The Journey into Wisdom and Love!

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

Power, Humility and Musical Chairs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

Law and Love…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

Perhaps Things Must Get Worse Before They Get Better!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

The Relentless, Restless Possibility of Faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

The Way into Deeper Life and Being!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

The Way into Deeper Life and Being!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

Distracted Beyond Life!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

How Far Love??

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson