The Gateway into Life…

On the border between San Diego (California, USA) and Tijuana (Mexico), there is a plaza, a circular plaza.  It was on the border and a monument was erected, now on the Mexican side.  Last century a fence was built but it was possible to pass things through the fence, along with messages to family and friends on either side of the border.  In 2009, this was blocked when the Federal Government seized the land from California.  A more solid fence was built and extended out into the ocean about 300 metres.  Family gatherings were made more difficult and at times stopped altogether (from the US side).

Over a decade ago, two Methodist ministers, one on the Mexica side and the other on the US side began a church service.  They gathered with whoever wanted to be part of it and held a service each Sunday afternoon.  No longer able to share food through the fence   (apart from it being too hard to squeeze food through the very narrow space, there were now restrictions around quarantine).  They shared Holy Communion each week – both sides holding the elements and praying together, eating at the same time and uniting themselves to each other. There are prayers, readings and singing.  Over the years they have experienced various restrictions and hardships, often without warning – and all from the US side.  Originally 40 people were allowed in what is called Friendship Park and then suddenly that was reduced to 10 at a time without warning.  Sometimes they have been allowed to be close to the fence and pass the peace God by touching little fingers through small openings.  Other times they were required to be 15-20 metres away from the fence and therefore, each other.  They would worship via mobile phone.  What ever has been thrown in their way, they have countered creatively, with hope and patience.

Journalist, Amy Frykholm, visited the church and spoke to Methodist Minister, John Fanestil.  She says: The work of the border church includes claiming the “true nature of the border,” Fanestil says. The federal government wants to mark the border as a place of crime and danger and fear. “We know it as a place of encounter, exchange, friendship, fellowship. We try to show up weekly in order to show what the border is truly.” While the coronavirus has put this weekly in-person meeting on hiatus, the true identity continues to be claimed, on both sides of the border.

As I read a reflection on this church and the story around it, I thought about the strange passage for this week – John 10:1-10.  It contains a plethora of images around sheep, shepherds, sheepfolds, voices that are familiar and recognised, a gate and thieves and bandits.  It shifts the metaphors, with Jesus featuring as shepherd, gate, gatekeeper…

In the story about the US-Mexican border and the church that meets across it, there is hope and an opening.  The authorities want to close off contact and connection, to stop the interaction and exclude people through a barrier that is solid, keeping people in and out.   The Church transcends the barrier, connecting people across the fence and their differences of culture or politics, uniting them as people of God who are loved and united as one.  It is a powerful symbol of hope and friendship, of relationship and peace rather than conflict, division and fear.

It is into these places of fear, division, where barriers are built and fences erected, where people are isolated and excluded, that Jesus becomes a gateway into a new possibility of life and relationship.  Jesus calls himself a gate, an opening in the solidity of the walls and barriers that divide, creating a way to traverse these barriers and build relationship and community that is inclusive and life-giving.  Jesus, the Gate, pushes boundaries and barriers back, creating paths to freedom and life for everyone.

There are many barriers that divide us, or we erect against the world and those who are different.  We create barriers from fear, the need to control, for security and protect things we have.  There are many who find themselves enslaved behind the fences and walls of exclusion, prejudice and fear.  There are many who are excluded because of gender, age, culture, creed, sexual identity or orientation.  Others are excluded by virtue of mental or physical illness, disability of body or mind, psychological or emotional trauma from abuse, violence or war.  Such barriers divide and separate.  Jesus, the gate, breaks open our barriers and brings the hope of something new that unites people in the human family, embracing a world of diverse beauty and wonder.  It begins with a small hole that allows the Light to shine through.  We begin to ‘see’ and we’re drawn into something bigger than ourselves, something beyond ‘me.’  At the border church they can touch through small spaces and connect.  The voice of One who proclaims love and life resonates through their worship, across borders of division and exclusion calling them into life together as an inclusive community across time and space.

This gateway intrudes into the divisive and conflictual ways of people, creating the possibility of relationship that transcends our fear or hatred, greed or difference.  If we learn nothing more through the Covid-19 crisis, it may be that our experience of isolation and separation helps us understand and identify with those who live in more extreme isolation and exclusion.  Our simplified lives for a season may help us understand we don’t need as much as we have, and we can share with those who have too little.  In this time our Earth has breathed and rested and so have many of us.  Do we need to return to the frenetic lives of accumulation and expectation that engulf us in ordinary times?  Surely there is a gift in this wretched time that offers a way of hope and new life to the world – if we will listen and have the courage to move forward in a new way.  Jesus, the gate into new life and being has opened a possibility through this time, a voice of life echoes through the stories and lives of the world that yearns for rest and peace, calling us to imagine and believe that everything can be different.

In another reading for this week from Acts 2:42-47, there is a wonderful picture of early followers of Jesus, hearing his voice ring through the stories of their Scriptures, their experiences of Jesus and his life and the profound experience of resurrection that shattered their grief and false expectations.  They lived in a communal way where all was shared so no-one had too much or too little and those beyond this community also received help as they needed it.  The community shared meals and prayed, shared stories and life and their common life was grounded in love.  They were a living hope and Christ was in their midst.  People were drawn to this way of love and inclusion, so very different, and a place where age, gender, culture, economic status and all other categories and barriers were overcome.

The little Border Church is also a prophetic community that transcends hatred, division and exclusion in the way of Jesus, the gate who opens the way to liberation and life.

By geoffstevenson

Broken Dreams Along the Boulevard We Travel!

Two songs with the title: ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams:

I walk a lonely road/The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes/But it’s only me, and I walk alone

I walk this empty street/On the boulevard of broken dreams
Where the city sleeps/And I’m the only one, and I walk alone

I walk alone, I walk alone/I walk alone and I walk alone…  (Greenday)


I walk along the street of sorrow/The boulevard of broken dreams
Where gigolo and gigolette/

Can take a kiss without regret/So they forget their broken dreams/

You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow/When you behold your shattered schemes
Gigolo and gigolette/Wake up to find their eyes are wet
With tears that tell of broken dreams/Here is where you’ll always find me
Always walking up and down/But I left my soul behind me
In an old cathedral town

The joy that you find here you borrow/You cannot keep it long it seems
Gigolo and gigolette/
Still sing a song and dance along/The boulevard of broken dreams

(Lyrics – Al Dubin; Music – Harry Warren)

Both are songs of the journey down the path of sorrow, despair, loneliness and lost hope.  The road can be long (and winding?) and seems to go on forever.  It is a lonely path and our world closes down as we wander.  We feel the loss of control and a powerlessness over our lives.  The boulevard of broken dreams is one we all wander and know in our being and many people are on this road now.  The broken dreams and lost hopes leave us feeling dry and hopeless.  Lethargy and deep melancholy, or worse, depression, overwhelms us and the journey is hard.  We feel lost and can’t see a way forward out of the chaos and grief.  The boulevard of broken dreams…

In a story read in churches this Sunday we hear of another journey made in despair and loneliness.  It comes to us from Luke’s story of Jesus (Luke 24:13-35) and features two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and an unnamed one (probably a woman?).  They are walking away from Jerusalem to their village of Emmaus.  It is obviously a decent journey and takes some time through the day.  They discuss their grief and disbelief over the events that have overtaken them in Jerusalem.  The week began so well, with crowds hailing Jesus as ‘King’ and heralding his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (that was only 2-3 weeks ago in our celebration!).  Through the week things heated up and the resistance to Jesus grew until he was arrested, charged, sentenced and crucified.  It all happened so quickly and so completely.  Now the followers of Jesus felt lost, alone and out of control.  They also lost their hopes and dreams – this was a boulevard of broken dreams!

