Psalms that awaken the heart

Psalms that awaken the heart

Feb 17, 2019  |  Epiphany, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Psalms that awaken the heart

Grace to you

Today we are going to reflect on Psalm 1. It is therefore as good a time as any to make a commitment to read the whole Psalter – starting today with one psalm a day for the next 150 days.

To accompany us on the journey I can’t recommend highly enough Nan C. Merrill’s book: Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness. She has translated all 150 psalms with poetic and theological brilliance. She helps us see the word through her feminist and non-violent lens. Here is the preface to her book:

“Who among us has not yearned TO KNOW the Unknowable? For most, these moments are fleeting glimpses that may last a lifetime; in some, a Fire is kindled and life becomes a quest to live in Holy Surrender; and though fewer in number, saints dwell among us who know the Beloved, who aspire simply to co-create in harmony with the One, who is Love and Light and Power. To cherish the Beloved as you are cherished is to live in a mutual bonding that calls for action.

The Psalms have ever been a response to these deep yearnings: cries of the soul … songs of surrender … paeans of praise. The Psalms of the Hebrew Scripture often reflect a patriarchal society based on fear and guilt that projects evil and sin onto outer enemies. Psalms for Praying reflects the reciprocity of Divine Love that opens the heart to forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Affirming the life-giving |fruits of love and acknowledging the isolation and loneliness of those separated from Love, may serve to awaken the heart to move toward wholeness and holiness.

Aspiring to live in a spirit of cooperation, co-creation, and companionship with the Beloved, rather than invoking a spirit of competition with God, other individuals and nations – so much a part of the Hebrew Scripture Psalms – seems clearly a more loving movement toward engendering peace, harmony, and healing in our wounded world.

Yet, let it be understood that Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness is in no way meant to replace the well-loved, still meaningful, and historically important Psalms of the Hebrew Scripture. May it stand as a companion, a dialogue, if you will, of one age speaking with a later age. May it serve as an invitation to listen to the Voice of Silence that speaks within your own soul.”

Psalm 1

Blessed are those
who walk hand in hand
with goodness,
who stand beside virtue,
who sit in the seat of truth;
For their delight is in the Spirit of Love
,and in Love’s heart they dwell
day and night.
They are like trees planted by
streams of water,
that yield fruit in due season,
and their leaves flourish;
And in all that they do, they give life. 

The unloving are not so;
they are like dandelions which
the wind blows away.
Turning from the Heart of Love
they will know suffering and pain.
They will be isolated from wisdom;
for Love knows the way of truth,
the way of ignorance will perish
as Love’s penetrating Light
breaks through hearts
filled with illusions:
forgiveness is the way.

God has no favourites

God has no favourites

Feb 10, 2019  |  Baptism, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on God has no favourites

Grace to you

Any religion, organisation, sacrament or ritual can become an instrument of death rather than a conduit of life. It does so as soon as it is used to rank people. When it creates a hierarchy of human worth it moves from life-giver to death-bringer. For this reason we must be clear on what we are doing when we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism today. Sadly, many believe that Baptism gives the holy edge over the unbaptised. A slight caricature of this goes as follows: “We are all born originally bad. But you can be baptised and receive full cover. Be not afraid, at death this comprehensive insurance pays out in full and comes complete with heavenly perks to be enjoyed forever… so hurry up and be baptised!” Put bluntly: God loves the baptised more than anyone else.

Yet this is exactly the kind of religious thinking that Jesus took issue with at every turn. He insisted God’s love rained equally on the just and the unjust and that there was no religious ritual that could twist God’s arm to anyone’s favour. In short: God has no favourites.

Baptism – especially Infant Baptism – declares so clearly that God’s love for us is without need of merit or persuasion or even understanding. The sacrament of Baptism announces: “All are in, all are welcome, all are chosen, all are beloved”. It is not: “be baptised then you are in”, but rather, “baptism tells us that all are already in – with or without baptism”.

