Will Christmas Come This Year? It’s Up to You!

Here we go again, the annual roundabout of the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Everything is lights, baubles, tinsel and happy muzak.  There is good cheer, gifts, parties and the world certainly lightens up in these weeks.  Perhaps it is the heat and humidity and the relaxing of everything because we can’t be bothered and there is the space (at least over the Christmas-New Year break) to do nothing but eat, drink and lie around.  Of course, there is the rush, the activity of preparation that falls to some and there is frantic activity and stress in trying to ‘get everything right’.  But right for what?  For who?  Why?

I sense something in the air, an expectation that underlies the rhetoric and festivities.  Perhaps a hope that something might change but for the most part we are clueless of what that might be.  I confess to deep frustration at celebrities and advertisements that profess to tell me what Christmas is really all about.  Sure, they name some good things – family, friends, sharing, love – but they keep it superficial as if they want or need to define it carefully, so we don’t get to deep, to religious.  After all we wouldn’t want to bring religion into Christmas, would we?  Actually, I would prefer we didn’t get too religious about Christmas, whether ‘religious’ in our obsessive behaviour or religiously following a belief system that never penetrates to the reality of a changed life for which we yearn.

By the time we get to Christmas Day, the religious images that understandably prevail are of a cute baby in fluffy straw with cute animals and adoring parents.  All is quiet and quaint.  There is an angel above and sometimes the angel-chorus singing the heavenly version of the Hallelujah Chorus.  A star radiates light and three kings on camels make a majestic appearance in the distance.  A beautiful nativity that defines everything and keeps it neat and controlled.  Jesus, as a baby, is our preferred version because he can’t talk or challenge us, as he does when older.  So, these images disappear before Jesus has a chance to grow up into the counter-cultural, prophetic voice that challenges the world with an alternate path of love, justice and compassion.

We really don’t need ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Away in a Manger’, lovely as they are.  We need the confronting, challenging words that will cut through our comfortable lives that leave us bored and tired or stressed from keeping up with everyone’s expectations in the hope that one day we’ll make it – somewhere!  The truth is that the materialistic life we’ve been sold is a dead end.  I read a quote from a Willie Nelson song, called ‘Tired’.  It says:
I married Rebbecca back in seventy-seven
And I still love her and I guess she loves me too
We go to church on Sunday ’cause we want to go to heaven
Me and my family, ain’t that how you’re supposed to do?

But I’m tired, Lord I’m tired
Life is wearin’ me smooth down to the bone
No rest for the weary, ya just move on – And I’m tired

The song is about going through life and realising that we are tired.  It is the same, day in, day out and we are growing tired.  It is a bored kind of tired.  Working the same job for years on end but feeling little meaning or hope.  It is like those who build their big houses and then buy other ones and keep getting bigger and bigger or more and more.  One day all of this wealth and property accumulation will mean something – BUT it won’t!  That’s the point: life is not about material and physical realities alone – it is spiritual, deeply spiritual as well.  Some of those cultures we look down upon understand this far more than we Westerners, with our cultured and enlightened world view.  It is unsustainable, both in the limited resources of the earth and in our own humanity that yearns for something beyond, that is beautiful and soulful.  That’s why we have all the mess and chaos, the rise of groups like ISIS, fear of asylum seekers, tenacious denial of climate change and the fear and violence that pervades.  Add to this the pandemic of depression and suicide, loneliness and isolation and the angst prevalent within us and it all points to existential alienation – a lostness of spirit and being that leaves us tired and yearning.

This week, as with last week, we encounter the eccentricity of John the Baptist (Luke 3:7-20).  His wild ranting in the desert places strikes to the essence of what it is we are missing through the Christmas season.  As Christmas approaches his words shake the pot and stir everything up.  They are not words that anyone much wants to hear, really (this includes most of us in comfortable churches).  He confronts the religiosity and materialistic tendencies in his world.  People who held to religious behaviours and belief systems, claiming what was right and wrong were told to get out of their pious lives and into the mess, living with compassion and justice.  Basically, according to John, God didn’t care too much about people’s beliefs if they weren’t lived out in ways that were loving and just.  Equally, to those who were wealthy and comfortable in material ways, he orders them to give away their wealth-accumulating schemes and be generous to those around them.  Give away your stuff when you have more than you need.  Don’t take advantage of people but act in love and justice.  He speaks about giving away a second coat to someone who doesn’t have one.  Generally, the second coat was especially for the Sabbath worship – God would prefer justice and compassion over religious piety.

John calls for repentance, another word we would rather avoid.  It is about turning our lives around, reorienting them to the way of God, the way Jesus will embody.  If you are tired, tired of the nonsense around you, tired of the routines that go nowhere, tired of believing things (religious or secular) that make little difference, then repent, turn around and try a new way.  It won’t be an easy thing.  Give up the work you don’t need and give time to people or a project that is lifegiving and rich.  Spend time in quiet reflection taking in the beauty and wonder of the world.  Take time to love others who are different and live with compassion towards people – doing things that will make a difference in people’s lives.  Take up a cause and give yourself to something that works for justice.  Sing a new song with your life and be thankful for what you have rather than believing you need more!

Open your eyes to the wonders that fill the world and experience God’s Spirit alive and breezing in and out of our lives inspiring awe, wonder and a sacred openness to life and people and the earth.  For God’s sake, says John, (and for your own!) turn your life around and live.  Open your eyes, change your hearts and start living, start loving and start responding to the people around you with compassion and justice – that is what Christmas is really all about!!  If we miss John’s words, we will surely miss Christmas yet again and it will be another Groundhog Day, another year of the same.  So, get with it and live!

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By geoffstevenson

Life, Hope and Joy – in the Wilderness!

Earlier this year Susan and I visited Uluru and Central Australia.  It was a kind of pilgrimage into the heart of Australia and to a place of deep spiritual significance.  It has been a deeply spiritual place for indigenous people for millennia and more recently for pilgrims from many other ethnic cultures, including non-indigenous Australians.  Our visit to Uluru and Kata Tjuta was profound and deeply moving.  We experienced what the Celts called a ‘thin place’, a place of deep transcendence and a deep sense of the spiritual.  It is an awe-inspiring experience to look upon Uluru from a distance and observe this magnificent rock that stands tall in the surrounding landscape.  Its mood changes as sun and light reflect off its surface giving different effects across the day.  It moves from hauntingly beautiful and gentle in first light through bold red and deep brown across the day back to the hauntingly beautiful and gentle darkness against the bright but fading light of sunset.  It lives and breathes and changes and invites the pilgrim to come closer and feel and know and experience something deeper and more profound than much of the superficial life we know and engage in within urban cityscapes, locked away in climate-controlled buildings of glass and steel and our technological existence.

Kata Tjuta was equally awe-inspiring and profoundly moving.  Its colour changes were as dramatic and beautiful.  It is bigger, vaster, and impossible to fully grasp.  We watched as morning sunrise brought the rocks to life.  They began to glow red in the early sun with sparkling grasslands in the foreground.  We stood and watched as the sun rose and Kata Tjuta was held in stark contrast to the glowing sky, flashing reds and gold as the sun struck its surface.  Again, this was an immensely spiritual experience that grounded us and drew us into the deep places of reflection and life.