As they walked and grieved, a stranger joined them and asked why they were sad.  They were surprised and shared their grievous story.  We had hoped he was the one!  We had hoped…  It is a phrase we know: We hoped the doctor’s diagnosis would be better.  We hoped the relationship could be restored.  We hoped the job could be saved.  We hoped…  We hoped… Wed hoped…  But then hope is gone, broken dreams shattered along this lonely road – and we walk alone.  It feels so alone!

The stranger listened to their sad story, their lonely tale with despair and grief.  He then told their story back to them, embracing it within the bigger, deeper, richer story of their people and God’s engagement and life through them.  He told them what had happened and why and where in the story God was real and present and engaged – God’s love continued to be with them and would rise in new and wondrous life (already had, in fact!).  In the hearing of this stranger’s words their heart burned within them – the joy, wonder and hope they felt in Jesus words and life were rekindled in new ways by this mysterious stranger!  They reached home and the stranger kept going but they stopped him and invited him into their home. They sat down to a meal and the guest turned host, taking bread, blessing, breaking and sharing it.  They immediately recognised the stranger as the Risen Christ in their midst. He disappeared from their sight and they rejoiced in the recognition and mystery of his presence.

Written some decades after Jesus when faith, life and church was perhaps harder going under various difficult Emperors, the followers of Jesus wondered how the Risen Christ was present to them, how they experienced this Risen Christ in their midst.  Luke’s story reminded them that Christ is present as the stories of faith and life are shared, as we are embraced into something bigger, more enduring, that embraces the deeper questions and experiences of life, faith, pain and joy.  Down the boulevard of broken dreams or Emmaus’ dusty road, where life is dry, lonely and filled with fear and grief, the Christ is with us.  Sometimes as friend and sometimes as stranger who walks with us.  The Christ is in the deeper story of God’s grace and life-filled promises that emerges from the despair and silence, nurturing new hope.  Christ comes to us in the breaking of bread, a shared meal where love and life are shared and we welcome others into our midst, stranger and friend.  Christ is present in the prayers of hoe and despair, of grief and pain, of joy and wonder.   Christ touches our hearts with the soft, gentle emotion of joy that moves within us as we listen to the pure joy of a song or tune that stirs us in melody or memory.  The story told or presented in movie or drama, that stirs our soul and moves our emotions is full of Christ and we come face to face with the Reality beyond all reality, the foundation of life and everything – the ground of all being.  The One in whom we live and move and have our being is revealed spectacularly in the beauty, diversity and awe of nature, creation, the world and universe beyond.  We small humans recognise our humility and dependence upon Mother Earth, Brother Sun and Sister Moon and the stardust that has formed our bodies.  Our hearts burn and we know the presence of the Risen Christ in these moments of sacred awe and holiness.

The inbreaking story and presence of the Christ is a transformative moment that draws us out of ourselves and our small perceptions of life and the world (that often feels like it revolves around us!) into a story that is ‘us,’ ‘we’ and everything.  We do lose control and are invited to let go of our need to be in control and trust in the grace of God, mysterious, uncontrollable and blowing through us like wind and breath to birth new life, new hope and new being.  The Risen Christ is everywhere around and holds us in grace and love!

By geoffstevenson

A Time of Change – and Opportunity!

In Fred Watson’s book, ‘Cosmic Chronicles,’ he speaks of Galileo and his work around 400 years ago.  Galileo and his telescope proved Copernicus’ theory that the Earth was not the centre of the universe.  He presented his scientific evidence that conflicted with the traditions of the powers of the world (ie. Holy Roman Church!) that held to the Aristotelian (Ptolemaic) view that the Earth was the centre of the Universe and the sun (and everything else) moved around it.  Galileo’s writings on his research and observations, astronomical and mathematical, rattled the cages of many senior figures who were part of the scholarly classes of Catholicism and held strong views and interpreted their own observations within the context of their world-view: The Earth is the centre of everything!

Galileo challenged this world-view.  He challenged their thinking, their beliefs and their way of understanding life, and God’s world.  If the Earth wasn’t the centre of the Universe but ‘just another planet’ in a vast universe then much theology, tradition and their sense of importance and power was threatened.  What if we aren’t the centre of everything, but spinning on another small planet in one galaxy amongst innumerable others in an infinite universe?  The importance and centrality of human beings, and more importantly at the time, the Church, was challenged and threatened.  If clerics were not correct and this ‘ignorant mathematician’ and his new-fangled telescope proved Nicolaus Copernicus’ theories from seven decades earlier correct, what would that mean in terms of truth, trust and power?

Newton and other scientists emerged and pushed their scientific evidence-based physics further and further, eroding the wisdom and knowledge of the all-powerful elites,, the Church who controlled the minds of ordinary people.  In essence, the church was dragged kicking and screaming into the new era of modern science but of course it didn’t go quietly or graciously but with power and violence where it could.  There were inquisitions and trials, courts and guilty verdicts.  Heretics were made examples of and punished for ‘persecuting the Holy Spirit’ and defying God’s good way in the world.

Still, the world-view changed and we have lived with it for a few centuries now.  This paved the way for many other advances and modern assumptions about life and the world.  Our willingness to dominate the earth and conquer every habitat and environment, seeking resources for our own benefit arose from these early sciences and the discoveries they made.  Science also, helped desacralize the world, explaining the many mysteries that were previously the domain of God and God’s Spirit.  Interestingly, many of these scientists were Christian and sought to find ways of understanding God’s world to glorify God.

The world changed, as the way we saw and experienced the world, changed.  Flowing through the Reformation era and into the Enlightenment, were cultural, political, religious and intellectual changes.  Industry, nuclear families, growth in city-states, liberal democracy and capitalism are a few of the changes wrought through this era of transformation and change.  A world-view provides a powerful lens that shapes who we are, how we think and what we believe is important.  Our current world-view is now crumbling after a few centuries and the failures of systems to adequately deal with life in our world in the late 20th century/early 21st century, is acute.

The Coronavirus epidemic has given us an opportunity to recalibrate – a necessary opportunity.  Many social media postings point to the possibility of change rather than reverting back to where we were.  Amongst the suggestions are a new relationship with the Earth itself, simplifying our lives and reducing the profound stress humanity has placed upon Mother Earth.  Simplifying our lives to find space for one another, relationships, which in our solitude we discover are very significant!  The world economy has been impacted severely and the temptation will be to restore it and all things to the ways they were.  Such economic growth relies on more of the same – acquisition and accumulation, a focus on personal wealth, higher [economic] standards of living and the ‘affluenza’ that has been rife across our society.  There is simply not enough for everyone to share the same materialistic ideals as we have.  Despite our affluence and prosperity, we do not seem happier or more content.  There is more stress, tension, addiction, anxiety and depression across this wide brown land, along with suicide.  It is time for a different view of life!

This Sunday we continue to read John’s story of Jesus (John 20:19-31) and encounters with the Risen Christ that left his followers mystified, confused, fearful, hopeful and transformed.  The followers were hidden away behind locked doors on the evening of the day of resurrection.  They were fearful of those who killed Jesus.  They were lost in their grief and despair – life has changed and can never be the same.  Jesus captured their imagination, their hearts and minds, and even to an extent, their lives.  They lived with him, followed him, listened to his teaching and participated in the mission of Christ.  They saw a new way but their world-view remained – they still had the typical Jewish expectations of the Messiah and God’s liberation of their world from Roman Imperialism.

