Start something beautiful

Start something beautiful

March 18, 2018  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Start something beautiful

Grace to you

Thank you to all those who sponsored me to ride the Cape Town Cycle Tour on behalf of Stepping Stones Children’s Centre. Together we raised R43540.00!

Truth be told, I get a bit anxious about the ride each year. It’s a bit manic and the crashes that one inevitably witnesses don’t do the nerves any good. I prefer the solitude and silence of cycling on my own. Yet on Sunday something beautiful happened to me. Let me try and explain: Arguably one of the most import skills in cycling is the ability to secure a position behind another cyclist. This is called “slip-streaming” or “drafting”. This is the reason cyclists form bundles – ever-seeking a place behind the next and “shelter from the storm” [as Bob Dylan would say]. Slip-streaming not only shields one from headwinds [thankfully there was no wind on Sunday], but actually “sucks” the drafting cyclist along. Drafting typically saves about a third of a following rider’s energy. If three or more riders are in single file, the riding gets easier the farther back you are. When the speed is up, the bundle thins out into a long train and if you are out of the slip-stream it will pass you by in a flash. And here is the real frustrating part: they fly past you while using less effort. This would even make a Zen Monk lose their sense of mindfulness.

So, on Sunday around 10 km into the ride when the “bundle” was long and thin and fast I was watching the train steam past me. While trying my utmost to keep up next to it, I was pretty much going backwards. Then I heard a voice from behind me: “Hey Alan you want to come in? Slip in in-front of me…”. A cyclist made room and the next second, I was in the train going faster while using less energy which is equivalent to the joy of a Zen Monk reaching full enlightenment.

Now I know that this is quite a trivial event, but it touched me nevertheless. For a second, I forgot that my name was printed on my race number on the back of my jersey, so when I heard my name I was very surprised. To have a complete stranger be thoughtful enough to call me by my name made this act of kindness an act of intimacy. Suddenly, the race and the position and the speed was transcended by something truly beautiful. Yes, beauty caresses way above its weight.

I noticed two things that flowed from this truly beautiful something: First, I found myself smiling each time it came to mind – even while going up parts of Suikerbossie (obviously not all of it because I am not a Zen Monk). Second, for the rest of the ride I looked for opportunities to let other riders onto the train, inviting them by name to get on board.

For the people who start something beautiful within us and through us I am grateful…
Alan

How are you feeling?

How are you feeling?

March 11, 2018  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on How are you feeling?

Grace to you

If for any reason you are feeling torn or stuck or lost or simply drifting along or disconnected or uprooted or in-between, I hope you will take comfort in this poem by Judy Brown:

Trough

There is a trough in waves,
A low spot
Where horizon disappears
And only sky
And water
Are our company.

And there we lose our way
Unless
We rest, knowing the wave will bring us
To its crest again.

There we may drown
If we let fear
Hold us within its grip and shake us
Side to side,
And leave us flailing, torn, disoriented.

But if we rest there
In the trough,
Are silent,
Being with
The low part of the wave,
Keeping
Our energy and
Noticing the shape of things,
The flow,
Then time alone
Will bring us to another
Place
Where we can see
Horizon, see the land again,
Regain our sense
Of where
We are,
And where we need to swim.

Judy Brown

In the dips of life Brown invites us to rest. She reminds us that our lives are not the only moving parts – that if we still ourselves we will still be moved. It’s counter-intuitive.

The trough is not to be denied, but nor is it to be feared. Brown reminds us that fear is fatal and being lost or overwhelmed is manageable. 

Rest and silence gift us with insight. We see and observe and notice. We are given fresh perspective as we come to discover our bearings. The wave doesn’t deliver us – we still need to swim – but at least now we have energy and clarity of direction.

Grace,
Alan

 

Rocking foundations

Rocking foundations

March 4, 2018  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Rocking foundations

Grace to you

The bell in the CMM steeple has not sounded since 1897. Apparently when the 3.5-ton bell rings it shakes the foundations of the nearby buildings. Deemed a safety risk, it was silenced. The bell is a reminder of what a Church is meant to do, and that is to shake the foundations of the surrounding society as it sounds the Divine call for justice and mercy for all.

Seeing as we are not allowed to ring the bell, we decided a few years ago to use the well-positioned steeple in a different way, yet hopefully in a way that still shakes the foundations of our society. We decided to hang bright yellow banners from the steeple to call attention to various issues of injustice and suffering. Often we would partner with civil society organisations that were involved in engaging the particular issue we were addressing. We also seek to address the issue from a uniquely theological perspective. This week is no different.

