On neighbours

This week threw up complex choices about where to be and who to be with complicated by Covid hotspot definitions and various responsibilities.

Interestingly, I was (and still am) to speak on the story of the Good Samaritan in our church this Sunday, something I postponed at one point, thinking I would be elsewhere.

With its message of loving your neighbour, Jesus’ ancient parable was a fitting backdrop for a week of trying to understand what that might look like among some competing relational priorities.

There was an opportunity to be in Canberra enjoying family for a special occasion. Seems like an obvious choice, something we longed to do.

But there are other family members in an area of Sydney still classed as a hotspot, who are vulnerable and value our support. To visit them pretty much ruled out visiting Canberra.

Who is my neighbour in this case? They all are of course in the sense of extending love and respect. But it highlights why the teacher of the law asked Jesus, ‘But who is my neighbour?’ because we are finite, and the opportunity to love and be neighbourly is without end.

Now family is a special case, our primary responsibility is to our families, and of course they are the keepers of our fondest affections. But even here are difficult choices and a need for patience and poise.

All of this to say that the point of Jesus’ parable was not so much to answer the teacher of the law’s question, but a different one:

‘Who are you?’

The neighbour in Jesus’ story was not so much the man beaten and robbed, but the man of a despised racial group who showed practical mercy and compassion as it was needed,

In telling this parable, Jesus is saying to the teacher of the law, to all of us: when you have room in your heart for compassion and mercy for others that moves you to cross the road and help another, then you will know who your neighbour is. Until then, its a pointless theoretical debate.

He finishes the discussion after the parable by saying, go and do this constantly. Go and let compassion and mercy and a love for God, others and yourself be the hallmark of your life.

So we visited our Sydney relatives, cooked them dinner, served up watermelon for dessert, did some Christmas decorating, got things down from high cupboards and put other things away. We brought some encouragement in what has been a long and challenging year, especially for the elderly.

And we face-timed our Canberra relatives who are celebrating this weekend and they were gracious and generous in response.

And then this morning I decided to write this all down, as a precursor to sharing here my modern day telling of the conversation of Jesus with the teacher of the law and the famous parable that resulted. (If you want to hear more, join us on Sunday.)

Jesus meets the celebrity psychologist at Costco

A celebrity psychologist sees Jesus at Costco in Sydney’s southwest.

‘Man, how strange seeing you here! I’m just doing some pandemic research for a spot on Nine tonight. You know the toilet paper crazies and everything?’

‘Oh yeah, no worries. I’m here with Pete, he’s picking up some toilet paper for the crew,’ Jesus replied.

‘Ok. Well… Hey we should get a selfie together, it will go off on social, great for our profiles! You could say you are, I don’t know, maybe, mixing with the real people?’

‘Yeah, nah.’

‘Fair enough… although I might sneak one.’

He ducks in beside Jesus, produces a perfect smile, and presses silently on his phone.

‘By the way, I’ve been very keen to ask you what you think it is in your religion that can help people live a peaceful, inclusive and compassionate life?’

Two women barge between Jesus and the psychologist, gripping a large pack of toilet paper. One of them treads on the psychologist’s foot.

‘Seriously ladies, what are you thinking!’ the psychologist exclaims.

Turning to Jesus, he whispers: ‘I hate coming to these places…’

Peter arrives with a pack of 96 rolls of toilet paper. Jesus takes it off Peter and hands it to the woman who lost the toilet paper fight. She grabs it in a bear hug, and walks off, but stops, looks over her shoulder, and mouths ‘thank you’.

Peter stands staring in disbelief, shakes his head, and trudges back to the toilet paper aisle.

Jesus returns to his conversation with the psychologist.

‘You were asking about a good life, so, what have you read?’

With a slight puff of the chest and a glance around the small group of straggling shoppers now beginning to gather, the psychologist clears his throat before speaking in a more baritone voice.

‘I understand your Scriptures say that to live a good life you should love God with everything you have and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.’

‘That’s well said,’ replies Jesus, and the psychologist seems to stand a little taller.

