, chaos and conflict.

Love, truth and peace require open eyes, hearts and minds, along with a will to love.

By geoffstevenson

Relationships, Self-Interest and Shrewd Action…

I have been looking again at photos from our recent visit to the Top End of Australia – Darwin, Kakadu and East Alligator River, Litchfield NP, Katherine and Nitmiluk, and Adelaide River.  I am reminded of the immense beauty and wonder of this place.  The diversity of flora and Fauna continues to create a sense of awe in me.  I remember the overwhelming sense of wonder all around me as we drifted down a river or across a billabong or hurtled down a highway en-route to another place of beauty and experienced the vastness, the diverse raw beauty surrounding the coach.  The skies seemed close and vast.  The trees enormous, small, white, grey, black, brown and in infinite forms and array.  The magnificent crocodiles that lay in wait along riverbanks or billabongs, seductively quiet and seemingly asleep only to burst into immediate life s opportunity arose.  Their capacity to ‘leap’ from the water and grab food dangling high up was incomprehensible.  The birdlife was magnificent and vibrant and everywhere.

I ponder those photos and rekindle the experiences and sense of wonder.  I think also of people like Big Bill Neidjie, whose cave we stood before.  We took a moment to pay respect to him, his memory and the land on which we stood, land that his people had cared for and related to in deep and profound ways for millennia.  We looked at his art, drawings and writings that taught other indigenous people how to live on the land, with the land and its creatures and behaviour.  He also gave them a basic education in white fellas ways and language because he had been able to go to school for a bit.  Reading his story, I am convicted of how important, vital and real his relationship with land, creatures, seasons and everything around him, truly was.  I have much to learn about living on and with this earth, which provides sustenance for us all but is suffering terribly!

As I remember this astounding experience or the moments of awe in wandering the local parklands and creek on our morning walk, this week filled with powerful flows of water following rain, I recognise the raw beauty, diversity and the fragility of creation.  I am also aware of the powerful storms and events of nature that have devastated communities and nations in recent times.  Such power is overwhelming and it isn’t hard to understand why many ancient cultures (and more recent ones) feared the storms and worshipped storm gods in order to appease their power and seek protection.  In the Old Testament, the revelation of Yahweh, the God of Israel, was usually accompanied by the various manifestations of storms and nature’s power.  God was assumed to hold the forces of nature within ‘his’ power and control – they obeyed God.  We see this belief echoed in some stories of Jesus controlling storms and calling nature to submit to his power. 

In various ways people through history have understood God or their various forms of gods, to be revealed in the power and wonder of the world and to be in control of the breadth of nature.  Nature is a powerful witness to the wonder and mystery of life and of the Divine.  As we engage more fully with the natural world we understand the intricate and vital connections and relationships between all things.  Ecosystems, food chains, relationships between species that are mutually dependent, and the various cycles implicit and explicit within the natural world reveal the profound interconnectedness of all things.  In this we encounter and experience the Divine in mystery, wonder, and power. We name, define and control God and nature and all else but ultimately we discover we can only work with these powers, this mystery.  We find ourselves in awe before the power of the world around us and before the mystery we call God.

Through September many churches are engaging in a Season of Creation whereby they reflect on the beauty, wonder and fragility of the world around us.  They hear the call for humanity to remember our place within the whole ecosystem of life as stewards called to care for the earth and its creatures.  The absolute necessity of the relationships between us and all the earth becomes onvious.  Our spiritual, physical and emotional well-being depend upon the restoration of our relationships with the earth and its creatures.  The earth is suffering under the weight of human activity and we need to relearn the ancient practices and wisdom, even if we don’t retain the associated mythology.  The Season of Creation invites us to reflect on the wisdom literature of the ancient world and to rekindle a sense of wonder, along with the restoration of relationships with all things.

Other churches will read an intriguing story from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 16:1-13), which speaks about a dishonest steward.  This middleman for a wealthy landowner is responsible for the buying and selling of goods on behalf of the master.  He has control over the business interests in a particular region.  He takes his cut on the profits and lives it up.  Stories emerge that he is squandering the Master’s wealth and he is called in and reprimanded.  In desperation (and recognition that if he is sacked he isn’t fit to do manual labour and doesn’t want to beg), he hatches a scheme to use some of his (and perhaps the Master’s?) wealth to nurture some relationships with his master’s clients so they will look favourably upon him.  He reduces their debts significantly and they are indeed grateful and act favourably towards him.  The Master, surprisingly commends the steward for his actions and Jesus uses him as a positive example of how we might act and live.  Suffice it to say that scholars and other argue endlessly over this puzzling story and its implications.  In reality this is the only way to fully engage it – to argue and debate it within a group.

A clear implications within the story is that the steward, out of self-interest, acts shrewdly and reverses the nature of the relationships between himself and those who are in debt to his Master.  No longer do they relate through the power that debt imposes and implies but through mercy and even something approaching justice (even though the Steward doesn’t ever appeal to justice).  There is a more genuine relationship between him and the clients.  His shrewd desperation restores something of their relationship, and he realises that relationships are more important to his future than money alone.  He uses his resources to rebalance relationships and create a positive future – which, incidentally, benefits all people involved.  This is the nature of God’s realm, a reversing of the power imbalances and a restoration of relationship between people and people.

The crossover between this story and the Season of Creation is that relationships are at the heart of our future.  If we do not see the desperate need for the restoration of relationships and learn to act shrewdly, we will suffer – or continue to suffer as the earth struggles with changing climates, distorted ecosystems and the imbalance of relationships between humans and non-human creation.  The story from Luke invites us to shrewd restoration of relationships, if not for the well-being of all, then for our own self-interest that will also ultimately benefit all creation and bring peace to the earth.

By geoffstevenson

The Journey into Wisdom and Love!

The major stories in our news of late have been the loss experienced in bushfires in NSW and Queensland.  Great loss has been experienced and intense suffering for many as the bushfires burn in windy conditions that spread the flames and exacerbate the impact of fires.  Of even greater impact was Cyclone Dorian that ravaged and devastated the Bahamas, in particular.  The path of destruction is immense, and images convey almost complete devastation of parts of Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands – it is truly incomprehensible.  Over 70,000 are left homeless and the over 2,500 people are listed as missing.  Most of us cannot conceive of such complete loss of home, possessions, community and infrastructure.  Walking through Darwin a couple of months ago, I tried to imagine walking those streets following Christmas 1974, when Cyclone Tracey flattened the city.  There are some structures left standing from that event to help us visualise something of the complete devastation – a city flattened.

Loss.  Loss is part of our lives at very many points.  Sometimes loss is experienced intensely – we have no choice – and it leaves us breathless, lost, confused, and often powerless.  The consuming grief that we feel in the wake of deep loss is a dark path that we try to avoid at all costs – and sometimes do.  It is, however, a necessary path if we are to finally embrace our pain, grow through it and become more deeply who are created and born to be.  Pain and suffering are something that we all try to avoid, of course we do!  When it comes to us – and it will! – we can walk through that dark valley with its shadow of death and find that we are not alone in our vulnerability.  Or, we can run in every other direction, finding distraction and avoidance in every addictive, distractive path available.  We may avoid the pain, but we embark on a path whereby this softer pain festers within and through us, burning into our being and breaking out in subconscious and harmful ways that prevent us becoming and being our true selves.  This latter path also denies the yearning that lies at the heart of each of us, a yearning to fully become who we can be – it is the existential yearning that all people feel, although not all recognise or yield to it.

Life becomes a series of journeys into and through loss and growth – or as Jesus put it, dying and rising, death and resurrection.  It is only through dying, letting go (especially of our egocentric fears and desire for control, power and privilege), that we discover the path into deeper life where humility and compassion grow and flow, where love and grace are central, and mercy and justice characterise our way with others and the world.  The path through loss, in all its varied forms, is a path through grief and letting go – of people, possessions, dreams, fears, career, home, ego…  It is a testing path and one that takes courage.  It is a journey and becomes the journey of our lives – a two-fold journey that leads ‘away from home’ and back into the place we rejected, our ‘true home’.  We begin the journey through adolescence when our egos burst into life and take us out into the world to experience everything we can.  We are driven by ambition, possibility, lust for experience and encounter and the challenge to become what we can be.  We are seduced by fame, fortune, power, privilege and everything that the world around and our materialistic society throws at us.  We push against boundaries and make all manner of mistakes through the impulses that drive us.  All the time we are building and forming the vessel that is our life, our being.  These experiences give expression to who we are or might be and we experiment with ‘being’.  This journey ultimately goes nowhere.  It leads us out into the world and is necessary – we cannot avoid it, but if it is the only journey we make, we feel the alienation, loneliness and lostness of life.  We will always be seeking something more, something to ameliorate the existential yearning within, but never really find it.  That, sadly, reflects many people in our society who have never been helped to engage in struggle, pain and crisis and learn the deep lessons there.  Suffering becomes the crucible of our becoming.  It is the place through which we are formed and grow, build resilience and character and discover that which is ultimately meaningful and significant.  When we are reduced to the fundamental ‘nakedness’ of our being, of life, through loss or suffering, we have a glimpse of that which is truly important.  Our eyes are opened as we traverse life in its darkest moments and confront the fear that has controlled us: the fear of losing a person, a thing, a reputation, a perfect persona, power, position and the potential insecurity and confusion that pervades our life.

