Training our eyes not to avoid...

Training our eyes not to avoid…

November 19, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Training our eyes not to avoid…

The African proverb, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers most,” speaks of the reality of who ends up crushed in the midst of conflict and war. So often, it is the ones Jesus calls us to, the poor. With so much going on in our own context, it is easy to keep our eyes turned inward, but there are conflicts in the world from time to time that create an imperative for the eyes of all the world to turn.

Right now, there is a humanitarian crisis arising the likes of which the world has not witnessed in years.

Mark Lowcock, from the UN names that the famine in Yemen “will not be like the famine that we saw in South Sudan earlier in the year where tens of thousands of people were affected. It will not be like the famine which cost 250,000 people their lives in Somalia in 2011. It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims.” The most tragic reality is that this famine will be man-made.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and the people there rely on imported food items in order to survive. Because of the ongoing Civil War, air, land, and seaports have been closed. Humanitarian aid cannot reach the people who are in need of it desperately. They have already experienced the worst cholera epidemic in modern history, with 1 million people expected to be affected before the year ends. International donors are sending money in, but “humanitarian groups say any additional international aid is only a stopgap and have called for a political solution to end the war,” says Megan Palin.

Yemen is 6,354 kilometers away. It is too far for many to travel, but not too far to move to the center of our prayers, the center of the universe within our minds that we might be learning all we can about the realities for the people in Yemen, so that we can join the voices of the humanitarian agencies that are calling for the gates to be opened that aid might get in.

There is light enough in the love of God for more than one place in this world. We turn our eyes to the world in order that we might not lose compassion. Sharon Salzberg shares that, “compassion is the strength that rises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly with all the skill at our disposal.”

To think that there are people 6,354 kilometers away on the brink of starvation, for being caught like the grass between elephants, only they are between other humans in conflict, humans who have allowed their hunger and thirst for power to desensitize them to the reality of others right in their midst. It is hard to keep our eyes trained on violence that leads to senseless death, but our common humanity requires it. May we be strengthened to hold in our hearts compassion enough for all the world, that leads us to action in the places where we are drawn to stand.

With you on the journey,
Michelle

Reading Scripture as Poetry

Reading Scripture as Poetry

November 12, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Reading Scripture as Poetry

Grace and peace to you

On Wednesday evenings a group of us gather in the hall for prayer practice. Our practice involves sitting together in silence for 30 minutes. Thereafter we practice stretching our imaginations by reflecting on a poem or two.

Learning to read poetry helps us to read scripture because both fiercely engage our imagination. Poetic imagination and “prophetic imagination” are close cousins. The first helps us practice the second. What the poet does with language under poetic license the prophet does with society under divine calling. Both unpick the locks that hold our sense of the possible captive. Both invite us with all of creation to be born afresh. Poets like prophets know that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” – Albert Einstein.

Last week we reflected on the poetic blessing (above) by John O’Donohue. In each verse this Irish poet gives us a task and a gift. Or more like a task that is a gift and a gift that is a task. Here is another one of his poems to prayerfully ponder. [Note: we don’t have to “get it” all in one go. Nibble on the juicy bits first, trusting that once we get a taste of it the tougher bits may soften].

A Morning Offering

I bless the night that nourished my heart
To set the ghosts of longing free
Into the flow and figure of dream
That went to harvest from the dark
Bread for the hunger no one sees.

All that is eternal in me
Welcome the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.

I place on the altar of dawn:
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to
And all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

John O’Donohue
(From To Bless the Space Between Us)

Grace, Alan

 

 

Redemption Song

Redemption Song

November 5, 2017  |  All Saints Day, Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Redemption Song

Grace and Peace

One of the psalms set for today is Psalm 107. It is a “redemption song” that recounts the myriads of occasions of the Lord’s steadfast love delivering a despairing people. A people lost, wandering aimlessly in desert wastes. A people hungry and thirsty, about to faint with fatigue. A people sitting in darkness, unable to see and stand. A people locked in leg irons, prisoner to the past in the present. A people broken and bent by hard labour. A people sick and dying of disease. A people tossed about on stormy seas drenched in fear. But then, interspersed between the trauma and tragedy the psalmist sings: “They then cried to the Lord in their trouble, and the Lord saved them from their distress. Let them thank the Lord for the Lord’s steadfast love and wonderful works to humankind.”