These desert or wilderness spaces stripped life back to its raw fundamental beauty.  Before such wonder and awe we feel small and any sense of self-righteous importance or significance fades.  We recognise that we are a small part of something bigger, more vast, ancient, beautiful and connected.  Touching Uluru and Kata Tjuta felt like being connected to something bigger and more profound, something intangible that transcends time and space, ethnicity and draws me more deeply into my own humanity.  There is something wise and true in Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

I contrast this experience to hearing the news that emanates out from the centres of power in our world, whether Washington, Moscow, London, Canberra or anywhere else.  So much in these places is power making decisions that maintain status quo and don’t generally understand or engage the desperate and needy in the world.  Thursday’s politicking denied people who need medical support being transferred off Manus Island and Nauru.  In raw human terms, this is despicable inhumane.  Surely enough is enough but like so many established powers in the world, politics and status quo seem more important that compassion and justice.  The economics of power drives an agenda where the few hold control of the wealth and the many struggle.  In the cut and thrust of busy city life, we are drawn into the economics of a system that seeks to extract as much as possible from wherever it can – the earth, other people/nations, the workforce…  Aspiration and wealth promotion are high on the agenda of political leaders and those aspiring for top jobs.  As we’ve seen in the Royal Commissions (Finance and Institutional Child Sexual Abuse), money and power control many a decision and justify injustice, evil and abuse.

We all get drawn into the rhetoric that more is better, and acquisition is necessary, and we’re sold the lie that we need more than we really do.  The bigger lie is that we will be happier and more fulfilled when we finally have more but there is always more and more and more – it never ends, and fulfilment never really arrives.  If we aren’t happy in our own skin with what we have, we won’t find it when there’s more.

Sometimes it isn’t until we ‘hear the voice of wisdom’ in the wilderness, in the quiet, simple and desert places, that we recognise deeper truth and the path to richer, more joyful, fulfilling life.  In listening to the voices emanating from the centres of power around the world, I seldom hear wisdom, joy and life.  Few of these voices articulate a vision of justice, compassion and life for all people – even those within their sphere of responsibility!  It is in the back blocks that I encounter wisdom and life; amongst the intrinsically beautiful, wondrous world or amongst ordinary people who struggle day in, day out, to feed their family, share in the work of the community, embrace others generously and live with humility and awe before the Wisdom at the heart of everything.

In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 3:1-6) we have the annual return of the fiery and eccentric prophet called John the Baptist.  Before we can allow Christmas to gently slide into nice and languid acquiescence, John comes stumbling and rambling through our lives to remind us that Christmas is really about transformation and new life.  It is about turning around and becoming who we truly can be, more deeply and profoundly human.  John went into the wilderness and heard the voice of God.  He preached in the wilderness and people came to him like a rock in the midst Judea, piercing the world with an alternative vision of what can be.  He interrupted the fine-tuned rhetoric of powerful voices and went to the heart of life and living.  If you really want to live, then turn around and stop listening to the rubbish of the powers.  Turn to compassion, justice, sharing generously and looking out for one another.  Don’t be rigid and hard-hearted, looking at the outer appearance but at the heart and be merciful and loving, kind and caring.

Luke names seven powerful people from seven places of power, from the local religious and political world through to the dominating power of Rome but wisdom and life was not found in them.  The people had to venture outside of normal their lives into the wilderness to hear the way-out, strange prophet who lived what he preached and invited people into the life of God.  He spoke about repentance and turning from sin – and people did!  We hear these words and turn from them and the speaker.  But before we write John off as a backward and irrelevant to the 21st century, we might understand that he suggests that sin is the refusal to become truly human.  It is anything that prevents us from being opening to other people, to creation, to God.  It is alienation from self, people, creation and God and anything that gets in the way of relationships preventing us from believing in others and engaging with them.  Sin is giving up and believing there is nothing better or that change is not possible – accepting things as they are in a powerless, futile way.  It is apathy and lack of creativity.  It is being closed off and rigid, judgemental and exclusive.

In the wilderness of life we may encounter the God of transformative love and open ourselves to another way, one that leads into deeper, more profound loving life!

 

By geoffstevenson

Life and Hope in Apocalyptic Change and Chaos!

The sky lit up like cracker night.  The elderly Labrador began shaking and frantically wandering around the house.  There were booms and flashes and our neighbourhood was enveloped by thunder, lightning and then pouring rain.  Across the city flash floods, roof leaks, water damage that threatened, animals scared and stressed, children frightened.  The morning was chaos as we were ravaged by the storm.

The sky grew dark and the air filled with smoke, making it impossible to breathe.  Embers flew all around and a wall of heat and flame, kilometres off, ravaged its destructive path towards the town.  Heat, smoke, eery shadows, apocalyptic skies and threatening fire – fear, chaos and imminent danger.  These apocalyptic images came to me via someone who lived through a bushfire and saw his world consumed in flame and heat.  He could not fully convey the overwhelming fear, the confusion, and sheer powerlessness he felt.

Apocalyptic images pour across screens daily as somewhere in the world there is devastation and pain, conflict and suffering.  These apocalyptic experiences are external as we observe these events in the world around, natures ominous power or the violence and destruction of humanity.  We also experience internal catastrophe and pain through personal crises that change our lives and our perception of the world.  There are personal crises of health, grief, work, relationships, powerlessness and the significant changes in the world that confuse and disorient us in so many convoluted ways.

We use apocalyptic language, colourful, big, overwhelming words, and phrases to convey the significance of the experiences with which we engage, those that threaten life and hope.  In the slipstream of apocalyptic change and crisis, we often feel as if we are being thrust along helpless and out of control.  When things slow down, and exhaustion catches us up, fear and disorientation overwhelm us.  Without sources of hope, there is ongoing despair and alienation.  We all experience these things when we feel out of control, powerless and chaos overwhelms our being.

It is always tempting to avoid the further processes of disorientation, of fear and painful awakening to the reality before us.  It is tempting to minimise the struggle if we are able and quickly move on to another place with the pretence that what is happening (or happened) is not so real or significant, to hide our pain and seek a world that is light, bright and happy – ‘Don’t worry, Be Happy!’ as the song suggests.  But we do worry.  In the deep, dark hours when we can’t hide from our thoughts and feelings, it lurks and haunts and opens-up our hidden wounds.  When we are stressed and tense, the anger and rage that lies untapped, slowly growing within, bursts out in rabid fury where it has no place to safely exhaust itself. Our overreaction looms like an apocalyptic event, an echo of that primary encounter with the darkness that has left us disoriented, fearful and hopeless.

The world is full of people who refuse to deal with the pain that fuels their desires and addictions, their anger and obsession.  The world is full of leaders who use powerful positions to inflict vengeance and rage upon those who symbolise their obsessions and hatred.  There are those whose experience has unleashed such fear that they use power to violate the other, the innocents who naively invade space or seek more than it is felt they ought.  They use violence to resolve the chaos and restore the order they feel has been denied them.  They believe that peace will only come when the ‘other’ is punished, vanquished and cast adrift.  But it never does.  They never find the external peace they believe will come through violence and power and they never experience the inner peace that will liberate them and give them life.

This week the church begins a new year in the season we call Advent.  It is a period of four weeks that leads us into the celebration of Christmas.  The journey leads us through the rich tapestry of human life, with all its joy AND pain – the realities that encompass human living in this complex world.  The Gospel writers, reflecting the life and teaching of Jesus, do not participate in the superficiality and unreality that so much of contemporary life seeks to do.  We live in a world of distraction, where the expectation is towards comfort, ‘peace’ and happiness, whatever these things mean.  We are presented with 2-dimensional lives or ‘heroes’ whose main attainment has been on a sporting field, silver screen or music studio.  When we penetrate many of these ‘heroic’ lives they are filled with hopelessness and pain due to the existential alienation of their lives.  Elvis, Marilyn or even Freddie Mercury (as seen in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody), had success, fame and fortune but found their lives lost in a confused chaos of greed and abuse from many around them and internal confusion about who they were and what their true worth was.

