A Reign that Transforms Everything!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

A Vision of All Things Renewed!

This week we have seen catastrophic conditions and a state of emergency as extreme weather fostered fires across NSW (and through Queensland).  I have never lived through the terror of bush fire, close-up.  I have read detailed accounts and listened to those who have lived through such apocalyptic events or been involved in fighting such powerful forces of a raging bushfire.  I cannot even begin to imagine how it feels.  The descriptions alone are horrific and overwhelming.  The full force and fury of an out-of-control bush fire cannot be imagined.  For many, too many, this week it has been their horrifying experience as the costs and implications are now being absorbed and worked through in many families and communities.  I am always surprised and humbled by some of the responses that arise in the midst of such apocalyptic scenes.  There are inevitably people who sit on the burnt out remains of their lives.  With tears in their eyes and despair on their faces but also gratitude for those who have offered comfort and support, gratitude that they still have their lives and gratitude for those who tried so hard to save their property.  Gratitude in the midst of immense loss!

There are also the countless stories people who respond in diverse and wondrous ways.  The fire fighters who work tirelessly and who struggle against the elements and risk much to save the communities of other people.  There are other volunteers and professionals who provide practical care, food, shelter and comfort to those who are evacuated or who have nowhere to go, having lost everything.  It is into such apocalyptic events where life and death run closely side by side and danger threatens, that we are drawn into a deeper sense of reality, of what is real and what it means to be human – together.  The more superficial concerns of so much daily life are set aside as we are confronted by such life and death situations.  Despite the anguish and pain that surfaces, there is a sense of something deeper and more profound emerging.  We are drawn together, to work, to struggle and hold each other through the experience.  Communities of friends and strangers form and work side by side.  Barriers that often divide us, fade into insignificance.  We do not ask questions of faith or religion, politics, sexuality, status or anything else.  We are human beings standing side by side, vulnerable and overwhelmed but drawing strength from one another.

In the midst of this apocalyptic week I read two post-apocalyptic stories.  Isaiah (65:17-25) and Luke (21:5-19) both speak into situations of tragedy, struggle and chaos.  Isaiah spoke into the period that followed the devastation of Jerusalem, destroyed by the armies of Babylon and many citizens taken into exile into Babylon.  The exiles were released decades later when the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians.  As they returned to Jerusalem, they were met with decades old devastation and destruction, overwhelmed by the immensity of the task of rebuilding city, Temple and life. Isaiah spoke into their helpless, powerless vulnerability.  He spoke of hope and a belief that God’s way would bring life and restoration to people and communities.  His vision is about healing of people, relationships and with the earth itself.

The story in Luke follows the devastation of Jerusalem once again, under the Romans this time.  In 70 AD, the Jewish-Roman War reached its climactic point and the Roman forces finally destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.  The city was chaos, with blood and death everywhere and the cries of tortuous pain and despair.  Luke wrote around 85 AD but situated his story in the period of Jesus (~30 AD). He also portrays a new hope through resilience and standing firm, together.  His promise is that God will be with, in and through us as we stand for justice and walk with others who struggle and suffer.

Such promises of God’s strength, peace, hope and transformation leave us wondering – where? How? Who? What?  We look around and recognise that the world is not peaceful and too many people live impoverished lives – economic poverty or poverty of mind or spirit.  The pandemic depression, anxiety and loneliness point to the despair and alienation that we feel in our lives that are so independent and individualistic.  There is immense pressure on people to perform, to ‘be something’ and to compete with or fear others.  Addictions abound as we seek ways to contain our pain and hopelessness, something to relieve feelings we cannot deny or provide some stimulation into the boredom that too many feel.  So where is the hope and promise of God?  When will God act in accordance with the promises?  When will we see something – or has it passed us by?

God’s  vision through both Isaiah and Luke is of a transformative community of people who grasp the vision, who respond to the challenge to be just and compassionate and build relationships together.  The vision is of people looking deeply within themselves, to hear their own deep yearning and that of others, of working together to transform the world in which they live with hope, peace, love and justice.  This is present in the catastrophes experienced this week.  People respond and work together, transcending divisions and barriers, providing compassionate actions towards friend and stranger.  In the midst of chaos and struggle, often the very best and deepest capacity of humanity comes to the fore.  This is the world we seek and yearn for at the deepest levels of our humanity.

