What do you hear or see?

What do you hear or see?

May 20, 2018  |  Day of Pentecost, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on What do you hear or see?

Grace to you

So what did you hear? “Laurel” or “Yanny”? In case you don’t know what I am referring to, let me explain. There was an audio clip released on the internet this past week in which the name being said depended on the listener. Some people hear “Laurel” while others hear “Yanny”. The reason people hear different names is because of our different sensitivity to varying frequencies of the words. “Laurel” is strongest in lower frequencies, while “Yanny” is stronger in higher frequencies.

I heard “Laurel” the first time via a radio show but when I listened to it again on the internet I heard “Yanny”. Clearly the radio emphasized the lower frequencies and the internet version emphasized the higher frequencies. The medium affects the message.

This is a verbal version of the famous picture of the duck and rabbit. Some see the duck and others see the rabbit.

The Laurel and Yanny sound clip and the duck and rabbit picture remind us that we can hear and see different things to the people around us even though we are listening and watching the same thing. It is a reminder that what others hear and see may be as true as what we hear and see, though different. In other words truth can be multi-faceted.

This invites us to be humble and generous of spirit especially when we hear or see something so clearly that we are convinced it is all there is to hear and see. The temptation is to say the one who differs with us is wrong – and even stupid for being wrong, but we would be better to ask a question than accuse. “I see a rabbit but show me where you see a duck.”

It has been said that “90% of what we see lies behind our eyes”. In other words we see things how we are and not necessarily as things are. We bring our values and bias and fears and longings to everything we see which alter what we see. This is why it is so important to have people in our lives who are different from us in all sorts of beautiful ways: colour; class; faith; sexuality; age; culture and even those who believe in unicorns.

Today is Pentecost – a day when some heard the tongues of angels while others heard the tongues of drunkards.  Today we are invited to tune in again to hear afresh what the Spirit is saying. We may only know we have heard faithfully if barriers are broken down and a radical diversity shapes our community, as was birthed that first Pentecost Day.

Grace,
Alan

What do you see: an old woman or a young woman?

In the end it's all about love

In the end it’s all about love

May 13, 2018  |  Ascension, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on In the end it’s all about love

Grace and peace to you

Here are a few ‘love’ quotes from Bell Hooks’ book: All About Love that I referred to in last week’s message:

Love is as love does. [p14]

No one can rightfully claim to be loving when behaving abusively. [p22]

Without justice there can be no love… The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be. [p33] Estrangement from feelings makes it easier for men to lie… [p39] When men lie to women, presenting a false self, the terrible price they pay to maintain “power over” us is the loss of their capacity to give and receive love. [p41]

It is no easy task to be self-loving. [p54] Simply learning how we have acquired feelings of worthlessness rarely enables us to change things; it is usually only one stage in the process. [p54] When we see love as a combination of trust, commitment, care, respect, knowledge, and responsibility,… we can learn to extend them to ourselves. [p54]

In an ideal world we would all learn in childhood to love ourselves. We would grow, being secure in our worth and value, spreading love wherever we went, letting our light shine. If we did not learn self-love in our youth, there is still hope. The light of love is always in us, no matter how cold the flame. [p68]

I know of no one who has embraced a love ethic whose life has not become joyous and more fulfilling. The widespread assumption that ethical behaviour takes the fun out of life is false. [p88]

The choice to love is a choice to connect – to find ourselves in the other. [p93]

Domination cannot exist in any social situation where a love ethic prevails. [p98]

The will to sacrifice on behalf of another, always present when there is love, is annihilated by greed. [p117]

Greed subsumes love and compassion; living simply makes room for them. [p125]

The more genuine our romantic loves the more we do not feel called upon to weaken or sever ties with friends in order to strengthen ties with romantic partners. Trust is the heartbeat of genuine love. [p135]

Like many men, he wanted a woman to be “just like his mama” so that he did not have to do the work of growing up. [p149]

Sadly, love will not prevail in any situation where one party wants to maintain control… At least when you hold to the dynamics of power you never have to fear the unknown; you know the rules of the power game… The practice of love offers no place to hide. We risk loss, hurt, pain. We risk being acted upon by forces outside our control. [p153]

The practice of love takes time. [p162]

…was I able to give the love I want to receive? [p172]

The heartbeat of true love is the willingness to reflect on one’s actions, and to process and communicate this reflection with the loved one. [p185]

Many men, especially, often turn away from true love and choose relationships in which they can be emotionally withholding when they feel like it but still receive love from someone else. Ultimately, they choose power over love. To know and keep true love we have to be willing to surrender the will to power. [p187]

No matter what has happened in our past, when we open our hearts to love we can live as if born again, not forgetting the past but seeing it in a new way, letting it live inside us in a new way. [p209]

Grace, Alan

 

Blessed Mothering Sunday!