Jesus died, killed by the powers and principalities of the world, Roman and Jewish in their attempt to hold power.  Jesus would not betray his passion and life in the Reign of God, that which he proclaimed, lived and embraced in his being.  The Reign of God stood, from Jesus’ perspective, as the original and deepest truth, the only true source of life, hope, salvation and grace.  It is a Reign of love and compassion, forgiveness and mercy that stands over and against every other reign of empire or Earthly authority.  It questions every world-view and provides a lens that challenges everything through the love and justice of God  The disciples had their view of everything turned upside down and inside out!

In that locked room, followers gathered fearfully; they were lost.  Into their confused presence Jesus appeared and presented himself as this new resurrected self, transformed but contiguous, it seems, bearing scars of suffering.  He blessed them with peace and breathed upon them saying, ‘Receive a Holy Spirit.’ He commissioned them with a mission of reconciling forgiveness and love, proclaiming God’s gracious acceptance of all into this Realm of true love, forgiveness and peace – for all people, and the Earth.

There is always the accompanying fear, even terror, in the stories of resurrection because it challenges everything we hold to, what we know in our world and our view of life.  It isn’t enough to know about God or Jesus or Spirit.  We are called, invited, challenged into the way of life, of following this path of love, grace and justice.  It is a vulnerable and courageous way that will challenge our world and what is held dear!

By geoffstevenson

Out of the Darkness, Shines the Light of Love!

There will be many different things about Easter this year.  I have missed the annual ‘Stations of the Cross’ Art Exhibition and its provocative, challenging art that engages the story of Jesus as he journeys to death – and beyond.  Last year we were able to host a ‘Jazz at the Stations of the Cross’ evening at the exhibition.  It was a challenge that was deeply meaningful to me, sitting amidst the wonderful and engaging art whilst playing various Jazz numbers that attempted to reflect the mood and message of the works and the story.  There was something personally challenging and deeply meaningful to be able to explore the story of Jesus journey to death in music.  The moments of improvisation through the music was an opportunity to create my own response to the story provoked through the art.

The Stations of the Cross has always thrown up new ways of engaging Jesus’ story and entering into deep and challenging dialogue with artists and art, story and faith that always alters my perspective and speaks into life and death.  I will miss this annual pilgrimage and its provocation to enter the story in new and confronting ways.  I have wandered back through previous years and the art that has left me scratching my head or gasping in wonder.  I have sought to hear the familiar story anew and within the strange world we find ourselves in.

I also wandered through the last 8 chapters of Matthew’s story of Jesus today.  There is a plethora of material, diverse and strange.  Jesus entered the city, hailed as the would-be hero come to liberate the people.  He then turned the Temple upside down.  Two different actions aimed at the powers of his world – political and religious power and might controlling the lives of ordinary, struggling people.  He offered parables of the alternate (original) Kingdom or Reign, he called the Kingdom of God/Heaven.  Parables that challenged the powerbrokers and religious leaders, questioning their authority and how they missed the point.  The ‘in’ were out and the ‘out’ were in.  Those who should know and see God’s Reign all around them were blind to the truth through their lusting for power and control over people’s lives.  Those who were lowly and faithful, yearning for hope heard and saw and responded to the invitation of the Galilean Rabbi who proclaimed the Reign of God present for all to enter and experience.  Jesus was tested by the religious leaders and came out on top each time.  In one encounter the lawyer asked him what the greatest commandment was.  Without a flinch Jesus replied: ‘Love God with all your heart, soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.’  Do this and everything falls into place for this is the reality of God’s Reign – love!

There was the story of a wedding banquet provided by a King for his son, with everything organised and invitations sent out.  When all was ready, he sent his servants to gather the guests, but everyone had an excuse and couldn’t make it.  So, the angry King sent the servants out to invite anyone they could find – and they came.  There’s a sting in that tail but that’s for another time because the those expected to be first were last and the last, lowly and insignificant entered.  And that’s how it is with God’s Reign!

There is more preaching and other parables – the well-known ‘Sheep and the Goats’ that reverses the expectations of the faithful and ‘good’.  Those who enter God’s Reign are those who selflessly care and love others, giving food, water, and comfort.  This story flows from the Great Commandment and expresses love in action, the way of God’s Reign expressed in the world. As the Passover Week rolls on, the tension rises and there is increasing angst and opposition from those who have the most to lose.  The religious leaders plot to get rid of Jesus, whom they see as one who threatens the status quo and the balance of everything.  They are good people at heart, well mostly.  They are passionate but lost in power and belief systems that lead them away from love for God and neighbour.

At Jesus’ final meal they celebrate the Passover meal, a memorial that remembers the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt many, many moons ago.  There is hope and promise in this story of liberation and one that speaks into their own reality of Roman oppression.  At the end of the meal Jesus offers bread broken as a sign of his body broken in love.  He passes the cup of wine around, inviting them to drink, a symbol of his blood shed for freedom and forgiveness of the world.  Confusing words for his followers and more confusing still was the interchange between Jesus and Judas and then with Peter – the former betraying and the latter denying.

A time in the Garden of Gethsemane was filled with pathos as Jesus poured out his pain and desperation in prayer, seeking deliverance from the ‘cup that I have to drink; not my will but yours be done.’ The agonising prayer falls on the puzzled ears of his friends, and the scene escalates when a crowd comes to arrest him.  Betrayal with a kiss, swords drawn, a brief confrontation and Jesus was led away.  The disciples fled in fear, but Peter followed at a distance, lingering in the courtyard around a fire whilst Jesus was tried in a Kangaroo Court inside.  In fear, anxiety and confusion Peter denies being Jesus’ disciple and it feels that Jesus is cut loose from everyone.  The one in whom the Reign of God is deeply manifest and who proclaims this rule of love in his life and being, is alone and the world’s powers and principalities circle and close in.  Religious and political power focuses its wrath upon Jesus, and he displays the vulnerability and love of God’s Reign.  His humility is not weak and wishy-washy, but strong and courageous.  He endures the madness, the suffering, his Passion, with faith, courage and strength.  He stands tall against the powers in complete trust in God’s love to never let him go.

The Stations of the Cross takes us on an annual journey on this walk of shame and suffering from sentencing to death and then into resurrection.  Jesus is flogged and carries his cross.  He staggers and stumbles and needs help from Simon the Cyrene, who carries the cross for him.  At Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, he is nailed to the cross and then lifted high into the sky, a symbol of Rome’s power and might.  It is a warning to anyone who would flaunt their power or challenge the powers – suffering and death awaits.

Death and burial conclude the story.  The powers of the world win and the disciples hide away, defeated and despairing.  They fear the world and grieve their loss, the loss of Jesus and everything they have hoped in – it is gone.  This, as far as it goes, is how we imagine the story.  It plays out day-in, day-out, in our world.  The powers flex their muscle and overwhelm the dissident or prophet.  They destroy those who live a life of deep and profound love, questioning the way of the world and proclaiming a different, more inclusive and merciful life for the world.