The dream of God is for a new world, transformed and healed. It is a world where people live together in peace; where people have the right to live in their own homes without fear of powerful forces driving them out and taking it over. It is a world where everyone has enough to eat, clean water to drink, clothing, shelter, relationships in caring community. It is a world where women can live in homes or walk the streets without the fear of rape or violence, where they can be valued for who they are not what they look like. It is a world where men can be vulnerable and express themselves creatively in the diverse ways without fear of rejection or peer pressure that pushes them into violent or anti-social acts. It is a world where people take responsibility for their actions, reaching out to others to offer a hand up. It is a world where the pandemic of depressive illness, anxiety, stress and the addictive mechanisms employed to cope with such stresses are no longer necessary. It is a world where everyone has enough work, and no-one has too much – where there is a healthy balance between all the dimensions of our lives. It is also a world where the earth is valued and creation enjoyed, nurtured and cared for. It is a world where power, profits and greed are not the dominant forces or motivating factors. Rather it is a world of sharing, equality and nurturing love. It is a world where competition occurs in truth and integrity and where we accept winning or losing in grace, enjoying the competition more than the result. It is a world where justice, love, grace and peace prevail and nations share and work together for the common good of the world’s citizens.  This is a wonderful vision that depends on us being open to the life, wisdom and love of God!

By geoffstevenson

Remembering in Order to Become!

Some years ago, I had an elderly neighbour.  His name was Les and he was an interesting, somewhat enigmatic fellow.  He did his own thing and there was a kind of darkness that hung around him, even though he was quite friendly and could enjoy a laugh and joke.  Over the years I gleaned a little of his life and there were indeed, some dark and tough times.  Perhaps the overwhelming and defining experience of his life was WWII, where he was a paratrooper.  Les never spoke much about the war or what his experience was.  In a few snippets I understood that it was pretty dark, dangerous and traumatic.

I remember asking Les around ANZAC Day, if he would go to the march.  He was emphatic that he wouldn’t be there.  He hadn’t been to the march for many years – it was just too hard!  The memories came back and he couldn’t cope with the levity in some people nor the glorying, pomp and other things that typified society’s attempts to remember, honour and make something significant of the wars.  Les would spend the day at the local RSL with a few mates who understood him and his experience and he theirs.  They wouldn’t reminisce nor share stories of war – it was too hard.  They would drink and forget and avoid the ‘celebrations’ that went on around them.

Monday is Remembrance Day and thinking about this conversation with Les caused me to wonder, question and think about what I/we are remembering.  What is memory about and where does it lead?  I suspect that much remembering is nostalgic and whimsical, delighting in something that touches us in positive ways.  We mostly want to remember well, the good things of our lives, and even extrapolate into our remembering that which is most positive and hopeful from our experience.  Of course we remember things that are not positive and hopefully learn through them but I suspect we mostly push the dark and difficult things into the deeper recesses of our mind, delighting more fully in that which is good, that for which we yearn,

Despite the darkness, I recognise that in Les’ story, he was drawn to the positive things of life even through his tough and traumatic experiences.  Mates who shared the journey and were there for one another in the darkest times, were cherished.  These mates were the ones who understood, and they could share time together in a deeper connection and understanding that accepted each other for who they were without having to revisit the past events.  I think Les valued some of the simpler things in life because he had been to the pits of hell and confronted with his own mortality – and survived.