As we move towards Christmas, the story of a baby born, surrounded by cute, fluffy animals will be told.  Lights and tinsel, parties and gifts will overflow around this babe and subsume his story in blessed unreality and niceness.  Jesus will be innocent, peaceful and silenced and we will party, give gifts and ho, ho, ho through the season.  It is fun and there is love and hope and brightness for a season, but it doesn’t last because it never penetrates into the reality of human life.  The story is there but we don’t want too much reality of Jesus inviting us into a new and different way because change, or the confronting possibility of change, is more painful than our current reality.  Jesus’ journey is into the dying-rising way of life.  He speaks of dying to the belief systems that hold us, religious, ideological, political and anything else. He invites us to embrace the fullness of being in the God in whom we live, move and have our being.  He invites us into the place where we find ourselves to most truly, freely and wholly exist – the heart of the relational community we call God, the Trinity, who is overflowing in deep love!

This journey is certainly not for the faint-hearted and perhaps that is why few undertake it fully.  In this week’s gospel, Luke 21:25-36 (a new Gospel for the new year), we have the picture of apocalyptic events cascading across our minds – signs in the skies and seas, confusion and distress amongst people, who will faint from fear and foreboding.  From within these cataclysmic experiences we are exhorted through the words of Jesus to stand up and raise our heads for our redemption is coming.  Don’t turn away, don’t hide in fear but stand up, name and confront reality, embrace it and we will encounter the presence of God in the midst of our lives and our suffering.  Luke proclaims that the Christ, the presence of God comes to us in the midst of the struggle, with courage, hope and, if we engage, life!  How many of us deny ourselves the experience of truly living by avoiding life in its harshness, the place where it must be lived because there, we will find the God of grace and compassion, the God of life.  Advent is a journey into and through this place so that Christmas means something richer, deeper and more profound than we imagine!

By geoffstevenson

A Christmas Song that Turns Everything Upside Down!

Well I’ve now sung/played carols a couple of times (less than most years I must say) and wandered through shopping centres with stores decorated from respectable and nice to garish and gaudy.  One pop-up shop in the local mall has the widest range of Christmas decorations possible and they are mostly way-out awful.  I have tasted the Christmas muzak, a painfully nondescript, sentimentalised range of ordinary music aimed to not offend anyone and yet supposedly lighten one’s mood – it doesn’t help me!

It’s a funny time of the year.  There are more conversations and well-wishing, questions and hope, but also more stress and rush, tiredness – and storms.  It was in the middle of this diverse, sometimes confusing plethora of images, emotions and expectations, that I picked up a novel I’d read some years ago.  It is by Susan Howatch and one of a series on prominent features and people of the Church of England in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The current novel is called ‘Glamorous Powers’.  It deals with an Anglican Priest who has been an Anglo-Catholic Monk for 17 years following his wife’s death and his children having left home to pursue their own lives.  He receives a vision and believes he is called by God to leave the monastic life and re-enter the world to engage in a new and different ministry.  After a very deep and searching process with his spiritual director and the Abbott-General of the Order, he is released from his vows and leaves with the order’s blessing.

I was struck by the observations the priest made on re-entering the world after 17 years in a very disciplined life, somewhat isolated from the world and focussed on deep and significant issues, including offering counselling to many people who were struggling in life.  He spends his first week with his married daughter, who is a busy house-wife raising their two children and keeping the home. His son-in-law is an executive on the rise, and also very busy.  Their life revolves around the home, work and ensuring they are keeping up appearances with their friends and neighbours.  In the background is WWII and the increasing difficulties faced in London with bombings and the war-effort.

When Jon, the priest, is picked up by his daughter from the station, he is surprised by the lavishness of their car (he calls it a ‘motor’) and on the ride home, his daughter talks incessantly – about very little in Jon’s opinion.  She says: ‘…and how excited you must be to return to the world at last after being cut off for so many years.’  After he protests that he wasn’t cut off, she goes on: ‘But you couldn’t do any of the real things, could you, like going to the shops or listening to the wireless or chatting with the neighbours about the weather.’  Jon cuts in saying, ‘That’s reality?’  He reflects that she is like so many people who talk about everything but say nothing.

The strangest thing for him is her excitement about their new refrigerator.  She speaks of it in such glowing terms that he is confused and astonished.  It is only a refrigerator!  She talks about everything but most of it feels superficial to one who has spent 17 years wrestling with the deepest questions of meaning and life, whose limited conversations have revolved around topics of profound significance, both for individuals engaged in counselling and with brother monks seeking to be the very best they can be before God.  Their lives embrace the profound spiritual reality that they see in everything – their garden, their work, their engagement with people in need, their prayer and worship, their reading, their prayers for the world and its struggles…  From their perspective of engaging deeply with the inner, spiritual life and engaging in the Life and Being of God, there is a different way of viewing life and the world, one that challenges conventional wisdom and common experience.  It is a way that seeks compassion, mercy, community, and equality in God.

As I read these reflections of a priest re-entering the world of common life, I was challenged by my own daily expectations, concerns and even hopes.  I realised how easy it is for me to be caught up in trivia, engaging in debate or ‘serious’ conversation about things that may not be of ultimate importance or even necessary.  It is easy to have my expectations and priorities formed by the public discourse and media ‘reporting’ or social media and anything that makes an appearance on the screen I am holding in any particular moment.  How many of these priorities, issues and expectations are really important?

In the back of my mind, as I read and write, I have the particular song that makes its appearance every year at this time.  It is called Mary’s Song (or the Magnificat) and is found in Luke’s story of Jesus (Luke 1:37-56).  In this story, Mary receives word from an angel that she will give birth to a son and he shall be of God.  Mary, young, single (but engaged), insignificant Mary, visits her cousin, Elizabeth who is also pregnant with another great leader – John the Baptist.  When they embrace it is Elizabeth’s child who ‘jumps in the womb’ and Elizabeth exclaims that she is blessed because the Lord’s mother has visited her!  Mary, simple Mary launches into a song of praise.  In it she praises God who would deign to choose her, a simple, innocent, insignificant young girl, to bear the Christ-child.  Of all the people in this world who are more significant and worthier of such a grace, she is chosen!

The profound nature of this story is that Luke names, through his first 2 chapters, the important, powerful and significant people of his world – and the places they inhabit.  There are kings, rulers, priests and of course the Emperor!  They live in palaces, large cities and they are surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power.  These are important, powerful and significant people.  Alongside these, Luke names a host of insignificant, powerless people who rise to the top of Luke’s world and understanding.  In the 9th decade of the 1st century when Luke was writing, it was these lowly people who were remembered with reverence and awe, for they were the ones through whom God worked!

Mary sings about God’s upside-down values and world-changing ways.  The rich and powerful will be brought low and the lowly lifted high.  The hungry will be fed and those who have too much food will go hungry.  Mary of all people is lifted high and honoured despite being a nobody in the world’s eyes.  Mary’s song is a profound challenge to the stories that populate the daily papers, the evening news or the flashes of updates on social media.  Like Jon leaving his monastic life, Mary reveals a deeper reality that lies beyond the superficial realities of daily living.  These things of life are not unimportant, but they find deeper purpose and meaning in the bigger story of life, faith, hope and love that flows from the heart of God.

There is simple wonder and profound awe to be experienced all around us in the world and its beauty – plants, trees, lakes, streams, animals, birds, relationships, simple meals, laughter and joy.  Life is to be lived and savoured in simple and profound ways and in the presence of the One who holds all in grace, love, hope and peace!  That is Christmas!