As people live out the reign of God they are initially welcomed and praised.  Acts of goodness and selflessness are celebrated, so long as they don’t go too far or expect the same of everyone.  When someone rises up and seeks a new way in the world, inspired perhaps by the story of Jesus, his life and being, they will eventually be taken down.  Such love and grace can’t be allowed to run freely and loosely in our world – the powers won’t allow it!  The Reign of God is too pure, too lovely, too real and too threatening to allow to go unchallenged.  The greedy and powerful will not allow it, whether they claim some faith or not – money and power speak louder than love.  The belief systems of power and privilege hold sway and the ordinary are overwhelmed, beaten into place or lulled into placid acquiescence, distracted by empty promises and addictive lives that thrive on superficial alternatives to the Love at the heart of everything!

And death, despair and alienation course through the collective veins of a world that in its deepest being yearns for something more, the vision of the Galilean Rabbi who proclaimed that the Reign of God was at hand.  The Covid-19 crisis has disrupted our lives and thrown us into a confused disequilibrium.  Everything is up for grabs as nothing we relied upon seems real or reliable and we don’t know how we will negotiate the new world we find ourselves in.

What will things look like, post-Covid-19, whenever that emerges?  How will we re-emerge and what will we hope for?  Will we seek to return everything to the way it was, even though we and the world is different?  Will we hope for a return to the status quo that was, the one that didn’t really serve us terribly well?  Will we listen and learn and live differently, with passion and hope and joy and openness to others in an inclusive just world?

In the darkness of the world after Jesus died, when grief and loss, fear and pain wrestled and whirled within the upper room and amongst the followers of Jesus, there was nothing.  It was hopeless and powerless despair.  Nothing could or would be the same again and they were utterly lost!  I wonder if we feel even a little of the confusion and despair rife in our world, an echo of every deep and dark moment of human (and earth) life?  What lay ahead?  How would they re-engage life?  How could they?

In the gentle pre-dawn light two of the ‘Mary’s’ went to the tomb where they lay Jesus to prepare his body for proper burial.  They were challenged by the stone that was laid across the tomb – how would they move it.  Matthew’s story contains an earthquake, angels and fearful guards who do a runner.  The stone was moved, and the tomb is declared empty – Jesus is not there, but back in Galilee and they are all to meet him there!  The women encounter this Risen Lord on their way back and are told not to fear but to tell the disciples!

This is an intrusion of the highest order into the lives of these people, indeed into the life of the world.  It defies rational thought and experience and turns everything upside down.  It doesn’t make sense and challenges the powers and principalities of the world.  The worst the world could do to Jesus could not destroy and overcome love.  Resurrection vindicates the proclamation and life of Jesus, that God’s Reign is here and wholly available to all.  This Reign is a revolution of love that turns everything upside down, changes everything and transforms the darkness of despair into hope.  The hope is that nothing can separate us from the love of God, a love that transcends time and space and is the fundamental and essential love at the heart of everything.

The Reign of God permeates our world and touches our lives in the wondrous and awe-filled moments, through the beautiful melody, moving story, the extraordinary diversity of life and the Earth’s features, an infinite universe beyond, and the sacred moments of life.  God is present in and around and beyond these experiences and the love that binds everything into a relational web of being.  This Reign is at hand and is an open door to the future.

By geoffstevenson

Who Do You Sing, Dance and Cheer For?

I wandered into the stadium, a wonderland of colours – black, red and white – a field of dreams before me and the hopeful contenders going through the warm-up processes on the carpet of green.  With trumpet and drum and voice they bid me sing; ‘Who do you sing for?  Who do you sing for?’  Who do I sing for?  This team or that – the one they’ve come to see or the one who wants to ruin the dream?  Who do I sing for and what is my song?  Is it the ‘forever’ song that commits me to these colours through thick or thin, for better or for worse, perhaps?  In the end I sang along and it was fun – to be part of the group, bound by the colours, the song and camaraderie.  Of course, winning the game!

Who will you sing for, with that song that runs deep through your being?  Who will you sing for with the song of your heart?  What is your yearning and which is the song that you will sing?  Can you hear that song, deep and rich, in a world of noise reverberating around you?  Can you hear a song, pure and clear, of justice and peace – a love song that echoes through the wind and the trees and holds birds afloat?  Who will you sing for when the parade comes to town and there appears an unusual choice?

The journey takes Jesus and the followers to the Olive Mount and the Eastern Gate to Jerusalem, through which he will pass.  But first he gets on the donkey, with its foal, and sets off on his ride.  Towards the city he goes and the crowd understands.  They salute him with branches and sing him their song – their Song!  Who do you sing for?  It is him!  It is him!  ‘Have mercy, Son of David, save us!’  Save them?  Save them from what?  The sin of which we speak so freely in such confusing manner?  Save them from life that happens all round, the harsh despair they feel in their bones?  Save them from despots who rule in the city and take what they want leaving them poor and bereft?  What is this salvation cry, sung to the rabbi on a gentle donkey?  What will he do, this Davidic son, so unlike the one they hope he will be?  Will he rise up with sword and spear, leading an army so powerful to bring fear to the enemy heart in Rome?  Will he conquer all in his wake and free our small tribe?  With his donkey and palms, that’s a far, far cry!

Wait a moment, though, what is the choice?  Who else can we sing for in this solitary parade?  Well across the city in the wide open gates there is another parade, one of royalty and pomp.  Who is that who comes into this city street?  Who is that behind the Roman troupes, soldiers adorned and on parade, a symbol of power, glory and might?  Who sits astride that large war stallion and comes in power to own the city?  It’s Pilate, the Governor, the man of Rome.  He rides in power, a great show of strength and demands the allegiance of citizens all.  He wants good behaviour at this festival time, a Passover Feast, celebrating God’s great deliverance from bondage and strife!  O the irony – celebrating deliverance from bondage and new freedom under God, before the man of Rome, who holds them bound??!!

So, who will you sing for, there’s now a choice?  Will you sing for God’s Reign or that of Rome?  Will you make a loud noise for the way of God – on a donkey, with rags and palms?  Or, will you put your hand in with Rome; go with power and strength – the armies and weapons that hold the status quo?  The safe option, of course, is to stand with the strength.  They’ll protect you (well, not kill you) and while it may not get better, it shouldn’t get worse.  Who will you sing for?

More than that, what is the song you sing?  Is it a song of passion to change the world, a song filled with language Divine and rapturous melody harmonised in major 7th’s and 6th’s and 9th’s, dissonant and resolving or a cacophonous dissonance left hanging?  Is it a song to sing in your heart to free you from fear and lead you down deep where the sacred presides?  Or do you sing in a fanatical way, obsessed with some truth you need to convey to those out there who need to get in but won’t listen, won’t hear, ‘because of their sin’?  Is the song you sing one that touches your heart or are you leaping on the bandwagon, possessed of the moment, caught up in the fun – a man on a donkey who rides by as people wave and sing?  What do you think?  Is this a clown entertaining the downtrodden crowds, giving some distraction in the midst of hard life?  Is Jesus a fool on the hill who won’t hear the truth and persists in his comedic pursuit of the Reign of God?  It’s an important question we ask as we sing – the song and the content and the author won’t fade away.  Like the ghosts of Christmas he invades our times, nudging our conscience and feeding us lines of wisdom, that confuse our world-weary ways, turning worlds upside down so the bottom is up and the top is down.