I have been pondering a couple of ancient stories this week.  The first is around 2,500 years old and comes from the Old Testament prophet, Haggai (1:15-2:9) – probably one of the less well-known and read books.  The second is from around 1900 years ago – Luke 20:27-38.   The story of Haggai (whose name means festival, worship, celebration) comes from a time when Jewish exiles began to return from Babylon, released when the Babylon was overrun Cyrus the Persian.  They returned to rebuild the city and the Temple of Jerusalem.  They were met with all the harsh reminders of a war that had been fought and lost 70 years earlier.  The remnant citizens who remained had been focussed on survival and the rebuilding process only recently commenced.  The memory of people came largely through stories passed down of Solomon’s Temple – a grand and beautiful structure.  The stories probably extrapolated and inflated the extravagance of the Temple’s reality and so was their ‘memory.’  Their memory also focussed on the structure of the building and glorified in its supposed opulence and grandeur.  Haggai’s words recall that the essence of the Temple was not the structure but the purpose.  The glory of the Temple was not in its stones and forms but in the presence of God who filled the Temple with glory, wonder and the beauty of love, grace, justice and peace.  Haggai recalled to the people that God was the one who was the focus and centre of the Temple and the worship of God was inextricably linked to lives of peace, justice, compassion and mercy.  The true beauty that their memories were attempting to recall was the essence of God in human life!

In the story from Luke’s Gospel we have a group of religious leaders (a religious party called Sadducees) who came to Jesus in the last week of his life to trap him in theological debate.  They held no sway with the concept of resurrection and so asked a convoluted question that sought to draw Jesus into a nonsensical argument in order to gain the upper hand.  Essentially, they drew on the tradition of Levirate Marriage, whereby the brother of a deceased man was obliged to marry his dead brother’s widow.  They asked that if this happened seven times through seven brothers, each marrying the one widow who was effectively passed down to each through an older brother’s death, whose wife would she be in resurrection.  Jesus would not be drawn into the argument, instead indicating that in the life beyond this life, everything is different.  There is a new and deeper freedom and sense of being that is ‘in God’.  We are finally whole and complete within ourselves, and come into the deeper, richer sense of being that we are ultimately created to become.  The question of the Sadducees is a limited one, defined by death and the limitations of life rather than an upwards directed vision of who we can be at our very best.  Sadly, this is how much of life is lived.  We choose a downwards trajectory, focussed on the outward forms of dependency upon people who fulfil our needs, legalistic notions that enable us to control, and materialistic aspirations that make us feel ‘rich’.  The true beauty in life does not lie in having more – power/control, possessions/money, knowledge/education…

The true beauty of life, that finds its way into our dreams and through the nostalgia of memory, is in relationships with people, the earth and with the Divine heart at the centre of everything, the One we name ‘God’.  When we put more import upon outward form and structure rather than inner relationship and being together, the deep richness of life dissipates, and we crave more of that which is ultimately unfulfilling.  This accumulation mentality is an addictive path that is seeking life in the wrong places.  Jesus invites his hearers into a place where they can experience life more richly and live more deeply and truly – now.  The eternal life he speaks of is an experience that begins in the present moment.  The Reign of God, which is love, joy, peace, hope and wonder is presently available to all.  It flows in and out and all around us every day, whether we appreciate it or not – it is there, and we are all invited to participate and live within its true wonder!

When our memories help us dream and yearn for something better, perhaps we need to listen deeply to that to which they point – what is the content and true hope of the dream? On Monday, as we remember the dark places of life, we might be drawn into a deeper hope for peace and life rather than conflict and hatred.  Perhaps we can respond to Jesus’ invitation to embrace relational, inclusive and compassionate life that is rich and full.

By geoffstevenson

Treating People Upwards – to Become Who We Can Be!

I had a child in the Scripture class I taught some years ago.  He was quite hyperactive and quite smart.  It was clear he was largely bored with Scripture, which was a combined year 6 Protestant group that 3 of us co-led.  Whilst one was providing input/lesson, the others would be on ‘crowd control’.  Other leaders were more intent on sending misbehaving children from the room, which I found problematic, largely because I felt the issues were more with our style and capacity than the children’s ability to concentrate.

There was a tendency to treat these children in ways that reinforced their behaviour and our perception of them.  If a child was talkative and distracted, the problem lay with him/her and she/he needed to be brought back into line.  They were branded a ‘trouble-maker’ or a difficult child and considered beyond hope I suspect.  I always had trouble with kind of thinking – especially when we were trying to convey God’s love for the children.  And, come to think of it, I was generally bored with Scripture!