‘Now go and do this every day and all the time, wherever you are really.’

The psychologist seems to shrink a little. He looks around at the multicultural crowd and, crinkling his nose, edges a few inches away from a small dark man holding a very large salami.

‘Oh sure’, says the psychologist, running his finger inside his designer shirt collar, and taking another step away from the salami.

‘But, well, the idea of neighbour is a complex social construct and not at all easy to tease out. I’m not even sure I could define who my neighbour is.

‘I mean, people like me know many people and are recognised most places we go. We would need some boundaries around the idea of “neighbour”.’

Jesus considers the women queuing with their large packs of toilet paper, still glaring at each other. He looks around the massive warehouse store with every consumer item on display. The people grazing up the aisles with their trolleys like lost sheep.

‘Mmm, I didn’t realise your neighbour was an ‘idea’…. In any case, I don’t think the issue is, ‘who is your neighbour?’ That’s pretty obvious really.’

The psychologist leans in, a frown on his botoxed forehead, the smart phone spinning in his fingers.

Peter returns with another large pack of toilet paper. Jesus takes it off Peter and gives it to the psychologist.

‘No, I think what would help most people live a good life is to consider who they are. Are they a neighbour? Do they have room to love a neighbour, any neighbour, in their heart, or just room to love themselves?’

Jesus takes the toilet paper off the psychologist and offers it to the small dark man with the very large salami.

He grins widely, with a few missing teeth, and offers Jesus the giant salami in exchange. Jesus, who is quite dark himself, takes the salami with a smile and a nod of thanks. They both turn and join the queue.

‘Friends, why not go and do this continually, then you will have a good and godly life,’ Jesus says to the group around him, the small dark man and the psychologist.

The psychologist ducks his head and walks quickly towards the exit.

The small dark man pats Jesus on the back and smiles even more widely, nodding his head.

Peter rolls his eyes and walks off towards the toilet paper aisle.

Where the light shines through

Jesus, resurrection, wounds, light shines through

There’s a wounded person in heaven which means all wounded people may find their way there which is all of us.

After Jesus rose from the dead on what we now celebrate as Easter Sunday, it wasn’t long before he was showing the doubtful ones, which is all of us sometimes, the scars in his body so they would know that even in death there is life, even in brokenness there is victory.

I may not stand with Thomas and see the nail and spear scars with my own eyes, but the story rings resoundingly true, and as I’ve put my trust there, my own wounds have found meaning, healing and reconciliation.

The greater story – of God become human to bring all humans to God – makes sense of an otherwise senseless world. If God was just good but distant then what in the world is going on? But if God is close and wounded like us, for us, with us, then there is no quick fix but an everlasting answer.

Even in these dark coronavirus days we find light shining through the fresh wounds and thickening scars of a suffering world. Prayer where there was no prayer, gratitude where there was only blame, unity where there was only division, care where there was carelessness, time where there was only rush.

And for the sick and dying, we cannot look and find any worldly light other than courage and dignity and sorrow, but his scars let light in nevertheless.

This is not an attempt to find meaning in the meaningless. This is finding that light has been shining through a wounded people and planet always and at the fullness of time focused like a searchlight on one person’s perfect, divine expression of this.

As you take up his wounds, his life, his light, they become your own; his journey becomes your journey, and you know where he is today….

A people yet unborn

Good-Friday, Jesus crucified, Pslam 22

On this day, Jesus was dying because of:

  • the brutality of an invader’s military rule
  • the cruelty of desensitised soldiers
  • spiritual pride of religious leaders
  • political expediency of grasping elite
  • fickle, insidious baying of the mob
  • shame-filled betrayal of a follower
  • grievous denial and abandonment of friends
  • the sin of every single one of us
  • a rescue mission from the beginning of time.

He cries out in the common tongue of his day, the first verse of Psalm 22:

My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

To me, today, it is not a cry of despair but of defiance. Having begun the Psalm, his well trained mind would have followed on through verses of violence, treachery and sorrow to finally arrive in praise, triumph and completion.