The Blessing of Anger

The Blessing of Anger

May 6, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on The Blessing of Anger

Grace and peace to you

We end each Sunday service with what we call the “Benediction of Disturbance”:

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers,
half-truths and superficial relationships, so that we
may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression
and exploitation of people, so that we may work for
justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who
suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,
so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them
and turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to
believe that we can make a difference in this world,
so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and
the poor.

In God’s grace we say – Amen – so be it.

This benediction does not beat about the bush. There is nothing superficial about it. It cuts deep. The words hauntingly echo long after they have been spoken. The blessings jar any spiritual serenity we may seek.

Take for example the second blessing: “May God bless us with anger…” I mean who prays to be blessed with anger? We are more likely to confess our anger and pray for God to remove it. Anger is not something we associate with a blessing – let alone a blessing from God. Many of us believe that anger is somehow un-Christian or un-holy, but anger is a feeling and feelings need to be felt to be honoured. If we do not honour our feelings they will demand our attention by other means – often by increasingly destructive means. One thing that is clear is that they will not go “quietly into the night”.

We remember the verse in Scripture that says: “Even if you are angry, do not sin because of it. Never let the sun set on your anger or you will give the devil a foothold.” [Eph. 4:26] We may hear this verse saying that we should not be angry, yet it doesn’t say that. It says we must be careful what we do with our anger and wisely warns us about how long we hold onto it because if we hold onto our anger too long it eventually holds us prisoner.

Yet there is a time and place for anger. I am not talking here about hurtful and destructive expressions of anger. For this we need anger management therapy to get to the root – which is often hurt, fear and shame. I am referring to anger that aims at preventing hurt and destruction. This was the root of Jesus’ anger. He got angry because people were being excluded from the temple and exploited while there. Jesus tossed over some tables to make his point clear.

I think some of us need anger management of a different sort. We need therapy to give ourselves permission to actually be angry. We need help to get over the fear of being angry.

As Richard Rohr writes: Anger is good and very necessary to protect the appropriate boundaries of self and othersI would much sooner live with a person who is free to get fully angry, and also free to move beyond that same anger, than with a negative person who is hard-wired with resentments and preexisting judgements. Their anger is so well hidden and denied—even from themselves—that it never comes up for the fresh air of love, conversation, and needed forgiveness.” 

Grace,
Alan

 

 

The Bible is a Library

The Bible is a Library

April 29, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on The Bible is a Library

Grace and peace to you

The Bible is not a book. The Bible is a library.

Precisely because it is a library and not a book means that one is not expected to start at the beginning (Genesis) and systematically read through to the end (Revelation). Besides being a mountainous task, this way of reading the Bible is probably more confusing than enlightening. It assumes that the books of the Bible were written in the order that they appear when they weren’t and it assumes that each follows neatly on from each other, which they don’t.

Some who are fascinated by “end times” like to start by reading the book of Revelation but this is equally unwise because the book of Revelation is basically a tapestry of scriptural threads gathered from all over the Bible (library) and sewn together. Not knowing anything about the individual threads will make it impossible to understand the full tapestry.

Another unhelpful way to read scripture is to flip the pages and randomly stop wherever one does to read the first verse that comes into focus. This is like playing biblical roulette. It is treating the Bible as a giant deck of tarot cards that are miraculously meant to direct us to the answer of our life. It is no more helpful than doing the same with a comic book or a Shakespearean play.

So if not at the beginning and if not at the end then where does one begin when it comes to the Bible?

I suggest to start in the middle. Well at least close to the middle. This means that we start with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And out of the four it is perhaps easiest to start with Mark. Mark is short and to the point. Matthew and Luke use Mark as a guide but add their own solo pieces while John adds an entire orchestra.

Together with Mark I suggest a tiny slither of a book from the biblical library. It stands near the end and is called First John. This thin book contains the most beautiful summary of the Good News. The words are so simple that they reach a level of profoundness that is beyond comparison:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
[1 John 4: 7-12]

These words are worthy of our pause…
Alan

April 22, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on

Grace to you

Imagine an artist. Let’s say, an amazing painter. This artist paints with oils in textures and colours that are simply breathtaking. To watch the artist at work is to watch a prayer being prayed visually. Only a poet could describe their painting with any sense of accuracy. Now imagine this artist had a child.

The young child had no interest in drawing or colouring-in or painting, yet the child loved to play with plaster-seen. As the child grew in years so the child grew in skill as a sculpture – in clay, wood and stone.

Now what do you think is more likely: the artist being angry their child did not become a painter or the artist celebrating that there is another artist in the family, be it in a different genre?

Surely the parent would celebrate rather than be angry! Surely we would be shocked were this not the case, especially if the parent were to curse their child’s eternal future because they became an artist in a different field to themselves. If the parent were to resent their child’s chosen discipline we would probably question whether the parent possesses the spirit of an artist at all, regardless of how beautifully they paint.