It is crucially important for the church to join the call for the de-criminalisation of sex-work for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that the scriptures are very clear that we are to safeguard the lives of the most vulnerable and stand in solidarity with those that society in general treats as outcasts. To state the obvious, sex-workers are some of the most vulnerable people in our society who are consistently treated as outcasts.

The basis of our protection and care for the well-being of sex-workers is rooted in the theological fact that all human beings are engraved with the indelible image of God and therefore are to be treasured as the priceless gifts they are. In other words, our care for another has nothing to do with how they live and everything to do with the mere fact they are alive.

The Gospels are full of Jesus doing exactly this, over and over again. The outcasts of his day were so grateful for his welcoming invitation, affirming word and loving touch, but this caused much displeasure among the religious of his day as it does to this day. Yes the church is often better known for its judgement and rejection of the social outcast than loving solidarity. In other words, the church is often the one who throws the first stone! Sadly this is often done in the name of Jesus – the same Jesus who saved a woman whom the law had criminalised – from being stoned by religious men. By intervening, Jesus effectively de-criminalised her in that moment.

Now, if we are to protect the vulnerable and stand in solidarity with the outcast, then surely we must also oppose that which contributes to their vulnerability and outcast status. The criminalisation of sex-work does just this, and more, including violent abuse. For example, sex-workers are often abused by law enforcement (SAPS, Metro Cops and even security guards) by demanding sexual favours for sparing arrest, or securing early release.

The criminalisation of sex-work also disempowers the sex-worker to demand clients to practice safe-sex, thus adding to the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. [In fact according to research in the Lancet Medical Journal the de-criminalisation of sex-work could prevent between 1/3 and almost ½ of all new HIV infections globally in the next 10 years among sex-workers and clients.] Furthermore the criminalisation of sex-work contributes towards increased prejudice against them from both individuals and also service institutions like healthcare facilities. This may cause some not to seek out care when they are sick or injured placing their lives at great risk.

Finally on a simple level of logic: The criminalisation of sex-work has not eradicated sex-work as it intended to do and nor will it ever do so. So why would anyone continue to support a law that cannot ever do what it aims to do, yet in the process of repeatedly trying it causes such terrible harm?

Grace,
Alan

Merry-go-round-wonder

Merry-go-round-wonder

February 25, 2018  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Merry-go-round-wonder

Grace to you

Titus Masika lives in the small village of Yatta in Ukambani in Eastern Kenya. The Yatta catchment area is a semi-arid area and long considered to be one of the poorest in Kenya.

Between the years 2000-2005 he began a process of reflection over the plight of Africa and the people of Ukambani.

“My Kamba community was caught in the web of stagnation. We have become reliant on relief food, and political contestations were often around who would supply food in order to get our votes. We had become reliant on rain-fed agriculture and the erratic nature of rainfall had closed our eyes to new possibilities.”

As a priest, people from the village would often ask Masika to pray for rain. They would also question him on why God had not blessed them with enough rain. “Was God or the spirits punishing them?” – they would ask. Masika’s reply was that God does send us enough rain but the problem is that we fail to catch it.

So at the heart of Masika’s transformation plan was to “catch” or harvest the little rain that did fall by building numerous dams. Perhaps ‘dam’ is too big or deep a word to use. We are talking swimming pool size holes in the ground – that could be easily dug out by a family using picks and spades. Some that were built through the collective effort of the whole community were a little larger.

The first to embrace this idea of ‘catching’ the rain were the elderly women of the community. “We believed that we could do it ourselves through the merry-go-round approach, we went around each homestead assisting one another to dig up water pans. Slowly we moved from digging a few earth dams to more than 3000 water dams in 4 years.”

The number of women involved in the project had also grown from 45 to around 3000 of all ages from all over Yatta. The dams became a stable source of irrigation.

“These dams have made it possible for us to plant and harvest and sell crops all year round. We have enough food to eat and extra to sell and earn a decent income. Our crops include: sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cassava, watermelon, mangoes, paw-paw, sunflower among many others…”

From an impoverished semi-arid region to an all year round provider of a rich variety of food, is a story in the biblical class of water into wine.

In the last week we were told that “Day Zero” has been pushed out even further – now in July. I wonder if we are not witnessing the biblical promise of abundance that takes place when those who have much (too much!) faithfully fast which enables there to be enough for all. The water through our taps will continue to flow like an eternal spring as long as we take only what we need. Need and not want. Need and not greed! This is another form of the merry-go-round approach. A fasting so all may have enough. This is what Lent is all about.

With merry-go-round wonder,
Alan

The reeds win!

The reeds win!

February 18, 2018  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on The reeds win!