The Psalm ends, as does the suffering of Jesus, with this remarkable promise:

They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!

This is Good Friday.

The forsaken knows to his last crucified breath that he will save generations.

And not even time can hold him, certainly not death.

 

 

 

Sydney cityscape in 2000

Poem, poetry, Sydney, Year 2000, millennium, Olympics

I found this scrawl of a poem in the front of a year 2000 diary, which, yes, I still have.

I was only two years into Sydney’s public transport at the time. I’m slightly more accomplished 19 years on, but only slightly.

Perhaps the most interesting verses were written in the picturesque margin and I could only decipher these with the aid of a magnifying glass… 19 years on. Here’s the poem:

Timetable requires scientific calculator
Bus requires x-ray eyes
Legs need reminding
Ticket needs exact change
After an inexact queue.

(Asian man smokes
An old white man says
‘Send him back to Asia’
Unrepentant smoker says
‘So where do you come from?

Asian girls look at me to see
if there is conspiracy
in my eyes. I faintly smile,
silently confessing my mind
was on the ticket machine.)

The moment of arrival
Is greeted by the Holy word
But to catch the train requires
100 in 9.8
To be expected in Sydney 2000.

Our wait requires
Dirty looks and muttering
The test of course is to remember
Life in other places
And to take your seat, thankfully.

The mysterious direction of first love

There’s a part of me I almost always hold back. Not consciously but by default.

It’s the bit that says absolute conviction, no holds barred, be a true believer.

Cause that bit of me is already given and you can’t give it again.

I’ll be on the outer when it comes to humanity’s great plans, and I know I’m not the only one.

But I will follow the mysterious direction of first love, even if it seem like the wind in the trees.

And if that calls for greatness or lowliness or never ending service I will die in my attempt to give it, but only because my eyes are on something over the horizon.

I’m not yours, I’m not even mine.

Live in the moment and forever

Some things are intended to be fleeting, to finish, to fade away. Others are forever, eternal, of enduring value.

Too often we confuse the two. We grip a New Year’s Eve sparkler and hope it will light the year ahead. 

We invest our emotional security in passing things, such as possessions or fame or wealth, holding them too tight, and then struggle with a persistent sense of despair.

Or we commodify the deep things of life, such as relationships, beauty or belief, discarding them too easily, and then find ourselves living in a murky shallow pool of want.

Many modern societal structures (including some that should know better) push us to view the world this way because it is good for business. 

Often people are lost in this reversal but others have quietly realigned their thinking, perhaps when confronted with suffering or loss, and learn again how to live in the moment and forever.

New Year's Eve, sparklers, fireworks,

A city’s bright, sparkling eye blinks on New Year’s Eve

​In countless nooks and crannies around Sydney, locals come out onto the streets for a glimpse of Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks. To see the Sydney Harbour Bridge while just wandering around the corner in bare feet brings a kind of suburbly pride that mixes with warm humid midnight air, mobile phone photography and a temporary congregation of neighbours. Some carrying glasses of champagne, many with their kids and we with our step-ladder and a milk crate to see over the crowd – a trick learned from the Parisians at a Bastille Day parade we once stumbled upon.We are joined this Sydney night by our little grand daughter whose passion for life never ceases to amaze but who nevertheless nearly falls asleep as Sydney’s one great eye sparkles, eyebrow raised, blinks several times, then calls it a night.

Sydney New Year's Eve fireworks 2016, Lilyfield

Oh and love yourself

‘I love you and you and you and you and me and you and you and me and you and you!’

Pointing at four of my grandchildren in turn and occasionally at myself for comic relief – it was a fun game with a happy message.

‘Funny Pa Pa, you love yourself?!’ said the oldest who at nearly 4 has a remarkable grasp on the subtleties of life.

‘It’s good to love yourself,’ I said, ‘Because God has made us amazing and loving ourselves helps us to love others.’

The moment moved on quickly but it stuck in my mind which means it stuck in her eminently more absorbant mind.