And Christmas comes in the unexpected, strangeness of Divine mystery.  There are the stories of Matthew and Luke that tell of virgin and baby, backwater Bethlehem, fluffy animals and distant visitors, insignificant people amidst power and might.  There is also a profound story in John (John 1:1-18) that takes us back farther into the time beyond time, the Realm beyond space the before that was before anything.  John says that there was the Word, a form, a blueprint at the heart of everything that could and would ever be.  This Word was with God and was God (but what is God? – another word that betrays a mystery that is deeper and more profound than we can comprehend?).  This Word embraced flesh, the physical, material world that emanated from the Word in the beginning when time first became and 3-dimensional space was.  This creative Word, a blueprint of God imbuing all being, embraced flesh and moved into our neighbourhood – pitched tent and lived among us!  The Word that is God so blessed the material that the Word became us and lived with, in and through us as flesh and Spirit, as enchanted, sacred mystery that fills life with wonder, awe and rich beautiful meaning!

This Christmas story is not replete with the symbols we so dearly hold and know, as familiar – the tree, the baby, the simple parents in a cattle stall, kings bearing gifts, the star and angels…  This Christmas story has a raw power to tear through our desire to control, define and know.  When we want to hold everything in stunning simple clarity, this story declares paradox, mystery and invites us to let go and gaze in wonder at the love that is at the very heart of everything that is.

Christmas comes to us in profound moments of enlightenment, when our eyes open, our ears hear and our spirits encounter the mystery of wonder we call God.  This may be in the very simple beauty that inhabits our world, that which we take for granted, the daily miracles of life and living.  Christmas may come in the momentous occasions that change us through a deep grief, a profound love or an awe-inspiring wonder that hold sus transfixed.  Christmas is an inner transformation, an experience that transcends the ordinary and connects us into the deeper power of Love in which we live and move and have our being.  This Love is the relational reality of God, the flow that holds Father, Son and Spirit (Creator, Christ and Spirit) in creative community and emanates out into everything that is.

Christmas is not in the symbols or even the story but to the experience to which these point – the experience of grace in which we are face to face with God and glimpse the profound love in which we are truly held.  Christmas is the experience of hope and joy in which we know profoundly that whatever happens nothing can separate us from this Love that holds us.  Christmas is the opening of our eyes and hearts and hands to embrace others into our care and compassion with generosity and freedom.  We are delivered from fear and exclusion, the desire for conflict or hatred and judgement of others as we live and move and find life in this Christmas reality and the presence of God breaking in again and again and again!

May you encounter the profound life and Love at the heart of everything as you contemplate the coming of the Christ in the special celebrations of Christmas and in every day beyond.

A Christmas Poem

A Eucalypt blossom signals summer’s arrival.

It floods the tree with bright orange-red and stops me each day.

I pass it and wonder at its simple beauty; it is profound.

There are the abundant Jacarandas decorated in mauve beauty,

A carpet of plush purple flowers lines my path along the creek.

Parrots swarm and screech, singing of summer’s arrival with lusty joy.

The creek flows steadily downstream through bushland beauty.

The sun filters through the trees that glimmer in early light.

This is a rich place, filled with enchanted wonder and awe,

…with the Divine.

In the beginning before there was anything, there was – a mystery,

… a Word, a force or power or non-being Being

– a relational community of Love, we call ‘God’

From this Divine Community, a Mystery of life burst out in a Big Bang explosion of Loving creativity

And all became; order, life, everything we know, became.

This Word embraced flesh and moved into the neighbourhood

To live with and in and through us – Divine love and mystery

 

We celebrate the imprinting of human life with Divine blessing

We celebrate Divine enfleshment in a baby’s birth

A simple, young woman blessed above the powerful

A backwater town in meagre surroundings

So the story goes, Word and flesh kissed, a Divine mystery

Lowly shepherds celebrated

Pagan Magi worshipped and a despot ruler murdered

A star lit the sky as the Light of the World radiated our darkness

An angel chorus sang and the world was blessed

 

Now lights fill the night, displaying sleighs, a red-dressed man

Snow, reindeers, tinsel and trees.

Parties and gifts, feasts with family

Cards and greetings, and hopeful expectation

As we await – Christmas.

Beyond this excitement the Christ gently arrives

To touch each life with blessed, sacred, Divine life,

A gift to renew and lift and reorient, to inspire and enlighten

A love that arrives from the heart of everything to hold us in grace.

 

By geoffstevenson

What is Truth?

In a world of ‘fake news’ and social media platforms where anyone and everyone can have a say, express opinion, and pontificate on any subject, how do we discern what is true?  In a world where there are competing powers, conflicting opinions and varying sets of data, what is right and true?  How do I know what is right and whether my opinion or understanding is actually correct?  Too often there seems to be an expectation that ‘what I believe and think’ must correspond to truth, even when others think differently.

There was a story of several groups of people looking up at a mountain.  They were positioned around the mountain and saw from different angles and perspectives and each saw uniquely.  One group saw that the mountain had one strong, high peak and it went vertically upward in a very steep, impossible way.  Another group also saw the one according to an agreed preaching strategy peak but there was a long even slope up to the summit and much easier to navigate.  A third group saw two peaks, one slightly smaller than the other.  They were separate and distinct.  Another group saw two peaks as well, but these were closer together and appeared to be well connected high up.  Everywhere around the mountain there was a different view and perspective.  The first two groups could not see the second peak hidden behind the larger one and so on.

Which group expressed the truth?  All of them and none of them.  They each had a part of the truth and yet other elements of the whole picture eluded them.  The truth was bigger than any of the groups could realise and understand.  I suspect that the truth is always bigger than what I can see, discern or know.  It is also dependent upon my view, my perspective, or the ‘lens’ through which I observe life, the world and people.  I bring many assumptions and preconceived ideas that colour how I see the world.  I bring a paradigm of the world and how it works and how everything fits into the order that I imagine is correct – and I assume that others see in the same way!  I experience people, places and situations in particular ways and interpret them through the lens of my previous experiences and world-view.  Sometimes my truth is closer to reality and often it is far from expressing ‘the whole truth’.  When it comes to people I only ever see or experience so much of who they are – just as I am only experienced in particular ways by others.  People are much more complex, and their stories and humanity is unique and I have to be constantly reminded that I do not know all there is about another human being.

I also do not know the whole truth about the world, it cultures, struggles, crises, or the reason things are the way they are.  I have many opinions, some of which are good, and others are naively ignorant – and many in between.  I am caught in the ever-present struggle to know what is true and see more clearly.  As a minister I am constantly proclaiming a message to congregations and in my current role often caught in situations of conflict or confusion and seeking to work with others to find a clear way forward.  Seeking to discover truth about a particular event, situation or way of seeing the world is always fraught and difficult.  We get caught up in our own belief systems and see the church, the world and other people as we have always seen or experienced them or as we’ve been taught to see and understand them.  It is harder and more confronting to encounter the person behind the image, the reality that lies within the construct we build around people based on colour, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, politics, religious beliefs, socio-economic and career status, education and so on.  We build up quick pictures of people and situations based on quick observations and the acquisition of particular pieces of information and look at them through the lens of that colour, perspective and define them accordingly.

So, what is truth?  Where is it found?  I come to these questions from another direction today.  This question about truth echoes down through the pages of a story of Jesus written by John (John 18:33-37) where Jesus is being questioned by the local Roman authority, Pontius Pilate.  In a quick to and fro about kingship and guilt, Pilate responds to Jesus’ statement that he came to proclaim truth.  ‘What is truth?’ replies Pilate.  He is caught in place between a seemingly harmless, even innocent man and the Jewish authorities who want his blood.  What is truth?  He is concerned about the description of Jesus as a king – King of the Jews.  ‘Are you a king?’, he asks.  Jesus doesn’t respond but asks more questions about whose idea, opinion, is this.  Jesus then speaks about his kingdom not being of this world.  If it were his followers would come in with clubs and spears and fight for his freedom…  Jesus lives and proclaims a different way that does not include the typical violence that characterises the way the world’s powers operate.  It is a way grounded in love, one that embraces each person as unique and created in God’s image.  It is a different lens for viewing people and the world.  It holds to a different set of values that take us in a different direction and should influence how we live before and with other people.  It should change how we see and respond to people through inclusive community, sharing what we have with those who need more than we do, reaching out to the marginalised and outcasts, the lonely and afraid and welcoming them into a community of grace.  It is about justice, peace, love, joy, hope, community…

So, what is truth?  What defines the right way, the best way.  Pilate is caught between his world view grounded in Roman Imperial Theology and Reign, the Jewish Leadership who have particular, vested interests in their own interpretive wisdom and life – and Jesus who proclaims something very different, a world grounded in the reality of another Reign – that of God. What is truth?

Martin Luther King jr rubbed up against the powers who expressed a ‘truth’ that he and his people were less human than those with white skin.  He proclaimed a just way of love and equality based in the Reign of God and lost his life because others disagreed with the truth he proclaimed.  What is truth?

We have churches excluding people based upon ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation because their interpretation is particular.  We have others who include all people into all levels of church leadership and life.  What is truth?  What do we base truth on?  How do we discern truth?  Where is God in this story?

We have political leaders around the world who proclaim their own truth and would have us believe it.  They pour resources into their ‘truth-telling’ and hold wealth, power and weapons of death behind their words as threats to those who won’t believe their ‘truth’.  What is the truth?

As I ponder and am confronted by Jesus, whatever world-view or interpretive theology or philosophy I hold, loving others and trying to live justly are non-negotiable truths.

By geoffstevenson

Reversing the Processes of Chaos (and Death!)…

Our elderly Labrador has just returned from the vet after a check-up.  He passed with flying colours.  This is surprising because it was only 2 weeks ago that we feared his time was done.  He went off his food – catastrophic for a Labrador whose stomach has no memory of eating and whose greatest motivation in life is food.  Nebo was not eating.  He wasn’t even drinking enough.  He was becoming more lethargic and so it was off to the vet.  After a thorough going over and some blood tests he was put on a drip to replenish body fluids and diagnosed with pancreatitis.  He was really quite ill but improved enough for the vet to send him home, believing that he was on the improve.  Over the weekend he became worse and by Sunday afternoon had not eaten, hardly drunk and very lethargic again.  We were preparing for the worst.

The inflammation of his pancreas was painful, and he couldn’t hold food down.  His body was not receiving energy (even though he had a bit stored away!) and he wasn’t drinking.  Dehydration and the loss of metabolites were the danger.  Nebo’s system was sliding into the chaos that would result in death.  His body could not generate the energy needed to keep his body functioning – essentially because precious water and minor nutrients were absent.  The natural process for our beloved dog was death.  He would have slipped slowly into a place where his systems close down, the ‘fires’ that drive energy production and give vitality and life were being stilled.  If left much longer he would have slid into what has been described as ‘lukewarm quiescence’ where his body would simply stop and the heat in him would have dissipated into the atmosphere, heating it very slightly until everything simply existed at the same temperature.  This is death.

Thankfully, another visit to the vet and another drip and medication, stabilised Nebo and his body was able to respond.  He came home a day or two later and ahs been his usual loveable self – and demanding more food!

Pondering Nebo’s condition I realise it provides a picture of the universe, of the world around and the systems and ‘bodies’ that exist.  Left to its own devices, the universe will wind down into disordered chaos (much like the top drawer next to my bed, which contains earphones, cables, lanyards, crosses with chains etc and is always a mess, no matter how often I straighten everything out!).  The world moves toward disorder of its own accord.  The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics describes this as entropy, the measure of disorder and claims that the universe is always becoming more disordered, although there are points or order that arise – human life, for example.  Birth reverses the process, although ageing is the succumbing to processes of disorder and we can only resist for so long.

In systems of life, there is the tendency towards greater disorder unless some energy is injected into the system to create points of order and life.  Systems of their own accord spiral downwards into ‘lukewarm quiescence’ where all is at peace and nothing happens.  In order for life and vitality to exist there needs to be change, friction, heat, energy and a drive against the natural laws of the universe that produce pockets of order.  The temptation is for us to work hard to create these pockets of order in a disordered world and them relax and allow things to happen, believing all will be well because we have made the initial effort and created order, life and something beautiful and ordered.  But life needs nurture and continual refuelling, energy driven into the system.  Aside from the biological/physical processes in our bodies, people need love and nurture, social interaction, stimulation, creative outlets and so on.  A baby requires much care – childbirth is but the beginning of a long, long process that costs time, energy, love and patience to nurture and help a child grow.  Systems and groups need constant nurture, constant challenge to resist the processes of the universe that draw us down and lead us into the disorder of everything around.

In our Gospel reading this week (Mark 13:1-8), there is an implicit warning of how systems, religious or otherwise, can lose their way, their resistance and therefore their life.  Jesus is sitting outside the truly awe-inspiring Temple of Jerusalem.  It was a remarkable structure, massive, expensive and a profound symbolic presence in the midst of Israel’s life.  It stood as the centre for administration, economics, politics and the religious space, the holy space for Judaism.  Pilgrims and visitors travelled across the Roman world to visit the Temple.  It was intended to be a light to all the world, to radiate the presence and way of God in the world.  The Temple culture was intended to be a centre where the processes of the world were challenged and reversed – greed, acquisition, power accumulation and abuse, exclusion, marginalisation.  It was intended to reflect in every way the ways of God and God’s Reign in the world.  It was intended to reverse the flow of money and wealth – from rich back to the poor and desperate.  It was intended to be a place where the disenfranchised and vulnerable found care, love, support and safety.  It was intended to be a place where people encountered the wonder of God’s presence and where inclusive, gracious community could gather and be nurtured and all people find life and hope.

The disciples with Jesus saw a magnificent structure and its symbolic importance and they were blinded by the gold, the massive structure, and its beauty.  When Jesus looked, he saw a system that was dying, the seeds of its own destruction already within and being nurtured.  It had become a place where injustice and evil had become institutionalised and where the leadership, the status quo, were a solid part of the unjust practices.  They denied people life, driving them into debt and then foreclosing on their properties, leaving families desperate.  The rich became richer and the poor more desperate.  They ripped off widows and orphans, the most vulnerable of people.  They marginalised those who were different or vulnerable, the sick, disabled, women, and made everything harder. The Scribes and Priests were beneficiaries of this injustice and maintained the status quo.

When Mark wrote his story of Jesus, around 70 CE, the Temple had been destroyed at the end of the Jewish-Roman War (65-70 CE).  The Temple finally lay in ashes and the system broken open.  The natural decay and processes of disorder had enveloped the Temple system.  The leaders, instead of drawing life, energy, love and justice from God, through prayer, contemplation and spiritual practices, were drawn into the temptations of power, wealth and greed.  These processes of disorder and chaos, all around, threaten to drag us downward into cycles of death – greed, abuse of power, exclusive practices and beliefs, ignoring ‘the other’ (the marginalised and vulnerable, the different…).