One day, one of the other leaders asked this child to leave the room – again.  He nonchalantly stood and with a shake of his head left the room.  I watched as he went and the look of satisfaction on the face of the leader, somewhat irked me and I took the opportunity to go outside and chat with the boy.  I could tell that he was waiting for me to chastise him and tell him what a ‘bad boy’ he was and reinforce that he was a trouble-maker.  I didn’t.  We chatted for a while and I said something like, ‘You are bored with this aren’t you?’  He looked up surprised and nodded and said, ‘Yes, its pretty awful.’  I sensed the boy was all too familiar with the Bible stories and discovered he did go to church but Scripture was basic, non-stimulating and boring.

As we chatted, I realised that this was a pretty sharp kid who was quite intelligent and probably had trouble concentrating when his mind was rarely engaged.  Scripture wasn’t challenging and he was treated like a naughty boy and so he acted into that role.  This boy acted into the way he was treated!  It made me think…

When I next led the class, I tried to engage the children in deeper ways and challenge them to think about life and faith, sharing stories of real people and real situations.  I invited them into a journey of experiencing something deeper of Jesus and what he was on about and was surprised that the children came along.  When I told engaging stories, they were with me and wanted to talk about the people and their responses to crisis and where God was in all of this.  Central to the questions and conversation was the boy who had been considered ‘naughty’.  Suddenly, when he was treated as someone with a brain, who could engage and had something to offer the class, he stood up.  I think he grew and lived into the image and sense of being the person he was expected to be.  When treated as a naughty, disruptive boy, that is what he became.  When treated as someone with a contribution to make, who had good thoughts and questions, he lived into that sense of being.  This boy is not unique!

In the story this week (Luke 19:1-10) we have another example of how Jesus treats people upwards; as the person they were created to be and who they could be.  Elsewhere there is the story of a woman caught in adultery and the religious leaders want to stone her, according to some draconian version of the law.  They appealed to Jesus and he suggested that the one without sin be the first to cast a stone.  Whilst he doodled in the dirt, they all walked away, no doubt cursing him under their breath.  When he looked up there was only the woman and he asked if no-one accused her – then neither did he.  Jesus invited her to go and live and sin no more – go and live as you can be.  Go and be the woman you really are.  Go and grow into the forgiveness and mercy, the grace and compassion of God, who calls you a child.  He does not treat her as a ‘bad person’ who deserves punishment, but a person caught up in a life that is less than she can be, and he offers her the encouragement to grow into something more – in God.

The story this week is about Zacchaeus, a tax collector.  This meant that he collaborated with the enemy, the Romans, and collected the high taxes for them.  To these taxes he added something more on top for himself – he ripped off his own people.  Zacchaeus was despised, hated, rejected, excluded and ostracised.  Jesus came into his village and everyone gathered along the streets to see him.  Curious, Zacchaeus wanted to see him as well, but he was short, and no-one would let him through to the front.  With his view blocked Zac climbed a tree to get a look.  As Jesus wandered under the tree, he looked up and saw Zac hanging from a high branch and called him down.

I imagine that Zac felt all the sense of rejection and hatred welling up within him.  Everyone else hated him, why not this rabbi?  I imagine that as he climbed down and pushed through the crowd, he wondered what tirade of abuse he was about to receive – he would cop it on the chin.  Who cared!

Well, actually Jesus did!  There was no tirade, no abuse, but an unexpected and lovely acceptance.  Jesus asked Zac if he could come to his home for lunch or afternoon tea…  This must have been the biggest surprise, even shock!  No-one went to Zac’s home.  No-one would be could dead in his presence, let alone go to his house.  This Rabbi wanted to visit him at home.  Surely this was an honour and he rushed home with this heady, wonderful feeling of being accepted, in some strange and wonderful way.

Over some food, they chatted, and through it, Zac confessed the reality of his life and the way he ripped people off and cheated them.  He promised, on the spot, to make restitution and return the money ripped off from others and to repair the relationships.  This amounted to a complete reversal in his life, his attitude, and his priorities.  In some strange and profound way, Jesus’ gracious actions towards Zac enabled him to see himself in a new way.  When treated as the human being he could be, someone who could be loving, kind and humane, he lived into this and became that person.  Whilst the people around him treated him as an outcast who would abuse and cheat them, he lived into that way.