This redemption song was sung to en-courage all the despairing to doggedly resist their despair. To ‘vasbyt’ and keep the faith, the hope and the love when doubt, despair and fear monopolised the evidence on hand. Singing of redemption past was more than a mere act of memory. It was a protest. It was to re-member it to the now. To sing of redemption past was to subversively plant redemption into the soil of the present that would break open a new future.

Redemption may sound like a religious word to our modern-day ears but long ago it meant being set free for the sake of the just-ordering of society where everyone had enough and none was superior or inferior to the other.

As we witness “things fall apart …” in our present days, one redemption song we must not tire to sing into the present is that of our Constitution. Yes, our Constitution is a redemption song. The preamble of which encapsulates so succinctly and contextually the gospel’s call for redemption: the just and merciful ordering of society. It was written in the wake of what many called a miracle. A miracle because many thought it was impossible. As it was written before the cement of what was possible and impossible could set, it calls us to imagine again what some have stopped believing is possible in SA today: a truly just land and healed people. God’s steadfast love has not given up on us. Our past tells us the impossible is possible…again…and again. We must keep singing our redemption song:

We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to

  • Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
  • Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
  • Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
  • Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations. May God protect
    our people.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso.
God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa.
Mudzimu fhatutshedza Afurika.
Hosi katekisa Afrika.

Alan

Amazwi Wethu

Amazwi Wethu

October 29, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Amazwi Wethu

It’s distressing that a march has to be organized to put before us the importance of improving education for children. Will it take another Soweto uprise to create the pressure needed for deeper engagement in the struggle? Friday afternoon, concerned citizens of Cape Town marched to the Parliament building. The march was organized by Equal Education, an NGO that describes themselves as a movement of learners, parents, and teachers striving for quality and equality in South African education through analysis and activism. They are organizers for change, working so that every child might enjoy the right due to them, simply to learn.

“Amazwi Wethu,” means our voices in isiXhosa. Where are our voices? Where are our cries? That communities have to form walking school buses to keep children safe on their way to school, that school aged children are being recruited to deal drugs on the campuses, that the infrastructures of some are in incredible disrepair, that the resources of some are limited, that the teachers of some are not resourced for the work, that young girls stay home for lack of access to feminine products in the communities of some…it is time for our voices to be heard saying, “enough!”

Edward Everett Hale is quoted as saying:

I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
And I will not let what I cannot do interfere
with what I can do.

So often, when ideas are lifted up, an inordinate amount of time will be spent discussing all the reasons why a particular idea won’t work. This way of engagement is what I have come to call a symptom of the intellectualized faith of our day and age. We can become paralyzed in our action, by the thoughts that war within our minds. There is no better example of this, than the current water crisis in the Western Cape. One can spend hours debating all the things that won’t work and never leave people with the one thing they can do that will make a difference. In the end, we might allow our intellect to be on display, but what about the ground and its thirst? We cannot make a difference in every situation in the world, but each of us can do something. Can’t we work to do something for the children of this generation and the generations to come, that they might have an opportunity simply to learn in environments organized in the best possible way?

The movement being organized by Equal Education is a call for system change within the system that delivers education to children. The system is off line if it is not working for all, so it is time for engagement in the work of making it right. If we are not a system person, we sometimes want to leave system issues to system people. With no Mandela, Gandhi, or MLK Jr in our day and age, the changers of the system for the world’s children is each of us.

Oh, that every child might have such an advocate, the voice of all the people on their side! Oh, that we might witness the day when NGO’s like Equal Education are shut down not for lack of resources, but for lack of need. Where are our voices, Amazwi Whethu, for the children of this city, this country, this world? If we struggle with the leaders of this day, let us be about the business of rising up new leaders in the children of this world, that they might continue in the work of shining light upon the places where the residue of apartheid continues to divide.

To join Equal Education’s movement: https://equaleducation.org.za

With you on the journey,
Michelle

Violation provokes violence

Violation provokes violence

October 22, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Violation provokes violence

SA Navy to spend R60 million on weapon barely used since World War 2

As reported in Sunday Times 15th October 2017

The SA Navy is set to buy new torpedoes for its submarines, despite it battling to keep its standard fleet operational. According to a report in the Sunday Times, Armscor has confirmed plans to buy a new torpedo system for Heroine-class submarines. The new torpedoes are said to cost up to R60 million each. Industry experts told the Sunday Times that South Africa does not need new torpedoes. Worldwide, there have been only three torpedo engagements since World War 2.

https://mybroadband.co.za/news/government/233261-sa-navy-to-spend-r60-million-on-weapon-barely-used-since-world-war-2.html

 


Grace to you

One of the great lies that the world is ever tempted to swallow (and swallow it does) is that violence can be good, righteous and sacred and therefore necessary. It is this lie that Jesus – the Truth – came to set us free from, yet we refuse to be released and thus remain willing prisoners ever-protective of our chains.

