Love – the Only Response to Death and Suffering

On Tuesday evening I attended a Prayer Service for Sri Lanka, following the fatal bomb blasts that killed over 300 people on Easter Day.  It was hosted by Blacktown Uniting Church and organised by the Sri Lanka Reconciliation Forum and led by Uniting Church Ministers, Rev Dr John Jegasothy and Rev Radhika Sukumar-White.  Radhika, an Australian, Sri Lankan Tamil, spoke to the several hundred gathered people, expressing her deep pain and sadness over the evil and violence perpetrated to the people of Sri Lanka.  She spoke of the pain and struggle this small island nation has endured for decades through ethnic tensions and now religious violence.

I stood in a church in Blacktown surrounded by several hundred people of diverse backgrounds.  There were people of many religions and none.  There were many Sri Lankan people come to remember their homeland and the suffering.  There were many from non-Sri Lankan background come to share the sadness and pray and stand in solidarity for peace.

As I stood there I was aware of not only sadness but powerlessness that I felt before the evil powers of the world who do what they do and with scant regard for the pain and suffering they inflict on other innocent people.  I felt the immense powerlessness to change this evil – that I cannot do anything to make this situation right.  I can’t fix the problem, release the pain, change the evil-minded people who are constantly seeking the means to express their hatred through violence and bloodshed.  I cannot even begin to understand how such people think or what motivates them.  I cannot understand an evil and hatred so profound that it would inflict such devastating violence upon innocent people.  I also cannot understand how anyone can connect such evil to a deep spirituality or religious life – it simply doesn’t work.

Radhika told us how she and her congregation had journeyed through Good Friday and the pain and suffering of Jesus as he was driven towards his death on the cross.  She them recounted the joy of her congregation when they gathered on Easter Day to celebrate resurrection – the victory of love over death and violence and brings hope and joy.  They sang, prayed, listened, laughed and had Hot Cross Buns.  Then a few hours later she heard the news of murder and suffering in the homeland of her family, as others gathered to celebrate this same life and victory over death.  As they gathered to celebrate Easter Day and the victory of love over death, they were mercilessly killed.  The violence and evil of Good Friday, of the powers of evil in the world remains and we find ourselves caught between the joy and the pain, the hope and the reality of evil.  We are left confused and uncertain.  Does Easter have meaning in our lives?  Does Jesus’ death and resurrection mean anything in our world – or is it simply just an other-worldly story whose power lies beyond this world?

Over the last couple of weeks, I journeyed the Stations of the Cross – Northmead several times.  I came back to various works of art depicting this last journey of Jesus and pondered their deeper story and meaning.  I was challenged by the artist’s stories and their profound reflections on Jesus’ story.  The last time I journeyed through the Stations was as part of the Northmead Uniting Church Good Friday service where Rev Niall Reid led us through a series of reflections and readings using the various works of art to highlight and open the story’s meaning.  It was gentle and deep.  Over these couple of weeks, I had to sit with the story and its deep pain and struggle and how it reflects the experience of each of us and our world.  Niall led us to the place in the exhibition where ‘Resurrection’ is portrayed and said:

This is Good Friday, why are we standing in front of this Resurrection artwork, surely this has to wait until Easter Sunday?

When the criminal said ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:43)

Really! How can this be, new life, resurrection today? But isn’t that sometime in the future. This artwork created with quantum physics in mind speaks of time, past, present and future coalescing – cross and resurrection ever and always existing together in the same moment – pain and suffering, healing and abundant life coexistent. Light and smoke [in the candle before the work].

On Sunday morning I stood at the lookout at Kurrajong Heights with about 50 others.  We watched the sun rising across the Sydney basin, although there was much beautiful mist down low over the suburbs.  It was magnificent, a beautiful sunrise, signalling a new day and on Easter Day, a new way in the world.  We read, prayed, sang and reflected on the story of hope breaking into the world’s pain, sadness and death.

As I ponder my experience on Tuesday evening standing in solidarity with the pain and suffering of the people of Sri Lanka, I was caught between the big hope and the evil reality.  The joy and the pain, the rising sun and the misted valley of darkness.  I was confused by the presence of people many religions and none standing together in peace, whilst the violence is attributed to ‘religious groups’.  I also ponder the Gospel story for this Sunday – John 20:19-31.  It is the evening of that first Easter Day and the followers of Jesus are hiding behind locked doors and solid walls.  Perhaps the news of Mary Magdalene that she has seen the Risen Christ, further coalesces their fear – will the authorities blame them for the removal of the body?  Will the authorities come for them anyway because they were with Jesus, part of the movement?  More than that is the utter confusion and dislocation of their grief.  Everything they have given themselves to and hoped for has vanished before their eyes as Jesus hung dying.  There is nothing more!

This locked room is the place where we all find ourselves at various points – lost, confused, grieving and powerlessness before the very big, dark and hostile world.  We can change nothing.  We have no real power and we feel utterly helpless.  It was into this locked room of despair that the Risen Christ, bearing wounds, appears – no knocking or keys, just presence in their midst.  His first words are: ‘Peace be with you!’  He says three times through the story – ‘Peace be with you!’  He offers them the peace that will sink into their being and release them from the fear that entraps them.  Despite the lingering scars and wounds that will remain, Love has overcome the death and pain.  The grief and suffering are real but in the midst is a Love that transcends everything and touches us in the depth of our being.  With it is the realisation that Love is the only thing that we have and all we can rely upon.  As a Buddhist speaker on Tuesday evening said quite simply: ‘Hatred cannot end hatred.  Only Love can see the end of hatred.’  These words are reflective of Jesus’ message that only Love can challenge hatred, evil and overcome death.

The hope for Sri Lanka lies in the power of people gathering together and standing in solidarity and committing themselves to love and peace.  Only this can overcome the evil that lurks and runs amok in our world.  It is the only response we can make.

This is the essence of the Christian story because God is the centre and essence of Love and God is with us in every experience and struggle to love us and give us life!

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By geoffstevenson

Easter – the Dying-Rising Life

There’s a story that Fyodor Dostoevsky tells about his own dying-rising experience that opened his eyes, his mind and his being to a whole new experience of life and wonder.  He was arrested by the czar and sentenced to die.  He spoke of waking up on the day of his execution, his last day on earth.  He dressed slowly feeling the fabric on his body.  He ate breakfast slowly and tasted every bite, savouring each flavour.  As he walked through the courtyard, he felt the sun on his back and neck and breathed the freshness in the air.  He looked into people’s faces and saw the humanity in each person.  He saw the world as he had never seen or experienced it before.  His senses were heightened, and he felt really alive!  He was lined up with others against a wall.  There were a line of soldiers standing facing them.  They were blindfolded and then the commander gave the command and the soldiers fired their guns.  He held his breath and awaited whatever it was that death would be.  He heard the sounds of guns but felt nothing, nothing and as he waited for the mystery of death to enfold him, there was the gradual awareness that he was not dying but the guns were filled with blanks.  He was alive!

This was a cruel psychological trick the czar played on people who were rebellious and made trouble for his regime.  He blindfolded them and stood them before a firing squad.  They heard the shots go off but felt nothing and slowly realised the guns were filled with blanks.  The emotional reaction that went with the experience of your own death, without dying transformed people in profound ways.