Now let us transfer this brief route of reasoning to faith.

Imagine a believer. Let’s say a Christian believer whose child grows up and does not believe as they believe – perhaps the child’s belief finds form in a different denomination or religion or in a practice outside of defined religion.

Will the parent celebrate or be angry? If we are not as sure about this as we are about the artist mentioned earlier – then we would do well to pause and ponder why this is so. This will reveal a great deal about what we believe about faith and God and our parental responsibilities.

A parent is never to enforce an art or faith form on their child. No more than a parent should ever force their child to fall in love with a particular person. A parent’s deepest responsibility is to live out their own art or faith form as passionately and faithfully as their integrity demands. To witness a parent’s passion, faithfulness and integrity is an awesome gift. A gift that gives the child courage to be the artist – the believer and the lover as their own integrity demands. This is always beautiful to behold.

Grace
Alan

Spirit of Resurrection

Spirit of Resurrection

April 15, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Spirit of Resurrection

Grace to you

The philosopher Susan Griffin tells a beautiful story that encapsulates the spirit of resurrection:

“A story from a survivor of the holocaust: Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Desnos reads the man’s palm.

Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.

As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination.

Because I am seized by the same despair as my contemporaries, for several days this story poses a question in my mind. Can the imagination save us? Robert Desnos was famous for his belief in the imagination. He believed it could transform society. And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.

In the interest of realism, this story must be accompanied by another. Desnos did not survive the camps. He died of typhus a few days after the liberation. His death was one among millions, men, women, and children who died despite countless creative acts of survival and the deepest longings to live.

In considering what is possible for the future one must be careful not to slide into denial. Imagination can so easily be trapped by the wish to escape painful facts and unbearable conclusions. The New Age idea that one can wish oneself out of any circumstance, disease, or bad fortune is not only sadly disrespectful toward suffering, it is also, in the end, dangerous if escape replaces awareness.”

~ Susan Griffin

Resurrection is the ultimate liberation of the imagination. Yet, like imagination, resurrection is not at odds with realism but rather it adds depth to realism and it never disrespectfully denies the Cross in the world … and therein saves us.

Practice resurrection,
Alan

Who are we?

Who are we?

April 8, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Who are we?

Grace and Peace

“Who are we?” “What does it mean to be human?” This is the ever-present question that every person and generation is called to wrestle with.

Depending on where and when we ask this question will in some ways determine what we discover or uncover. Quite often we are forced to ask this question in moments of death and tragedy and great vulnerability. I guess it is because in these moments our humanity feels most exposed and most in need of being held in renewed understanding.

Calvary is one such place that begs for our humanity to be understood.

In the shadow of the Cross we are convicted to ask: “Who are we?”

The Cross answers in haunting and hopeful tones about our humanness.

Hauntingly the Cross declares: “We are those who all carry the cruel capacity to crucify”. Hopefully the Cross announces: “We are those who all carry the powerful potential to love”. Hauntingly we can cowardly and lovelessly inflict suffering on others and hopefully we can courageously and lovingly respond to suffering.

According to the Cross, we are not one or the other. We are one and the other. We are both with each taking turns to lead and be led although almost certainly not in equal measure; but who is to know for certain.

Yet we are tempted to forget that we are both. This is true in how we think of ourselves as well as how we think of others. For some reason we are drawn to a singular narrative or truth. The “one or the other”.

“Both” seems too much for us to hold onto. In so doing we credit one of the narratives as all-powerful, in that it dismisses and even deletes the other. This over-powering narrative actually says more about us and our own needs, fears and prejudice than anything else.

This “one or the other” approach regularly crystalises in relation to those we most revere as well as those we most fear. We have seen this play itself out in South Africa this past week. We tend to paint our heros as untouchably perfect and our villains as altogether evil. When we do this we deny the rich and disturbing truth of their humanity revealed by the Cross.

We not only deny what the Cross reveals of our humanity but we deny what the biblical narrative reveals as a whole. Think about it, every biblical character of any significance crisscrosses between saint and sinner repeatedly. In these Easter days think of Peter as just one example: Peter is the one who confessed Christ to be the Messiah, but he was also the one who Jesus bluntly told to “get behind me Satan”. Peter denied even knowing Jesus and yet was named by Jesus as the Rock upon which the church would be built.

The honesty of the biblical narrative is what makes us return to it time and again. We return to read it and most importantly to be read by it. Its ability to hold light and dark, weed and wheat, disciple and satan, tax-collector and evangelist all together is what enables us to deepen our understanding of who we are.

Grace,
Alan

Christ is risen!

Christ is risen!

April 1, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Christ is risen!

Grace to you

Today we will begin worship with the joyful announcement: Christ is risen! And the instant response: Christ is risen indeed!