His song, echoed on voices passionate or naïve, is a death-life song that carries him onwards and downwards on this lampooning ride to take it to Caesar and Pilate and those who collaborate in the Temple space.  It’s a song of justice, a vulnerable love-shrouded cry into an unhearing world that kills the prophets and laughs into the face of those who protest the wrongs that abound.  It’s un-Australian they’ll cry! – ‘Unpatriotic’, ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘tree hugging, latte-sipping, chardonnay-swilling, ABC-listening’ and everything else that sets someone apart as a loopy fool on the hill following the lonely one into the Holy City, singing for love, for justice and compassion in an inhospitable world.  They’ll take it to widows and orphans, single mums and their kids, the unemployed who feel lost, the hopelessly addicted, the despairing and vulnerable seeking asylum and refuge, the migrant wrestling with this confusing tongue and a cultural milieu still finding its voice.  They’ll lampoon the older inhabitants here and shake their heads at the shame of their race and anyone different who raises a voice will be laughed out of town or ‘burned at a stake’.

Can you see that the songs merge and conspire and modulate as through a symphony where the theme undergoes transposition and variation?  Can you hear the song challenged by tunes and lyrics, imposed from above, from powers that darken and avoid the light-soaked melody?  Can you make out the melody in the world today, a faint hum that you need to incline towards with intention?  There are many songs with wonderful words that are Divine-infused because the singer has heard the faint humming sound and listened deep within to a Spirit of melody, the poet-laureate of universe heart.  Who will you sing for?  What song will you sing?  Will you allow the song to get into you, deep and rich, raw and profound?

The Reign of God reverberates through everything around us if we have ears to hear and eyes to see, if we open ourselves to a voice and world beyond us, beyond ourselves and our small interior world.  God’s Reign permeates all things and is grounded in love and grace, free for all and hold everything deeply and gently – even in this troubled time.

By geoffstevenson

Can These Bones Live??

The strangeness of this new world continues to enfold us, causing discombobulation, confusion, uncertainty and a sense of unreality.  We know it is real and some feel the fear or panic.  Others are caught in the midst of illness and a life and death struggle.  Most of us don’t really know what to think because everything seems to have happened so quickly.  In this pandemic, we know there is an ‘enemy’ if you like, but we cannot see it.  With flood, fire and other disaster experiences, we can see the danger coming.  It is physical and there is warning as it approaches.  With this pandemic, we cannot see where the virus is or how it might invade our body – or what its presence may mean to us.  We cannot gather with other people in the midst of impending or actual emergency and danger, but are required to stay apart, distanced from each other, knowing only that the virus comes through people and the droplets in their breath.

We are driven into homes, isolated from others, with many businesses, organisations and other familiar activities shut down.  It is preventative and hopefully will help break the escalating cycle of virus spread.  This world is so different!  So much has happened in just a short time and we have our churches and other organisations closed for the first time in living memory.  ANAZAC Day will be so different for so many people, the gathering with friends and comrades of war to support, recount and remember together won’t happen.  The Royal Easter Show is gone this year, along with the Olympics and many other sporting competitions and events.  The world has changed in weeks.

Most of us are struggling to make sense of this fast-paced change in our lives and where it will lead.  What businesses will remain at the end of this and in what form?  What are the economic implications of the necessary shut down and how will we emerge from this?  What are the changes that will become a permanent part of our lives?  How will things look when this is all over and how will this experience change us?

This week Christians will gather in strange and exiled ways across the world and many will read an ancient story that is strangely prescient for our current time.  It comes from an age so different from ours and in a place far away in terms of distance, culture and world view.  Somewhere in the mid-6th century BC, a man living in exile along with many of his countrymen and women, spoke into their new world of despair and hopelessness.  They were exiles from the Kingdom of Judah, after the Babylonian armies conquered their homeland and destroyed the walled city of Jerusalem and took many inhabitants (artisans, craftsmen/women and leading citizenry) into exile in Babylon.  In this new land they were given relative freedom and had food, shelter and some work.  In this new land, they were lost in a foreign culture, foreign language, different food, climate and world.  They were grieving and lost.  They felt deflated and defeated, and they despaired.  The people felt that all life had been taken from them – how could they live?  Psalms, like Psalm 137 reflect the grief and sense of lostness they felt:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our     tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

Into this despair, grief and sense of being lost, various prophets rose up; ‘voices of God’ who brought hope and renewed vision to the people.  One of these was a man called Ezekiel and he was probably with the early exiles taken into Babylon.  He had a message of hope and life from God.  In the story this week, Ezekiel is taken in a vision back to Judah, to a large valley.  As he looked across the valley in this vision he saw a vast number of bones, dried, lifeless human bones.  These were probably the bones of his people following another of Babylon’s raids on Jerusalem and the bloody battle that ensued, leaving a valley of death.  The bones had been picked clean by birds and wild animals, and left to dry under the hot sun.  The image was barren, lifeless and desolate – just like his people!  In this vision, the Spirit of God asks him: ‘Can these bones live?’

What a question!  Can these bones live?  Is this not the very question we ask of ourselves?  Perhaps not in those precise words, but the sentiment is the same – how can I go on?  What is going to happen?  How can we exist?  These thoughts and questions flow through situations of grief and loss, pain and struggle, illness and despair.  Can these bones live?  Can we continue on?  If so, how?

Ezekiel can’t answer and puts it back onto the Spirit – ‘you know.’  He is then told to prophesy, to speak into the lifeless valley of dry bones and speak a work of hope – to tell the bones and bodies to reform.  He does and there is a rattling sound throughout the valley.  Bones move around reforming into skeletons and then sinews, muscles, flesh all form around the skeletons leaving lifeless but whole bodies.  Then the Spirit tells Ezekiel to speak into the valley and tell the breath to come and reanimate these dead bodies with life.  Ezekiel speaks and there is a sound like wind as the breath of God blows through bringing new life out of death and the bodies are alive!

‘This is your nation, your people,’ says the Spirit – they are dead and lifeless, but I will breathe life into them and restore them and give them their land back.  It is a profound message for people who are in a strange place, feeling lost and exiled.  Most, if not all of those who were taken into exile will not live to see the promise fulfilled but the very word of hope breathes life and hope into their being and they are encouraged to live with expectation and faith.  In the midst of confusion anguish, fear and uncertainty about whether God is alive (was God killed by the Babylonian God whose army won the fight??) and present or even interested in them, this word comes to them.  In the midst of change and brokenness, the word of God reaches them to lift them up, to breathe life and hope into their flagging bodies and spirits.  They are not abandoned!

For these people, there is the reality that life is different and will not revert back to how it was – even when they or their children and children’s children return to their own land.  Life will never go back to how it was!  They will have to negotiate this new world and God is with the to give strength, hope, surround them with love and life if they will receive it and live into this hope and grace of God.

For us, there is much similarity as we look at the world through different eyes and try to figure out what is happening and make sense of where this will all lead.  We are feeling the stress and confusion and a whole lot of other feelings.  The word of God breaks into our lives in this time and place to restore life, hope and love within us.  We are invited to live in this presence of God and find a place of joy, hope, peace and life.

By geoffstevenson

Seeing Anew in an Age of Confusion and Change

The world feels quite strange at the moment – confusing and uncertain.  Over the last few days the responses to Coronavirus have ramped up considerably and I have found myself in the middle of decisions around our congregations across Western Sydney and whether they remain open or suspend gathering for Sunday worship (and other activities).  Across the week the message has become more focussed and real.  On Monday we were thinking in broader terms that remained somewhat open and then from yesterday we are encouraging congregations to suspend their worship and look for ways to connect that are remote and happen in other ways.

