Where Will We Encounter the Divine in Ordinary Life?

Tex Sample, a United Methodist Minister from the US, tells a story of himself as a teenager doing work after high school as he prepared for college.  Tex was employed on a truck, along with an older black man.  They were a team and 18 year-old Tex was the ‘boss’ because he was white (despite knowing very little about the work!).  Their job was to follow along behind a drilling team a few days after their work.  The drilling team were searching for oil and Tex and his ‘offsider’ (Jim) went in and pulled the pipes out of the holes to be re-used.

On one particular day, the water can they used to provide drinking water through the course of a very hot and dry work, was missing from the truck.  Ignorant, arrogant and naïve Tex said they needn’t worry as there would be somewhere on the road to buy water or drink.  Old Jim silently went out the back of the station and found a rusty old tin can, slapped the excess rust and mess from it and filled it with tepid water from a tap.  He got in the truck and carefully placed the tin can between his feet.  Tex inwardly gloated as he cast a glance at the dirty tin can with water and floating flecks of rust and a thin film of oil.  Old Jim just looked straight ahead – this was the time of segregation and before Civil Rights.  Jim knew his place.  He also knew how to be prepared on a hot day.

The first drilling hole came up soon enough and they worked hard to pull the pipes from the hole.  It was tough work and took an hour.  Even thought the morning was still early, there had been little decrease in the heat overnight and they were sweating profusely by the time they finished.  Back in the truck, Tex was thirsty but stoic and confident there would be soon a shop.  Meanwhile, Jim quietly blew the flecks and oil film back and took a deep drink.  He finished and carefully placed the tin back between his feet, always looking straight forward.  This happened another two times and by late-morning, Tex’s stoicism had become sheer stupid stubbornness, exacerbated by the racism of his age.  He was suffering serious effects of dehydration and heat stroke.  He had a worsening headache, his vision began blurring and he no longer sweated, despite the hot sun.  They got back in the truck and Jim carefully pulled up the tin, blew flecks away and drank of the water.  Tex knew he had to have water – he was in desperate trouble.  He didn’t know what to do or how to do it.  He had never drunk from the same cup as a black man and he didn’t know how to ask for help from a black man – it was not in his experience and always the other way round.

In the midst of this crisis, Tex’s racism could not be sustained and his need for water was more vital than maintaining status quo.  In a broken and vulnerable voice, he asked:
‘Uh Jim could I… can I… would you mind if I…uh…had…a drink from your can?’

Jim replied, ‘no, suh, Boss, help yourself.’ He handed the can to Tex who looked into the dirty can where there was more concentrated rust flecks and oil but a couple of inches of water never looked so beautiful!  He drank the most delicious water he had ever had and Jim looked carefully ahead.  There was no gloating, no arrogance only humility.  As he drank, it occurred to Tex that this was Holy Communion.  This dirty, rusty can was the chalice with the wine, symbolic of Christ’s blood and he had just drunk and experienced life.  The warm, rusty water was a gift of life and somehow, mysteriously, God was present in this experience.  Somehow God was present in this strange place where a black man and a white teenager had shared a rusty tin can with water – something that would never happen in real life beyond this place.

Tex thanked Jim and they drove off to find a shop and more water.  They bought food and sat under a shade tree and ate together – they broke bread.  Tex expresses his shame in the way things played out between himself and a black man, the racism inherent in the system of his life that was to change as he grew and began to understand.  Never-the-less, in this moment grace broke in and enabled something that was deeply profound in his world.  Jim’s gift of water saved him from serious health problems that day.

This week we read the story of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17).  It is simple in the telling but profound upon reflection.  Jesus identifies with the ordinary people who have come forward seeking meaning, forgiveness, healing and life.  He enters into the way of people drawn to John and seeks baptism, committing himself into this way John speaks of and invites people into.  John protests that he should be baptised by Jesus but Jesus rejects this and submits to John’s ministry.  As he comes up through the waters of the Jordan River, the heaven part and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove upon him and a voice calls from heaven: ‘This is my own dear Son, my beloved.  With him I am well pleased.’  Jesus is then driven into the wilderness to be tempted and tested for 40 days.

Jesus submits to the way of God and God’s voice affirms that Jesus is beloved and pleasing.  In this God affirms the way of Jesus as the Divine way in the world.  The radical paths that Jesus will take are the identified ways of God – eating with ordinary and lowly people, those with bad reputations and caring for outcasts.  He stands against the powers that oppress and calls for mercy and justice.  He says the wealthy must share with the poor – to give up their money (and greed).  Jesus calls for all people to give themselves into the way of love, justice, peace and hope and to be inclusive and generous to friend and stranger.  He also urges us to pray for and forgive those who hurt us and be people of forgiveness and reconciliation.  The way of humility, vulnerability and service are affirmed as God’s way in the world

In this story we encounter the 3 persons of the Trinity represented in baptised ‘Son,’ descending ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Father’s’ voice of blessing.   We are invited to share in the blessing that is proclaimed and live into the life that God has created in us and for us, a life of inclusive grace where there is enough for everyone.  All creatures – and the earth itself – live within the generous peace and abundance of God.

In this story we encounter God in the simple that becomes profound – water and baptism that cleanses, renews and invites us into something new and bigger, more profound.  We are told of the Spirit’s descent as a dove and a voice from heaven that calls out love and blessing.  Through this season of Epiphany, we will encounter wonder and mystery in the simple things that reveal the Divine in awe-inspiring moments and experiences.  As Tex Sample experienced grace in the midst of deep thirst from an unexpected place, so we may find God lurking in the simple and ordinary and yet unexpected.  In the simplicity of water that quenches thirst, Tex saw revealed the wonders of grace – Holy Communion, the blood of Christ come to him through a black man’s generosity and wisdom.  Where will we experience the mystery and wonder of God?

By geoffstevenson

What Will I Worship?

The dog and I were walking this morning along one of the bush tracks, creek on one side and scrub, trees lining our way.  I was daydreaming, wondering at the smoke laying low and the places it came from.  I was taken aback by the beauty of some of the trees that seemed to glow against the grey, hazy sky.  In a moment the lead yanked hard and pulled me in another direction.  Nico had smelled something and was captivated, sniffing, circling and fully engaged and me dragging along in his wake.  A few moments and his curiosity, his obsessive desire seemed to be satisfied, assuaged and he was willing to return to the gentle stroll.