And if not Jesus, then one would think that the history of violence’s horror would have brought us to our senses, but alas we overwhelmingly continue to believe that our violence is morally good while the violence of those against us is morally evil. We rage about “their” violence but are blind to our violence. Our “good cause” is what blinds us. Ours is a righteous violence … but not for the family of those we kill … for them it’s the soil of suffering that justifies the planting of the seeds of revenge. This deathly logic plays itself out daily in a million different ways: gang violence; gender based violence; police brutality and war.

Last Saturday a huge truck bomb killed over 300 people in Mogadishu, Somalia. This was done in retaliation to one of the many raids by local troops and US special forces in which countless civilians have been killed over many years in a never-ending cycle of violence.

A recent United Nations study found that in “a majority of cases, state action appears to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa”. Of more than 500 former members of militant organisations interviewed for the report, 71% pointed to “government action”, including “killing of a family member or friend” or “arrest of a family member or friend” as the incident that prompted them to join a group.

Violation provokes violence which begets more violence.

And while we lament the violence, we forget that we have supported it from the beginning – by refusing to pass laws that prevent it, like banning guns, and by paying for the weapons responsible for it like the SA Navy buying deathly wasteful torpedoes for millions.

When it comes to the cycle of violence in the world the Christian Church has much blood on its hands, not just directly but indirectly in the way we have propagated the false narrative of “sacred violence”. For the idea of “sacred violence” is deeply rooted in interpreting the Crucifixion of Christ as a necessary sacrifice (act of violence) in order for God to save the world. This is a terror-ble lie. Rather the Cross of Christ reveals to us the grace-full truth that God would rather suffer violence than ever perpetrate it.

Devastatingly the greatest act of non-violent loving has consistently been interpreted as an act of Divine violence by the Christian faith itself, turning the greatest gift the Christian faith has to offer the world into its greatest stumbling block to world peace. The d-evil must dance with delight as we do its work.

Jesus reveals God as Love. Therefore for God to stop loving is for God to stop being. We are born in the image of Love and when we stop loving we die and cause death.

Grace,
Alan

 

 

Full Immersion

Full Immersion

October 15, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Full Immersion

Grace and peace to you

We don’t learn how to swim by attending a lecture on swimming and similarly we don’t get fit by attending a lecture on fitness.

We get fit by going for a run or walk.

We learn how to swim by getting into the water – first in the shallow end where we can stand or with a flotation aid to hold and hopefully with someone we trust by our side. We learn to hold our breath underwater by practicing dipping our head under the water. This helps us to overcome our fear of being totally covered by the water. Ultimately if we want to learn how to swim we need to stop trying to keep as much of our body out of the water.

This is true for the deeper lessons of life. The things that really matter can only be learned by full immersion. Love can only be learnt at the risk of allowing ourselves to love and be loved. The values of compassion and justice and gentleness can only be learnt through a process of patient persistence which are values in themselves.

Wanting an immediate answer to something sometimes reveals that we have not understood the question because the answer is not the answer! The struggle with the question is the answer.

For factual questions like: “What is the legal speed limit?” the answer may simply be given. But for relational questions like: “How do I forgive my neighbour?” answers can’t be given. The “answer” to relational questions can only be discovered in the wrestling. As Mark Nepo so beautifully reveals in his poem, Behind the thunder.

Behind the thunder

I keep looking for one more teacher,
only to find that fish learn from water
and birds learn from sky.
If you want to learn about the sea,
it helps to be at sea.
If you want to learn about compassion,
it helps to be in love.
If you want to learn about healing,
it helps to know of suffering.
The strong live in the storm
without worshiping the storm.

Grace, Alan


Water Restrictions

The dams are low in the Cape,
we are told
not to fill the swimming pool,
not to water the garden,
not to wash the car,
not to take a bath.
We’ve never –
never had a swimming pool to fill,
never had a garden to water,
never had a car to wash,
never had the privilege of taking a bath
to soak away the aches and pains
that flood our cups and bowls,
otherwise empty.
Seems the dams have been low
for us, forever.