Take another line in the Baptism liturgy: “We pray that these children, now to be baptised in this water, may die to sin and be raised to new life in Christ.” What do we mean by ‘die to sin and raised to new life in Christ?’. If, by sin we are referring to certain deeds like lying, fighting and stealing then why do baptised children lie, fight and steal as much as the unbaptised? Yet if, as Paul Tillich suggests: “Before sin is a deed it is a state”, then it makes deep and challenging sense. Sin understood as “a state of separation” – from our Creator, our neighbour, creation and ourselves. To “live in sin” means to live life in a state of separation that is fundamentally at odds with the essence of our oneness: oneness with our Creator, neighbour, creation and ourselves. Separation is therefore a false take on reality. It is not real so anything we build on it is doomed to destructively self-destruct. To pray for these children to “die to sin” is to pray that they will not live life on the false reality of separateness. To pray that they “be raised to new life in Christ” is to pray that they will live in accordance with the essential truth of being at one with all of life, as Jesus did. No wonder Jesus prayed: “May they be one as we are one”.

Baptism is then the radical declaration of the real, real world with the invitation for us to wash ourselves in this reality of oneness as Jesus did. When oneness becomes our reality – our lived experience connected with our essence – fear fades and love remains.

May we all die to sin,
Alan

Our on-going task

Our on-going task

Feb 3, 2019  |  Epiphany, Harvest Festival, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Our on-going task

Grace to you

What would you say to someone who sets fire to their own house? Oh and by the way, this someone says that they love their house and still would like to live in it for many years to come. You also need to know that they don’t admit to setting their house on fire. In fact, they deny it is on fire or are at least oblivious to the fact that it is on fire. And the one last thing you need to know about them is that they think of themselves as smart – very smart! So, what do you say to them?

Now everything we have said to them is what we need to hear ourselves. Because they are us.

Homo sapiens (which I learnt this week, translates from Latin to, “wise or smart human”) are supposed to be the smartest creatures on the planet, yet we stand out as the only creature hell-bent on mass suicide. We have set fire to our own house. I mean who sets fire to their own house? We can agree that “smart” doesn’t feature in the answer!

The biggest threat we face is our own way of life and one would imagine that we would therefore decide to change our way of life as a matter of urgency. But here is the thing, we are dependent on what is killing us for our survival. Yes you read that correctly. Basically, we cut the branch we are sitting on. It is a very high branch and falling will result in serious injury, if not death. So why don’t we stop cutting the branch? We don’t stop because we are all employed in some way or other in the lumber business. Yes we make a living by cutting the branch we are sitting on. We think if we stop cutting the branch that we will die – so we keep cutting with hope that we never gonna cut through the whole branch that is holding us. But no branch can be cut forever without breaking. It is on this foundation of foolishness that the world’s market economy is based: Growth, growth and more growth. Which means more and more consumption. Which means endless cutting. The market is so demanding that we even cut tomorrow’s branches, today.

Basically since the industrial revolution, but more specifically over the last 70 years we have been setting fire to our home. The last 4 years have been the hottest on record. Of course climate change is not new. It has always gone through changes but the difference is the speed at which it is changing. Change used to be so slow that most species could evolve and adapt in time. But not anymore – humans have pushed the fast forward button. In fact, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change, we have 12 years. We have 12 years to radically transform our economy, especially the amount of energy that we use and how we generate it, from coal, oil, and gas to solar and wind. As Ann-Levy Lyons puts it: We need to change “energy from hell to energy from heaven” if we are to prevent an irreversible spiral of destruction.

There is no cheap, easy and comfortable way out of the crisis we have caused but it can still be done. This must be our on-going task.

Grace,
Alan

Mercy knows your name

Mercy knows your name

Jan 27, 2019  |  Covenant Sunday, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Mercy knows your name

Grace and mercy to you

Look what arrived in my junk-email box on Thursday morning:

“Dear Beloved,

I am Mrs. Mercy John from United Kingdom, a 60 years old dying woman who was diagnosed for cancer about 4 years ago. I have decided to donate to you for charitable goals. Please get back to me if you are interested in carrying out this task, so that I can give you more details and arrange the release of the funds to you. Hoping to hearing from you soon.