Dostoevsky experienced this as very significant and life-changing.  He said everything about him changed out of this experience of ‘dying’.  In fact there was a real sense of dying in Dostoevsky’s experience.  He died to his egotistical way of being.  He died to his narrow views of life and people and the world.  His eyes opened to deeper realities.  He became truly grateful for everything, even towards people he had previously hated.  He was thankful for everything about life and for life itself.  He saw everything anew and the sacredness in life and all things.  Dostoevsky claims it was this experience that led him to become a novelist and enabled him to perceive dimensions of reality he had never known before.

Ultimately Easter is about seeing, seeing again, seeing anew, seeing more deeply.  It is about seeing ourselves, others, the world in ever new and deeper ways.  There is a dying and rising into a new consciousness that is about wisdom and love, the currency of real life and living.  The story of Easter draws us into the paradigm of losing ourselves in order to find our life in a deeper, more profound and holistic way.  It is about letting go in order to embrace something new and richer.  It is, of necessity, a movement away from a predominant dependence upon the material to embrace the spiritual and emotional.  It is the movement out of violence, fear and dualistic thinking that draws lines between us and others, that defines ‘right and wrong’, ‘in and out’ and seeks to control people and ideas creating belief systems and ideologies that lock us into narrow, judgemental ways of seeing and being.

Easter opens the doors of life to new ways of embracing the world in which we live, the people who inhabit this rich, blue planet and the Earth itself.  Easter opens us to the spiritual reality that holds everything else in love.  As Dostoevsky discovered, it is a journey into wonder and being enabled to see anew and to find the sacred and holy that imbues the ordinary things with meaning, significance and beauty.  It is to breathe the air and experience its freshness.  It is to feel and know the sun on our back or the tastes in the foods we eat and to see the unique beauty and humanity in each face we encounter.

Anthony de Mello relates a story he heard on Spanish television.  A gentleman knocks on his son’s door. “Jaime,” he says, “wake up!”  Jaime answers, “I don’t want to get up, Papa.”  The father shouts, “Get up, you have to go to school.”

Jaime says, “I don’t want to go to school.”  “Why not?” asks the father.

“Three reasons,” says Jaime. First, because it’s so dull; second, the kids tease me; and third, I hate school.

And the father says, “Well, I am going to give you three reasons why you must go to school. First, because it is your duty; second, because you are forty-five years old, and third, because you are the headmaster.”

Easter is also about waking up to the life and possibilities that are before us.  Good Friday takes us into the space where we confront the pain and struggle of life and the uncertainty and confusion that accompanies an honest engagement with who we are and the nature of the world in which we live.  There is grief and loss, a woundedness in our emotional being.  There is the call to ‘let go’ of baggage and belief systems that bind us to a past that was important back then and holds memories that are rich but is impotent to engage and transform the present moment in our lives and world.  It is less difficult and painful to allow ourselves to be distracted by other things or to pledge unfailing loyalty to a set of beliefs, faith-filled or otherwise.  Waking up and embracing the world as it is and to journey into the potential of our own being takes energy, will and courage.  There is struggle and vulnerability – Jesus on a cross is the metaphor powerlessness and vulnerability and paints a very different picture of God.  Until we let go of our need for control and power and the need to ‘be right’ we can never find the path into life that is freedom and joy, hope and wonder.  The path to resurrection requires us to move through crucifixion and experience the dying in order to rise into new life and living.  This is a journey that is spiritual, emotional and physical.  It involves our whole being.  The dying we experience is not necessarily literal physical death but a metaphorical dying, which is still very real and often difficult.

There was a man recuperating in bed.  He watched as a butterfly slowly chewed through its cocoon, that lay near his window.  The hole gradually opened further and then the butterfly began its painful emergence into the world.  It struggled to bend and push its new and long wings out of through the hole.  The struggle went on for a few hours and the man observed the butterfly tiring and that struggle increasingly difficult.  Feeling compassion and pity, he took some small scissors and cut a larger hole into the cocoon and enabled the butterfly to emerge more easily.

The butterfly shuffled off but never did extend its wings fully.  It was never able to use its wings because the man had halted the process of pushing and struggling that pushed blood and nutrient into the farthest parts of the wings and helped develop the strength it would need.  The butterfly needed the struggle and harsh, difficult experience to gain the strength and capacity to become a whole and healthy butterfly.  The rising to new life as a butterfly was only realised through the dying as a caterpillar and the struggle required to embrace a new body, a new being and to grow into it.

Easter takes us into this story where Jesus embraces the way of suffering, the Via Dolorosa, and journeys to the cross.  He is vulnerable before the powers of the world and succumbs to their violence.  But beyond hatred and violence is the power of love that overcomes evil and he experiences life in a new and profound way, called resurrection.  It is this pattern of dying-rising into the love of God that we are invited to embrace.  It is an invitation to let go and trust our whole being in this gracious mystery and love of God.

 

By geoffstevenson

The Journey Towards the Cross and Beyond…

The painting is huge – over 2 metres by 2 metres in 4 panels. It has a lot of bright yellow over dark areas with lots of people in the foreground and foreboding clouds at the top.  It portrays something big; a big picture of an extraordinary event that has significance beyond the story on which it is based.  The artist, Chris Wyatt, is trying to tell me that something big and extraordinary is happening and its impact affects me and our world.

In the centre are 2 figures who are standing with hands tied behind their backs.  They stand before a judge of some description as the masses watch on.  One is Jesus Barabbas, a 1st century rebel who caused problems in the Roman-occupied city of Jerusalem.  The other, Jesus, the Christ, who also caused problems in the Roman-occupied city of Jerusalem.  They stand accused of causing uprising, stirring the crowds into unreasonable and undesired expectations of freedom.  They come from different directions – Barabbas, a freedom fighter or zealot, stirred up riots.  Jesus opposed a way of violence and exclusive power that demeaned and diminished people.  He proclaimed the way of love, grounded in God, a way of justice, peace, mercy and life for all people.  The Romans took exception to both.

This picture stands as the first station in this year’s Stations of the Cross – Northmead 2019, Art Exhibition.  You can’t miss this painting.  You can’t quietly sneak past it.  You can’t avoid this overwhelming, confronting picture.  It is confronting because it is about life – specifically the life of Jesus, 2 millennia ago.  It is confronting because Jesus is being sentenced to death.  It is confronting because this choice has ripples into the lives of people crowding around in hope that he might deliver them.  It is confronting because this event is archetypal.  It is the place where truth, love and goodness face the violence of the world and where justice is distorted by the ignorance and fear of power and the status quo.

There are other images in this brilliant exhibition that collude to challenge the beliefs and practices of the world in which we live.  An indigenous artist, Black Douglas, challenges the colonial demands to colonial religious practices imposed upon him and his people whilst ignoring the deep and rich spiritual traditions the Spirit inspired in this ancient land.  Colonialism denied his people of culture and life and has transformed the landscape, their home, in ways that are not sustainable.

Another artist, Rodney Pople, portrays the ‘stripping of Jesus’ through an image of George Pell being stripped of his ecclesiastical clothing and paraphernalia.  At first, I avoided this painting, feeling the horror of everything to which it points in the outcomes of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.  I feel the evil and the abuse to vulnerable people, the protection of evil people and institutions.  I also feel the evil done to the way of God in Christ and in this painting, I understand that every evil committed and condoned by church figures strips Christ of everything.  How can I be part of the wider institutions that failed in this horrific way?  How can I not be part of the faith that has forever stood humble and naked before the vulnerable and suffering of the world?  As I continued my excursion through this last journey of Jesus towards the cross I understand Jesus descends further into pain, struggle, aloneness and the raw naked reality of absolute powerlessness and humility.

Through the journey he falls.  I recognise myself in these metaphorical falls.  I fall.  I stumble, I struggle and I lose my balance.  The balance of my physical, emotional and spiritual being.  I get seduced along the way to believe that life is found in all manner of things that feel good, taste good, look enticing.  Fear and confusion lull me into false sense of trust and lead me down the wrong paths and I lose my way, overbalancing, falling.  I fall in different ways at different times.  Sometimes the fall is about self-doubt and uncertainty about what is real, true and good.  It is easy to get lost in the marketplace of consumptive options, the plethora of images and the magnetic pull of expectation or hope or the desire to be safe, certain, secure and in control – somehow.

But I somehow get to my feet and the journey continues.  Sometimes others help me up.  Sometimes it is a prayer or contemplative moment that breaks through the clouds of unknowing or despair.  Sometimes it is the simple beauty of the world around me that breaks through into my world and draws me back into the place of wonder, awe and mystery and I feel the sacred possibility in the moment and God is very, very close.  A work called ‘Laiden’ in this exhibition, confronts me with the weight of life and expectation and the baggage we carry with us.  Chris Auckett and Leanne Sawyer have created an image of a fallen figure carrying the baggage of life as we journey with others who look on, who are part of the journey or who add to our own weight.  All of us fall under the weight and unless we can give it up, let go, hand it over and receive the outstretched hands of other people, we will continue to fall, and fall, and fall.

The artist’s stories of remembering that arise in this exhibition connect me with my own story and how all of our stories are held most fully in the story of Jesus and his dramatic, dynamic journey to the cross.  He is pushed pitilessly forward into the growing darkness towards the brutality of crucifixion and death.  It is a courageous journey, as are all journeys to our death.  It is a lonely journey as we all will face and must ultimately confront alone at that final point.

As I journey through these images, back and forward, exploring them through listening, retreat, and jazz music, I come face to face with this One who is at the heart of all things.  It is a sacred space in the midst of ordinary and the other visual images around this high school auditorium juxtapose the plethora of images and contrasting stories and highlight the deep Presence in the midst of all things.  As Easter draws near and these images become more figurative in the story of Good Friday and Easter Day, I recognise the place where life is lived and the struggle we all engage to make the journey that is your life and mine.  We confront many decisions, some challenging and others straightforward and all of us live our lives in and through the One who holds everything in deep love and grace – whether we understand this, recognise this or even believe this.

The falling leaves of autumn, with their colour and beauty.  The remaining flowers giving colour and joy.  The grey gums burnished with reds and browns.  The clouds the float through the sky and the life that is all around me sings a chorus of joy, hope and the cyclic nature of all things.  In the midst of all of this God is present to draw me out of myself and lead me into a place of deeper perception and the holding of all things in balance.  I am drawn into the place where I understand the dying-rising nature of life in God.  There are always things in my being that need to die, in order that some deeper, truer, more self-aware being can emerge.  It is in this place that wisdom arises and the place of resurrection in this story takes on an eternal, timeless feel, where the ‘time’ beyond time breaks into my experience and lifts my vision until I see and know and live in a deeper, more grateful place.  The Risen Christ is the sign of my being loved in the most profound way and drawn into the richness of Love at the heart of everything.  Easter leads me through life into death to live anew!

By geoffstevenson

Which Path, Which Parade Will You Join?

This Sunday is called Palm Sunday.  It is a religious festival that celebrates Jesus ‘triumphal’ entry into the Holy City of Jerusalem.  It came just days before his crucifixion.  Jesus had organised a donkey to be available and the peasant crowds gathered outside the city walls.  As he rode they placed clothing on the ground before him, some waved branches and they hailed him as Messiah – one sent by God to deliver the people (it usually had militaristic connotations).  They cried ‘Hosanna’, which means ‘save us’.  It was a call from ordinary oppressed people who struggled in their lives for salvation and liberation – in God.

Whilst the Bible’s four Gospels (‘good news’ stories of Jesus) each include a version of this story, none indicate the probability of another ‘triumphal’ entry into the Holy City around the same time.  It was most likely that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of the whole region rode down from his coastal residence into Jerusalem.  The Jewish Passover Festival celebrates the liberation of the people from slavery and oppression in Egypt under Moses’ leadership.  They celebrated how God liberated their ancestors and brought them into freedom.  It was a high time in the city.  It unleashed the deep yearnings of the people’s lives, their hopes for peace and freedom under God, not Rome.  Messianic expectations were high and in the swelling crowds there was often unrest, rebellion and trouble.  Pilate’s presence was militaristic and violent, to ensure people bowed to the power of Rome, maintained peace and his forces squashed uprisings.

Pilate’s entry would have been large, noisy, filled with pomp, ceremony and all the entrapments of wealth and power.  Foot soldiers, mounted soldiers, Pilate on a war horse, a large stallion as a show of power and might.  Trumpets and heralds, the clomping of hooves, boots hitting the ground in time, metal on leather.  This was a show of force and might; the message loud and clear – ‘Don’t mess with Rome!’

This way of power, force, and might is common through history.  The US strike on Iraq was ‘Shock and Awe,’ a massive show of power and force designed to bring the opposition to their knees very quickly.  Tiananmen Square was another demonstration of power.  Vladimir Putin is equally adroit at the use of power and might to generate fear and warning, whether in his more subtle imprisonments and executions of those who oppose him to his use of Russian naval vessels sailing off the coast of Australia when we hosted the G20 meeting in Brisbane.

In the ‘Age of Discovery’ European nations sent their ships out to conquer the unknown, undiscovered world.  In forces of power the military campaigns seized lands and threatened indigenous people with overwhelming might and subdued them.  The stories are horrific and evil, leaving lasting scars and deep wounding of the collective psyche of many of the world’s indigenous peoples.   This is the way of Empire and power.  It was the way of Rome in the 1st century.

So, two parades, two entries in the city from opposing directions and opposing theologies.  Rome had its Roman Imperial Theology that worshipped Caesar as the all-powerful Deity and it’s theological/philosophical agenda upheld the power of violence and the abuse of ordinary people for the sake of the powerful and the empire.  It sustained the notion that Caesar was Divine and had all wisdom, might and must be served and worshipped by all people.

On the other hand, Jesus proclaimed another reign that he called the Reign of God.  In this Reign, God was over all, in all and through all.  It was/is a Reign of love where God, like a Divine parent, nurtures and cares for all creation – the creation that finds its very life and being in the being of God.  It is a Reign where justice and love balance each other and work together so that all have enough and all are equal, held in the beautiful diversity that is everywhere around us.  Jesus proclaimed a way that was not predicated on the use of violence or a show of force but of humility and he became vulnerable in order to reveal to true power of love and the weakness of abusive power found in empire.