Yes indeed, Christ is risen and roaming, seeking the lost and searching for the lonely, convicting the stubborn and humbling the proud, liberating the oppressed and embracing the marginalised, touching the outcast and healing the broken, en-couraging the fearful and even giving birth to people again and again … and again.

Yes Jesus is risen indeed and he is still coming out of the tomb to call us by name to new life.

In a sermon two weeks ago I read from St Augustine’s Confessions – here are his words. I invite you to read them in the light of Resurrection. In the light of Jesus seeking Augustine out from the inside and releasing (resurrecting) Augustine to fall in love – better late than never. Augustine’s freshly “fallen-in-love-life” is a beautiful sign of Jesus’ living and loving presence in the world.

Where did I find you in order to make your acquaintance in the first place? You could not have been in my memory before I learned to know you. Where then could I have found you in order to learn of you, if not in yourself, far above me? “Place” has here no meaning: further away from you or toward you we may travel, but place there is none. O Truth, you hold sovereign sway over all who turn to you for counsel, and to all of them you respond at the same time, however diverse their pleas.

Clear is your response, but not all hear it clearly. They all appeal to you about what they want, but do not always hear what they want to hear. Your best servant is the one who is less intent on hearing from you what accords with his own will, and more on embracing with his will what he has heard from you.

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong – I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being, were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace. When at last I cling to you with my whole being there will be no more anguish or labour for me, and my life will be alive indeed, alive because filled with you.

Grace, Alan

The Cross of Christ

The Cross of Christ

March 30, 2018  |  Good Friday  |  Comments Off on The Cross of Christ

Grace to you

Today we survey the Cross of Christ. To survey its wonder, as the hymn writer implores, we must first survey its terror. Yes, before the Cross is wondrous it is torturous and to deny the terror is to dilute the wonder.

The cross was more than a Roman tool of torture. It was a sign of intimidation – put up for all to see as a reminder to all who dared to think of rebelling against the authority of Rome, to think again.

Rome – like almost every oppressive nation – thought that they were the very incarnation of God on earth – and treated any threat to their power as not only treason but an affront to the Divine or at least what they believed to be “their God-given right”. Throughout the ages oppressive regimes have used religion to endorse their oppression while convincing their followers that evil is holiness and holiness is evil. We’ve seen this in our past where those in power convinced their followers that racism was a virtue and not a sin. When good and evil are literally swopped around terror-ble things are done by people who believe they are not only doing good but that they are actually pleasing God.

As T.S. Eliot reminds us: “Most of the evil in the world is done by people with good intensions.” This is certainly what the Calvary Cross exposes, for it was religious people who called for Jesus’ crucifixion. Ironically religious people turned out to be the greatest threat to Jesus. They believed nailing Jesus was holy and pleasing to God. In “defending” God they were in fact denying God. The Calvary Cross teaches us that throughout history the so-called “defenders” of God almost always do so by destroying human beings.

One would hope that the followers of Jesus would never do this, but alas history is littered with examples to the contrary. The reason one would expect Jesus-followers not to fall for this is, because at the heart of Christ-like faith, is the belief that God has taken on human form – flesh of our flesh – and therefore to diminish or destroy human life is at one and the same time diminishing and denying God. As the author to Colossians writes: “Christ is all and in all.” [Colossians 3:11]. Or remember the heavenly words of question to Saul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” See, God takes human persecution personally!

In short – the torturous Cross of Calvary teaches us that when we kill human beings we kill God. This begs our wonder…

Grace,
Alan

“Take care of God”

March 25, 2018  |  Palm Sunday, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on “Take care of God”

Grace to you

We can tell a great deal about someone by the prayers they pray. This is true especially when trouble is in the air or in the soul.

In last Sunday’s scripture reading [John 12] we read that no sooner had Jesus spoken of being troubled – did he begin to pray. He prayed not to be saved from his troubles, but rather: “Father glorify your name”. He refused to center his prayer on himself, but rather on the true center of his being – the one he knew as Father – the Parental Love that holds all life together.

Last week I read out the prayer of another who lived during troubled times – Etty Hillesum – a young Jewish woman from Amsterdam who was killed at age 27 in Auschwitz in 1943. She too refused to center her prayers on herself. She prayed not to be saved but rather to “take care of God” and to “guard” that place in her where God dwells.

A week before she was killed, Etty prayed:

“I shall promise you one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself.

I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us; that we must help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.

Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much you yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last … You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labour for you and remain faithful to you and I shall never drive you from my presence.“

Perhaps we can begin to pray for our prayers to center less on ourselves and more on others and the Divine Lover of all. A simple prayer may get us going: “Make my prayer less about me …” Perhaps this will lead us to salvation. Salvation as in: saved from the need to be saved – which is what this next week – Holy Week – is all about. If we want to save our life we will lose it, but if we can give it away for Love’s sake – we will find it.

Grace and gratitude,
Alan