Best Regards,
Mrs. Mercy John”

Normally I would send such an email straight to trash, but the sender’s name paused my deleting finger mid-air – as mercy does. And I am glad it did because it gave me an opportunity to read the email in full. I can see why it ended up in my junk mail. It is obviously spam and it is obviously a scam of sorts, but on a fuller reading it does contain great grace. And isn’t it just like grace to attach itself to junk and thereby transforming it into a jewel? So here are The Seven Steps from Junk to Jewel:

  1. Although the email is sent to me it is safe to assume that it was sent to many others. The Phisher of people does not discriminate. In other words, the grace and truth, which it bears is for all and not simply for me. What I am saying is – this is your mail too, yes, Mercy knows your address!
  2. Mercy knows your name. Notice the mail addresses us by our correct name by using our original Baptismal name, spoken from the heavens. We are indeed Beloved. This is 100% accurate.
  3. Read again – slowly – the first five words of greeting: “I am Mrs. Mercy John”. As Moses can confirm God’s name is beautifully fixed in the present: “I AM”. “I AM who I AM”. Mrs. Mercy is probably the most accurate description of I AM. ‘God is Mercy’ is a three-word summary of everything Jesus came to teach us about I AM. John? Yes, we still don’t know who exactly John the letter writer is – but John did pen the most succinct character sketch of I AM ever written. Just read: 1 John 4:7-21.
  4. Mercy resides in the United Kingdom. Obviously. I mean where else? A Kingdom that is united where there is “no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised; slave or free; but Christ is all and in all.” Colossians 3:11. As Jesus prayed, “That they may be one as we are one”.
  5. Mercy has never been shy to ask for help. In fact, Mercy’s most frequent request is for partners to partner with her in healing this broken world.
  6. Mercy promises to bless us, to donate to us, to give to us. If this is not grace I don’t know what is, but please notice to what end: “for charitable goals”. Yes, not for our own private benefit but for the common good. Mercy invites us to be a conduit of love and justice.
  7. The next line jarred a bit. I was not expecting Mercy to say: “if you are interested in carrying out this task”. How did gift turn into a task between sentences? Yet on reflection, a truer word has not been spoken, for grace is gift that instantly turns into task the moment it is received… and task in turn releases and realises the grace. Like forgiveness: We are forgiven (gift) as we forgive (task).

So Mercy hopes to hear from us. Isn’t that the truth!?
Alan

Miracles bring life

Miracles bring life

Jan 20, 2019  |  Epiphany, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Miracles bring life

Grace to you

This year began with a remarkable event. A miraculous event. A water-into-wine-event. An ocean-splitting-event in the same proportion as the one of long ago that enabled slaves to scamper into freedom on dry ground. I mean how else would you describe the gathering of 5 million women standing side-by-side covering a distance of 620 km? (Further than Johannesburg to Durban). According to one eyewitness: “There were so many women and there wasn’t even space for women to extend arms. If they had extended their arms, the length of the wall would have increased so much that women would be falling in the Arabian Sea.” This is what took place in India on the 2nd January as women stood in solidarity with two other women (Bindu Ammini and Kankadurga) who entered the Sabarimala Temple. They became the first two women to access the shrine after the country’s Supreme Court overturned a centuries-old ban on women aged 10 to 50 from entering the temple in September last year, ruling it to be discriminatory and arguing that women should be able to pray at the place of their choice.

A line of women stretching over 600 km must be the largest voluntary action in human history. Ironically it could only have happened spontaneously. Who would believe it possible to actually plan such an event? This is a good example of a miracle. A miracle by definition brings life – new life – open life – full life – abundant life. A miracle by definition is a surprise. Yet, even though miracles by nature surprise, they usually take a long time (a hidden amount of time) to be manufactured. Miracles need to be marinated over many nights. There are millions of micro-ingredients that go into the making of a miracle – most of which are unseen by the naked or untrained eye. These ingredients are held together within the plasma of grace. Ignorant of all the ingredients and their relationship with each other we are totally surprised at the result that stretches hundreds of km in front of us. A result we literally didn’t even know was in the making. A miracle we missed being made.