As he paraded into Jerusalem, in his counter-cultural entry on a donkey, Jesus was hailed as the Messiah but with the cry, ‘Save us!’ (Hosanna).  It was a heart-felt cry from people who were desperate and yearning for another way in the world, a way that treated them and others with respect and gave everyone a fair go, enough food and all else they needed to live.  They cried out to one who was so different from the leadership of both Rome and the Jerusalem Temple.  They cried out to one who incarnated in his own being, humility, wisdom, love, grace, mercy, compassion, community, inclusion, welcome, peace, justice, hope and kindness.  Jesus stood so much taller than the leaders the people had experienced and his vision captured their imaginations and his life and words captured their hearts and being.

This is why he was ultimately crucified, because the world can’t deal with true love and life.  Power cannot abide in inclusive sharing and violence can only sustain itself by countering peace with more violence and abuse.  We see this all around us as political leaders across the world generate fear and divide and conquer their people.  If they have military might they threaten.  Jesus presented such a radically beautiful and inclusive Reign of Love that the powers had to be rid of him, lest they lose their control, and everyone finds a equal place.  When the status quo is threatened, it strikes back with vehemence and all the might it can pull together.  The status quo never likes being challenged but it must be, for the sake of the vulnerable and little people of the earth – and for the sake of the earth itself!

So, two parades, two philosophies, two ways in life in the world – which are you going to embrace?  Which vision will you believe?  Which song will you sing?  Which one does your own heart yearn for?  Will it be the slick ride ‘to the top’, where power flows through our body like electricity, tingling every nerve with the energy of might?  How long will this last?  How long before it burns us out, along with the world around us?  How many people have to be trampled over in order for the few to stand high and mighty?

Will you choose the low road, the alternative path less travelled where wisdom and love guide your way in vulnerable and humble freedom to be yourself without pretence or affectation?  Will you choose a way that stands firmly against the ways of violence and abuse, injustice and exclusion?  It will take courage and community because you can’t walk this way alone – but you won’t have to because the one who journeyed this path walks with you and his community shares the journey of life!

By geoffstevenson

On Being Alive…

Sociologist, preacher and storyteller, Tony Campolo, tells a story about life and being alive.  It is entitled, ‘Are You Alive?’

Several years ago, I taught a course at the University of Pennsylvania entitled, “Existentialism and Sociologism.”  One semester, on the first day of class, I pointed to an unsuspecting student and startled him when I asked, “How long have you lived?” The student was taken aback by the question and answered, “I’m twenty-two.”

“No! No! No!” I said.  “What you’ve told me is how long your heart has been pumping blood.  My question was, how long have you lived?”

The student looked puzzled and couldn’t quite grasp what I was talking about.  I then told him this story of something special that happened to me when I was in ninth grade and our school class took a trip to New York City. 

We were taken to the top of the Empire State Building and, like most boys my age, I was chasing girls and crawling around the observation area.  Then suddenly, I caught myself!  I walked to the railing and peered over the edge of the building.  The magnificence of the skyscrapers of New York lay before me and I stood there, stunned into reverence.  In one mystical moment, I absorbed the city.  I gazed at it with such intensity that if I were to live a million years that moment would still be part of my consciousness.  I was so fully alive at that moment, that I sensed it had become part of my eternal now. 

Then looking at the student, I again posed the question: “How long have you lived?”

My student answered pensively, “When you put it that way, Doc, maybe a couple of minutes.  I don’t know.  It’s hard to say.  Most of my life has been a meaningless passage of time, between all too few moments of genuine aliveness.”

Campolo’s story invites me to ponder what it means to be alive and how few people ‘live fully’.  How much of our life is spent in that ‘meaningless passage of time’?  How much of our time is lived seeking things that ultimately prove superficial?  I know that I have been lured down many paths over the course of my life.  Some have been gloriously wonderful and others a waste of energy and a bit like one of those custard-filled donut/pastries I used to indulge in as a young adult.  They tasted so good going down.  My mouth was filled with a flood of tasty custard, chocolate and sugary, fatty flavours.  The combination is always appealing to the taste buds and stomach, but it doesn’t take long for the good taste to fade and a stale taste to fill my mouth and leave me seeking something to replace it.  I am still occasionally lured into eating such ‘treats’ and inevitably regret it.

There have been experiences in life that I have believed ‘I needed’, urged on by popular opinion, media and the strong sense I might miss out on something if I didn’t grasp the possibility.  It may have been acquiring something new, the latest fad or piece of new technology.  It may have been going somewhere or doing something daring, new or risky as a kid experiencing the big world beyond our yard.  Some of these experiences or acquisitions have been marvellous and others left me wondering whether it was worth it.

As I move through middle age the questions around what is important, and meaningful grow stronger.  Perhaps it is that as we grow older there are less years ahead than behind?  Perhaps, it is that I have lived longer, tried many things and can see through the false promises; I’m more cynical or perhaps more realistic and less interested in hype and material stuff these days.  A question for me, arising from pondering this story, is “What is worth living and dying for?” What is worth putting lots of energy into?  What gets me going and makes me feel really alive?

There are several answers to this question but most, for me, are grounded in living fully in a moment (or two).  I recognise that I must not be caught in holding onto the past, whether the good things I want to cling to or the bad things I regret.  I must also refrain from the temptation of constantly living for the future – planning and thought for the future is important but constantly being caught there is not living.  I think back to the significant events that are momentous – marriage, birth of children, baptism of children, celebrating life of those I’ve loved who have died and dealing with the deep pain, significant events and activities I have shared in with our family and friends.  There have been simple moments of ‘being together’ and laughing or enjoying a shared moment; sharing over a meal, simple or complex, indulgent or basic.  Listening to, and for me playing, music that grabs me and pulls me into a moment that is profound and takes me beyond time to another place.  Walking our dogs through the local bush, around the creek and experiencing the beauty of each new day; observing the wonders of life and the world around me.  It is a very rich experience that fills me with awe.  Last year when Susan and I visited Uluru and Kata Tjuta, it was a deeply spiritual and profound experience.  Watching these rock formations through sunrise, sunset and the changing moments of the day was quite special.  Touching these rocks up close was very significant and being in the presence of these sacred places was moving and enlivening.

For me, those moments imbued with the spiritual are very rich and deeply profound.  I am captured into something much bigger than myself and in touch with deeper reality and the sacredness at the very heart of everything.  I understand these experiences as being ‘in God’, of living in the very presence of the One who holds everything in love and grace that I can barely describe or even understand.  It is a profound mystery that is too often beyond mere words but it gives me life and enlivens me in the richest way.  It is worth living for!

This week I am challenged by the story of a woman, a simple woman who offers the most outrageously intimate act of love to Jesus (John 12:1-8).  Mary is her name and her brother is the recently restored-to-life Lazarus who also sits at the dinner table.  Her sister, Martha serves the food and there are other guests, including the disciples.  During the meal, Mary lets her hair down, breaks open an expensive jar of perfume and rubs it into Jesus’ feet.  She then wipes his feet with her hair.  This would be questionable in most company today, but in the 1st century such a sensuous, intimate act was scandalous.  It is likened to the act of a prostitute, seductive and sexual.  Mary has no such thought – it is an act of deep love for One who is experienced in his deeply loving, profoundly holy and gracious life.  Mary recognises the extravagance of Jesus’ love in restoring her brother’s life and openly loving her and her sister as equal human beings.  Mary is alive in this sacred moment and gives everything she has and is to share this love, life, joy and gratitude with the one who has and will give everything for her, and the world God loves.