What happens when we are treated upwards, treated as we can be rather than as we may be perceived – rightly or wrongly?  What happens when we treat others as they can be, as they are deep down, as human beings who are unique, loved and special?  When we are treated positively and encouraged to become the best we can be, we respond positively.  When we are told we are useless… then we tend to live into that designation.  Jesus always treated people upwards into the deeply profound sense of being loved in and through God.  He treated people as children of God who loves and believes in us all.  That is the challenge for us – to love others into becoming the truest and deepest expression of who they are created to be and to nurture them into living into this truest sense of self – in God!

By geoffstevenson

Becoming More Truly Human…

There’s a bloke that sometimes stands on a corner opposite Westfields Parramatta.  There, at the lights, he spruiks his particular line of religious belief with passion and desperation.  Occasionally someone will sidle up and engage him in a conversation that encourages and affirms his hard-line, narrow stance.  Very occasionally there is someone who has time and energy to take him on, but he gives no ground.  His size and fierce, passionate manner can be intimidating but on the whole, most people simply ignore him and can’t wait to cross the road.

The rhetoric of this fellow is fire and brimstone and filled with dire warnings of what will happen to sinners, of which he assumes everyone attending to the lights, awaiting the green, are prime examples.  We are all sinners, for whatever reason – most likely that we have a different view on life or faith or something to this man’s belief system.

Sinners, it isn’t a word used terribly much these days except in particular religious circles where there is a pejorative implication warning of the wrath of a vengeful god who is only appeased by believing in their particular views of faith and narrow interpretation of the Bible.  We encountered this rhetoric in Israel Folau’s excruciating social media outbursts that condemned pretty much everyone – certainly that is the view of his father, who takes a hard-line view around the Bible and faith and what is true, false and worthy of Divine judgement.  We are all sinners, claims such people but the basis of such sinfulness is the denying of particular ‘expressed truths’ that they adhere to.  There are belief systems that people hold to, religiously, and use them to define who is in, out, lost… Sin, according to these overly zealous religious people, is grounded in doing what God doesn’t like and such actions, beliefs, thoughts… are worthy of judgement.

Is this true?  Is this what it is all about?  Is there a God sitting in some sublime heavenly residence watching the people below and marking out who is right, wrong, good or evil and prescribing appropriate judgement upon them like a Divine version of Santa Claus?  Is this really what Christian (and Jewish) faith are all about?  Is this the way Jesus lives and what he teaches?  Does he not lift up those who are caught in cycles of life that are unhealthy to both the person and others around them and bring new life and vitality and self worth?  Jesus, it seems, portrays a God who loves and nurtures in grace, so that human become the very best they can be – their truest self!

There’s a story Jesus tells this week (Luke 18:9-14), where two men go to the Temple to pray.  A religious leader steps into the public area and before those gathered prays loudly and proudly.  He thanks God that he is a good person who does all the right things and isn’t like the second man who is a tax collector.  The religious man rattles off the long list of his virtues and proudly stands before God, justifying himself for all his goodness.

The other man, a tax collector who has probably ripped off his own people, collaborated with the Roman occupiers and transgressed several laws and cultural taboos, simply stands aside, bowed down low and seeks the mercy of God upon him as he is a sinner.  Jesus, perhaps somewhat surprisingly to his hearers, suggests that it is the tax collector, not the religious figure, who goes away justified.

Two men go to the Temple to pray and only one goes away transformed and his self-descriptor is that of being a sinner.  It seems, in Jesus’ actions and rhetoric, that God is less concerned with fulfilling belief systems and legal requirements – the religious man did all of this to near perfection.  The man justified before God was the one who demonstrated a depth of self-awareness, to recognise his own personal failures in fulfilling his own sense of humanity.  This man, it seems, recognises how he has failed himself, others and therefore God – this is not so much in transgressing laws but in becoming and being someone much less than the person he is created and enabled to be.