Jesus invites us into life, to draw deeply on the life-giving, spirituality rich Living Water or Bread of Life that he offers.  He invites us into the ways that reverse discrimination, hatred, exclusion, greed and accumulation.  He invites us into the life-giving, hope-filled, ways of God grounded in love, grace and justice!

By geoffstevenson

Seeing the Invisible in Our Midst…

There was a bloke, years ago, who wandered the streets of Parramatta and lived in the parks and under bridges, anywhere he could find for the night.  His name was Richard – he was known as Dickie.   Dickie was small with unkempt hair and beard and clothes that were grubby.  He was one of the men who suffered alcoholism and could often be seen in Prince Alfred Park near the band stand holding a flagon.  If you approached and looked at him then you may incur a drunken, slurred string of abuse, suggesting you might not stare and should move along (well that was the gist).  Dickie could also be quieter, and the more vulnerable side was manifest to the few he let in along the way, people he learned to trust and who looked beyond his dirty exterior, searing, cursing and abuse.  When he was sober there was a vulnerability about him, a humanity that touched us and invited us to look beyond the exterior to the humility and sadness of his situation.

For many, though, seeing or hearing Dickie as he sat in the park cursing in a loud voice or meandering down the footpaths, filled them with disgust.  They felt a repugnancy at his appearance and presence in the city.  Homeless alcoholics didn’t belong here.  Surely there was a place somewhere else, hidden and discrete where they could be locked away, unseen and unheard.  When we opened a soup kitchen in Parramatta, some corporates felt it was a wonderful and necessary idea but ought not be in the city but somewhere more discrete to keep ‘those people’ away.

I remember a whole range of wonderful personalities in Parramatta when I worked there, delightful people with eccentricity and vulnerability.  There were people wo lived with mental illness, people who were fearful and confused in stressful places and with lots of people around.  They were people who were creative and intelligent but who lived with the effects of chronic mental illness.  Sometimes all was well, and they functioned well and other times there were voices or depression or confusion and the deep struggles of those who live with mental illness.  For some this had impact on their social interactions and others were simply unable to engage people and left them alone and misunderstood, sometimes feared and excluded.  There were people who were homeless, people who had had very significant careers but for various reasons their lives had collapsed, and they were helpless and lived on the streets.  Often, they turned to alcohol or drugs to cover the loneliness, pain and shame they felt.  There were many other people who existed in isolated lives at home, hidden from a world who seemed to not care.

These and other people struggled through various forms of impoverishment and alienation.  Broader society felt confronted when they appeared in public or became obvious in some way.  The presence of people who were homeless challenged us.  In a society that is quite wealthy and believes itself compassionate and caring, homeless people confront us with an alternate truth.  We want to blame them.  People who are hidden due to their illness, their situation, their fear or poverty remain invisible and we feel safe and comfortable.  Their very presence challenges the truth we believe about ourselves and we have varied responses as we encounter these people.  For some there is empathy and the response is compassionate.  Others want them removed from streets and locked away, giving various reasons for this incarceration – their safety, the safety of society, protecting our children (from what?) and so on.  Privileged society doesn’t like to see impoverishment or evidence of injustice because it challenges the myth of egalitarianism, compassion and so on.  Dickie was a penetrating face and voice that created discomfort and confusion.  He was in your face and his presence would not allow us to forget that life has deeply rough edges and the cards may not fall well for everyone.  He challenges the misconception that all is well, and all will be well.  He could be any of us, as could the woman living with mental illness who walked with her trolley through the streets abusing anyone who got in her way or she caught staring at her.  She talked to herself and freaked more than a few people out.  She was, of course quite harmless and lived with fear, isolation and comfort.

This week we encounter Jesus teaching in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 12:38-44).  He notices the well-to-do and important people who wander through with robes and pride, taking the best positions and seeking glory and respect from others.  They are wealthy, powerful, important and believe that all is good in the world because all is good in their world.  Anyone who struggles must look deep into their own hearts and lives because it must their own doing that they are not ‘blessed by God’.  Jesus notices and comments that these people don’t get it.  They are living off the pain of others because their very wealth is derived from the impoverishment of the poor.  The Temple was intended to provide a redirection of resources from the wealthy who could be generous back to those who had deep need.  It didn’t happen.  The wealthy and powerful abused the poor and drove them into deeper poverty.

As he watched a poor widow walked past the Temple treasury where people were encouraged to place offerings in support of the Temple and to help the poor.  The wealthy made great shows of placing larger amounts into the treasury – usually relatively small amounts from their vast accumulated wealth.  They gave out of their excess.  As Jesus and his disciples watched, the invisible widow wandered past and dropped in two copper coins – all she had.  Jesus commented in what seems like barely controlled rage at the injustice!  This woman had nothing, but out of a faithful, misplaced sense of duty (generous beyond belief!), gave up the very little she had to live on – this is what the Temple and the religious society had come to.  The poor were abused and used, and the wealthy became richer.  This was not God’s way.

The very presence of this invisible woman confronted the system and the injustice that exists.  Dickie’s presence confronted a society who don’t like homelessness or poverty and don’t want to believe it is real or that we are all responsible.  We shift the fault and blame or try to hide the reality.  We don’t like the stories of domestic violence and the struggles of vulnerable people who suffer.  Nor do we like the confronting reality of Indigenous impoverishment and struggle or the lack of compassion and human rights accorded to desperate and vulnerable people in detention centres.  We don’t like the challenge of shrinking polar ice caps or bleaching coral in our own Great Barrier Reef.  We don’t like being confronted by those things that point to our society and world as being less perfect and ‘good’ than we want to perceive.

As Mark wrote his Gospel, the Temple was destroyed, and the system had wrought it’s own end.  Jesus’ words of compassion and inclusive love challenge us to see the vulnerable people before us and to reach out in love and grace, an inclusive community of hope!!

By geoffstevenson

A Hermeneutic of Love

There’s a word we often use in religious circles when dealing with the sacred texts we read and use, speak on and study.  It is ‘hermeneutic’.  Hermeneutics is a field of study in religion, philosophy and into the humanities.  In its most pure form it deals with the interpretation of texts and the ways we read texts, words and develop meaning from them.  We all have a ‘hermeneutic’ through which we read texts, whether religious or otherwise.  The texts we ‘read’ may be the written word or words spoken or experienced and we interpret words, events and experience through the hermeneutic we bring to our lives.

I am aware that particular words, phrases and even subjects have particular effects on me – they push particular buttons and I react in predicatable ways when I hear or read them.  I make sense of the world through the lens I apply to life and the world.  Sometimes I am aware of this lens (or a multiplicity of lenses) and often I am not.  I am not unusual in this because we all react in predictable ways to phrases, words or concepts based on the hermeneutic we bring and the lens through which we view and experience life.

These lenses and hermeneutics can be very powerful and cause us to see in ways that actually deny factuality or the evidence before our eyes.  I suppose that I am constantly amazed when I encounter the deep Climate Change skeptics who deny anything associated with a changing climate based on human impact on the Earth’s ecology.  The science of Climate Change and human involvement is conclusive, as far as the hundreds of scientists engaged in this field are concerned, yet some politicians continue to deny its reality based on 1-2 quite peripheral non-climate scientists who oppose it – it is political and ideological not scientific.  Corporate leaders involved in particular industries with high vested interests in the status quo of energy production naturally deny the reality that their industries contribute to climate change or that there is no such thing.  These are hermeneutics, lenses, that inform (and distort?) the way hear, see or experience the ‘texts’ of our lives.