It is only a little while later that Jesus dies for the sake of his love and mission of revealing God’s way of love and joy to the world.  He goes to the cross knowing that he is alive in God and anything less than the pursuit of this mission of love and grace will be something less than true living.  He is alive and shares this life with all who will receive!

In the New Testament story, Paul shares how he could have had or been everything the world around valued, but he found it wanting and gave himself and everything he had (and endured struggle and pain!) to follow Jesus and live the life of God’s love, peace and joy.

By geoffstevenson

The Journey into Life through Love and Grace

Like all of us, I have made many journeys in life.  Some have been simple and straightforward and others more complex and challenging.  Some have been physical journeys that have taken me away from home on some adventure or a retreat into a peaceful space.  Some journey’s have been emotional and challenged my world view, challenged everything and left me breathless and confused, grieving and lost.

Sometimes the journey has been simple and lovely, such as the little journey we made today around Toongabbie Creek on our daily walk with the dogs.  Susan and Nebo ventured as far as the bridge.  The old fellow decided he didn’t need to go far today.  Nico, meanwhile, wanted to venture as far as possible, to explore the creek, the parks, bark at or greet other dogs and people along the way.  This little journey isn’t so much a physical challenge but a source quiet and reflection in the wonder and beauty of the early morning world.

Sometimes the journey is emotionally or physically demanding.  It stretches me by confronting me with my own limitations and powerlessness.  The journey through my mother’s illness and death so many years ago, was extremely confronting and emotionally challenging.  The resultant grief and sense of loss became its own journey to understand, recalibrate and recognise my own limitations and mortality.  I also recognised that I cannot do this life alone.

‘Journey’ is a metaphor that is readily present in all cultures to describe the movement through life that engages us.  Most cultures, religions and philosophies seem to speak in terms of a journey at some point.  The great archetypal story is of the outward journey we all make, leaving home to take on the world and build our own sense of being.  This metaphorical (and sometimes physical) journey is about the individuation of self, of experimenting and testing the world and working out who we are.  It is necessarily self-centred and ego-driven.  It revolves around ambition, striving, testing and pushing boundaries.  It is the life of the adolescent who is naturally self-absorbed as they try to define and express their emerging identity.  Sometimes this is a wild journey (‘sowing wild oats’) that pushes everything as far as possible.  There may be rebellion and anger. vulnerability and naivete in the push and pull of home versus independence.  This is the story of the Garden of Eden and the journey outward into the world away from the fantastical world of childhood.  It is about rebellion and pushing boundaries and rules and the movement into personhood – Adam and Eve gained names and individual identity at this point in the story.  They enter a world that is harsh and filled with toil and struggle, along with the joy of relationships and life lived.  This is also the beginning of the journey that will eventually bring them home into a place of peaceful acceptance, of relational equanimity when engaged with integrity!

The outward journey we make into life is one that builds the container of our being.  It is the building up of who we are and is formed in the dreams, hopes and adolescent longing of ego, ambition and the seductions of the world in which live.  We are tempted with fame, fortune, power and the accumulation of ‘stuff’.  We become driven to ‘be someone’ even though we have no clear idea of who we are.  The compulsions and addictions we acquire as we struggle through this journey drive us onward until we fall into vulnerability and humility.

When we are confronted by a great suffering and have to live through it we recognise our own powerlessness and inability to ‘save ourselves’.  Sometimes a great sense of awe that brings us to our knees and reveals the smallness of who we are in this vast universe – the world does not actually revolve around ‘me’.  It may be a great love that draws us into a vulnerable, humble place before which we recognise that we are not the centre of everything.  These kinds of experiences, when engaged with and allowed to form us and change us, squash down the ego into a healthier place where it doesn’t dominate everything.

We then begin the 2nd journey of life, which is about filling the container of our lives, the one built up in the 1st journey.  We learn wisdom, community, generosity and love.  We begin to understand that we are part of the webs of life on this vulnerable planet.  We are no better or worse, no greater or less than other people – we are unique, and everyone has their place.  We are all in this together and must share the resources and learning we have acquired along the way for the good of all.  This is some challenging journey and one that not everyone makes!  The best leaders the world has known were making this journey in life whilst the worst, ego-centric leaders are still negotiating the 1st journey and do not understand what life is about – not yet.

This week’s story comes from Luke 15:11-32, which is the story often known as The Prodigal Son.  It is a story of the 2 journeys.  The young son confronts the world of home and wants out.  He wants to push the boundaries, experience life and test the seductive promises of the world beyond home.  His father obliges and he leaves on his adventure.  All seems good until he realises it actually isn’t.  Money gone, friends moved on and desperate he falls into crisis and suffering.  It is somewhere in this fallen state of pain and crisis that he realises he can’t do it and home looks pretty good.  His father’s house cares for all who are there.  He returns home.  He could not do that until he came to the humble realisation that he was powerless to change anything about his life.  He could not do it alone and needed home!

The part of the story that confounds us and turns expectations upside down is when he gets close to home and we are told his father had looked out every day and when he saw his son he ran and grasped him with tears in his eyes and love in his heart.  The son tried to confess, apologise… but the father pushes it aside saying, ‘You are my son, you’ve always been my son.  You were lost but now your found; dead but now alive.’  This is grace!  It is undeserved, unmerited love that recognises the boy has endured the 1st journey and is now ready to come home to where he belongs as the unique individual he can be.  He doesn’t need to be ‘punished’ just accepted and loved!  He has been to ‘hell’ and back home.

His older brother never left home and has never known the deep pain.  He has lived in safety and judges his brother severely!  He refuses his father’s grace and wants retribution towards his brother.  He cannot accept grace.  He cannot see that the deeper a person falls and suffers, the deeper their need for grace, love and acceptance.  This is a story of God’s grace and love that is there for everyone, free and lavishly bestowed on all who understand their need and humbly open themselves to receive it!

The older son becomes real in our own experience when there is judgement of  others who need grace and love – asylum seekers, our Indigenous brothers and sisters, those who struggle with poverty, both here and overseas… – people who have great needs, physical, emotional/psychological and spiritual, which at some point is most of us.  The older son is those who from a sense of entitlement judge other people who are in another place without walking with them to understand their life.  The older son refuses to come to the celebration and wants to deny grace to others.  Such grace and love is confounding and antithetical to the priorities of our world, where vengeance and retribution dominate our responses to life’s challenges.  Forgiveness and grace, though, are the way of healing and peace for all.

By geoffstevenson

An Invitation to Take A Second Chance?

There’s the story of a young man on death row in the USA.  Even his mother, ashamed and disgusted at his crimes (rape and murder), had given up on him.  He was described as perverted, twisted and even rejected by his own mother.  His name was Jimmy Lee Davis and he was sentenced to death, imprisoned on death row.

A young Christian in Melbourne read his story in a newspaper and for some reason was moved with compassion for the young man, a man no-one else thought anything of.  He felt deeply that God loved even this despised and despicable young man – that no-one, even this cold and perverted criminal, was beyond God’s capacity to love.  The young Melbourne man believed that if only Jimmy could experience and know God’s love as it had come to him; if only he could know the depth and beauty of God’s love, he would change.  He wrote a letter to Jimmy in his prison and told him in his simple way that Jesus loved him and that had made all the difference in his own life.

The young man was amazed that within a couple of weeks he received a reply.  It said: ‘It’s the most wonderful letter I’ve ever received in my life.  I do wish that I could know Jesus in my own life like you do.  I’ve made such a mess of it.  You have given me hope.’ 