This, I suspect is the true nature of being a ‘sinner’.  Whilst we deflect from this descriptor for all the negative connotations noted above, there is a deeply necessary recognition that we are drawn into life choices and lifestyles that deny us our true potential.  The religious man in this story understands the legal requirements of his belief system – ‘believe this, do that, think something else and all is good in God’s world and I am one of the good guys (not like him, a tax collector!)’.  This position lacks compassion, relationship and self-awareness.  Does his belief system include people who are different, have a different experience of God, life, culture or see the world differently?  It also presumes God is about law but the clear revelation of God in Jesus is about love, grace, mercy, compassion and inclusion.  Jesus was relational and drew people into a relationship that offered a nurturing, growth-promoting potential within them.  Jesus invites us into a place where we can recognise who we are and to gain a vision of who we can be.  He treats people upwards to become who they can be, rather than to be judged through the distorted lenses of other people or the cultural norms that push us into categories that often demean and exclude.

There is a beautiful story that Biblical theologian, Marcus Borg tells in one of his books.  A couple bring their new-born home and put him into his cot to sleep.  Their 3-year old daughter asks if she can spend a few minutes alone with him.  The parents are suspicious but they have an intercom between the baby’s room and their bed room so agree.  The girl ushers them from the room and closes the door.  They rush to their bedroom and listen in.  She gently walks to the cot and then asks her new-born brother to tell her what God is like because she has almost forgotten.

Borg suggests that this and a myriad of similar style stories reminds us that our origin is ‘in God’.  We are formed (‘created’) in God but as we are born into the world that is filled with distractions of all forms, we lose this connection and our lives are about finding our way home into the place and form of life we were first drawn into.  Our lives are a journey into becoming more deeply and truly human and that is ultimately life ‘in God.’  Such life is not characterised by legalities and belief systems but in compassion, relationship, peacefulness, justice and inclusion.  It is about love.  Love is the essence of who God is and it is love into which we are drawn more deeply when we open ourselves to the possibilities and potential God has put within us.

The tax collector seems to have understood his failure to live into the fullness of his being.  His life has wounded and impacted many, including himself as his greed etc has diminished his humanity, his true sense of being.  He is not at peace but he recognises this within himself and seeks mercy.  This is the path into deeper life and being – God!

By geoffstevenson

The Life-giving Power of Persistence (and Prayer)!

This morning, like all mornings, our 2.5 year-old Short-haired Border Collie X Cattle Dog was very keen to go for a walk.  As soon as I am up and about, he is persistently nudging or licking me and then looks into the laundry where his lead is.  He repeats this in the late afternoon as well, if I am around.  Nico loves his daily walk(s)!  I can offer him food or a walk and he will choose the walk every time (our Labrador will choose the snack!).  Nico is persistent with a capital ‘P’.  Inevitably I will give in.  It is easier to get the shoes on and go walking, whether the long or short version depending on time, than to endure his persistent nudging and his pleading eyes.  Then, I am usually grateful to walk!

Sometimes persistence pays off.  There is a wonderful story about Keith Jarrett, the world-renowned jazz pianist.  Vera Brandes was the youngest concert promoter in Germany and worked part time for the Cologne Opera House.  She had a dream to stage a late-night improvised jazz concert.  She received permission for the Opera House authorities and signed Keith Jarrett to play.  He requested a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano to be provided for the show, but the piano removers wheeled out the wrong instrument for the night and left for the day.  When Keith Jarrett and his musical director arrived to prepare for the concert, Vera Brandes ‘introduced’ him to the concert hall and the piano.  It was in very poor condition – muffled low notes, high pitched, tinny high notes, a couple of black keys not working in the middle, sticking pedals and it was too small for the concert hall – and it was horribly out of tune.  The piano tuner did his best to fix the piano, but it was still far below Jarrett’s expectations and requirements.  He was tired, sleep-deprived, suffering a painful back and generally very unimpressed.  He threatened to walk out unless a proper piano was provided.  It was impossible and Vera became desperate.  Jarrett was outside sitting in his car awaiting news and preparing to leave.  In pouring rain, the teenage Vera Brandes cajoled, begged, encouraged, begged some more and persistently urged Keith Jarrett to play.  Looking through the window of his car at a dripping wet teenage concert promoter begging him to play, he finally gave in, ‘Remember always – only for you!’