The second path or journey opens up before us in the wake of becoming dis-illusioned, naked before life, vulnerable in our crisis and suffering.  We begin to recognise, if we yield to the experience, our powerlessness to save ourselves or to be ‘a self-made person.’  We tread the journey into wisdom and deep life when we realise that we need salvation beyond ourselves – this is love, integration, wholeness and relational life that finds itself embraced by the sacred and holy.  We are led into places where we begin to move and live in the moment, appreciating what is, ‘now’.  We open to the experience of being and the awareness that the Divine is reflected in all things and that we belong to the universe that finds life, being and sustenance in the heart of the Divine – that Paul calls the Christ in whom all things exist.  Not everyone walks this path!

This week’s reading from Jesus’ life comes from Luke 15:1-10 (11-32).  It is a series of stories that address loss.  The movement is through loss of things.  When we realise our loss, we begin the search and in finding there is celebration, whether significant coins or sheep, that are lost, searched after, and found.  The additional story (Luke 15:11-32) is the well-known story of the ‘Prodigal Son’.  It is a story that holds the mythic truth of the 2-fold journey of life that we have described above.  Jesus tells of a son who asks for, and receives, his inheritance.  Effectively denying his father’s existence, he runs off to experience life beyond the provincial town and back-water farm that has been his life.  Life is lived to the fullest expression whilst there is money in his pocket – wine, women, song, and friends aplenty.  When it runs out, he finds he is alone and lost.  He realises that he yearns for home and returns.  The miracle is that the father was always awaiting the son’s return – he always was and is a son.  Home is where he belongs.  These stories speak into God’s yearning for the lost to be found, to find ourselves in the journey of wisdom and love.  It is a recognition that God is present to us wherever we are and whatever we are doing but our own sense of ego and personal choice often makes God redundant to our life and experience – we reject any sense of our need for God, for the sacred, the Divine and the spiritual path that leads into deeper being and belonging in God.  Regardless of what we think about God, it doesn’t change the deeper reality that God is always with us, for us and holding us in grace!  ‘Home’ is in the heart of God who is perfect love and grace!

By geoffstevenson

The Way of Wisdom, Life and Faith Passes Through Dark Places!

A story(s) and thoughts from spiritual writer, Anthony de Mello:

“Have you heard of the man who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his expedition to the New World and kept worrying the whole time that he might not get back in time to succeed the old village tailor and someone else might snatch the job?”

“To succeed in the adventure called spirituality one must have one’s mind set on getting the most out of life.  Most people settle for trifles like wealth, fame, comfort and human company.”

“A man was so enamoured of fame that he was ready to hang on a gibbet [a gallows] if that would get his name in the headlines.  Is there really any difference between him and most business people and politicians?  (Not to mention the rest of us who set such store by public opinion).”

In pondering some severe and very difficult words of Jesus this week (Luke 14:25-33), I though of these stories – and another!

There was a king who visited the monasteries of a great spiritual master.  The king was surprised to find more than 10,000 monks living with him in the monastries.

Wanting to know the exact number, the king asked, ‘How many disciples do you have?’
The master replied, ‘Four or five at the very most.’  True seekers are rare!

I had this image in my mind of Jesus, a great spiritual master (amongst other things!), walking down the road.  He was followed by a multitude of people who all wanted a piece of him.  They hung off his words and found something insightful and life-giving in them.  He was popular!  I imagined Jesus turning around every now and again, facing the crowd and saying, ‘You can’t be my follower unless you…’  He said this three times and each time there is a cutting edge to his words.  The first is ‘…unless you hate your family.’  The second is ‘…unless you take up your cross.’  The third is ‘…unless you give up your possessions.’  Hard words indeed.  It comes across almost as if he didn’t want people to follow him but is really the warning about embarking unthinkingly upon the journey of spiritual growth and life.  It is not an easy journey, which is why most don’t make it.  It is, as de Mello says in his story, for the rare true seekers who are willing to engage in the harsh and hard journey through struggle, suffering and letting go before entering into the place and space of true life and being.