Loving self is the third of three loves forming part of Jesus’ Great Commandment. It is as hard to get right as the other two and in fact all three are contingent on the reason for it all – God so loves us.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30‭-‬31 NIV

Two hand-made cards and nearly a parking ticket

I pulled up on Norton St near the Palace Cinemas on my way home from an early Saturday morning appointment.
Two skim whites from Berkelouw were in my sights and as I took my free half-hour parking ticket and placed it on the dash, I noticed the little, older man who is often seen around Leichhardt selling hand-made cards.

He was wearing an unzipped tracksuit top over a t-shirt and below were a pair of long, shiny soccer shorts that were at least three sizes two big. Some thongs over socks completed his attire along with a bag slung over one shoulder.
It was a cold morning, he was under-dressed and I decided I would buy the inevitably proferred card. As I walked down Norton he noticed me, and began his distinctive card selling routine. He reached deep into his bag and pulled out the small paper card. His arm then snapped out to full length with the card facing him and he stared at it intently. Satisfied with what he saw he then extended his arm in my direction with the face of the card towards me, and waited.

As I drew closer, I stuck my hand in my jean pocket and pulled out a dollar coin, said hello, smiled, exchanged the coin for the card, wished him a good day and headed towards the cafe. He didn’t speak or smile. Everyone else I saw on the street walked past.

In the more comfortable world of the cafe, with the smell of Campos and the buzz of conversation, the chasm between our worlds opened up and I felt guilty for my one dollar.

Walking back, the thought crossed my mind that I could stay on the opposite side of the road and cross closer to the car, avoiding the card man. There was a slight yearning for this within me, I didn’t really want to bother with the card man’s need. Although it was morning at the start of the weekend I was deeply tired.

But I owe too much to Someone else to give in so easily so I headed back towards the man and he went through his card presentation routine.

As I juggled the coffees and pulled out my wallet, I reminded myself I was doing no great thing, that the man had brought his hand-made cards to stand for hours in the cold to be ignored by most people to earn a few coins. This was were the courage and commitment lay.

‘I’ll have one thanks,’ I said. There was no sign of recognition of the previous purchase. 

‘I’m Peter, what’s your name?’ There was a harsh throaty reply but I couldn’t make it out.

‘Sorry?’

The same reply and I was none the wiser. I looked at the card, it had on it just the word ‘love’.

I fiddled in my wallet, saw a ten – still that persistent reluctance – but grabbed the twenty.

As I gave it to the man he looked at me, and then looked at the note for several seconds. He looked at me again as if to confirm I was sure, and then in one motion the note was flicked out of view as he turned and walked quickly down the street, presumably happy now with his morning’s work.

As I walked towards the car I reminded myself that I didn’t pay the money to have the man fawn over me or so I could look good. Any act of kindness or generosity must be enough for its own sake.

Nearing the car, I saw a flouro-vested, female parking inspector standing near the bonnet.

‘Hello, is everything okay?’

She looked at me with an expression of fear and astonishment. I realised she was about to book me, and confused, I opened the car door, still balancing the treasured coffees, to show her the ticket I had placed under the windscreen.

It was then I realised I had placed it upside down, distracted at the time by watching the card man. These could become very expensive cards, I thought.

I held the ticket towards the parking inspector, in a proferring routine reminiscent of the card man’s.

‘Sorry I didn’t realise it was upside down!’

‘Well I can’t read it if I can’t see it can I love,’ she said, finding her voice after realising I wasn’t going to yell at her.

She studied it intently and gave me a small nod and seemed to clear an entry in her little hand-held machine.

‘Thank you’ I said realising how close I’d come to a fine. I wondered how quickly my feelings of mercy and resolve to do good would have evaporated when faced with a parking ticket.

I laughed at myself, sipped my coffee and reflected on who had been kind to who and the apparent randomness of life which is less random than we may think.

The Presence of God

After community breakfast yesterday I visited the home of a friend, clambered over belongings 60cm deep and took in his joy at his painting on the wall.