At around 11:30 pm, wearing a back brace, Keith Jarrett strode out onto the stage and sat before a very imperfect instrument.  For the next couple of hours, he mesmerised a concert audience of 1300 people, providing a brilliant performance that worked within the constraints of the instrument.  It necessitated him changing his style, playing in different ways to overcome the extreme limitations and it was the performance of a lifetime.  The recorded album went on to become the highest selling Jazz solo album and the highest selling piano album in history.  It is a brilliant concert.

This story reflects how persistence and hope, dreams and passion, and urgent desire can lift someone to do something more than they feel they can or want to.  If Vera Brandes had given up and recognised it was useless, impossible or hopeless, her own career as a concert promoter would end that night, and there would be 1300 patrons who would be left angry, frustrated, disappointed…  And, the world would not have such a fine and brilliant performance!  For Keith Jarrett, the persistence of Vera Brandes cajoled him into doing something that seemed so ridiculous and so ludicrous (and impossible!) that given his own physical state and that of the piano, he would never have attempted it.  That Vera Brandes was so persistent and wore his resistance down meant that Keith Jarrett was forced to face a profound challenge – how to make good, sublime, music from an instrument that had so many limitations.  It forced him into working within the capacity of the instrument and finding a way through that allowed his own skill and talent to shine through – together to create something uniquely beautiful!

In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 18:1-8), there is a story told by Jesus about a Judge and a persistent widow.  She has been wronged, probably taken advantage of because of her vulnerable estate, being a widow.  In the context, widows (and orphans) became highly vulnerable when they had no male to look after their interests and care for them.  The wealthy and powerful often took advantage of such people.  If a women’s husband died, the powerful leaders (including religious leaders) would offer help and take a large cut of the estate.  Others may take it all.

The woman experienced injustice and went to the judge for help.  He couldn’t care less for her (it says he had no respect for people nor God).  The less he cared or listened to her, the more persistent and determined she became.  Every day she went and knocked on his door, asking for justice.  He inevitably gave in because she wore him down (the Greek version speaks of him fearing her giving him a blackened eye, until the end of time) – he recognised she would not give him rest and her persistence may cause other difficulties.

Luke introduced the story by suggesting that Jesus told a parable to encourage people to pray and not lose heart.  Later, Jesus asks, if an unjust judge does this, how much more will God give justice to those who ask.  It is an interesting question because, as most of us know, God doesn’t always answer our prayers and certainly doesn’t provide instant answers to even just causes.  How many of us pray for really good things for other people – freedom for refugees, relief from drought, food for the hungry, relief from war etc – yet these things seem to continue unabated.  God doesn’t seem to respond in such simplistic ways to our praying, even persistent praying.   It is clear that God is not the kind of cosmic magician often portrayed by Christians who make the universal claim to prayer’s efficacy.

This is not an endorsement to make prayer an expression of lists of things we want/need God to do for us – or the world.  There is nothing wrong with expressing our deep hopes, yearning, fears, grief… before God but such lament or confession is about expressing ourselves before God’s grace and we are ultimately drawn more deeply into this presence that overwhelms us in love.  The struggle of life is part of the journey and God walks with us through such valleys to nurture new life and being in the crucible of suffering.  It is also about drawing a rich community of love, grace and care around people to share each other’s burdens.  Perhaps, God is more like the woman in the story and is persistently urging us into an engaged way of justice and life.  Perhaps God is drawing us out of our closed world to engage with the issues we want to pray for and not ‘expect God to fix.’  Scott Morrison indicated he is praying for drought-stricken farmers and for rain.  Perhaps the answer to his prayers lies within his power to bring some relief and support and that is what God expects??!  What about you and me?  How and where will our praying lead us?  What persistent hope, anticipation and passion lies behind our praying and how might that lead us to action for the sake of God’s world?  Does prayer lead us into God’s presence?

By geoffstevenson

From Borderland to Life!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

Relationships, Forgiveness, Love and God’s Community…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

The Will to See and Act!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson

Relationships, Self-Interest and Shrewd Action…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By geoffstevenson