This strong suggestion is difficult for many people, especially those who are older and have strong traditions, routines and dependence upon the regularity of gathering in the familiar surroundings of church and participating in the familiar and calming influence of rituals they have spent their lives following on a weekly basis.  Suddenly, there may be no church on Sunday and the familiar ritual and participation will not be there.  The world will be different – it will feel different and that feeling will reflect a reality that all of us experience in this strange time in which we live.

For many of us, the familiar routines of our lives are suspended.  Work practices are changing as many offices choose to work from home.  Gathering in larger groups has ceased and we have to get used to not reaching out to shake hands or move too close to each other in social settings.  I noticed people standing farther apart in the lift this morning at the local shopping mall.  Some people are wearing masks and maintaining an extra distance.  Shops are using copious amounts of hand sanitiser, as I understand are school classrooms.  Sport will be very different as a bunch of players run around in an empty stadium where there is no atmosphere – one wonders how long this can last?  Holidays and celebratory occasions are being postponed and those overseas are returning home.  Many people who work in various service, hospitality and entertainment industries are threatened with no work and the economy is facing deep impact for some time.

This Coronavirus crisis is changing how we live and act and think about various parts of our lives and how we engage with each other, work and play.  For some there is alarm, fear and panic – many particular shelves in the supermarket were empty and the cashier just shook her head in exasperation – ‘How much do you need to stockpile?  When is enough, enough?’ We won’t be able to supplement our dog’s dinner with rice after this week because there is none available.  Pasta will have to do – and it will do.  Things will be and are different and perhaps that will make me think about life, the universe and everything in a somewhat different way.  Perhaps it will cause me to stop a little and be grateful for what is around me – the beauty of this season, the trees, sun, sky, animals, birds, flowers and people (who I may only engage from a distance).  Perhaps I will take time to enjoy some music or some silence or ponder where I see God in the midst of everything.  Perhaps I will take time to think about the people I will not readily see and make more significant, meaningful contact.

I wonder how I might ‘see’ differently as a result of living through this crisis and despite the pain and struggle that will consume particular people in specific ways and our society as a whole?  How might this experience and my response to it alter my frame of reference and influence how I live?  Certainly, within our churches there will be changes.  As we experience this disruption in ‘life as normal/usual’ we will begin to change because we can’t not change.  The world has changed and we are sometimes left behind, pretending or hoping that it will all be restored to the way we were but it won’t and can’t because when we see something differently it is very, very hard to go back to seeing things as we used to.  So what will change for us?

This week’s story from the life of Jesus comes from John 9:1-41 is about a man born blind.  The disciples ask the typical question of the time: ‘Who sinned that this man was born blind – him or his parents?’  Jesus’ response indicates that the man’s blindness isn’t about sin but this is an opportunity to experience and ‘see’ how God responds with compassion and love to the world.  Jesus made mud with spittle and put it on the man’s eyes.  He told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam, which John translates as ‘sent’.  In an act of faith, the man did as he was told and his eyes saw!

People around asked if this was the blind man who begged from them – some said it was and others, it wasn’t but looked like him.  They asked and it was him – he told them what happened.  The story escalates and religious leaders, good, faithful and serious people seeking to honour God and God’s law were brought into the conversation and were something akin apoplectic as they questioned why someone would break a law of Moses and heal on the Sabbath.  They questioned the man, who told them his story, witnessing to grace and healing from Jesus.  As things develop the religious leaders interrogate the man’s parents seeking confirmation that he was blind.  They affirm he was blind but now sees but have no clue why or how.

The man was initially confused and unsure about Jesus – he gained physical sight but could not ‘see’ clearly what had happened to him.  As the story unfolds and he was questioned, he gradually had the experience of recognition – Jesus is of God for no-one could do this if God was not in him.  His words cut across the way of the religious people and he leaves their presence to follow Jesus.

It is a wonderful story of gaining sight (and spiritual insight).  Through the experience of Jesus living out the Reign of God through healing, compassion, love and justice that draws him into a relationship and experience of the Living God, the man ‘sees’ anew and more clearly.  The religious leaders who refuse to engage in this man’s story, remain in darkness and confusion.  They do not see and there is no change or life.

As I reflect on this wonderful story, I recognise that in the midst of the chaos we have experienced over the last 6 months and beyond (drought, bushfire, flood and Coronavirus), there is an invitation to listen and ‘see’ anew what is happening in our world and how we might live more fully, creatively, lovingly and justly – and how we might live more fully in the presence and reality of Christ.  Will we allow our eyes to be opened to ‘see’ – to see God in the world in all the frailty and beauty, wonder and vulnerability?  Will we walk in a new way that is light and gentle, compassionate and gracious – and cares for people and the earth?  Will we act with kindness, love justice and walk humbly with God?

May God be with you and care for you gently through this strange, confusing time!

By geoffstevenson

Within a Toilet-Paper Crisis, What Is It That We Deeply Yearn For?

I hope that you have enough stockpiled toilet paper, hand sanitiser, flour, rice, pasta…  I was puzzled and disbelieving when I heard that there was a rush on toilet paper and then news stories of violence and conflict over people trying to get toilet paper in various shops – pushing and grabbing and struggling over toilet paper (and worse!).  I heard of a couple of people who had pre-ordered boxes of toilet paper ordered from a charitable group that uses profits to build toilets etc in developing countries, had their order stolen from their front verandah!!  Toilet paper, who’d have thought it??!!

This situation is a highly individualistic response to threats that come from beyond us.  The Coronavirus is spreading in ways we don’t know and can’t control and it generates fear and uncertainty.  A small panic escalates and there is widespread panic as people try and bring some small measure of control to their lives.  It sometimes blows out to a ‘me versus them’ response that is defensive and about protecting me and mine.  This stands in stark contrast to what we experienced through the bushfire crisis where there was a profound level of community built in, through and around the crisis.  Everywhere one turned there were stories and experiences of people working together to overcome the dire threat and the catastrophic impact of raging bush fires.  What is it that determines whether the responses we make are generous, inclusive and build deeper community to work together for a common good?  What causes us to dissolve into irrational, fearful divisive life where we view others as ‘other’ or different or enemy?

It would seem that tribalism and formation of exclusive groups is a common trait for humans.  We see and experience it everywhere, from families that break apart into splinter groups opposed to, and fighting, each other to conflicts within and between nations, where fighting and animosity, division and hatred are rife.  There is a healthy rivalry and competition that doesn’t take itself too seriously, where we identify with a group of people and find a sense of belonging and are identified separately from another similar group.  When this rivalry becomes too ideologically defined and the boundaries to solid and exclusive, violence ensues.  Mostly this violence is in the form of exclusive behaviours and rhetoric but sometimes escalates into more serious forms.

Over time tensions form traditions and hatred solidifies and there is historic division and exclusion.  Barriers, boundaries and armies are employed to maintain the ‘integrity’ of the separation.  Traditional tribal and other loyalties reinforce hatreds, divisions, suspicion and hatreds.  This is much of the story of humans and our history.  Everywhere we look, there are examples of such tensions, conflicts and exclusive behaviours – even when a virus threatens and we cling to our own toilet paper or cast ‘blame’ onto other ethnic groups and shun particular people out of fear and suspicion – and difference.