Three times Jesus warns those would-be followers that being a disciple is not for the faint-hearted, those who want complete control over their lives and want to hang onto the things they own.  Jesus’ point is that the harder we cling to things we possess, the more possessed we are – whether that be family, life-comforts or wealth and physical possessions.  Most people hold ‘family’ as sacred and we therefore we feel angry and resistant to Jesus’ words about ‘hating family…’  The sense of his warning is that when we idealise family (and other relationships) we tend to idolise them as well.  We do not look honestly at those relationships nor the people behind them.  We fail to question the experiences of family and people close to us, or the assumptions and expectations that come to us through family and close relationships.  We fail to engage with the very real issues that exist within families and family structures.  In failing to honestly understand our relationships and the people close to us, we fail to understand ourselves and the unquestioned assumptions that guide and motivate us.  Unless we free ourselves from such assumptions, expectations and the culture of family, we will never truly appreciate and love those who are our family or friends – nor ourselves.  In some families the culture is violence and abuse.  In other families it is high expectation around education or professional success (as reflected in movies such as ‘Dead Poets Society’)…

The second warning appears in a few places through Jesus’ words – ‘You cannot be my disciple if you do not take up and carry your cross.’  It is the way and path of suffering that is mostly avoided by the vast majority of people, religious and otherwise.  At first it seems bizarre to think people would want to embrace suffering!  Surely it is our duty to stop suffering and help people avoid it, but truth is, avoidance is impossible because suffering is the path into deeper wisdom, understanding, life and compassion.  The truly compassionate people of the world are humbled by their suffering, by a sense of awe and wonder at their own powerlessness, and the emerging new power of love that grows within them.  To take up our cross is to follow into the path and way of Jesus (and other great spiritual leaders).  He went to the cross, let go of everything and found the path into deeper being, a deeper reality and the heart of Love.

His third warning is to steer us from possessions, which includes the physical things we own and hold onto, protect and which ultimately own us and absorb our time, energy and worry.  In Jesus’ time (and in some cultures today), possessions also included people and relationships.  It may also include power, prestige, position, fame, and the ambitions, drive and that which forms in our dreams of success and achievement.  There is nothing inherently wrong with owning things, although our society’s capacity to accumulate unnecessarily and refuse to share resources with the broader world where profound need exists, is questionable, sad and greedy.  When we reach the stage of owning things in a clinging, desperate manner, we are probably possessed by these things or the perception that we are not a real, significant person if we can’t match others in what they own.  Being possessed leads us into alternative paths of living that are dependent and ultimately life-denying.  Jesus’ multitude of exorcisms were often about the elimination of that which causes spiritual dis-ease, emotional disconnection and the alienation of our being.

In all of this, Jesus invites people into a path that isn’t simplistic, and he doesn’t allow us to avoid the path he took.  The trouble is that the church, along with the dominant cultures in which it exists, choose the easy way, the path devoid of any suffering or need to let go.  Without letting go, without giving up, without the honest self-reflection we do not walk into the path of self-awareness and life.  We will always be defending ourselves and our beliefs.  We will always be protecting our stuff and we will always be searching and seeking for more, living with the fear and anxiety that pervades so much of human life.  Richard Rohr says: “Following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world.  To allow what God for some reason allows – and uses.  And to suffer ever so slightly what God suffers eternally.  Often, this has little to do with believing the right things about God – beyond the fact that God is love itself!”  It is this powerlessness of God that is the salvation of the world.  Those who choose this path enter into eternal life now, walk with God, see more clearly and are instruments in God’s salvation of all!

By geoffstevenson

Power, Humility and Musical Chairs!

Many people in the public space, public figures who have higher profile through their position/power, wealth, celebrity, education status… have a higher regard for who they are and what they can do than perhaps is reality.  Donald Trump, for example, cannot separate the authority, power and responsibility of his position as US President from his own persona.  It is as if he has the power, authority and everything that is held within a particular role – even to the point of wanting to ‘buy’ Greenland!  A journalist, covering his candidacy had an interview with him and he suggested she would like a photo with him!  It was an expectation.  Trump also believes that he has the right to abuse and put down anyone who would ask a difficult question, disagree with his perspective or call him to account.  He also seems to believe that he has the right be sexist, racist and to discriminate in any way he chooses.  He is not alone in thinking this.  Vladimir Putin, as I’ve commented before, is far more cunning and vindictive, violent and capable of gross evil, and holds this dominating power over and against all who would challenge him.  Many Australian (and certainly current British!) leaders have also exhibited this arrogant sense of them being all-mighty and all-wise, simply because they hold a particular position which really has greater responsibility than anything else.