© Athol Williams

We have the power

We have the power

October 8, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit  |  Comments Off on We have the power

Marching in solidarity with Marikana
Informal Settlement, Philippi East

where at least 23 people have been killed in one week.


Grace to you

There are so many problems in the world today and not least in this land where we live. It is easy to be overwhelmed with despair and tempting to withdraw into whatever pockets of security and comfort we can create for ourselves. It is also tempting to find someone to blame for the problems. Stringing up a scapegoat that we can pin our fear and anger on has provided a certain satisfaction for societies throughout the ages, but it fails to deliver the promised salvation.

Rather than addressing the problems, this despair, withdrawal and blame adds to the problems.

What is really very helpful however, is discovering that we ourselves are part of the problem. The realisation that the problems of the world live in us and we live in them is extremely good news. It is not comfortable news, but it is good news! Precisely because it is not comfortable news, we have a high tendency to avoid and deny it. In fact we have sophisticated defense mechanisms that sound an alarm the moment we get too close to finding it out. For fear of being robbed of our comfort (which is actually a false sense of comfort) we are robbed of the really good stuff – the good news that as part of the problem we can make a huge difference in addressing the problem.

Like the other day I texted someone to say that I would be late for the meeting because I was stuck in traffic.  They replied: “You are the traffic”.  My gut reaction was: “No I am not!!”  But on reflection I realised of course I was, but the illusion of innocence is very sweet to swallow.

Realising we are part of the problem is good news because it means that the potential for change is really at our own fingertips. Changing ourselves is one way to engage the problem. What we do and what we refuse to do actually makes a difference. This is very empowering to realise and very liberating to explore.

You see, when we blame others for the problems, we give our power away because if “they” are the cause of the problem then they alone hold the keys to unlock the problem but the moment we discover our role in preserving, protecting and promoting the problem we are placed in a very powerful position to address the problem and work for the necessary change. Jesus said it much more succinctly when he said: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.” [Matt 7:5].

For example, the church would be far more faithful if we didn’t just speak out against rape while ignoring how our own teachings have been used for centuries to promote patriarchy and male dominance. To be abhorred by rape and speak against gender based violence without acknowledging how we ourselves are part of the problem, perpetuates the problem. It also ignores the area of the problem that we are closest to and most able to address raising the question: If not us, then who?

Blessed are those who know they are part of the problems of this world, for they have the power to do something about them.

Grace, Alan

 

Why we live

Why we live

October 1, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Why we live

Grace to you

This week I came across the story of Farai Chinomwe. Farai is an athlete. He runs marathons and ultra-marathons like the Comrades, which in 2014 he did in an incredible time of 7 hours 6 minutes.

“I was born and brought up in a rural area near the Great Zimbabwe Ruins surrounded by insects and nature in a musical family – in our village, everyone had some instrument to play. In 2000, I moved to Johannesburg to study and ended up playing drum and Mbira in a band – we’d perform at restaurants and other events and when I wasn’t playing, I would do running and fitness training. One day I went to the shed to collect my instruments for a performance when I discovered that a swarm of bees had moved into my favourite djembe. Everyone told me I should burn the bees out but I decided to rather find a way to remove them safely. It was only after a year that I had developed sufficient means and confidence to provide a new home to the swarm. They had literally transformed the drum into a giant honeycomb – this was the point where I became a beekeeper.”

In 2015 Farai ran the Comrades Marathon in 11 hours 31 minutes – which was slow in comparison to his previous times but the reason for this was that he was running backwards!

It all started by accident.

“It was one o’clock in the morning and I was driving on a very dark Corlett Drive on the outskirts of Alexandra in my battered old Peugeot 404. I had collected a swarm of bees from a client and they were buzzing angrily in the boot. Suddenly, the car simply sputtered and stalled and there I was in the cold and dark without any prospect of help.

I realised I’d have to push the car, which was quite heavy, to the top of the hill where I could at least coast the few km back home. I started pushing the car the normal way and immediately realised that I wouldn’t be able to make it. I turned around with my back to the car boot and realised I could push it far easier. Eventually, after 2 hours of pushing and coasting and steering, I got back home, transferred the bees to their new home and finally got to sleep. Next morning on waking, I noticed that my quads felt like they got the most amazing workover and at that moment, I suddenly realised that the bees had helped me discover a really useful training technique.”