We missed the grace that sustained the dignity of women’s gender equality amidst thousands of years of patriarchy and how this grace was incarnated in the flesh of millions in myriads and myriads of ways. We missed the countless people who courageously, patiently and persistently worked to secure the ground-breaking constitutional court judgment in 2018. We missed the police who defended the constitution rather than their own prejudice. We missed the two who dared to live out their grace-nurtured and constitutionally-defined dignity by walking through the night to reach the 800-year-old mountain top temple in the face of angry mobs of men. We missed multitudes of these hidden and secretive moments of miraculous conception. But the result is impossible to miss.

The result simultaneously becomes an ingredient mixed into the plasma of grace to be used in another surprising show of new life we will call a miracle in the future – the time and place of which is a mystery to us. Remember it is not for us to worry about dates and times but rather to trust and obey in the meantime.

Keeping our eyes open to rejoice in the tiny ingredients we are able to see.

In grace,
Alan

Our past is always present

Our past is always present

Jan 13, 2019  |  Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Our past is always present

Grace to you

Last week we were invited to start again. The gracious and hopeful invitation encapsulated in the word ‘repent’ – a word that if it weren’t so gracious would sue for deformation of character, seen as it is more often spoken as a threat than a gift.

To start again however, does not mean that we cut our past off completely. In fact our past is always present. This applies to many things – but today I simply refer to the wounds we carry with us – that no New Year’s Day has the power to say: “Thus far and no further!” We would be wise to remember that even resurrection does not wipe away the wounds of crucifixion. ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side – says Jesus to Thomas.’

Around this time of year we may have already experienced the stubborn lingering of grief or guilt or anxiety that no New Year’s Day could prevent from following us further into our future. If this is the case, it is a good time to be reminded of our Baptism – as we do each year this time. To recall the indelible watermark of our Heavenly spoken identity: ‘You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.’ This too follows us into our future – faithfully and steadfastly declaring ‘you are lovable’.

I recommend a poem by Jeff Foster as a helpful companion if we find ourselves as the walking wounded. He speaks truthfully about trauma
and healing:

“You do not heal ‘from’ trauma.
You simply come to know yourself
as Life Itself.
And you turn towards the wounded place.
And you flush it with attention,
which is Love.
And maybe the wound will always be with you.
Maybe you will always walk with the hurt.
But now, you hold it. It doesn’t hold you.
You are the container, not the contained.
It doesn’t control you any longer, the wound.
Because it is drenched in awareness now.
Drenched in You.
Loved by You.
Even celebrated by You.

You do not heal ‘from’ trauma.
You find healing ‘in’ the trauma.
You find yourself at trauma’s sacred core.
The One who is always present.
The One who can bear
even the most intense feeling states.
And survive.

The Indestructible One.
The Infinite One.
The Powerful One.
You.”

Grace,
Alan

 

Begin again and again

Begin again and again

Dec 30, 2018  |  Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Begin again and again

Grace to you

Time does what time does. Time ticks. Time ticks at the same rate all the time and yet because we have agreed to categorise time in the way we do – certain of its ticks carry deeper significance; though essentially time is doing what it always does: tick. Our story of time allows for time to start over in various categories: a new second (free from and different to the last second), a new minute, a new hour, a new day, a new week, a new month, and new year (free from and different to the last year). Each ‘start-over’ is a gift reminding us that we too can start over. Even if we are not “into” new year resolutions it is difficult not to silently desire the newness of ‘starting over’ at this time.

During the 10 day Vipassana I participated in a few weeks ago I was struck by how often Goenka (one of the founding teachers) would repeat: “Start again” … “Start again” … “Start again”. They are words of invitation. They are words of hope that this time can be different from the last time. They are words of liberation reminding us that our past does not have to determine our future. They are words of faith – faith in our potential to start over.

