Where do we draw the line?

Where do we draw the line?

May 26, 2019  |  Aldersgate Sunday, Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Where do we draw the line?

Grace to you

When I finished preaching last Sunday – someone in the congregation called out: “But where do we draw the line?” The book of Acts records the early church wrestling with this very question: Who is in and who is out? Who is welcome and who is not? Where do we draw the line?

In fact the first Synod, called the Council of Jerusalem, had only one item on the agenda: “Are uncircumcised people welcome as is?” Peter thankfully convinced the assembly that God “made no distinction between them and us” [Acts 15:9].

The same question has topped the agenda of many synods since. Of course the issue is no longer circumcision but something else that is used to other and exclude, like gender. Regardless of the difference in ‘category’ it’s the same question: Does God make a distinction between us or not? “Where do we draw the line?”

Sadly, history shows that as we learn that God does not make a distinction between others and us in one area, we find another area to make distinctions in and we have to learn the lesson all over again. The lesson being that we have done evil believing we were doing good and we have caused pain while thinking we were being kind.

We seem to need endless reminding that God’s including mercy and love is for all – and all actually does mean all. This is why we often sing the hymn, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind.

At our 190th Synod last week we witnessed the incarnation of God’s wide mercy among us as women were elected into the office of Bishop and Presiding Bishop. A great celebration even though long overdue. We also voted overwhelmingly for our Church to stop discriminating against LGBTI clergy and in favour of allowing LGBTI clergy to enter into a civil union – while the church continues to wrestle with its theology around marriage. (Please note that these decisions are not the new policy of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa because they would need to first be debated and accepted at our Conference in September for that to be the case. But this localised expression of God’s mercy at our Cape of Good Hope Synod is not without significance.)

Jesus crossed every possible distinction and barrier of his times – so nothing less is expected of those of us who desire to follow him.

Grace,
Alan

Practice Resurrection

Practice Resurrection

May 19, 2019  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Practice Resurrection

Grace to you

In the light of our Resurrection Reflections over the last few weeks here is a folktale to help us reach truth and a poem to help us practice resurrection:

“When the world was still young, Truth walked around as naked as she was the day she was born. Whenever she came close to a village, people closed their doors and shut their windows, for everyone was afraid to face the Naked Truth. Understandably Truth felt very alone and lonesome. One day she encountered Story who was surrounded by a flock of people of all ages who followed her wherever she went. Truth asked her, ‘‘Why is it that people love you, but shy away from me?’’ Story, who was dressed in beautiful robes, advised Truth: ‘‘People love colourful clothes. I will lend you some of my robes and you will see that people will love you too.’’ Truth followed her advice and dressed herself in the colourful robes of Story. It is said that from this day on, Truth and Story always walk together and that people love both of them.”

(Adapted from WEINREICH, B. (1997). Yiddish folktales. New York, NY: Schocken.)


Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbours and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from 
The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry

Grace,
Alan

Truth and grace lead to resurrection

Truth and grace lead to resurrection

May 12, 2019  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Truth and grace lead to resurrection

Grace to you

Two weeks ago 2x Olympic Champion Caster Semenya lost her appeal against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Accordingly if Semenya is to compete in distances from 400m to a mile she will be forced to reduce her natural levels of testosterone. History will show this to be a terrible act of discrimination. As some have said, this decision is the “Sara Baartman” moment of the 21st century. Thankfully organisations like the World Medical Association have come out against the judgment and warn that any doctor who complies with the (IAAF) regulations, in relation to any athlete, will be breaking their oath to “do no harm”. Hopefully it does not take long for sanity to prevail so that people like Semenya can be free to do what they love – run fast.

In these days of Easter I was struck by a resurrection story that is connected to Caster Semenya. A story not dissimilar to the resurrection of Saul that we reflected on last Sunday: Remember Saul’s breath? He had a murderous breath towards those who were different to him. He wanted to correct, change and control other people who were worshipping and praying in different ways to himself. For Saul, difference was to be “regulated” rather than “celebrated”. His Damascus road resurrection took a while because it not only involved hearing heavenly truth but also personally meeting the people he believed should be corrected, changed and controlled. Deeper truth and grace-full relationship finally unlocked Saul from his tomb of deathly prejudice.

The two ingredients of grace and truth continue to resurrect people. Take for example of the resurrection of Madeleine Pape from Australia who competed against Semenya at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin. Pape said: “I was sore about losing to Caster Semenya … her performance [was] unfair”. Four years later she was doing her PhD in Sociology and began to learn the “heavenly” truth about women with naturally high testosterone. This deeper truth brought her to question her previously held convictions. Then, “critically, during this time I also befriended some women with high testosterone. [The question arose for me] “Was I willing to recognise my friends as women outside of sport yet deny them the right to compete alongside me on the track?”, reasoned Pape. Now she declares what is unfair is not Semenya’s performance but the way she is being treated. Truth (PhD) and Grace-full relationship (Friends) have resurrected Pape from her deathly othering of Semenya.

Now as we work and pray for the resurrection of the (IAAF) what about the church? The (IAAF) is an organisation that prevents Semenya to do what she loves – namely run. The Church is an organisation that prevents Semenya to love who she loves – namely Violet Raseboya – Semenya’s wife. Surely the Church is in far greater need to be resurrected?

Grace,
Alan

Picture: OkMzanzi  |  EPA/John G. Mabanglo

Parental love

Apr 21, 2019  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Parental love

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) told beautifully in bronze by
Margaret Adams Parker on the campus of Duke Divinity School, North Carolina, USA.

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

Apr 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

Apr 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

Apr 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?

Apr 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!

Apr 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