There were other moments when he was drawn into another place, a curiosity, a need, a smell, a sound, another dog or the scurrying of a lizard and he was obsessed.  It was as if something deep within him triggered him to life and he was off.  Everything was focussed on the distraction or inner desire that drove him – and by implication, me on the other end of the lead.  I wondered quietly to myself what it was that captivated him.  I wondered what caught his full attention, what it was within him that caused everything to be focussed on this one thing and then how it could be switched off and turned somewhere else.  I wondered…

I wondered how much like me, us, humanity this simple 3-year old dog is.  Except, he is much more connected with his passion, his being.  There doesn’t seem to be any other complicating psychology to him – he sees something, feels something, wants something and goes for it, revealing to all the world what it is.  I am rarely left in doubt that he wants, needs, yearns for something – including his morning walk or a game in the afternoon.  The old Labrador only wants a pat and lots of food and he never leaves us in doubt.  Yet, within myself I am often confused or even mistaken over what I want or need or am feeling.  I have a sense of something deeper, a deep yearning and hope but it flashes through my being, my consciousness and I don’t sit long enough with it or am distracted by the many mixed messages and miss the point.  I hear the wisdom of the world around – power, money/wealth, prestige/position, aspiration, education, success and so on.  There are so many possibilities, so many distractions, so many ways and yet, I wonder…

As I venture down various paths, try new ideas or experiences, follow other wisdom or even accept the common beliefs, I am often left with the sense that there is something I’ve missed, something important that has slipped through my distorted vision.  Other times I have the sense in my gut that there is something richer, deeper and more significant at the heart of everything and it is really this for which I yearn.  There are the sacred and holy moments where the glimpse is a richer experience of that which lies at the heart of everything.  I feel it, ‘know it’ in my being and reach out to grasp and hold onto it only for it to slip beyond me.  I want to define and control and own the experience that is so real – put a name upon it and speak of it in a knowing way – but cannot grasp it with words nor rational thought processes.  It is there but it isn’t.  I look up and the sunbeams through a tree overwhelm me with beauty.  The red-bellied black snakes writhing in a contest for dominance just off the bush track fills me with wonder.  The Squawk of the cockatoo or Bellbird song is rich in the morning air.  The reflections off the creek or the smell of eucalypts. The taste and texture of food in my mouth and the stories of a world in crisis stirring on the radio, filled with courage and pain, hope and despair.  All these things call out to me and that inner yearning, the longing at the heart of my being cries out in silent hope.  Will I be still enough to hear?  What will I do in response?  Will I move into passionate action like Nico on his walk, or the distracted apathy I sometimes feel?

Next Monday concludes the Christmas Season, the 12 days of festival celebrating the incarnation, the birth of the Christ-child into human and material existence, the revelation of infinite, eternal God in the finite, material and world of flesh and blood, time and space.  The day is Epiphany, which speaks of revelation and mainfestation, of seeing light in the darkness and being exposed to this Divine Light in all things.  It is an invitation to have open eyes, ears, hearts and minds to that which lies beyond all things and calls out to us in vulnerable invitation – from a baby born and laid in manger and chaff; from a dog sniffing through local bush; from a tree glowing in the early morning light or a bird darting down to protect its young or cockatoos squawking high in the tree-tops.  The call comes from beyond us and in us, deep down in the depths of being, where the deep yearning of the human heart quietly bubbles up and through conscious being as glimpses of light, hope and wonder draw us on and down and deep – if we are willing to attend to this call.

The story told on Epiphany comes to us from Matthew’s story, the well-known story of Wise Ones (were they men?  Probably but maybe not) who were called Magi (magicians, astrologers) from the exotic East.  We are filled with fascination and wonder at these strange visitors and their even stranger gifts.  They come, following a star to the place where the child (probably 1-2 years old) lived with his parents.  They were alerted to this event through their own ‘sciences’ of astrology.  They read the stars in the heavens and interpreted these events.  As the story is told, they understood a special ‘King of the Jews’ would be born, and they followed these heavenly directions.  It led to Jerusalem, the obvious place for a king to be born.  There a king, a horrid, vicious, jealous king who portrays innocent interest.  It was his Jewish advisors who searched their Scriptures and were able to ascribe a town of birth to a Promised new king and off the wise ones went.

These pagan, gentile astrologers were grasped by their passionate yearning; touched by an inner conviction to go!  To go and worship, to behold the sacred and holy in this One – a light to the gentiles, the whole world, and drawing people into its embrace through their own wise pursuits, honestly seeking and yearning and ultimately willing to give themselves into the worship and offering of the Divine, the Sacred that holds everything in love and wonder, mystery and hope.

What happens when I listen to that which arises from deep within?  When I stop and listen undistractedly to the inner voice of love that calls ever so gently into my life and being, what do I hear?  When everything else is set aside, or when the bushfire rages through, destroys all, what is left?  When I face my ultimate fear or pain. or desperate need or desire, where do I turn?  What do I look for?  Who/what do I listen to?

Am I willing to come in vulnerable hope, powerless and lacking control, naked, as it were, before the Christ-child, the eternal Christ who bids me come and embrace the dying-rising life where letting go opens the possibility of finding the very Light my heart has glimpsed in the darkness and has yearned for.  Will I come and worship, giving my all?

By geoffstevenson

Seeking Asylum from Powers of Violence!!

We are in the midst of the 12 days of Christmas, the Christmas Season.  Whilst the world around us will quickly move on, rushing relentlessly forward to the next party or celebration or distraction, there will also be the unbearable struggle that characterises the lives of so many people for diverse and varied reasons.  Within Australia there will be the ongoing pain and implications of bushfire and drought that continue to ravage so many communities.  We have been confronted with this grim reality but unless you are in the midst, the true extent of the task before these many communities, families and individuals remains bewilderingly difficult and uncertain.  The apocalyptic conditions that have beset our state has drawn our attention more deeply into this dreadful crisis.  At the same time, life in all of its diverse expressions of joy and pain continues with relentless abandon across the world.  The extreme crises that hold people in unending struggle are unrelenting and intense.  The crises facing our world are all compounded through war and oppressive regimes that use violence against people.  Climate change is another factor in displacing many people as fragile habitats and communities experience extremes in weather patterns and life becomes unsustainable where they live.  This factor will only grow in influence until the dominant nations listen and take real action, rather than play economic games and hide their heads in the sand of apathy, ignorance and entitlement.

A major crisis that continues to impact the lives of far too many people is displacement from their home.  There is estimated to be over 70 million people who are displaced from home and community across the world!  Around 40 million are internally displaced through many causes.  Within our own local communities, the impact of bushfires has caused some degree of internal displacement.  For others across the world the displacement is deeper and more serious for the long-term.  People driven from homes through ethnic cleansing, warfare and other dangerous and violent causes has a serious impact upon their physical, psychological/emotional and spiritual well-being.  There are around 30 million Refugees, driven from their homeland and seeking refuge in other, unfamiliar places.  Many are Syrian refugees, suffering the impact of war and violence.  Many have found temporary refuge in Lebanon and other surrounding nations.  Finally, there are around 3.5 million asylum seekers, people who are in imminent danger within their homeland because of political, cultural, religious and other repression and rejection.  They are subject to threats of violence, imprisonment… and seek asylum in safe places for their families.