Sadly the ‘Christian’ word for ‘start again’ is stained by fear and threat. The word I am referring to is: ‘Repent’. Repent is often used and often heard as a ‘turn or burn’ threat, but it is actually a very beautiful and hopeful and encouraging word. Repent is an invitation for us to turn – to turn around and face a new direction – the direction that leads to fullness of living. Repent believes we can change even when we think we are stuck forever in our ways. Repent is an encouraging whisper, inviting us to: ‘begin … begin again … just begin … just take one step … you can start again … you can start again”.

Today or tomorrow I hope we will carve out some calm from the chaos and seek out silence from the noise to reflect on what it is we are being invited to start again … to repent.

Goenka would also repeat two other phrases over and over again: The first: ‘Practice persistently and patiently’. All things that are meaningful in life take persistent and patient practice. The deep things of life demand dedication, diligence and devotion. In the calm and silence we are invited to reflect on what we are called to practice more persistently and patiently.

The other phrase he would repeat is: ‘Take rest’… ‘Take rest’. There is a time for work and there is a time to take rest. To know when to take rest is as important as knowing when to work. In the calm and silence we are invited to reflect on, that from which we are called to take rest.

Start again …
Practice persistently and patiently …
Take rest …

Be truthful and kind with yourself,
Alan


A House Called Tomorrow

You are not fifteen, or twelve, or seventeen—
You are a hundred wild centuries

And fifteen, bringing with you
In every breath and in every step

Everyone who has come before you,
All the yous that you have been,

The mothers of your mother,
The fathers of your father.

If someone in your family tree was trouble,
A hundred were not:

The bad do not win—not finally,
No matter how loud they are.

We simply would not be here
If that were so.

You are made, fundamentally, from the good.
With this knowledge, you never march alone.

You are the breaking news of the century.
You are the good who has come forward

Through it all, even if so many days
Feel otherwise. But think:

When you as a child learned to speak,
It’s not that you didn’t know words—

It’s that, from the centuries, you knew so many,
And it’s hard to choose the words that will be your own.

From those centuries we human beings bring with us
The simple solutions and songs,

The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies
All in service to a simple idea:

That we can make a house called tomorrow.
What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day,

Is ourselves. And that’s all we need
To start. That’s everything we require to keep going. 

Look back only for as long as you must,
Then go forward into the history you will make.

Be good, then better. Write books. Cure disease.
Make us proud. Make yourself proud.

And those who came before you? When you hear thunder,
Hear it as their applause.

~ Alberto Ríos, 1952

 

We are utterly loved

We are utterly loved

Dec 25, 2018  |  Christmas Day  |  Comments Off on We are utterly loved

Grace and peace to you

Christmas is about Jesus. And Jesus is about the Utterly-Loving-Creator-God’s determined desire for all of creation to know that we are utterly loved.

Like Edwin Markham’s poem: Outwitted
He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

Christmas is God’s outwitting move – drawing the largest of circles that take us in. I hope that each and every one of us will know God’s loving encirclement today.

In this loving encirclement healing resides.

Knowing we live and move and have our being in God’s circle of love liberates us from the fear to love and be loved. And when all is said and done – to love and be loved is what each of us is born for.

We love because we have first been loved. We literally have to be loved into loving. This is the mission of Jesus: to love us into loving.

“Accepting Jesus” means accepting that we are loved…and thus lovable. We are saved from ourselves. “Following Jesus” means loving others as we have been loved…and thus loving. We are saved for others…especially those the world considers unlovable.

In loving encirclement,
Alan


Helpless God – help us

Helpless God as child and crucified,
laid in a cradle and cradled on a cross:
help us discern in your submission
not weakness but the passionate work of love.

You tell us you are poor in every age:
naked, hungry, and without a home.

Help us in your poor cradle of today
to see what is of you and what is not:
that suffering does not often save,
or helplessness redeem our sorry lives.
And so forbid us sing when we should weep.

Yet come to us and all of ours,
O child of Mary and of God,
in all the poor who saw you first,
and laughed with you, and heard you well.
And now run back from nowhere with their news,
to plant their seeds of hope in our dry ground.