Farai is a dedicated beekeeper and because it was through the bees that he learned backward running, he’s decided to run some of his marathons backwards to raise awareness about the importance of bees in the environment and to encourage people to love and care for bees. Farai’s business is Blessed Bee Africa.

Running the Comrades forwards is a massive achievement. Running it backwards is beyond category. But as Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.

May the “why we live” find us and focus us.
Alan

 

Save souls

Save souls

September 24, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Save souls

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Albert Einstein


Grace to you

Language changes over time. A word that meant one thing at one time can mean something else at another time. Failing to understand this can have terrible consequences.

Take for example the phrase from the USA Declaration of Independence, concerning three examples of the “unalienable rights” which the Declaration says have been given to all human beings by their Creator, and which governments are created to protect: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Life and freedom make sense to me but happiness? Really? Is this an unalienable right”? I confess that when I think of the word a smiley face comes to mind ?. Today the happiness is associated with feelings and a range of positive emotions that in popular culture is closely associated with the accumulation of wealth and status. Yet none of this is what was meant in the writing of the Declaration. The roots of Thomas Jefferson’s use of the word ‘happiness’ lie in the Greek word for happiness: eudaimonia which is linked to aretê, which is the Greek word for “virtue” or “excellence.” In other words, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of the civic virtues of justice, courage, moderation, and integrity. This “social happiness” is in fact the foundation of freedom and the good life.

Another example concerns the word “soul”. This time the popular definition of the word is shaped by Greek mythology rather than its Hebrew roots. The Greeks divided the human person up into “body, mind and soul”. This three-fold division of the human person is commonplace to this day even (or especially) within religious circles. So when people speak of “saving souls” its understood as the “saving” of some special part of a person – an immortal part – the immortal soul. This is Greek thinking and is totally at odds to the biblical usage and thinking. The Hebrew word Nephesh is the word we translate into English as “soul”. Nephesh means one’s entire being or living being. In other words, to save souls is to seek the well-being of the whole person. In including every aspect of what it means to be human, it resists all the false dichotomies of spirit and flesh. No wonder John Wesley said to his preachers: “You have nothing to do but to save souls.”

In these two examples the understandings ascribed to the words mentioned have shrunk the original meaning to something small, private and selfish from what was originally large, all encompassing and interconnected with the whole. Words and their meanings matter, so best we watch our language.

Grace,
Alan


“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
Albert Einstein

 

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Albert Einstein

Grace that won't let you go

Grace that won’t let you go

September 17, 2017  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Grace that won’t let you go
Delayed and cancelled Cape Town trains
are a time bomb waiting to explode.

Grace to you

There are some verses of scripture that are literally bursting with Gospel meaning. They are squeezed full of faith, hope and love. They overflow with justice, mercy and humility. They act as single summaries of all sacred words ever written. They remain ever before us calling us into the depths of living and never to be ticked off the list of completed tasks.

These verses of scripture are more demanding and more haunting than others. Not because they are difficult to comprehend. Rather, because they are so profoundly simple to understand. Their simplicity is what burdens us with the responsibility to act on them because we can’t pretend to not know what they mean. Therefore we have no excuse not to allow them to shape our living. An example of such a verse is when Jesus says: “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” [Matt 25:40].

This verse is easy to understand. It is clear what Jesus is saying: Our action for or against those whom society names or treats as the least is at one and the same time our action for or against Jesus. How we treat the vulnerable and marginalised of society is how we treat Jesus. If we love Jesus and long to honour Jesus we must love the scorned and honour the stigmatised. To ignore the despised is to ignore Jesus. This is true regardless of whether we pray daily with Jesus’ name on our lips.

In response to this we probably need to be reminded of what G.K. Chesterton said about our faith:

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

It is difficult! We will need grace upon grace for this journey. Grace that reminds us that we are loved regardless of our struggle to love. Grace forgives our failures inviting us to try and try again. But also the fierce grace that refuses to let us off the hook. As Father Joseph Wresinski writes about grace:

“Grace is God getting hold of you and making you love others to the point of wanting them to be greater than you, better, more intelligent than you. Grace is the love that sees others as equal and wants them to be happier than oneself; that wants others at any price to love fully, with all their heart. It is God who goads us into wanting others to be able to free the world from poverty, and therefore from injustice, war, and hatred. God leads us where we do not want to go. Grace is “more”, knowing that we are not just a distant reflection of God, but that the Lord is permanently present and living in us.”

May this grace get hold of us all,
Alan