The Presence of GodEarlier he had arrived late for breakfast but we unpacked again so we could chat while he munched on a large bowl of cereal.

We prayed for his parents and he told me that Mary backwards stands for both

You’re Really A Mess
You Really Are Magical

because life isn’t static but we are always coming out of tough times, recovering; or doing better, enjoying life.

I said it reminded me that we are made in the image of God (magical) but fallen and broken and frail (mess) and that Jesus gave his life to forgive and heal our mess and to restore and discover our magical.

My friend thought this was a reasonable interpretation of Mary backwards.

And I still count it a privilege after all these years to be asked for the simple act of brotherhood of a shared meal and to be given the honour of a private artistic viewing and to discuss the profound meaning of words backward.

I know we in the church (and more broadly) argue a lot about the presence/reality/felt existence of God and some say we only need our faith in the Scriptures and others that we find him as we sing or pray and maybe others think that a pilgrimage is required and perhaps all are correct together.

But I remember Jesus said what you do for the least of these you do for me as if he would be intentionally present to renew and reassure us and that’s what I felt after just a few hours sleep, an hour of setup, serving 40 breakfasts including one home delivery, two after we closed, praying with troubled souls and discussing backward anagrams.

Not tired. Renewed, reassured.

And I know whose presence I was experiencing, right where He said He would be all along.

Likewise the day before nursing a baby in the cool of the night waiting for him to settle into sleep. Likewise the next evening being alongside a daughter and her aged  mother as they negotiated the challenges of daily life and shared grief with nobility and tears and laughter.

The presence of God is everywhere when we forget to look at ourself. Life is not one long selfie.

And just as well… I take a terrible selfie…

Excuses, forgiveness and salt on my tongue

CS Lewis writes of our generous ability to find excuses for our own bad behaviour but our stubborn inability to accept those excuses in another.

(Presupposing you accept the existence  of something so old fashioned as the idea of bad behaviour…)

He continues that even if there is reasonable excuse for a harmful or hurtful action or attitude, even if 99 per cent of the situation might be excused, it is the forgiving of what remains that counts.

If we only seek to excuse what we or another has done wrong (another old-fashioned idea) then nothing changes in us or them. But we become better at excuses – and entire industries are spawned.

God is willing to forgive the inexcusable in us which is why he makes this conditional on us forgiving the inexcusable in others. Even the niggling one per cent. Even after ’70 times 7′ occasions.

I find reading of these ideas helps build an accountability in my spirit which I need to rise even slightly above the dust of a groaning creation.

The moving of the Spirit on chaos, a cool breeze on an anguished face, salt on my wayward tongue.

 

 

Ties that bind us in Gillard-gloating-blue to smoke-on-the-water purple

Tony Abbott wore a blue tie everyday of his Prime Ministership, bar one.

And was criticised for being partisan, or was that Parisian, or worse still, that he wore only gloating-at-Gillard blue.

Clearly he could have worn more inclusive tie colours (as the leader of a nation that by and large avoids ties like the plague).

An occasional Rudd-red for the Labor constituents, glamping green for the, well, Green citizens. Some mottled-dinosaur prints would have calmed down the Clive Palmer voters and perhaps no tie at all for the sex-party supporters.

But on the day of his Prime Ministerial demise it was noted he wore deep purple.

The traditional colour of faith and mourning; perhaps of Herod’s robe.

And certainly of smoke on the water.

Turnbull and Shorten, we are watching your ties, don’t let us down.

Don’t lose heart

Don’t lose heart and don’t lose vision! Run your race with perseverance and keep your eyes on the most important things, that are already yours, that money can’t buy:

Serving God, strengthening your family, building character, being honourable and generous, finding wisdom, rejecting despair and self-pity, enjoying the little things of life, working hard, always learning, always growing but not comparing or envying.

Everything flows from decision, so whatever course you choose (that builds for the future) rest in it, pray, make room for God, stick to your plans, be alert and one day you will look back, like we do now, and see God is faithful to provide all our needs.