Two stories:

Shafaq fled her home in Dera’a, Syria and is currently living with her family in Bekaa, Lebanon. She shared her story through the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which provides emergency support to newly arrived refugees in Lebanon. Shafaq is 14 years old.

“I used to have a peaceful life and live in my amazing home in Dera’a. I enjoyed the nature around my house and the food coming from the land. I woke up every morning to the sound of birds singing. The brutality of the civil war forced my family to leave this house and to start the journey to be refugees.

“Since the start of our journey, we moved a lot in Lebanon and I attended different schools. In the end my family decided to go close to the border with Syria. We came to this area because just we want to survive. My father is working as an electrician and this is the only income for our family. All of my family we are living in a tiny house with one bedroom, a small kitchen and a bathroom. We are considered illegal because we don’t have official documents.

“I am behind two years in school because of moving from one school to another. I am still doing very good in my school and I will continue to do that. I want to finish my education, to help my family, and to help other people they want to learn. I consider myself lucky to have Al Jalil Center. I got a lot of educational, emotional, and psychological support. I am also really sad because of the unknown future waiting for me. Every day I wonder where I will be tomorrow. Yes, it’s an unknown future.”

 

Alia fled her home in Aleppo, Syria and is currently living in Damour, Lebanon. She shared her story through Gruppo Aleimar, an Italian NGO which provides free nutritious meals to refugees in the Damour area. Alia is 7 years old.

“The last thing I remember of Syria, before we left, was when my mother was taking me from our place to our grandparents. The roads were full of dead corpses. I saw dead people with no heads or no hands or legs. I was so shocked I couldn’t stop crying. To calm me down, my grandfather told me they were mean people, but I still prayed for them, because even if some considered them mean, they were still dead human beings. Back at home, I left a friend in Syria, her name was Rou’a. I miss her a lot and I miss going to school with her. I used to play with her with my Atari but I couldn’t bring it with me. I also used to have pigeons, one of them had eggs, I would feed them and care for them. I’m worried about them, I really pray someone is still caring for them. But here I have a small kitten that I really love! I miss my home a lot. I hope one day we’ll be back and things will be just like before.”

Perhaps you are wondering why all this talk on refugees and displaced people in this reflection during the Christmas season?  Surely there are more uplifting and ‘nice’ messages and stories to tell – and there probably are, except…

Except that this week’s Gospel story (Matthew 2:13-23) speaks of the holy family encountering the evil violence of a jealous, malevolent king!  In this story King Herod realises he has been outwitted by the Magi (‘wise men’) and he doesn’t know where the young king whom he believes may be a threat to his reign, resides.  Herod has a reputation for readily disposing of anyone who threatens his power – friend, family or foe.  Herod, in the image of the Pharaoh of the earlier story of Moses, has all the young males 2 years and under killed.   Joseph receives a warning in a dream and takes Mary and the young Jesus (between 1-2 years old by now) off the Egypt for their safety.  They are displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, running for their lives to remain safe from an evil, petulant, abusive power-broker.  This is an ancient story that is very current for many people in our world.  Power, violence and fear are the tools of powers and principalities now and through history.  God’s vulnerable love revealed in Christ is the hope and peace we yearn for before such violence and hatred.  Love is the only way to transform our world and bring peace!

I wonder what such love and grace means for those who seek asylum in our country?

 

By geoffstevenson

Christmas Poem 2019

Blood-red sun filtered through smoky skies…

The horizon glows and embers flash – ‘Christmas Lights 2019’.

Apocalyptic days, overwhelmed by smoke laying thick..

Ash floats down, eyes and lungs struggle – Christmas 2019.

Firies, SES and other voluntary groups abound, working long,
fighting the blaze that never dies.

Scorched earth and ashes, lives broken and lost…
communities ravaged, blackened, ash-drenched, grieving…

Christmas 2019!

 

Christmas is coming – LED’s light the night-sky
tinsel covers the world and parties abound…

Full of food and too much drink, forward- rushing into hope we go.

We sing with gusto and chat nonchalantly through the carols and the hapless speaker turning a spin on a story old and simple.

Letter box filled with papers and potential gifts for those who have everything, and it gets harder each year.

Harder to choose and understand how Christmas fails to meet the expectations of a world hell-bent on…

On pain and destruction, feeling the heat of change
the heat that rises from an earth under stress and human weight.

We hear the stories of violence of humans towards each other…
violence, physical, emotional and in words…
Violence that hurts and breaks and kills
Violence is the answer and end to everything…

… it seems…

 

In the quiet places of struggle and simplicity bubbles another force…

A force more powerful but one more gentle.

A force that nurtures, comforts and includes.

It is a force that arises from the heart of the Divine Community…

This Community of gracious love at the centre of all things,
that we call ‘God’.

As we wrestle, grieve, live with confusion or anger or yearning;
as the world bakes and boils; a battlefield for human egos

that struggle for dominance and power

Searching for answers that do not come
because we won’t let go, won’t collaborate and love…

As we decorate the world and fill it with sugar-coated or saccharine stories, cute and cuddly and like fairy floss in the mouth,

We miss the point and the profound reality at the heart of CHRISTMAS!

The Christ-child revealed in a baby small amongst poor and impoverished,
entering the mess and chaos of human existence to say:

God is with us!  God Loves us!

In the mess of our lives, when all falls apart
in the chaos of a world struggling in despair
in the midst of life, God comes!

God breaks in and promises an alternate way of being and living.

God breaks in and holds us in grace, a party of being and belonging.

God breaks in and dwells amongst us, valuing who we are
and believing in who we can be!

We don’t need to accumulate more things – money, education, achievement, knowledge, houses, power, status…

We don’t need to pretend nor prove but only ‘be’.

To be who we are and can be.  To become the one unique being that is you and me and us – together in a Realm that is love and justice,
peaceful and joyful.

Christmas is the story of Love embodied in a Christ-child born in vulnerable anonymity to rise up and flood us with effusive, generous
love and grace.

This is who we can be and for what we yearn – receive it, own it, be it!

 

 

May God’s grace be with you through Christmas and the year ahead.

Much Love and Peace

Geoff and Susan Stevenson

By geoffstevenson

The Simple, Profound Story We Tell…

As I write, I am surrounded by apocalyptic skies and radio warnings of imminent and present destruction.  Fires, terrifying communities and people, described in tones of Armageddon; a destructive force that seems unstoppable.  A State of Emergency with catastrophic conditions exacerbated by extreme heat and wind.  Sydney and NSW burn as Christmas comes.  The only light, it seems, is red hot in brutal flames.

