At 7am, on Thursday, the Bin Raiders came together in the lounge room of their Redfern flat for their regular morning meeting, as they did at the start of each weekday. Of ficially, they had two and a half hours of routine before breakfast at 9:30. But those who found the wait for breakfast too unbearable would get up at 6:30 and fix themselves cof fee and toast before the meeting.
"Did anyone get something from God overnight?" asked Dave, who was back in his usual position, straddling the kitchen chair. He wore the same clothes that he had worn the night before. Dave Hartley and his wife Cherry, were the founders of this little group of bin raiders. Over the years they had become aware of other groups forming along similar lines. Although each group was committed to things like faith, love, and honesty, the people in them were disenchanted generally with religious orthodoxy. They believed that something deeper was needed, and it would not be found by putting a new coat of paint on the old institutions.
"I had a dream," Juan said quietly. His brow was wrinkled in what appeared to be exaggerated seriousness. However, for Juan, such seriousness was rarely an exaggeration. Serious was his middle name.
"I was riding on a tram. I was the only one on it, apart from two small children. One was at the front and the other was at the rear. They both seemed to be in trouble at the same time. They had been climbing up on the seats and were leaning out of what looked like open windows." As Juan told the story, he became more intense, like he was re-living the dream. "One was in danger of falling out at the back, and one was in danger of falling out at the front. My mind told me that the one in front was in the most danger, because he would not only fall out, but the tram would run over him. But I had a feeling that the child at the rear needed my help even more, so I ran to save him. As I did, the child at the front fell out. I jumped of f the tram, but it was too late. It had already run over the other child.
"Then I looked down to see…" and Juan paused for just a moment to steady his voice. "I looked down to see that it was Sean. I woke up in a sweat. I just lay there crying to myself for a while, as though Sean really had been killed. It was a long time before I could get back to sleep." Juan's eyes were open, but for a few moments his mind was somewhere else. "Maybe the tram had something to do with Bondi Beach," suggested Anna. Anna had more faith in dreams than any other member of the community. "There used to be a tram to Bondi years ago." "Could it be a warning against us hitting Bondi with graf fiti?" asked Diane, who looked nervously down the hall to where Sean was still sleeping.
"I didn't think it was a warning," said Juan. "I just had a feeling that I had to make a hard decision. I knew that I did the right thing by trying to save the other child, even though Sean died."
"I had something last night, before I went to sleep," said Dave. "It didn't mean much at the time, but maybe it relates to this. It was a picture of a road sign, pointing in two dif ferent directions. I couldn't make out what cities it was pointing to, but it goes along with the idea of having to choose between two dif ferent options. Juan's dream was essentially the same. There must be some sort of an important decision coming up. I hope it won't mean losing Sean." What Dave had been doing before falling to sleep was "listening". Members of the group regularly practised making their minds blank and waiting for words or a picture to pop in without conscious ef fort on their part. They regarded what they received at times like this as messages from God. "Life is full of choices," said Juan philosophically. "If God wants Sean, he can have him. What use is there in trying to hang onto him?" Diane showed no surprise. Juan was a fatalist and would often say such apparently cold-hearted things. He wasn't really cold-hearted, but he was resigned to the hard choices that had tio be made in life. It wasn't as easy for Diane to be so pragmatic.
"For now, let's just do what we can to make the right choices today," said Dave, as he rounded things of f before turning the group's attention to the morning study. The "studies" were a stack of writings, mostly by Dave, which were contained in a loose leaf notebook. Some days Dave would speak of f the top of his head, or read out a new study that he had just written. On other days, the group would re-read one of the old ones. Dave would occasionally do something dif ferent to keep their attention. Today he walked to the kitchen and picked up a butcher knife and a sharpening stone. He returned to his chair and started sharpening it while the others sat quietly and waited. When the suspense had built up suf ficiently, Dave asked them to turn to study number 54. It was one called "Cut Of f Your hand!" The group took it in turns, reading one paragraph each. Dave stopped sharpening and held the knife in one hand as he read the first paragraph:
"One of the most bizarre commands of Jesus is where he tells us to pluck out our eye or cut of f our hand if they should cause us to sin. He says it is better to enter heaven blind and lame than to have a healthy body and be cast into hell."
Greg read next. He wasn't as good a reader as the others, but they had their copies of the studies in front of them to check against if he missed a word. "This passage is often quoted as proof that Jesus never meaned… I mean never meant for us to take him literally." He paused in confusion, until Anna whispered the next word. "Certainly," he said confidently when he had the cue, "Certainly we've never plucked out an eye or cut of f a hand ourselves. And we know of no saint who ever did. We do know of a few mental patients who have, however."