This week’s Gospel story (John 4:5-42) is a wonderful story that captures this historical and traditional conflict between two groups of people who were from one historical family but fell out and developed ideologies that excluded one another.  The Nation of Israel divided in 922 BC.  Ten tribes in the north seceded from the nation and formed the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaritans).  War ensued and they were victorious, cementing the divide.  They developed traditions that varied from the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Jews) and ideology, tradition, law and ritual developed to enshrine difference and exclusivity.  Each made claim to their own authenticity as descendants of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  As time and distance, history and geopolitical interactions in the world around, moved on the differences and enmity grew.  In Jesus’ time there was a radical and deep divide such that Jews travelling through the region would not walk through the region of Samaria (Northern Kingdom) but travel around it.

One day Jesus did travel through the region and stopped at a traditional well that derived its name and origin from Jacob, one of the patriarchs.  It was a special place but also represents a place of courtship, drawing on traditions from early Genesis stories and traditions (eg Genesis 24 and 29).  Sitting in the warm sun at noon, his disciples off in the village, he encountered a Samaritan woman who came to the well to draw water for her family.  Against the cultural norms and ethnic traditions of the time, Jesus engaged this woman in conversation, asking her to give him a drink.  She was surprised and commented why he, a Jew and male, should break with cultural norms and cross ethnic barriers and talk to her, a Samaritan woman.  Males would not engage females in conversation without other male family members present and Jews would never talk to Samaritans – male or female.  Hatreds that build slowly and intensely and are never easy to break down but in this encounter, Jesus opens a conversation with an ‘enemy’ and ignores cultural rules to build a relationship and respond to this woman as a human being loved by God!

The conversation ensues and builds as they speak about water that brings deeper life.  It is a metaphor for the deeper and richer spiritual truths and experiences in God that all seek and yearn after, but which is often lost in maintaining divisions, ideologies and status quo.  The woman yields to her yearning for the true and deep spiritual life that is promised in the traditions and hopes of her people and the faith of the patriarchs (and matriarchs).

Jesus’ offer of ‘Living Water’ that will refresh her soul and bring life eternal is something that touches her deeply and she is eager to embrace his offer.  Through the conversation Jesus pushes aside the deep and ideological divisions that separate people and create suspicion, hatred and violence.  In a metaphorical moment he asks about her husband and she replies that she has no husband.  Jesus suggested that she has had 5 ‘husbands’ and the current ‘man’ is not her husband.  This dialogue refers to the 5 cultural groups imported into her homeland centuries earlier (722 BC) when the Assyrians conquered the land and forced intermarriage of the people.  She and her people share the bloodlines of these 5 foreign cultures and the current ‘man’ in her life is the Roman Empire that holds her people in its rule – without inter-marriage.  Jesus offered this women the deep joy and hope of identity and worth as being truly human and this grace and love broke open hostility and exclusiveness and embraced a connected, inclusive life grounded in a deep experience and connection in God.

The woman embraced the offer and in a transformative moment she transcended her bounded exclusive life held by traditions and hostilities and opened to life in all of its fullness and wonder.  She rushed into her village to share this news of love and freedom, inviting a gracious and eager response to hear for themselves from this One of God who brings life, peace and worth to each person, drawing all into a deep sense of human community that is held in the heart of Divine love.  This is the hope we yearn for and need!

By geoffstevenson

Led Astray By Seductive Temptations…

Many years ago, when I was a young teenager with 2 younger brothers, our extended family on mum’s side gathered for a celebration (Christmas I think?) lunch at the local Revesby Workers Club.  It was a buffet lunch, which to the eyes and ears of growing teenage boys is paradise!!  All you can eat and the only rule we had was: ‘If you put it on your plate you have to eat it!’  No worries, we thought.

The array of food was mindboggling to us hungry gluttons.  Our eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when we saw the selection available.  There were soups and the like as starters (I think we sacrificed these to get stuck into the real food), salads and cold meats, a large array of hot food and a whole section of desserts!  Our eyes lit up, our stomachs rumbled, and salivary glands worked overtime – we were ready!

It is amazing how the plates filled up as we sampled a bit of this and some of that a little of that over there.  We rationalised things believing the plates were small and dug in.  In no time at all the plates were cleaned and we were off for the second course, just as exciting and diverse in options.  We returned with brimming plates, ready to dig in and clear these up, which we did.  Finally, we were ready for dessert and the options were sumptuous – things we’d never seen but wow, they looked, and tasted, good!  We devoured these culinary delights in rapid time, not allowing our bodies to actually register how much we’d eaten – there was no time for warnings that we were already full.  The soft drinks that came through the meal further filled the last spaces within our alimentary canal.  By the time we were ready to leave we began to feel uncomfortable.  Walking was okay – but not too fast.  By the time we got home we realised that we were uncomfortably stuffed and could only sit around all afternoon regretting, somewhat, our gluttonous feasting.

Such an array of delicious foods was one of the ultimate temptations to growing, hungry boys who were often governed by their stomachs, hunger and food.  The seduction of the presentation lured us in.  We saw and thought we needed to have as much of this as possible.  The more we tasted, the more we wanted, and it felt good, really good – for a time.  Then it didn’t and we felt regret for overeating.  Of course, memory sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t.  Did I learn from this experience?  Perhaps a little but I have often over-eaten, being seduced by the food on offer, choosing more than I need.  My eyes are too big for my belly, sometimes.  There are usually regrets – especially if it involves eating in the evening and then trying to sleep with a full stomach!

This is the nature of temptation.  We are seduced into thinking, believing, we need something, or more of that something and that it will make us happy and fill our lives with joy and contentment.  Usually there is a period of happiness, good feelings and a positive response to the thing that tempts us.  There is a time when it feels good and right – and then that fades.  I have bought many things and like most of us have lots of ‘stuff’ that is lining cupboards, stored in rooms, sheds…  I have many books – probably too many to read in one lifetime – and my computer has many files and documents, photos, music… stored.  What will I do with all of this stuff?  We have lots of CD’s and DVD’s and occasionally listen to or watch one of them.  I am bombarded with slick advertising wherever I turn (except for the blessed ABC!), all aimed at seducing me in a moment of yearning, need or weakness to believe I desperately need a new computer, TV, holiday, car, jewellery, vitamins, course of education, wine, meat, vegetables, vitamins, camping gear, clothes, house…  On and on the list goes.  Most of  this advertising goes into the bin or disappears into the ether but sometimes the slick presentation and the seductive promise captures my imagination and I find myself being drawn in.  I begin to believe that this promise will make my life complete, fill the gap, make me feel alive, rich, good, successful or whatever it is I feel I need in that moment.  Of course, that is the object of advertising – to create a need in my life and offer the solution.

Temptations come in many forms and through many processes.  At heart it seems that temptations are about filling a hole in my life that is there.  Sometimes that hole becomes obvious through grief and loss or fear or failure, or just being overwhelmed. I want to escape, feel better or have the ache filled in and made better.  Temptations come along: ‘If you do this or that; if you buy this or that; if you have this or that experience; if you give yourself to this or that ideology…  you will feel better and life will be good’.  That’s how addictions start – try this and you will feel better and you find yourself needing more and more and more and you’re deeper in to the abyss of pain and regret along a bad path.