The pain and intense struggle is impossible to comprehend when we are not in the midst of the conflagration.  Images on screens and the countless stories of loss and intensity of experience overwhelm us and we feel helpless.  In the midst, there are the obvious stories of courage and sacrifice, of people demonstrating the very best in humanity – even as we hear that the very worst of humanity is behind many of these fires.

Christmas is the bitter-sweet time of the year when joy and hope mingle with pain, mild or intense, as the hard edges of life become stark against the celebrations.  Grief, broken relationships and the struggles we engage in touch us deeply in this time of festivity.  Gaps at the Christmas table are real and obvious, memories stir, wondrous and sad.  Christmas highlights the extreme edges of life, even as the world covers everything in tinsel and decorations and lights distract our attention.  Sometimes there is a manger and the story, made cute and charming, is told – almost like a fairy story for children.  Lovely, nice and a simple truth for the young, but more sophisticated people, well…

Christmas comes in a head-long rush towards the end, driving anticipation and hope in a world where hope is needed.  There is a ‘hush of expectation’ that imbues many elements of our Christmas celebrations and the quiet moments when, in touch with our vulnerable feelings, questions and doubts, we wonder.  I see it in the faces of people, their assured responses that are tinged with question and uncertainty, and the pursuit of something more.  Our world oscillates around the search for more that takes myriad forms in the lives of individuals, communities and nations.  More knowledge; more possessions and wealth; more success; more education; more meaning; more power; more control; more competition and victory over others; more…

Behind the search for something more is the universal journey we are all part of.  It is the journey through life, much like the outward and back-home journey of the ‘Prodigal Son’ in Jesus’ parable.  The journey of all people is from our creation ‘in God’ (eg Psalm 139) and birth out into a world of possibility, distraction, seduction and choice.  The journey is around hearing the inner voice of love that draws us back into the Life at the heart of all things – the Trinity of Love, the One in whom we live and move and have our being (whether we understand this or not).

I see something in people’s eyes, in their interest in carols by candlelight and the religious symbolism and language that emerges even amidst the more atheistic or agnostic minds.  There is a glimmer of something, a curiosity or wonder that lights the world a little – it is often covered over and distracted by all the décor and food that floods our little worlds in this season.  There is an expectation that emerges but is finally quenched as it fades into insignificance by Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve.  New Year’s resolutions, a personal resolve to do something more or better to improve who we are or the world around, replaces some potential transcendent hope in a Divine Love that may have just been real but sadly seems not to be there at all, for many people.

It is into this holy mess, this human chaos of meaning, hope, control, certitude and competing interests that the story lies in vulnerable being, awaiting the vulnerable heart and mind to embrace it and ponder in wonder.  The story emerges in hearts and minds that are gripped by despair and pain.  The story emerges in crisis and wonder, in struggle or love, in life lived and relationships nurtured through compassion, mercy and grace.  Where justice flourishes, the story glows and Christ is revealed in the little places, the hidden places and the vulnerable places of the world.

The story is simple and profound.  It is simple, lowly people in a world of power and violence, wealth and oppression.  Mary and Joseph represent the lowly ones who are anonymous but who represent the great reversal in God’s economy where the little ones are lifted up and the great ones are brought low; where rich and poor are brought into a place of sharing resources equally and everyone has enough and we are in relationship.

It is also a challenging political story in the context of the Roman world with its Roman Imperial Religion that gave credence to Caesar Augustus as Divine-like and ‘Son of God’.  The much-trumpeted Pax Romana (‘Peace of Rome’) came at the end of a spear or sword and was delivered by the Imperial Roman Army.  Caesar was the self-proclaimed one who brought peace to the world and held everything together.  These titles and descriptors were exclusive to Caesar and ‘good news’ applied only to him – until the Christians told their story and transferred these titles to Jesus, the Christ.

Good News, for Christians, was contained in this story of incarnation, God embracing human flesh and dwelling amongst us in vulnerable, humble love.  Christ revealed in Jesus brings peace through his life, death and resurrection as a path back into the life and being of God.  ‘Jesus is Lord,’ became the political cry of Christians who therefore denied the Roman expectation that ‘Caesar is Lord.’  It is a story that defies the ways and paths of secular wisdom, that power, wealth, might or birth-rite are the signifiers of privilege and entitlement.  It is a story where a young, innocent and poor woman takes centre-stage, a reversal of culture and expectation.  In our own world we have been blessed and challenged by two very young women (girls) who have spoken out and raised critical issues of justice before the world.  Greta Thunberg (Time Person of the Year, 2019) and Malala Yousafzai (the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) have given us challenging and courageous messages of hope for the world and its poor.  These young women are modern versions of Mary, singing the song of justice, love, peace and hope for the world.

This simple story has depths of possibility for the curious and questioning and those who search for deeper being and a better world.  In the light of fires burning out of control and a world where there is pain and suffering, alongside joyous wonder, this little story leads us beneath the tinsel, lights, parties, gifts, and carols into a place where we can encounter the Christ-child in innocence and wonder, in vulnerable, powerful love that transforms and grows and forms us as more deeply, truly human beings.

Christmas comes to us at any time, and whenever we open ourselves to love, compassion, justice, peace and joy, we encounter God who is all of this and more.  Christ is in all things and we are ultimately held in this grace – and this is Christmas!

By geoffstevenson

God With Us – In the Mess!!

The complexities of life can be overwhelming.  In recent weeks I have experienced something of the complexity and internal conflicts of various organisations (– and lives).  I have experienced something of the questions, uncertainty, fear, hope and struggle that people within our many organisations, institutions and agencies wrestle with.  There are the complex array of legal requirements, along with various compliance and risk assessments, the many concerns that leaders and people within organisations have to consider.  It can be overwhelming and absorb large amounts of time and energy.

I have heard stories from within the agencies responsible for fighting fires or having oversight of particular tracts of land and how sometimes competing interests or ideals get in the way and create more stress and strain, often interfering with the work on the ground.  As governments, their departments and agencies develop policies and strategies around all manner of issues, there are competing interests and needs and inevitably those who will suffer and struggle from decisions made.  Economic ideals seem to dominate so many decisions and determine what is ‘right and wrong.’

Life and the world is made more complex by our access to increasingly more knowledge, available at any time through mobile phones and other technology.  Such technology is also the interface for many of us with much of the world each day.  It is through this technology that we communicate, hear versions of news, relate to and meet people.  Technology increasingly controls more aspects of our lives and reduces the human component.  The new Metro trains are driverless and there is a growing move towards less human involvement in transportation and other industries.  Technology is deemed more reliable and able to acquire data and ‘make decisions’ more effectively than humans.  We rely upon technology more extensively across the breadth of our lives.