~ Michael H. Taylor

 

Prepare the way for the Lord

Prepare the way for the Lord

Dec 23, 2018  |  Advent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Prepare the way for the Lord

Grace to you

John the Baptiser heard the call to “prepare the way for the Lord”. His scriptural instructions were: to smooth the potholed path, to lower the mountainous path and to make straight the crooked path. Sounds like the construction business – road construction to be precise. This is difficult work – hot work – hard work – thankless work – anonymous work … and if you don’t believe me ask yourself when last you ever stopped to get to know and show appreciation for those who disturb the flow of traffic in order to reconstruct a highway or build a bridge?

On 5 December (the anniversary of Mandela’s death as well as Sobukwe’s birth) I spent the night on Robben Island. Pilgrimaging through the cells, I was struck by how many of the political prisoners I had never heard of. Some of them stayed on Robben Island even longer than Mandela! Truly the social con-struction business of preparing the way of the Lord – which is the way of justice, gentleness, generosity, truth, mercy, integrity, radical inclusion, etc. – is often a thankless and anonymous task that demands huge courage and deep humility.

All photographs are of political prisoners on Robben Island are photos of John the Baptiser with different names.

Grace,
Alan

 

Plant gardens when others plant bombs

Plant gardens when others plant bombs

Dec 16, 2018  |  Advent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Plant gardens when others plant bombs

Grace to you

Two weeks back I recommended some Advent-time reading. During Advent-time our imaginations are stretched to include the possibilities of a world where the poor are prioritised and not persecuted and suggested that Tomatoes and Taxi Ranks will help us in this reorientation of our priorities. Advent-time is also most beautifully and powerfully honoured by those who dare to “prefigure” a hoped-for-future in the present. This is wonder-fully captured by a war photojournalist by the name of Lalage Snow in her book: War Gardens – A journey through conflict in search of calm.

Snow honours Advent-time by refusing to deny the horrors of war while at the same time exposing people’s stubbornness against despair as expressed through their daring and caring acts of garden planting.

While interviewing one restorer of gardens in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Snow got the sense that they “were effectively tidying up after two decades of chaos, the conflict erupting around them and all the trappings which skip alongside war were merely an annoyance rather than an existential threat. The restoration almost belittles the war. It says, ‘OK, you guys carry on fighting, we’ve got more important things to sort out.’ If war is anxious, uncertain and terrifying, gardens are the antithesis. They are solid worlds of hope and life, and their gardeners work at a cognitive distance from violence.”

In another interview, Mohammed Kabir is introduced as a gardener for the Kabul municipality. His garden is mostly for subsistence living – beans, potatoes, okra. Snow writes: “’But what about the flowers?’ I point at the messy square of colour in the middle of the courtyard. ‘Well’, Kabir says, ‘I just decided to bring some seeds from my home and plant them in the courtyard. The soldiers helped me to dig and water. I am an old man,’ he reminds me. I ask him why he would make a garden in the ruins of a forgotten palace where only the military and the ghosts will see it. He looks at me as if I’ve asked him to count up to three. ‘Everyone needs a garden. This is our soil. When you work with it, things grow. It’s nature, life. I am a poor man, sometimes my family and I only eat once a day, but I can live without food; I couldn’t live without seeing green leaves and flowers. They come from heaven. Each one,’ he insists ‘is a symbol of paradise. I have a flower in my garden at home and have counted seventy colours in its petals; tell me that it doesn’t come from heaven!’ he exclaims… ‘Since starting this garden I feel I am getting younger. Every tree, every plant, every flower gives me energy.’

Alexi lives in Donetsk in the Ukraine and declares: ‘Tonight I will sleep in the shelter in the ground like my plants.’ While Hamidullah in Parwan, Afghanistan explains: ‘I had a friend in the army, an officer. He was like a brother to me. He was killed, fighting, about a year and a half ago. I was so sad. I … I couldn’t sleep for grief. I tried to garden to forget him but in the end, I planted to remember him and when one grew, it was like I had a new friend.’

Advent-time is planting a garden when others are planting bombs.

Grace,
Alan