The young man from Melbourne got yhe idea into his head that he had to go to America, that God was in this and he needed to go.  He was determined to go and meet Jimmy and share God’s love with him.  He prayed about it and talked to some friends.  Before long all sorts of donations were coming in from different places and he soon had the fare to America. 

He landed in Jackson, Mississippi, knowing no-one, hoping to get into death row and meet with Jimmy Lee Davis.  A whole series of events unfolded that led to him receiving permission to enter death row, twice a week for four hours a visit, for a couple of months.  He took his guitar with him.  He sat in that cell in death row with Jimmy.  They talked, he sang Christian songs, they cracked jokes, they laughed and came to behave like brothers.

Jimmy grew into his awareness of God and became committed to Christian faith and the way of Jesus.  Over a couple of months, the two men had deep fellowship as close friends and brothers in Christian faith.  The last visit was Jimmy’s baptism.  A Christian magazine carried a picture of Jimmy and the prison chaplain coming out of the small pool dripping wet.  The young man’s visa had expired, and he had to leave.  They hugged each other and said their goodbyes.

He returned to Melbourne and for two years Jimmy awaited his fate.  In the meantime, they wrote letters to each other.  Jimmy was growing deeper in faith – there had been a remarkable transformation in his life.  He was truly a new person.  In one of his letters he said: ‘There is one thing I’m not going to do.  I’m not going to dishonour the gospel of God by using my conversion to escape the death penalty.’

One day a phone call came through to Melbourne and the young man’s wife received the call.  She rang him at work and asked to come home at once because Jimmy had permission to call from his prison cell – he’s being executed tonight.

He tore home from work and got through to the prison in America two hours before Jimmy was due in the gas chamber.  He said he just broke down and cried on the phone.  However Jimmy, on the other end of the line, said, ‘I love you man.  Thank you for all you’ve done for me.  I’ve got to go now.  Goodbye.  Be seeing you.’ And Jimmy hung up.

I have used this story before.  Every time I read it I feel a mixture of emotions.  There is the revulsion we feel when we hear something of the violent, evil crimes this person has committed.  After revulsion, I continue to read the story and wonder what possessed the young man from Melbourne to see beyond the revulsion that we feel and believe there was a human being in there somewhere.  Why did he write?  What did he expect?  What did he see and what enabled him to see, to feel and to respond?

The journey that followed and the experience of both men leaves me feeling confused, amazed and wondering.  What happened and could this be a reality for more people in such horrible places in life?  What do I miss in judging people so readily and especially against what they have done?  What do I miss when I believe that what a person has done must define them forever?  A moment of stupidity or loss of mind or control should not be the whole story of a person’s life.  Whilst there may need to be retributive action or ‘justice’ applied to particular situations, how might we respond to people in more compassionate ways, learning to go deeper, to listen and to act from love.  Not to love the actions or the heart that perpetrated evil but to love the heart that shows remorse and seeks forgiveness and, if possible, restitution.  Perhaps it goes even deeper and understands that love is the beginning of transformation and such radical love in the midst of the retributive cycle of society’s response to evil, may yield the most astounding and transformative responses.

Jimmy experienced unconditional love from a young Christian from Melbourne.  He encountered the love of God through this man and it changed him.  As God’s love broke into his being and melted his hardness and evil, he was slowly changed.  It was a second chance.  He still submitted to and faced the legal requirements of the state for his crime and was put to death.  The one who died was a different person to the one who committed the crimes.  It is reminiscent of the stories of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who were put to death in Indonesia for drug trafficking.  Their lives were changed dramatically, and they were making a difference to the lives of others in prison – a second chance to do something significant with their lives before facing the death squad.

The passage this week (Luke 13:1-9) contains a story where Jesus speaks of a fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit.  The owner wants it removed because it is a waste of space.  The gardener calls for one year’s reprieve – a second chance.  If they dig around the roots, put down some manure and give it another chance, perhaps there will be fruit next year.  The owner consents to a second chance.

This story contains a couple of calls for repentance, a complete change in mind, attitude, action and being.  Initially Jesus confronts the issue of bad things happening to good people.  He tells them that bad things are not punishment and they happen to good and bad people.  So, change your mind and stop judging other people because of what has happened to them, what they look like, do etc – Repent!   The second call is for repentance in our lives such that we live into a new way of being.  We are offered second chances so take them but be changed through the experience!  Don’t waste the chance.

I wonder how we respond to people who are different?  How do we respond to people who have made mistakes or have made choices we don’t consider respectable or reasonable?  How do we respond to people who have gotten things so badly wrong and messed up their own and other’s lives?  Can we be gracious and offer a second chance?  Do we know God’s love deeply enough to be able to be gracious and loving towards others who are despised?  Do we believe that we are indeed deserving of a second chance in God’s grace?  It changed Jimmy, it can change others and us!

By geoffstevenson

Turning from Fear Through Love…

On our daily wander along the bush tracks of the local creek, we encounter many birds and animals along the way.  In most cases they are wary of a human and a dog and get out of the way.  Some watch from a distance and there is uncertainty, fear, in their eyes.  They retreat rather than attack.  Even the black snake in our path the other day.  It was caught out, lying in the sun and didn’t move soon enough.  As I looked, from the safety of a few metres away, it seemed to me that it went into a defensive mode, fearing these larger creatures bearing down upon it.  The fear was not only within the snake – I kept my distance as the thought of a close encounter with poisonous fangs was undesirable.  The ducks, water dragons, skinks, cockatoos, parrots, and other creatures keep their distance.  The ducks with their young in spring are extremely wary of everything and the parents will attack anything that threatens their ducklings.  There is a mixture of defensive fear and angry aggression in their eyes.

It feels to me that fear drives many responses in the animal world.  Often it is a healthy, respectful fear that ushers the animal away from danger.  Sometimes when the threat is close up and endangering, a full-on defensive assault follows – it can be all or nothing.  It is the same with people.  As I hear the daily news and ponder some of the stories, I recognise defensive fear in the violent actions of many people – even, and perhaps especially, the violence and abuse of power over other people.  I have come to understand that a person made vulnerable or one not fully mature will often react strongly to protect their own vulnerable or immature sense of personhood.  Often those appearing strong, macho and ‘in control’ feel insecure and any threat to them, whether physical, or especially emotional is met with a strong defensive stance that lashes out in an offensive manner.   When a person’s ego is threatened, we tend to be defensive and respond out of fear.  We feel the insecurity to do everything to maintain our equilibrium and feel secure and in control.  For most of us, being in control and controlling situations is very important.  Any threat to our sense of control or order is challenged.  The flight or fight syndrome functions well into this space.  We are overwhelmed with adrenalin and either run or stand up to fight.  It can be fast and furious, without any reasonable, considered thought, a spontaneous lashing out with fists or words…

Look into most of the reactions in the news stories and ponder what lies behind the violence or response.  Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, for example, are very similar even whilst being very different.  Both resist any challenge to their sense of authority and anything that questions them or challenges their large, under-developed egos, will result in fierce reaction.  Putin’s reactions are incredibly violent and cold-blooded, whilst Trump’s violence tends to be through words or some show of might that casts people aside or threatens finance.  Many of the violent events that we see are ego-driven or defensive reactions from people whose power, authority or ego have been challenged in some way, even unintentionally.  When people seek to control power (and therefore are usually controlled by power) and seek to control others around them, any challenge to that power and sense of authority stimulates a strong, often violent reaction.  It is defensive and fear-driven because we will do anything to shore up our wounded or threatened ego, when our life revolves around ego-centricity.