Into the midst of this increasingly complex world, we await Christmas and its simple message and stories seem so far removed from the complexities I have met with over recent weeks.  This week we read the very simple story of Jesus’ birth as presented by Matthew (Matt 1:18-25).  It isn’t the story we usually hear, with shepherds, angels, a journey, cattle stall and a manger… – that basic story comes from Luke’s version.  Matthew’s story is about Joseph and his dilemma at discovering his fiancée is pregnant.  He receives an angelic message through a dream that all is strangely, mysteriously okay and God is at the centre of this critical event and he is to be reassured that all is as it should be.  Joseph is presented as a good man, a righteous man who has felt cheated by another man and the cost of adultery is divorce.  Joseph will not pour more humiliation on his wife to be but sets out to ‘quietly divorce’ her before the intervention of the angelic dream.

So, what do we do with this story?  How does Joe’s story and dilemma, good actions and journey touch our lives or the complex world in which we live?  As I have wrestled with this story and tried to tell and retell it over the years, I have recognised that this is not such a simple nor irrelevant story.  In the suburbs and cities of our nation and world, there are countless relationship struggles and tensions, many hidden behind closed doors.  Many will result in domestic violence and some in death.  Others will result in growing tensions and conflicts that tear relationships apart.  Children will be born and brought up in homes where love is absent, and life is tense and harsh.  People will break, hurt and feel crushed.

For Joseph, there are many different implications in terms of inheritance, ownership of land and future well-being of his family, if another man has fathered Mary’s child and that family has claims on Joseph’s land.  There are honour/shame issues and trust.  Matthew presents his story of Jesus with this more complex array of possibilities hidden within its simple form.  Only then is there the revelation that God is involved in this child’s birth. God appears in the midst of the confusion, questions, doubt and chaos.  It is a strange story where God’s alternate possibilities emerge within the mess rather than beyond the mess.  That is the key to Christmas and how God works in human life.

For our modern world where we consider ourselves more sophisticated, we wonder about this story and its poor science (the male seed was implanted into the woman and became a child – she only the incubator).  We wonder what this means, and what we do with it.  We ultimately turn to anything else for salvation and help.  We turn to technology, economics, consumerism, medicine and science, politics, or anything else that makes some concrete promise of well-being or hope.  Christmas becomes a succession of parties, tinsel and lights, a world covered in colour and bright music, lots of food and drink and ‘happiness’ – well, for some and only until it fades into new year.

If we are willing to sit with this story we encounter the presence of the Living God who comes!  This God comes in human form, vulnerable and dependent – everything Roman Emperors and modern-day ‘gods’ aren’t.  God doesn’t break in with power and authority, promises or words, but is revealed in weakness amidst good people who are simple and poor.  The name of this child is ‘Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’  This is the counter-cultural and vital message we need to hear – God is with us!  God embraces human flesh and is revealed in a baby in the Christmas story.  God is also revealed in a young girl who is caught up in a profound blessing that threatens her honour through scandal and shame.  God is revealed in a man who is good and tries in every way to do the right thing – he ultimately trusts his fiancée and the dreams he receives.  God is revealed as being ‘with us,’ in our midst and present to us in ways that technology cannot be.  God does touch us and communicate through technology, I’m sure, but ultimately through a human face and sits with us in the mess of life as we question and struggle.  God is with us!

As I listened to the struggles in various agencies overseeing the fighting of fires, I recognised that God was/is revealed most fully in the fire-fighter, the SES person, the chaplain, the neighbour, the simple person providing somewhere to stay or food to eat.  I realise God is revealed in the simple acts of kindness and love between people in messy, chaotic and painful situations.  God is present in the lick of the dog or the simple flower spreading colour and perfume.  God will be present in the rain when it comes but sits with us in the desolate dryness of the land, dry, burnt and struggling.  God is present to hold us and walk with us when everything falls apart and we feel lost, alone and hopeless.

We may often wish for an interventionist God who will respond to our desires, fears, and hopes in a way we want or need.  That isn’t the way of the world where human choice and freedom is a gift.  Looking into the organisations and institutions recently, I have to wonder whether we always know what is right or good for us and our world.  We try and believe but don’t always know, so, God is with us, in the mess as the presence of Love!

By geoffstevenson

Do You Want Christmas? Really?

Last week we read from the story of John the Baptist, a radical firebrand who burst into life around Jerusalem and confronted people with his prophetic words and dire warnings.  John’s rhetoric was filled with violent images, as such firebrands usually are.  Death, destruction and violent endings are the currency of such apocalyptic warnings.  John spoke of the One who is coming and whose axe is laid at the foot of the tree.  He will come baptising with Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hands and he will separate wheat from chaff and send this chaff into eternal fires.  It’s heady and full-on stuff that conjures all manner of scenes.  I wonder what the people expected of Jesus?  John, only harder, harsher, bigger, louder – perhaps one of those big professional wrestlers with tattoos, wild hair and looking the modern-day warrior, who come out breathing fire, threatening all and sundry?

So, Jesus wanders onto the scene and seems rather calm, gentle and moves around amongst the ordinary, struggling people giving hope and comfort, proclaiming love and compassion, along with justice.  His words have a sharp edge at times and there are moments of anger and he doesn’t shrink from telling people how it is, but he isn’t John!

More than that, there is no violence!  No violence at all!

This week we are still with John, but he is in a very different place – a prison cell held by the brutal, fearful, angry king whom John has challenged on moral grounds. John’s firebrand rhetoric has dried up, replaced with questions, doubt and confusion.  ‘Are you the one?’ John asks.  Are you really the one that I expected from God, the one whose path I prepared?  You don’t seem terribly strong and powerful.  You aren’t bringing in God’s transformation of the world in any noticeable manner – certainly nothing that equates with my expectation!   John’s violent introduction fades as Jesus picks up the agenda of a peaceful Reign that bears little resemblance to John’s violent images.

When John sends his followers to Jesus, asking if he is the one or should we await another, Jesus replies:  “… tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

There is a complete lack of axes, fire, winnowing fork… anything violent.  The Reign of God, as lived and expressed in the life of Jesus is about healing, peace, reaching out to the suffering, the lowly, the poor and those who need hope.  He incarnates in his being the deep and rich love of God that draws all things into the Divine heart.  It is for this love that we all yearn, and this is the hope that creates the faint light in the deepest darkness of human life.