Only remember the poor, value people, forgive and make peace, trust in Jesus.

The deepest parts

Baby_in_womb

Consider how much human energy is expended in discovering what’s inside us.

Entire industries, advancing technologies and schools of learning exist to help us peer into our physical beings.

A billion words have been written in developing insight of our emotional and psychological beings.

If our skin and organs were transparent and our thoughts and feelings were unflinchingly displayed in speech bubbles above our head, many people would be out of a job and the world far less mysterious.

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Spiritual is more than meets the eye: fine moments from a free breakfast #3

image

A young professional joined in our breakfast and told of some recent spiritual seeking.

Eve: ‘I spent the week at a temple learning some Buddhist meditation.’

Me: ‘Are you Buddhist?’

Eve: ‘No!’ She seems incredulous I would draw that conclusion.

Eve: ‘As someone has said, being spiritual is a good start.’ I busily serve food and try to understand this comment, wondering if it’s a polite put down for people who have faith but don’t act.

Me: ‘So what about this, what we are doing here. Is it spiritual?’ It’s her turn to look incredulous.

Me: ‘Yes. It’s spiritual, because there is more happening here than meets the eye.’ And I think of the exchanges of hope and grace that have occurred all morning.

Eve: After reflecting for a while. ‘I think what happens here is communion.’ I’m stunned by this insight.

Me: ‘You are right. The Last Supper was communion, where this began, the coming together of people, of speaking of important things, of a price paid for others. You should read an account from the gospels.’ It’s an incomplete description but a snatched beginning.

Eve: ‘I will. I’ll think about this all week.’

* Our month of breakfasts has finished but we’ll be at a community festival in Camperdown on September 21 as we consider our next step and keep looking for God’s open door.

* Names and details changed in this story to protect privacy. The people involved in the conversation are not in the photo.

Atmosphere brings distortion but also life

image, SDO, lunar transit  NASA

‘Images of the eclipse show a crisp lunar horizon, because the moon has no atmosphere that would distort light.’

Atmosphere brings distortion but it also brings life. The moon may pose beautifully for photos but you wouldn’t want to live there.

So often the very things that bring potential for distortion or confusion or chaos or loss also carry along the things we value most, even life itself.

Passionate faith may lead to a life of unparralled service or unmitigated violence.

The ocean meeting land offers the pleasure of being carried along in majesty but sometimes being crushed and killed.

Love soars in our hearts and makes us feel invincible but can leave us stripped bare and dangerously vulnerable.

We can live to avoid all these paradoxes and be free of distortion – like a crisp lunar landscape black against a raging sun. Many seek to live this way and risk the greatest distortion of all.

Or we can dare a life of atmosphere and its light distorting quality and find strength and insight from a greater light that gives courage and truth enough to live and love well.

Perhaps when we look at one another and our atmosphere-cloaked world we should set aside sharp dividing lines and take greater pleasure in the wildness of us all.

Image Credit: NASA/SDO – the photo was taken by NASA’S Solar Dynamics Observatory on July 26, 2014.

More details here.

Postscript: I am particularly mindful of many people of all persuasions seeking to draw and redraw crisp, clear lines on our planet in places like Ukraine or Gaza or Syria or Iraq or many troubled places in Africa and perhaps even the oceans around Australia. (And I’m a fool if I don’t think I do it too.) Places where lines have never succeeded but the blurriness of atmosphere has allowed communities to coexist in risky but lovely peace. Set down your lunar linemarkers l pray… and breath.

More than a label

image

I was walking in the sunshine at University of Sydney with my little grand daughter who needed a short break from church in the old Geology building.

We came across a tree (pictured) with beautiful patterned bark, soft and flakey, and gentle spindly branches that were almost silhouetted against the blue sky.

I laid my hand against the trunk and felt its warmth and encouraged Maddison to do likewise. She reached across and rested the palm of her hand on the tree.

I stepped back to photograph the tree which had won my heart and as we began to move on I noticed a tag or label nailed to it.

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