High profile celebrities strive for recognition at the ‘A-list’ events – especially awards night after-parties.  The Oscar after-parties are legendary as the ‘would-be-if-we-could-be’ seek to be invited to the higher order parties, those with greater prestige.  There have been stories of people turning up to these higher order, A-list parties expecting to be let in, only to be turned away and having to resort to one of the ‘lesser’ parties.  They grieve not being seen with the elite of the social world.

It is fascinating to observe how ego and arrogance push people to strive further for greater recognition and honour.  Humility seems to be a ‘dirty word’ in our society.  People’s worth seems to rise with the recognition they receive through the accumulation of wealth, success in business, the arts or sport, education status, positional status and authority.  Many people feel they have greater authority, or their voice is worth more simply because they own more or control more.  There is often an unstated correlation in the public’s mind between a person’s profile and worth and the obvious wisdom they must have.  Alan Jones has celebrity and is listened to by many people and wisdom, truth, and insight are attributed to him.  Likewise, Rupert Murdoch.  Both have power but neither demonstrates any sense of humility and they expect to be heard and taken more seriously than other voices.  Their wisdom is very often lacking.

So, I come to a story that seems quite dangerous and disturbing, at least for the balance of societies like ours.  It certainly was for the time in which it was written and played out.  It comes from the ancient story of Jesus, attributed to ‘Luke’ in his account of Jesus (Luke 14:1, 7-14).  In it he tells of Jesus, as a pious, holy rabbi, being invited to a high order party held by the political/religious leaders of the Pharisee Party.  It is an invite-only dinner party where on-lookers presumably were able to listen in and observe the interactions.  The tradition, as I understand it, was that people invited those on an equal level or above them to these dinners.  The invite came with an anticipated reciprocal invitation to another dinner hosted by the invitee.  You only invited those who you wanted to impress or honour and those who would/could invite you in return to an equal event.

Somehow, Jesus was invited to this affair and he offered his candid advice through the course of the evening.  He suggested that when you are invited to a communal dinner, a wedding gathering… don’t take the higher level seats in case someone more important than you showed up and you were asked to vacate the seat and move farther down the list.  Such a situation would be shameful, humiliating and cause a profound loss of face publicly.  Instead, suggests Jesus, sit in the lower places and the host may then invite you to move further up in the more privileged, respected seats, thus honouring you publicly.

He went on to further suggest that when hosting parties, don’t just invite those who are more honourable and who can invite you back.  Invite the poor, outcasts, marginalised – those who cannot return your invite.  This is the way to deeper compassion and life, love and grace – all things of God, who will see what you are doing, and it will be valued!

At first glance, these stories seem to be gentle advice on how to get ahead in life – display false humility and you may find yourself more highly and publicly honoured!  Invite the poor and God will look upon you with approval and you will earn ‘heaven points’ from your gracious acts.  However, these are not stories designed to help anyone ‘get ahead’.  They actually upset the order of the social structure in which Jesus (and Luke) lived.  Jesus turned expectations and status quo on their head and disturbed the privilege and assumptions that surrounded such privilege in the world.

Jesus’ words are about taking ourselves, other people and God seriously and to walk into the 3-fold way/path of love, which is the only truly life-giving path.  To take myself seriously is to recognise that I am a unique individual with unique sets of gifts, skills and attributes – some are developed and contribute to the well-being of the world and others more hidden and undeveloped.  I am not better, nor higher, greater, more significant… than any of the rest of God’s children.  We are in every sense equal but not the same.  That is the humility we need to embrace – I am ordinary in the sense of being equal to all others but also special in my own uniqueness, as is each person.  We are all loved profoundly by God and in this we find our worth, our esteem, our value and our sense of being – in this alone!  Everything else is fraught – it plays with our egos and makes us feel better or worse, lesser or greater with no real basis.

When we recognise that our true worth, which is very deep and precious, comes from finding ourselves, our lives, within God, we are then able to see each other person as one uniquely created in God’s image.  We will also recognise the strengths and failures we experience in each other, but our response will not be dismissive or rejection but love and understanding.  Jesus is inviting us to recognise that we are all people and a communal gathering or dinner is not a competition but a relational place where we engage with each other as fellow human beings, each with strengths and weaknesses, joy and pain.  When we look to the vulnerable, marginalised and poor, we discover people who need a hand up, a place to belong and share life, a few shared resources that they deserve.  We also discover something about them and us when we share a meal and welcome them into our space.  We become more human and they do as well.  Jesus’ way will challenge the spaces within our social order and invite us to allow love and grace to flow and life to be lived.

By geoffstevenson

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!

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