I have been challenged by the person of Jesus in many ways and in the many stories from his life and teaching.  Jesus acts purely out of love – not fear.  There is no threat to his physical being or his psychology/emotions or sense of being that will evoke a defensive, violent stance.  He is sometimes surprised when people come back at him.  He listens and changes direction, embracing the truth of what he sees and hears.  In the story this week (Luke 13:31-35), a group of religious leaders come to warn him that he is seriously off-side with the local king – a puppet of Caesar.  Herod Antipas, who has already beheaded John the Baptist has Jesus in his sights.  What is it about this simple Rabbi, teaching, healing and casting out daemons, that gets under the skin of local powers and authorities?  He preaches love and embraces all people into the heart of God, a place of life and hope, inclusion and belonging.  It is a place where we discover ourselves in the deepest ways and learn to live alongside each other celebrating each other’s gifts and uniqueness.  Jesus’ way, the way of God, challenges the use and abuse of power – power over and power against.  Herod is frightening to most people, but Jesus sends a message back to him calling him a fox and indicating he will leave when he is finished and not before.  There is no fear in Jesus’ response to the threat offered.  He is not offended by slights or anything that challenges his ego because it doesn’t control and dictate who he is and how he lives in the world.  Herod, on the other hand, is threatened by anything and anyone who opposes his opinion or challenges his power or won’t bow to his authority.  He will lash out murderously as he did with John – still Jesus is unmoved.

Well, actually he is moved, but not by Herod.  Jesus is moved to grief at the appalling state of the people in Jerusalem, the holy city that houses the grand Temple of God.  Jesus mourns the prophets and messengers who have come to this famous, wondrous city and delivered God’s word of love, grace and justice, but who have been ignored.  He grieves the streets that have run with the blood of martyrs – for Luke writing beyond the time when this Temple was destroyed, no doubt adds to the emotional import of how this city has lived and died, along with its prophets and messengers.

Jesus longs to gather the people together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings to protect and shield them from the dangers that threaten.  Like the ducks down the creek, Jesus wants to protect the little ones from the dangers that come through political machinations, the abuse of power and the threat to people’s well-being.  This protection isn’t just from physical danger but the danger that asserts itself through cultural expectations and the seductions of life that lead people into complex paths that do not yield life. For Herod, the Roman political, religious and ideological agenda was paramount.  They reigned through fear and the wielding of immense, threatening power.  They drew heavy taxes and the wealthy grew ‘richer, the poor got the picture’.  Jesus challenged the very heart of this world-view, of ego-centric lives and abusive power, violence, injustice and marginalisation.  He proclaimed a way of life for all, grounded in love and yearned to gather everyone under wings that would shield them/us from the seductions that deal false hope and drain the very life from us.

When we are governed by fear, it might be a sign that we need this grace to grow through fear by receiving the profound, generous love and grace of God!

By geoffstevenson

A Journey into Love and Life…

We have just entered a different season.  For a few days I didn’t notice anything much different, but today after the cooler change and storms of last night, it feels decidedly autumnal.  Yesterday we entered a new season in the cycles and rhythm of Christian faith.  It is the season of Lent and began with Ash Wednesday this week.  Lent is a time of preparation and reflection on life and who we are.  Whilst many who ‘are not religious’ may ignore or avoid this period of reflection, they do so at their own peril for this is a time where we can connect more deeply with our own true self and the Spirit within.

We live in a world of distraction and much superficiality.  The radio is playing in the background and the news is distracting me right now – I turned the radio down.  The phone is in another room and distracting notifications are turned off – I think??!  There is quiet and as always in the silence, my mind wants to race ahead and interpret, predict, analyse and solve.  It is functioning in the past and future but finds it very difficult to be fully in the present.  More than that, left to its own devices, my mind conjures all kinds of responses to people, situations, and the world around.  I judge, compare, define and compete.  This is the normal way we work, business-as-usual, the way we are conditioned in our ego-driven world that protects and builds up the ego.

At some point in our lives there comes a realisation that we can’t do this ‘life-thing’ alone, that we are not as good, great, independent or in control as we would like to think or expect we need to be.  We are just one more person amongst 7 billion others – no better, no worse.  We feel the same things, we bleed the same way, we hurt, we laugh, we struggle, and life is a journey through joy and pain.  When we push down on the ego and refuse its overindulgence we begin to grow in other ways because we recognise that we are unique people, with unique and beautiful gifts that light up the world when we allow ourselves to shine rather than compare and judge and focus on other people and what they have/have not, can or can’t do… and find ourselves drawn down comparative, envious pathways.

This moment of realisation comes through a transformation of our mind and our inner being.  Often it is a great crisis, something deep and painful that reveals our vulnerability and the futility of power, position and materialistic ways.  As we endure the crisis and grow through it, confronting our mortality and humanity, we are drawn down and into a deeper place.  We recognise fellow travellers that share our journey, people we need to depend on because alone we do not have everything we need – and nor does anyone else!  Sometimes this moment of realisation comes through encountering an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder, something that brings us to our knees, that engages us in the deepest way and the world lights up and we ‘see’ differently.  A great love is another pathway that draws us out of our individualistic life with its need to be ‘right’, be in control and invulnerable before the world.  Love can reveal our vulnerability and break through the barriers we present to the world as we reveal ourselves in our naked reality before another.  Such Love that breaks in through the birth of a child revealing the miracle and profound wonder that is life.  A small, new life is so helpless, and we feel so vulnerable before this child who is dependent upon us for everything.

The journey into deeper, truer life is always a journey that requires courage and strength and makes us feel increasingly vulnerable and humble before the world.  Spiritual director and author, Richard Rohr, speaks of the pattern of traditional initiation rites for males: ‘…trial, testing, facing and experiencing death, and coming out with a new identity and mission.’  It is the lack of such initiation in our modern world that contributes to the domestic violence and abuse of power, as immature people lose control of emotions and are so self-absorbed, and ego-centric that they use and abuse people and hurt them, physically, emotional and spiritually.  Rohr’s work with men in helping them to engage in the deeper work of personal transformation and being open to their inner life of Spirit and humility leads these men into the place of love, compassion, mercy and justice.

This, of course, is the pattern through which all great leaders must journey in some way as they grow in wisdom, maturity and love.  Nelson Mandella, for example, left behind his anger and bitterness, his need for revenge and ‘justice’ (that is really vengeance in disguise) through the crucible of imprisonment over 27 years.  His imprisonment didn’t break him.  It formed or re-formed him.  As he lived through the pain and struggle of being locked away, reduced to lowly status, Mandella grew through trial, testing, and confronting his humanity and mortality.  He gained a new identity and mission and as he left prison, it was as a wiser and more deeply human, spiritual and compassionate person.  This doesn’t ‘just happen’.  We have to engage in the journey and learn to ‘let go’ of our anger, our need to control and define and rule.  We have to let go of the pseudo-power we believe we have or need and recognise that true strength is in weakness and wisdom comes through vulnerability and compassion – and suffering!