John’s vision of God ripping through human history with violence to take down evil and bring about justice does not match the reality of Jesus – it isn’t God’s way.  It isn’t the way of love and it will not bring peace!  John was right and wrong.  His message of one who comes to expose within the human heart the false notions of greed, privilege, power abuse, exclusion and injustice is true.  His assertion that Jesus will inaugurate God’s Reign through violence is wrong.  It is the logical way humans have always thought – redemptive violence believes that peace can come through violence and warfare.  Power and control can force peace into being through threat and overwhelming strength.  That we can make other people abide by our ways, our belief systems and our status quo by strength, might, power and violence, dominates the political, corporate and even religious leadership of our world.  It is wrong.  It is evil and it institutionalises violence and injustice.

Regardless of whether the implication of John’s message was correct, his life embraces the way of suffering that will be Jesus’ own way.  The difference is that Jesus willingly embraced the via dolorosa (Way of suffering) as the path that would challenge and confront the world with love over violence and bring the true transformation of human hearts and minds.  John was led into this way because he embraced the call of God.  In our story today, he is confronting his own suffering, the injustice he feels and experiences in his being and is on the margins of mystery that deepens through doubt and questions.  Jesus asks the people in this story what they really thought they were going to hear in John’s harsh message.  Did they want someone with ‘soft robes’ (one of the privileged leaders who wore such soft robes representing power, wealth and privilege) who would give them a nice message and maintain a privileged status quo?  John’s message challenged the heart of things – if we want life in the richest way then it won’t be what we expect, and we may have to open ourselves to a level of discomfort.  If we want Christmas then we have to look more deeply than a nice story with baby and manger, lovely carols, tinsel and lights covering our world and empty words that fade with the heat and fatigue of the season.

If we want Christmas, then we must be prepared for our comfortable world to be shaken or shattered.  The comfortable privilege of most Westerners is an unreal expectation that is simply unsustainable and is at the heart of the catastrophe confronting the world as it overheats and changes in ways we want to ignore and pretend aren’t real – but cannot.

If we want Christmas then the greed, materialism and acquisitive lifestyles we have readily embraced as normal must be radically simplified – for our own sake and that of the world.  If we want Christmas then our exclusive, entitled attitudes towards other people must change because the way of God, who is the essential reality beyond everything, is inclusive, gracious and loving.  We have to change how we respond to the international crisis of refugees – people who have no home to go to; people who have no security or comfort; people who have nothing but what they carry.  These are desperate human beings who have had the misfortune to be born in a place and time when horror and oppression reigns and violence breaks their lives open.  Our privileged and entitled corporations exploit poor nations – their resources and labour – to bring us cheap goods, and the poor of the world suffer.  Indigenous people across the globe have been trampled and abused and their culture and wisdom lost.  Those who remain become lost and alienated people caught between what was and what is, belonging to neither.

Christmas comes each year on the back of John the Baptist preparing the way, and we offer a sideways glance but prefer a world of lights and tinsel, well-wishes and nice things that never challenge our comfort or security.  It rolls on through and our deepest being yearns for the real truth at its heart, but we remain caught in a status quo that is hard to give up.  So, John rots in his prison cell wondering what has happened to justice and hope – as do the poor and impoverished of our world.  Christmas promises so much but fails to deliver what we think we want because it dares to challenge our lives and status quo.

By geoffstevenson

The Mystery of Love Embraces Confusion and Doubt

A blood-red sun has peered down through growing gloom, smoke-filled skies and building (rainless!) clouds through this week.  Driving along Victoria Road on Tuesday provided an apocalyptic vision.  Dense smoke-filled skies closed in and filled eyes, nose and lungs.  It was a ready and constant reminder of the catastrophe that has unfolded across our state and beyond.

A colleague who has been working as a chaplain within the fire-ravaged communities shared stories of pure desolation and despair – drought upon fire leaving nothing in its wake.  Lives lost and the living helpless before the ravaged land and enormous task before them.  It is deeply and overwhelmingly difficult!

‘Across the ditch,’ our Kiwi neighbours have experienced the next in a long line of tragedies and suffering as the White Island volcano erupted and wreaked its own havoc upon innocent and curious visitors.  A sad and grieving ship set sail without passengers whose lives were lost or who were hospitalised.  Fun and excitement, anticipation turned desperate pain and chaotic tragedy.  Christmas is coming!

This Sunday, of all weeks, is traditionally called Gaudete, which means ‘Joy!’  It is a week of respite in the season of Advent that leads us into Christmas, a time of preparing and hearing the messages of the darkness in a world yearning for light, hope and joy.  Our Churches read from stories of historical struggle, nations under a variety of oppressive regimes, wrestling and yearning for life and freedom – Babylonians, Romans…

Into this unveiling of the complex paradox and mystery of life, we read from Matthew 11:2-11, which tells of John the Baptist, our strange and elusive, firebrand of last week, now imprisoned.  The powers of the world have caught up with him and his honest, confronting words (‘speaking truth to power’ as they say) have brought him undone.  He told the local king he was essentially immoral for rejecting his wife and taking his brother’s wife for his own.  John bides his time in prison, having paved the way for ‘the One who comes after me.’  In his prison cell he wonders what has happened?  Things don’t seem to have turned out as expected!

After his bold and brassy proclamation of the path of God into the world, he wastes away in prison.  Is John the only one who has done good, given himself to the highest ideals and found himself punished for the experience?  Certainly not and John’s life appears to have a somewhat familiar backward trajectory.  Whilst many testimonies take us from darkness to light, unknowing to knowing, uncertainty to faith, John wonders aloud if he has thrown his hat into the wrong ring.  Is the one he baptised and believed in, the one he put his hope in, actually the right one?  John expresses the doubts that fill his mind and being.  Have I done the right thing?  Have I believed the right one?  The bold certainty that filled his open-air preaching and radical words, his sense of authority last week, seems to have deserted him this week.  Is this the right one?

John sent his followers to Jesus to ask that very question: Are you the one or is there another?  This is a question filled with doubt, uncertainty, confusion and probably self-doubt.  John has gone from certainty and bold confidence to doubt, confusion and questions within his prison cell.  His clear and certain message, his opening the path of Jesus, did not result in the transformed world he possibly imagined.  Jesus and he were the same and different.  Jesus did not look like John, sound like John and ultimately what he did and how he did it appeared different – was he really the one John expected, John yearned for; the one promised from God?