There are many hermeneutics that influence the way we see and hear the texts of life and the world.  The variety of lenses that help define our response to reality include gender, ethnicity, class, wealth and money, power, health and disability, poverty, experiences of inclusion or exclusion, abuse, and many of the experiences we have through our living.  In addtion there are various ideologies – religious, political, philosophical and other – that impact how we read, hear and experience the various texts we encounter.  When we hear stories in the news, for example, we will all respond in different ways.  Some will be filled with compassion and want to help everyone and others will be more circumspect about what is possible.  Some will not be moved at all by particular situations and people.

Last week I attended a very moving closing ceremony in Parklea Prison (or Correctional Centre, as it is officially called).  It was the closing ceremony or worship of the Kairos Prison Ministry after their 4-day course with 25 prisoners who had signed up.  The team shared God’s love with these men and gave them an experience of grace and love.  They spoke about their lives and offered forgiveness for the guilt and shame they experience at what they have done – recognising that they are serving their time for the crimes committed.  When some people hear stories about people going into prisons and sharing God’s love with prisoners they feel disgust and shake their heads with disbelief at why anyone would waste time and love on such people.   Others are moved and some are interested and curious but uncertain.  There are many responses to such a story from why bother to why do you do this to this is really good.  There are many hermeneutics when we hear stories and our responses are often predetermined by the experiences or ideologies that have formed us and the lenses through which we see, hear and experience.

Personally I find that the life, teaching and stories of Jesus continue to challenge and confront the hermeneutic of my life.  He psuhes some buttons and always invites me into a deeper way of engaging, thinking and being.  Jesus’ wisdom and deep humanity invite me into deeper self-reflection to understand how the hermeneutic I bring distorts how I see or limits the way I angage another human being.  Too often I see the things people say or do, things that push my buttons or frustrate me and distract me from seeing and experiencing the person who is deeper than their attitudes, appearance or actions.  I suppose in similar manner, people see or hear me and react to things about me rather than see into the person beyond the words, actions or ideologies.  It is interesting for me to tell people that I am a Uniting Church Minister and experience the reaction.  Some go quiet and can’t wait to get away.  Others are shocked but curious.  Some are interested and others excited.  People from other denominations have a suspicion that, probably correctly, assumes I am more progressive or liberal or what ever term they want to use.  They become wary and their belief system becomes a barrier – I am probably the same in an opoosite way.  I am wary of the very conservative or fundamentalist.

This week Jesus’ words (Mark 12:28-34) ring through the centuries and challenge me in a very deep way.  In his world the particular hermeneutics were predominantly derived from religious laws and traditions or political power and ideology.  He steered a way through ideology and power to embrace people as he encountered them, whoever they were.  His teaching and life invited people into a new way that was grounded in love – not an insipid love but the tough, inclusive gracious way of God.  When people held to their hermeneutics of legalistic interpetations of Scripture, Jesus challenged them with stories and actions of love.  Is it right to obey a law that denies a hungry person food or to withhold healing from a person on the Sabbath?  Is it right to uphold legalistic principles that deny life to people and keep them trapped in poverty?  Is it life-giving to apply literalistic readings of Scriptures when they become exclusive and abusive?  How do we respond to megalomaniacs who are in control of nations and empires and rule in violence and hatred?

Jesus’ way was one of love that looked into the hearts of people and saw the deep humanity that existed there, often contorted or twisted out of shape by life or the powers that dominated them or the ideologies forced upon them.  The cultural expectations denied hope and life to many people and pushed everyone into moulds that failed them.  Jesus offered freedom and life because he said we exist in God who holds everything together and gives life, even if we do not realise it and awaken to its rich wonder and joy.

In this story Jesus and a religious leader discuss that which is fundamental and they agree that loving God with everything we are and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves is the fundamental, foundational reality upon which all is built and grows.  The loving of neighbour is the clear expression of how we love God and this is the hermeneutic Jesus wants us to apply to all of life.  Love God; Love neighbour – as self!

By geoffstevenson

When The Walls Come Tumbling Down!

There’s a wonderful spiritual, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.  It draws upon the images in the story from ancient Israel, where Joshua, following on from Moses, led the armies of Israel after they fled from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land of Canaan.  Having crossed the Jordan River, before them lay the final hurdle, the city of Jericho.  The story tells of Joshua and the armies circling the city and on the seventh day, blowing trunpets and shouting as the ‘walls came tumbling down’ before them.

Whilst there is no archeological evidence to support the story being an actual event, that is not the point.  Before the people could embrace the freedom encompassed in the promise of new life in a new land after centuries of slavery, there is always one more hurdle; one final barrier that has to be overcome before their claim and experience of freedom can be realised.  The spiritual reflects this as the rising chorus crescendos through the repeated refrains of ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho…’ until the final line of triumph – ‘and the walls come tumbling down’.  There are verses with story but it is this image of Joshua breaking through the barrier of the mythic walled city that stands before the final destination, that offers power and hope.

The African-American slaves of the Americas drew upon this image of liberation from slavery and deliverance into the Promised Land of freedom and life, to drive their own hope for deliverance from slavery, segregation and oppression.  The walls that they cried out against, blew their metaphorical trumpets against and prayed against, were the walls of racism, hatred, abuse and oppression – the laws that legitimated slavery and oppression.  Eventually, these walls ‘came tumbling down’!

The mythic ‘walls of Jericho’ stand before all of us as we journey through life, making our way in this world, seeking meaning, purpose and hope for our existence.  All of us face these barriers, final or otherwise, to freedom and new life.  In personal life there are barriers of fear, grief, guilt and shame, powerlessness, expectations (of self, family, soceity or culture), addictions and addictive lifestyle, living with disability or chronic ill, physical or mental, health or the presence of abuse, violence and other forces from outside that leave us trapped or oppressed.  We confront a barrier before or around us.

There are also walls that confront families, communities and nations.  For Australia, there are the (mostly) invisible walls of shame and guilt that lie below the surface as they are handed down through generations.  The struggle of our indigenous peoples exists as an hidden wound that contiunes to float through the sub-conscious of our nation’s life, occassionally surfacing.  The crisis is closely associated with land and spirituality versus ownership and domination.  It is a wall that we need to confront and break down to bring liberation and life to all people.  The ongoing critical issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers, the puitive measures that have been employed to deny people freedom out of fear and political expediency, must be confronted.  The world watches on with the same disbelief we manifest towards other nations where human rights abuses occur.  There are very serious issues for those who are locked away on Pacific Islands without recourse to justice, proper health care, family connections or anything we consider basic human rights.  There are still children kept locked away in these detention centres, despite denials of government. They are not criminals but desperate people who have left desperate and fearful situations.  This ‘wall’ casts a pall over our whole nation and until freedom is established we will all feel the darkness and impact of the actions of our own governments.

The world faces the largest barrier ever confronting human life and freedom on this planet – the human impact on the earth and its environment.  Through exponential growth in the human population, the uses of outdated forms of energy and the vast destruction of habitats, especially huge forests, has wrought an irreversable impact.  We know it through Climate Change but there are myriad other effects of human habitation and abuse on the planet.  We have entered into a new geological era that is called the Anthropocene – the age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environement.  Despite copious overwhelming scientific reports, there is still denial and vested interests who would have us believe it is irrelevant.  It isn’t!  It is our ‘Jericho’, the walled city that has to come down before humanity can move into a new freedom and life through working with the earth and changing how we impact our environment.  This walled city surrounds us and entraps us as the ‘elegant tenacity of the status quo’ keeps us stuck in a moment we can’t get out of, to quote U2.  How will the walls come tumbling down?  Who will cry out, blast the trumpet and reveal the walled city for what it is?