As we enter into Lent, we read the story of Jesus being led into his own wilderness, a place of silence, devoid of the usual distractions (Luke 4:1-13).  The wilderness throws up all manner of delusions, temptations, and the daemons of the mind that finally have space to move around and confront our conscious mind that can’t hide in distractions.  Jesus was tempted in 3 ways that appear to be archetypal in terms of humans confronting their destiny and being before the world.  The first temptation was to doubt his essential being as a ‘child of God.’  This is our essential reality, though most would deny and reject any sense of finding our identity in God.  Perhaps that is why there is such great existential alienation persistent within our society – anxiety, depression, suicide, addiction… are pandemic.  We are out of touch with who we truly are and running from a deeper sense of the Spirit of all things within us, holding us and loving us.

The second temptation is about recognising that God’s Reign is an ever-present reality that becomes real to us only when we open ourselves to its possibility and the essential nature of becoming humble before love.  The Reign of God is for us in the most profound ways, but we too often remain beyond its influence and love, through our rejection of it.

The third temptation is about belief and recognition that God is for us, around us, in us and for the world.  Signs and wonders will not engender belief and faith, but faith will allow us to see with new eyes the true wonders before us in the world.  Everything will come alight with the radiant beauty and wonder that flows from the heart of God.

We all share this journey into life with Jesus.  We don’t all engage it with the same openness nor follow it to the end.  This is an invitation into a deeper sense of our humanity and into life that is abundant in love, joy and hope.  It is the journey of life into God.

By geoffstevenson

The Way of Wisdom, Life and Love…

One of the frustrations of age is seeing.  I can see well and don’t wear glasses – except for reading.  It is becoming more necessary to have glasses, which I generally forget to take with me anywhere, to read things in lesser light or smaller print.  I have been caught in restaurants and cafes, unable to read the menu.  There is too little light, or the print is smaller.  I have tried to fix things and unscrewing small screws is difficult because I can’t see where to put the screwdriver.  Reading instructions or things on the phone (emails, texts…), looking at nutritional data on food in supermarkets, puzzles in newspaper or books, some data on the computer on a smaller screen… are all more difficult and frustrating.  Seeing is important.  The thing is, I can see but I can’t always see clearly.  I can read and fumble through and mostly get it right when I have forgotten my glasses, but I also get it wrong.  I usually think I can see better than I really can sometimes, and then when I put glasses on to check, the world changes and I see something quite different from what I thought I was reading or looking at.  Sometimes I see what I thought was there but then there are more details and other things I didn’t realise were there.

As I reflect on ‘seeing’ I also realise that there are different levels of seeing and sight.  I have only spoken about physical sight but there is ‘sight’ that is beyond physical.  There is seeing that ventures into deeper knowing or wisdom, an ability to ‘see’ and understand what is happening around us in deeper ways.  It is about seeing beyond what is, a looking beneath the superficial reality that presents or is presented by the world around us, to that which underlies this seeming reality and reveals a bigger story or picture.

For example, I remember coaching netball or helping out with cricket and soccer.  Teaching kids particular skills or techniques or teaching them moves and strategies in the game, is often confusing and different kids will ‘get’ some of it and others won’t.  Some kids immediately ‘see’ and understand what we are describing, and others struggle for some time.  I remember trying to teach some boys how to trap a soccer ball and then pass it on with the side of their foot.  One watched me and got everything backwards, using wrong feet in the wrong way.  He trapped with the wrong part of his foot and kicked it in the wrong direction.  He saw what I did but something didn’t compute or perhaps he didn’t really ‘see’?  His brain and body did not reproduce what he saw in any way.  When I tried to describe to my netball team a strategy for playing against a particular team, sometimes they got it and sometimes there was no demonstrable evidence that they got what I was saying, that they could ‘see’ what I wanted them to do.  In the game they could not ‘see’ what was happening and therefore didn’t respond to it,

The issue of ‘seeing’ is bigger than kids at netball or soccer, though.  We have leaders across our world who think they can ‘see’ but their vision is either very fuzzy or extremely limited.  The various Royal Commissions have delivered scathing reports on various people and organisations, revealing the blindness, ignorance or pure arrogance of those who make unethical or evil choices that impact innocent people in terrible ways – whether the sexual abuse of children or the ripping off of customers of financial institutions, or the abuse of elderly…  Seeing extends into how we ‘see’ other people, especially those who are different, challenging or desperate.  When we look into the face of another human being, what do we ‘see’?  I remember Mother Teresa talking about the people she worked amongst, the poor, sick and desperate.  These people were dirty, sick and often very difficult.  In them she saw the face of Christ!   She looked at people that most others avoided, cringed at and rejected, and she saw the face of God in their broken, dirty face.  How was it she ‘saw’ something different in these marginalised, desperate people and was able to respond with compassion and grace, whilst many others either couldn’t or wouldn’t ‘see’ these people?  Why is it some people respond to asylum seekers with openness and compassion whilst others see only ‘boat people’?  How can some walk through the streets of the poor parts of town and ‘see’ the people who are hurting and struggling whilst others retreat in fear or loathing?

Why can some ‘see’ the pain and struggle of the earth and want humanity to respond to science and the evidence of problems in the warming of the earth and changing climate, whilst others reject this as a passing phase in the earth’s cycle?  How is it that some people walk the same paths as others but see a world of beauty and wonder, rich in miracles of life and colour, intricate design and sacred presence?  Others walk these same paths and only see ‘some trees…’  Why do some hearts move with emotion and compassion as they experience a story that is lovely and filled with rich humanity, struggle and love, compassion and courage, while others are not much moved?

This week we venture to the mountain top with Jesus (Luke 9:28-36) in a story called ‘The Transfiguration’.  It is a wonderful story of a mystical visionary experience on a mountaintop.  There is an emphasis that points towards ‘seeing’ and ‘sight’.  This is a major focus for Luke (in Jesus’ inaugural sermon, he speaks of ‘…recovery of sight to the blind…’).  From direct references to seeing to the allusions in this story to the Moses story of him on the mountain receiving the 10 Commandments (for those who will ‘see’).  Luke uses these to invite us into a place of ‘seeing’ but what are we to see?  For many there is the wonder of Jesus’ changed appearance, his glory that shines.  Surely, we encounter this glorious form of ‘faith’ in various expressions of Christianity that highlight glory, victory, heaven and urge people to seek blessing of God that is accompanied by material blessing and comfort.  But is this Luke’s point?

The words that precede this story are about Jesus’ own revelation that he will be going to Jerusalem and to his death on a cross.  His path into ‘glory’ is via the cross, through the way of suffering and struggle.  Death precedes resurrection and he speaks of this way of ‘dying-rising’ as the pattern for deeper, richer being, living and ‘seeing’.  The only way to life is through dying to the patterns and superficial realities that we have invested in or had imposed upon us.  It is the uncomfortable way of letting go of that which holds us captive and keeps us from ‘seeing’.  Jesus invites all of us into this ‘way of the cross,’ a way that is unpopular and probably unattractive in its raw description, until we realise that many of those we admire and inspire us have walked this path of dying-rising, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering that precedes wisdom, life and ‘seeing’ more deeply and with compassion, grace and love.

We will never ‘see’ truly whilst we allow our egos to drive us or we avoid the road less travelled.  It is into this path that Jesus set his face and travelled.  He invites us to journey with him on this way, a way of wisdom, life, compassion and love.

By geoffstevenson