There is, according to Blaise Pascal, a hole in the middle of our being that is ‘God-shaped’.  That hole sometimes looks ‘computer-shaped’ or ‘new car-shaped’ or shaped like a bottle of wine or holiday or a new house or the perfect partner or a heroin injection… We fill the hole with stuff but it never works and the hole remains because our deepest yearning is not for more power, more glamour, more wealth and the stuff we can buy.  The deep yearning of the human heart is for the deep presence of Divine love in which we can find our rest and our peace.

In this week’s reading, as we begin the journey of Lenten reflection in preparation for Easter, we read of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11 – the Old Testament reading is also about temptation and Adam and Eve in the garden from Genesis 2 and 3).  Jesus is taken into the wilderness where he fasts and prays.  There the Tempter seeks to lure him into an alternative path and way of being that trusts in his own power, strength and to create his own future.  Turn stones into bread because you are hungry (its also relevant and will feed people!).  Throw yourself from the highest point of the Temple and have God save you (it is also spectacular and surely people will believe in you!).  He is shown all the kingdoms of the world and tempted to make a claim for power over them by submitting to the Tempter and bowing before this one.  In all of this Jesus has his identity questioned: ‘If you are the Son of God…’  If you really are this, then demonstrate it.  Stand up outside God’s shadow and prove yourself.  Jesus does not submit to the temptations but finds his identity and being in God’s love and grace.  Food, spectacular acts, power… are not what he needs or wants.  They are not who he is and in God’s grace he recognises that he is whole and complete in ways nothing else can provide.

When I recognise the temptations that come my way, I can see that there are many things I have sought or pursued but don’t need.  They are nice and maybe fun but will not ease the restlessness in my soul.  St Augustine suggested that we will be restless until we rest in God and that is a truth I hear in the story of Jesus and discover for myself when I learn to trust in God.  If I find my peace and rest in God, everything else will find its place.

By geoffstevenson

Respite on the Long, Winding Road of Life

Last Sunday at our monthly ‘Jazz on Hammers’, a gathering where there’s some light jazz, food and conversation, I offered a brief reflection after we (band) played ‘The Long and Winding Road’.  This song was written by Paul McCartney at his Scottish home and was one of the last hits from The Beatles.  He says it isn’t a song about any particular person or place but a song that captured the sadness in his being as he reflected on the break-up of this iconic band, as they fell apart.  It speaks of a long road that winds ‘to your door’.  I reflected on this road as the journey we all take, the journey of life and being in this world.  We wander, journey, travel and make our way.  The road twists and turns, sometimes through harsh and difficult terrain and sometimes through places of wonder, joy and peace.  There are many side paths, tracks and appealing ways that lead us somewhere else, into other places of life.  On some of these we find ourselves lost and alone.  Other paths look and feel good – at least for a time.  We discover that they don’t lead anywhere – well nowhere we really want to go.  We inevitably have to wind our way back to the ‘long and winding road,’ to follow to where it leads.

On this journey, this long and winding road, there are strong and windy nights that batter us and tire us in our being.  We feel life crowding in, suffocating us with expectation, demand and emotional overload.  We feel the weariness in our being.  We feel tiredness in our bodies as we tire from the journey and the physical toll exerted on us.  We long for refreshment, renewal and hope.  We long for respite and peace along the way.

I remember climbing a hill.  It was reasonably high and had a path and stairs to the summit.  The path began gently, a slight sloping path that was easy to walk.  It quickly changed and became quite steep and the way was harder.  The stress and strain and my legs began to burn; the humidity began to sap energy and I was thirsty.  Up ahead was I noticed a seat, a stop along the way and made my way to it.  I didn’t sit but stopped, looked around and noticed the beauty of the scene before me, one that was harder to appreciate when pushing along and watching the path.  I took a drink and breathed in for a few minutes.  I was filled with wonder as I looked out across the bay and realised I was only half way – what would the view from the summit be like???  The respite, the renewal, the breath and drink, the view and reminder of the journey I was on and where I hoped it might lead were enough to enable me to continue the journey.  My legs began to ache again and the humidity was overwhelming but there was a vision, a hope about where I was going and the rest and respite had been enough to reinvigorate me in the journey.  The summit was more than I expected.  On the way up, I only saw out in one direction, a widish vista but nothing like the 360-degree view from the top – stunning!!

At various points along the way of life, I need to stop, to breathe, to drink in the ‘water of life’ that refreshes my whole being – body, mind and spirit.  I need to be reminded of who I am and what this life of being human is about.  I need a renewed vision and hope for the journey because I am tired, lost, overwhelmed, distracted or running in circles.  Sometimes life becomes the treadmill I find myself on – the faster I walk or run, the faster the treadmill goes and I only wear myself out, whilst finding myself in the same place.

I need to remember where the long and winding road is heading; what might the ‘doorway’ where it leads represent?  What is the place, the experience, the destination of life really about?  Where do I really expect my journey through this life to end up?  What are my hopes and dreams, my deepest yearning for myself, those around me, this world?  What are the possibilities?  Is my vision, my belief or faith or hope, big enough, broad enough, generous enough?

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, we read a story that is in the middle (Matthew 17:1-9).  It comes at a time when there is weariness in the being of Jesus – teaching, healing, confronting the powers of his world and their opposition, lifting up the weak and helpless, the powerless and oppressed.  The more he goes forward, the more there is to do.  The crowds gather in and surround him, make demands of him and expect much more of him.  He teaches and preaches, nurtures and guides but do people get it?  Is he making headway?  Is it all working and where to next?  Up ahead in the unknown future there is the inevitable clash between the Reign of God with its justice and inclusive love, over and against the powers of the world, religious and political leaders who felt threatened and were readying for the final confrontation.  Jesus was in the middle and would be hung on a cross – was that the ‘door’ that his long and winding road led to?  How does one journey forward facing that inevitable painful conclusion?  How does one engage in living with the knowledge that death is staring you in the face?

Matthew (in line with Mark and Luke) tell a story that is puzzling and confusing.  It seems other-worldly and strange.  Jesus took three disciples (Peter, James and John) up a mountain and there he was ‘transfigured,’ metamorphosed and glowed white.  In what Matthew calls a vision, he was joined by Moses (the great Jewish deliverer and lawgiver) and Elijah (a great Jewish prophet).  They talked.    Peter eventually asks if he should build shelters for everyone for the night – Peter wants to contain and hold onto this experience.  Whilst he was speaking a cloud enveloped them and a voice declared: ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him!’

Peter, James and John were mystified, afraid and confused.  They fell on their knees, overwhelmed by the holiness and presence of God in this place.  The vision ceased and Jesus touched them, inviting them to stand.  They were going back down the hill.

As we read this strange story, do we recognise how the vision and experience of this holiness was both terrifying and renewing?  I can only imagine that at this point on Jesus’ journey there was a sense of renewal, affirmation and energising – ‘you are my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased…’  This is a vision of resurrection and points beyond the pain and struggle of the winding road ahead to the door into the reality beyond.  Resurrection is transformation and speaks into something new that emanates from beyond the physical, material world.  It is more than resuscitation or lingering as spirit but a new creation beyond time and space in the mind-boggling realm of the eternal.

This is a sustaining vision for Jesus and the disciples that is bigger than their confused or weary expectations can imagine.  It is affirmation that God is in this and that the Love at the centre of all things holds them in radical grace and life.  Whatever happens on the journey, there is a destination that is open, inviting, loving, inclusive, gracious, hopeful and joy-filled! This place is the heart of God, that holds everything in an eternal presence that breaks into our lives in simple and profound wonder and invites us onwards in grace.

By geoffstevenson