Often when we are confronted by such questions or confusion and doubt, such a despairing life, we do not attribute faith, hope or joy.  Joy may well be the last thing we associate with John, rotting in a prison cell and wondering whether his life has achieved anything of worth.  We gain a glimpse, in John, of the desperate and despairing communities in the aftermath of ravaging bushfires.  There are people whose lives lie in ashes, asking themselves and the world, ‘Why?’  Asking, ‘Where is God?  Why did God allow this?’ In such god-forsaken spaces, people cry and lose hope, they ask questions, often hard and intense, confronting questions that challenge and discomfort us.  When John confronted Jesus through his disciples, Jesus received his angry or desperate despair gently and with understanding.  Such doubt becomes the crucible into deeper awareness of the complexity, paradox and harshness of life.  Sometimes the endings are not ‘happy’ but in the darkness emerges a gentle light that despite all evidence before it, gives a glimmer of something approaching hope and even joy – in the midst of struggle..

In this story, Jesus offers his own story about lame walking, deaf hearing, dead finding new life, the poor receiving good news and invites John’s followers to share their stories and where they have encountered God in the lightness and darkness, the ordinary and profound of human life.  It doesn’t change the reality of John’s own experience and consequent death at the hands of a brutal, angry, fearful king.  It holds John’s own unique life in the struggle, paradox and mystery that is God and within the complexity of human story and history.  John will die and there is no rhyme or reason, no reasonable, rational explanation for the injustice.  In this individual life injustice and evil have won – except, John is remembered!  His story is not a limited one that has no meaning.  His words are proclaimed year after year, and we are confronted by his stunning, radical challenge.

John is also held within a deeper, richer continuum of life beyond life.  In the life of God, we have a deeper, richer, fuller existence that transcends the materiality that consumes our being in this current reality of physical presence.  The story of Jesus points us to the Eternal Christ who is revealed within and through Jesus of Nazareth whose life fills the pages of our Bibles and comes to us in simplicity and mystery in Christmas.  The Eternal Christ always was and will be and is revealed within the life of all things (Colossians 1 and 3) and especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ response to John is to allow the vulnerable, painful questions, the confusion and despair to be expressed and embraced into the larger story of grace, compassion and justice that unfolds in mysterious ways as God’s Reign breaks into human life.  It doesn’t answer the specific questions we have around justice for all.  It doesn’t resolve our anger or despair in the experience of our own pain and grief.  It simply says that as chaos seeks to take hold in our world grace intrudes and love’s face is glimpsed, and its warmth felt.  As it radiates out and draws people in, something in the world changes and there are moments of hope and joy.  Jesus’ story draws us into the eternal story where the mysterious life beyond life in the Divine heart welcomes all.  That vision can change us now as we embrace pain.

By geoffstevenson

Preparing the Way – For What?

A number of years ago I was part of a group of young people at our church who put together a version of the musical, ‘Godspel’.  It was a wonderful experience and highlighted elements of the story of Jesus from different perspectives.  The opening scene is one I remember.  It confused me at first.  I. along with others in the musical were asked to research several philosophers and we were each allocated one of them. We walked around the stage parading our thoughts and wisdom before the audience – and within that group of philosophers there was some profound wisdom and knowledge!  Suddenly a horn sounded, and a soft voice was heard in the distance (the rear of the hall), singing a repetitive refrain: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’.  Over and over, building in volume as the person walked up the aisle and onto the stage.  At first, we philosophers ignored the song, but eventually it engaged us and drew us into its simple refrain.  The words pointed not to deep rational thoughts, philosophical truth or belief systems of the world.  It pointed to One who was revealed, sitting on a ladder high in our midst.  This person gently descended into our presence and blessed and called us and we became followers of this way.  Throughout the rest of the story, we were the rag-tag group of followers of this Jesus who had come amongst us to draw us into a deeper, more profound vision of being human.

I remember the simplicity of our becoming.  The simple singer who drew us into a song of preparing for something deeper, more mysterious and filled with possibility and hope.  I remember being caught up in the song as it lifted us out of our individualistic thinking and competitive, reactive philosophies.  I still think of that song every year at this time because I read the Gospel for the week and meet John the Baptist once more.  Every year at this time a strange figure who dresses weirdly and speaks in harsh tones makes an appearance and invites us to ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord!’ and I wonder what this means?

What does it mean for a secular world to prepare the way of the Lord – to even believe or hope?  We are surrounded by people of many faiths and none – agnosticism and various forms of atheism abound.  There are the spiritual-but-not-religious, the ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ and all who wonder what it is all about – whether that be Christmas or life in general.  What does it mean for us to prepare the way of the Lord in a world where forms of religious fanaticism become so demeaning and dangerous?  What does it mean to even consider the possibilities of the Divine breaking into human life in ways that transform and lead us more deeply into what it means to be human?  In a world where forests burn and the earth is scorched by growing drought and people feel deep distress;  a world where kids in school are shot by people living with anger and hatred or with mental illness; a world where some starve or die from lack of clean water whilst others are fighting obesity and the associated diseases; a world where millions are homeless due to war, oppression, hatred; a world where boredom, despair and alienation contribute to suicide and addictions; a world where exclusion, loneliness and isolation plague too many people’s live; a world of greed, where very few control too many resources and refuse to share; a world where power is abused and people are hurt – where domestic violence wounds and kills too many women…?  What does it mean to prepare the way for Love to break into human life, into our lives?  What does it mean to become more deeply and profoundly human, embracing other people, alike and different, the earth and the Spirit that holds all things in Divine grace and love?  How do we prepare ourselves to enter into a deeper expression of being human and a life that is richer because it nurtures body, mind and spirit? 

In this annual story of John the Baptist bursting into the life of his world, we encounter an irritating, confronting and deeply challenging voice.  His language confuses our modern minds, especially when we recoil from the judgemental language we often associate with particular forms of religion that leave us feeling fearful, guilty, judged or unworthy – and ultimately we reject it.  John’s language of judgement and sin don’t gel with our world and our the way we think about ourselves and others, although we, ourselves, are no doubt often given over to judging other people, in words or actions when they transgress our own belief systems or ideological constructs of life.

John speaks of the One who comes, the One whose way we prepare as coming in judgement to sift the grain from the chaff on the threshing floor.  Judgement!  It is so often what religion and ideology becomes!  But what if the judgement is really about discernment and perception, about seeing with clarity?  What if the One who comes, comes to see us as we are and wants to challenge us to become whom we can be?  What if the judgement is about urging us to let go of that which prevents us from entering into the deeper, richer life that we can live but aren’t?  What if judgement isn’t about punishment, guilt, fear and rejection but about seeing us clearly and sifting out the mess of life?

Similarly, when John speaks to the crowds who come and commands them to repent from their sin, is this about guilt and shame, about nit-picking the errors of our lives, the things, big and little we do or say that ‘transgress God’s laws’ and leave us feeling guilty?  I wonder if it is more about the things we do, the choices we make, that detract from our becoming and being the deepest and fullest expression of who we can be?  Don’t we too often choose to be something less than we know we can or want to be?