Greg smiled, and then nodded for Anna to take over. Anna held her pencil in her hand, as she often did during studies. She would underline passages or write other notes in her book, so that they would become permanent reminders of what she had learned that day. Anna read her short paragraph slowly and soberly, pronouncing each word very clearly. "So maybe Jesus didn't mean for his instructions to be taken literally. And if he didn't mean for us to take that literally, maybe he didn't mean for us to take anything else he said literally either."
Juan continued, adding his own conviction to what he read: "No way!" he almost shouted. "We cannot accept such reasoning. If Jesus really is the Son of God, then trying to make his infinite wisdom conform to our finite wisdom is blasphemy."
It was Diane's turn. She was having trouble concentrating this morning.
"Let's start with the mental patients. If you or I were to cut a hand of f, wouldn't we be committed to a mental hospital too? So what if the hand choppers aren't all crazy? And is it true that we've never heard of a sane person plucking out an eye or cutting of f a hand? Check the medical records of any hospital and you'll find that amputations and organ removals are almost commonplace. Life threatening conditions like gangrene or cancer often lead people to take such extreme steps."
Diane could not stop thinking about Sean. She prayed silently: "God, take my hand or my eye if you like, but please don't take Sean."
The reading was back to Dave, whose lot it was to tell a story. He knew it well enough to tell it without reference to the book. He was still holding the knife in his hand as he spoke. "A railway worker in outback Australia was bitten on the hand by a deadly king brown snake. He had no hope of getting to a hospital before the poison would kill him. So he grabbed an axe, and with one mighty blow, he chopped of f his own hand." Dave swung the knife to emphasise his point before reading on. "He was not locked up as a lunatic. Instead, he was commended for his courage. He showed good sense, because he realised that losing a hand was better than losing his life."
Greg carried on from there. "If p… f… fisical life is worth such drastic action, then spiritual life is worth far more. Most of us would lack the cor… cur… courage to do what that railway worker did to save his ph-physical life. But we should be more mottihvuh..mo… What's that word?" Anna assisted him again: "Motivated," she said quietly.
"We should be more motivated than him if we felt that something was threatening us with eternal death. In either case, we should be able to see the good sense of such an action, even if we lacked the courage to do it ourselves."
Anna took her second turn: "Jews teach 'An eye for an eye' and Muslims cut of f the hand of a thief. America actually executes people every year in the name of morality. All Jesus asks is that we show this same kind of discipline on ourselves. Is that so bizarre?" Juan raised his eyebrows and breathed an inaudible sigh as he came to the paragraph they all knew was there from previous readings of the study: "Now for the loophole you've been waiting for. Obviously it's not your hands or your eyes that actually cause you to sin. Cutting a thief's hand of f does not stop the greed that caused the theft in the first place." Dave placed the knife on the carpet at this stage. It had served its purpose.
The reading passed to Diane once again: "What we really need is a heart transplant. Not a physical heart transplant, but one that goes much deeper. Jesus said, 'Your heart is where your treasure is,' and 'If you don't give up everything that you own, you cannot be one of my followers.' Most people would rather lose an arm or a leg than to give up their material wealth. Nevertheless, we believe that God wants each of us to literally let go of whatever it is that we most treasure… in order to prove our faith in him. If we do, he will reward us eternally." At this point, Dave left the printed study and addressed the group personally. He would often add comments to old studies, in an attempt to update them or to make them more relevant. "When I wrote this," he said, "I was thinking about what keeps most people from getting serious about spiritual things. The world is so busy working for money that God gets the leftovers of their lives - weekends and an occasional evening during the week… if he's lucky. But the lesson goes deeper than God just wanting our money, or even our time. The bigger lesson is that nothing, not even our own lives or the lives of our loved ones, must come between us and what we know is right.
"Juan's dream is just another reminder that God has the right to ask us to give up our loved ones for him. It can happen in many dif ferent ways, but sooner or later he will test each of us, to determine where our loyalties are.
"I know it sounds unfair and mean of God. But everything we have came from him anyway. Is it really so unfair for him to ask us to give it back? I'm saying that we should do what is right, whether or not it results in pain or death… to ourselves or to our loved ones.
Anna chimed in: "Makes me think of that saying: 'If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, it's yours. If it doesn't, then it never was.'" As soon as she finished, she set about writing the saying in the margin of her study book.
"Yeah, something like that," said Dave, who screwed his face up a bit as he tried to get the connection before restating it for the benefit of the others. "I guess you're saying that if we give our loved ones to God, then he'll decide whether or not they really were ours to begin with, That's quite true."