There are many walls that we need to confront as we seek life and hope.

This week we continue to read of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross (Mark 10:46-52).  He comes to the city of Jericho, the last stage before entering the Holy City of Jerusalem.  Echoes of the ancient Israelite story resonate through Mark’s story.  There are barriers before them that need to be brought down, walls that block the ways of freedom and hope for people.  This story is one bookend of a section where Jesus seeks to turn human expectation and undertanding upside down.  The liberating power will not come through the typical means of violence and warfare, of a warrior king who will ride into Jerusalem, claim authority and lead the armies against Rome and bring victory under God.  This populist hope is not God’s way!  Jesus also confounds the human lust for glory and power, of being considered ‘great’.  Jesus reverses the ways of human deliniation whereby some are greater and others less, some of more valuable and others less, where we are driven to pursue fame, fortune, power and glory and only the beautiful, strong, wealthy etc are valued.  The greatest must become the least and those who enter God’s Realm become childlike.  Losing life and giving up the pretensions of cultural expectation lead us into new life and new freedom.  The walls come down when we shuck off the cloak of expectation and familiar ways of violence, accumulation and acquisition, power and glory and choose to become the least in order to serve.  It is this contradictory path of love that opens blind eyes and deaf ears and rigid hearts to embrace a communal way of life that lives with and alongside others in inclusive, gracious love.

The two bookend stories of this section are of two blind men receiving sight – one sees clearly and the other throws off the cloak of cultural expectation for the beggar and follows Jesus in this new way of life. Blind Bartimaeus sees what the sighted disciples cannot and offers an example for all of us to confront the walls of ignorance and resistance, of oppressive forces and enslavement by embracing the vulnerable love of God and walking in this new way of humble, gracious love!  Let us follow this life-giving, loving way!

By geoffstevenson

When Competition and Conflict Give Way to Inclusive Love!

This week many young people will commence their HSC exams.  As always there is pressure and it comes from many places from beyond the person and internally as they engage in this process to advance their prospects and hopes.  Their fears and anxieties collide with hopes and dreams as they submit to the ultimate test of their 13 years of learning.  Though there may be many future paths through the configuration of courses, a plethora of possibilities, to become who you can be, there is pressure to succeed in the narrow, limited manner recognised by populist notions.  Many will succeed in finding their way over the course of living but few will be recognised for their success in these exams because glory and honour are the prerogative of the elite.  Everyone will hope or dream of achieving something that can take them into the next place, the one expected and which will make them feel worthwhile, like they have achieved something significant.  Many will be disappointed.  They will be disappointed in their results, the raw numbers that express ‘failure’ of some sort because the pressure from beyond makes them believe that numbers are success and the only way is the direct way – despite there being intense competition and few places to accommodate everyone’s dreams, real or fantasy.

But this is the way we know and believe, the way we are conditioned.  In every sphere of life there is the competitive spirit that pits one against the other.  There is the myth of glory that is shrouded in the particulars of success as it is imbued within the cultural expectations and celebrations.  This narrow path to glory, honour and success seduces us as we are bombarded with a plethora of images, explicit, implicit and subliminal from media. Society, experience and the values we put upon people.  When we eulogise the beautiful, strong and poweful, wealthy, famous and notewaorthy in some mysteriously defined way, and plaster their image across screen or in print, we communicate who is valuable and what is really worth achieving.

In every which way of life there is competition and we are all eager to ‘make it’, whatever that means.  We all hope for something better for ourselves and our families but fail to understand or define what this ‘something better’ really is.  What is success?  Is it money in the bank?  Is it power and privilege?  Is it fame or positional status?  Of course, for many, it may be simply better access to that which gives us life – food, shelter, water, clothing, education, relationships…

The competitive edge that our society engenders as the natural way of things is what it is and we live in this reality.  For the most part it can be a normal part of life and we learn to accept the so-called ‘successes and failures’ of our lives.  We apply for a new job and either get it or we don’t.  There may be other jobs and so disappointing, but no big deal – unless this is the 100th or 200th job we have applied for and been rejected in and we are desperate wonder over our failure and the rejection we experience.  That is too hard!

Whilst much of this competitive seeking of a position or place in the world is relatively ordinary and we ‘just get on with things’, accepting what is, there is also increasing levels of violence and conflict as people compete for higher and higher stakes.  As we put more emphasis and pressure onto particular places of honour, glory, power and fame, the elvel of competitive drive grows exponetially and violence reupts.  It escalates through vocal abuse through mudraking and exposing the opponent’s past failures or flaws.  Personal and family abuse sometimes escalates into physical violence as people compete for places of control, power and honour and use violence to maintain control.

Of course we see this on the evening news as crime syndicates vie for territory and the control of drugs, prostituion, gambling and other money-making endeavours.  People shot in drive-by shootings or ‘hits’ in other places.  On the world stage we have certainly had our share of megalomaniacs who dominate the populace through fear and violence, killing those who threaten or question.  History is littered with such violent dictators who control power through any means.  Of course we see in our own time Vladimir Putin elevating this absolute control to new levels of sophistication that are equally violent.  In our own nation, the back-stabbing political machinations of the two major parties is as violent and abusive as anywhere else – just not physical.  As people yearn for power, glory, honour and control, they go to great lengths to achieve it.

The Gospel reading this week (Mark 10:35-45) continues Jesus journey south into the Holy City of Jerusalem.  He is heading towards confrontation with the powers and authorities of his world – the Jewish authorities controlling religious and national life and the Roman powers that dominate everything in their world!  Despite his revealing the natural outcome of this journey – his arrest and death – Jesus’ discipes fail to really grasp what is happening.  They hear his words and experience his charismatic power and vision.  They know him as holy, of God and he has be named ‘Messiah’ (or Christ), the anointed One of God.  Their expectations, the only frame work they can comprehend is that of Jewsih expectation that Messiah will liberate the Jewish people from Imperial Roman rule and deliver the nation as God’s people, powerful and independent once again.  The Messiah will be a Warrior-King in the line and image of King David and Jesus is going to Jerusalem to be anointed and elevated into this place of glory, honour, power and might.  He will lead in truth, faith, power and glory and God will deliver!  It is a glorious vision of God’s power thwarting the temporal powers, unleashing violent resistance that subdues Jewish enemies and Imperial might.  The only difficulty with this picture is that is is wrong.

Two disciples, James and John, see this erroneous vision and ask Jesus for the places of honour at his right and left hand when he comes into his glory.  They will be his lieutenants, strong and faithful, sharing glory and honour…  It is easy to ridicule these two men but surely they are only seeking to be part of what they think and hope will be.  They operate within a paradigm that we all know and experience and we, too, seek to be part of what can be.  We want a place at the table if possible.  James and John are you and I.

Jesus is patient and says it is not possible – largely because it won’t happen.  He isn’t taking up a place of glory and honour – he will die.  He asks if they can share his cup and his baptism and they believe they can.  These are images of entering into the way of God, the Reign of God but also images of embracing the suffering that Jesus will endure.  He affirms that these disciples will embrace his cup and baptism; they will suffer for their faith and faithfulness, even though they will not comprehend this for some time.  Jesus invites them, and us, into a way where competition and conflict are not the expected way.  He invites us into a way of love and grace where we all find our true place in a community that is inclusive and open and values the diversity of all people as loved in God!

By geoffstevenson