All of this takes place in the wilderness and it is probably in the wilderness that we find ourselves in a place where life is raw and more focussed through the struggle of barren experience, where entitlement and privilege count for less and injustice shines brightly before and sometimes within us.  Preparing the way of the Lord is about making paths straight and levelling the playing field such that justice and righteousness flourish and people are included into a new way of deep humanity that is hope-filled, life-giving and there is abundance for all.

When we embark on the strange, confronting journey of ‘preparing the way of the Lord’ it is about becoming more whole and growing into our own unique being, allowing our deep, rich humanity to shine through.  This journey leads us into wider living to prepare the way for Divine life to abound in our families, communities, workplaces, leisure and learning centres and the world we inhabit.  It is the invitation to see through and beyond the wisdom of the wise and knowledgeable to something deeper that is grounded in practical, generous, abundant love that flows through and around us and all people such that peace and vitality fills our world in infectious grace.  Preparing the way of the Lord invites to engage the questions and struggles of our world and our lives and to open ourselves vulnerably to the Living God who is love, looks deeply into us and invites us to become who we can be for the sake of the world.  This is love, grace and life!

By geoffstevenson

A Reign that Transforms Everything!

Again, this week, we have experienced the continual burning of forests across Eastern Australia.  For a few days this week, Sydney has been covered in smoke – as has much of the state.  Nearly 500 homes in NSW have been destroyed to date, along with many other buildings on properties engulfed in fire.  There have been lives lost and a great deal of suffering and pain.  Many, many people have worked tirelessly to fight fires (far too many deliberately or accidentally lit by humans), care for homeless and those evacuated, consoling the bereaved and struggling, providing food and resources…  This deep crisis has brought out the strength and compassion, courage and co-operation to fight against the powerful forces of fires burning out of control.

Into this painful crisis where exemplary traits of humanity have surfaced, another voice has used this as a platform to ‘warn’ Australian society of ‘a coming wrath.’  Israel Folau has posted a sermon he preached at his father’s ‘church’ (‘The Truth of Jesus Christ Church’) in North-Western Sydney.  In that sermon, Folau says (amongst other things):

“Look how rapid, these bushfires, these droughts, all these things have come, in a short period of time. You think it’s a coincidence or not? God is speaking to you guys, Australia, you need to repent.

“What you see right now in the world is only a little taste of God’s judgment that’s coming, it’s not even a big thing.”

Folau said the natural disasters were “no coincidence” and the solution was for people to “turn from their wicked ways”.

Of course, Israel Folau has crossed many lines of decency and integrity over the last several months but has now pushed things too far.  To suggest that the broad suffering of so many people and communities through this current crisis is some kind of judgement upon them for government and other decisions is not only absurd but terribly abusive and insensitive.  At a time when the very best in human response (including that of faith-based people and organisations) is compassion, mercy, and care, Folau brings only judgement and rebuke – and he does it in the name of God, whom he claims to worship.

This Sunday is known throughout the Christian Church as ‘Reign of Christ Sunday’ and is the last Sunday in the church’s year – next week being the 1st Sunday in Advent.  On this last Sunday of the year we are encouraged to ponder the nature of God’s Reign and what this represents, what it looks like and how it challenges us to deeper compassion, justice and grace.

In a world where there are powerful leaders who dictate, dominate, use power and might, violence and force to exert their will, we are invited to consider a different way in the world.  The testosterone-fuelled megalomaniacs that often dominate the world-scene, leaving pain and suffering in their wake, are too-often countered in the religious sphere by ‘all-powerful’ and violent gods who vanquish their foes and trample them into the dust.  Far to often, religious fervour is fuelled by such literalised and unbridled images of power and violence that overcome the ‘enemies’ of the divinity worshipped.  Suicide bombers and other martyrs, along with militaristic forces engage in crusades against those who are perceived to be opposed to their religious views, belief systems and therefore their god.  Sadly, religious history is full of such crusaders and the ‘armies of gods’ who seek to impose their views and beliefs – and their god’s judgements – upon a world often ignorant and unengaged with their particular religiosity.

Amongst the plethora of responses to the bushfire crisis are people of faith and no faith – so many groups of people from across the religious landscape and those who are not aligned with any faith have responded with compassion and love.  This brings out the deepest and truest elements of being human and the very best and truest elements of religious life, whatever form that takes in people’s lives.

For Christians, of which Israel Folau and his family count themselves, we are challenged to hear the stories of Jesus and consider where and how he would be engaged in the lives of people through the crisis and tragedy of life.  How would Jesus respond to the multitude of suffering experienced across this land in bushfire, poverty, marginalisation and exclusion, violence and abuse, the destruction of culture, illness of body, mind and spirit, relationship conflicts, addictions and the many other experiences people face?

In the strange passage read in churches this week from the life of Jesus (Luke 23:33-43), we encounter him hanging on a cross between two criminals.  He is scoffed, rejected and scorned.  One of the criminals challenges him with cynical derision, whilst the other recognises that there is something different in this one and seeks mercy.  Jesus’ own words are not condemnation nor violence but forgiveness and seeking God’s grace upon his enemies and those who have nailed him to the cross, laughed at him and rejected him.  Above his head is a sign: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

What sort of king is this who accepts a way of sacrifice and giving of himself for the sake of others, who chooses a way of love and mercy over the violence, domination and force that his enemies exhibit?  What sort of king embraces vulnerable humility, a path of servanthood and shares life and meals with the marginalised, lowly, outcasts and rejected?  What sort of king chooses a path of wisdom and grace over certainty, power and control, who encourages people to live in freedom from materialism, addiction, worry and the competitive forces that work against community and relationship?  What sort of king chooses the path of suffering and death in order to show a world how life can be embraced through resurrection into new life and new being?  What sort of king weeps for those who are lost and burdened by the forces and seduction of power, whose heart is deeply moved by struggle and suffering and who reaches out in vulnerable love to embrace all into God’s soft and gentle heart where we find peace, hope and life?

This is certainly not the God or king that Israel Folau proclaims.  I can only hope and pray that Israel and his family can grow through this bitter, judgemental and violent experience and notion of God and find the compassionate, gracious and merciful God at the heart of Christian faith and all things.  This God proclaims a Reign that is all-embracing and inclusive.  It comes to us in many tones and colours through the multitudinous experience of humanity.  It is revealed in vulnerable life, the beauty of the world around us, the sacred moments of life where barriers and competitive notions fade and we ‘belong’ to one another and the cosmos, embraced in the Divine Heart.  This is a beautiful Reign, and all are welcomed into its gracious place of love, justice, peace and joy!

By geoffstevenson