Grace and peace to you

President Zuma has resigned. It happened on Wednesday. Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. Repentance means to turn around. It does not mean to “be sorry”. That is remorse. Remorse is not repentance. Often remorse and repentance may go together, but not always. On Wednesday they did not go together! But no doubt about it there was a huge turn around between Zuma’s delusional and defensive rant in the afternoon and his resignation in the evening. Regardless of the cause and reason for the change and regardless of him showing zero sign of remorse, we can be grateful that there was in fact a turn around that I have no doubt saved lives.

When a person is completely out of touch with the truth of their living they become a danger to everyone around them. When the anchor of their conscience has pulled loose from their moorings they float any way the pre-dominant wind blows and self-interested tide determines. They inevitably bump into anything and everything in their way causing great damage. When principle ceases to determine direction the engine may continue to roar but there is no constructive movement – certainly no movement forward, like when a propeller is entangled in the reeds.

Reeds! Reeds are thin and scrawny strings reaching up from the depths ever-seeking out the light on the surface of the waters. They appear quite insignificant, especially in the face of a powerfully spinning propeller. Yet when a couple of them get together they have the capacity to stall and stop the most powerful of engines. They are smart and wily and above all endlessly courageous. They are not naïve. They know some of them will be cut up and spat out but they also know with cement-like conviction that it is the propeller’s own spinning that will tie itself up in a nasty knot. It is only a matter of time and pressure. The reeds trust through their many doubts that in the end history will smile gratefully on them.

This week I smile gratefully at the journalists, judiciary and activists who with cement-like conviction in their depths courageously searched for the light. Some, at great cost and having to overcome huge waves of fear and intimidation stretched themselves, reaching up reed-like, into the spinning turbulence of corrupting power.

We have witnessed the purring engine begin to splutter…to slow…to stall…to stop?

The reeds win! As in ancient times the Hebrew slaves scampered through the Red Sea to freedom. Interestingly, another name for the Red Sea is the Reed Sea. The reeds win! As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever amen.

This does not mean we have arrived. To stop going in the wrong direction does not mean we are going in the right direction. But it does give us a moment – an Ash Wednesday moment – that invites us to repent. To turn around and to reset our sights on what is just and true.

Written with reed-like certainty,
Alan

The World is Sacred

The World is Sacred

March 5, 2017  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on The World is Sacred

Grace and peace to you and through you

Last week we were reminded of our human tendency to want to booth or box or contain mystery – as Peter suggested to Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration. Religion / faith is meant to awaken us to mystery – and to open us up to the “more-ness” of life and wonder and God. Yet sadly it has too often been used to contain and manage the mystery – as well as determining access to the mystery. The Divine voice will have none of this … and proceeds to interrupt Peter mid-suggestion!

The whole world is our sanctuary. There is no place more sacred than any other place. All burst with the presence of the Holy. The Holy Land is not a place to visit but ALL land to value. Let us focus on the miracle of LIFE and not simply miracles in life.

Last week in reading from Brian Keenan’s passionate and moving book, An Evil Cradling, in which Keenan wrote about his experience of being held hostage in Beirut, often in solitary confinement. After an interminable time of sitting in the dark, Keenan is brought some small oranges:

“My eyes are almost burned by what I see. The fruit, the colours, mesmerize me in a quiet rapture that spins through my head … I lift an orange into the flat filthy palm of my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange. Before me is a feast of colour. I feel myself begin to dance, slowly, I am intoxicated by colour… Such wonder, such absolute wonder in such insignificant fruit. I cannot, I will not eat this fruit. I sit in quiet joy, so completely beyond the meaning of joy. My soul finds its own completeness in that bowl of colour … I want to bow before it, loving that blazing, roaring, orange colour … In there in that tiny bowl, the world recreated in that tiny bowl … I focus all of my attention on that bowl of fruit … I cannot hold the ecstasy of the moment and its passionate intensity … I am filled with a sense of love.” (pp. 231-2)

An orange is holy. An orange is a miracle to behold. An orange should bring us to our knees with reverence.

As we come to kneel before bread and wine today – let us do so knowing that all bread and wine is sacred and that all meals with our neighbour are holy. We come to the Lord’s Table to learn the significance of every table. As we ponder the mystery of this meal on our knees, we commit to reflect on the mystery of every meal that nourishes our bodies and gifts us with life. This Lenten time invites us to be attentive to the mystery and miracle of life…

Grace,
Alan

Shadow and Light

Shadow and Light

March 22, 2015  |  Lent  |  Comments Off on Shadow and Light

Grace and Peace to you

Last week we explored a little bit of Jungian psychology in the sermon. It went something like this: Where there is light there is also shadow. The brighter the light the deeper the shadow. In other words we cannot make light without a corresponding darkness. For Jung the light was the conscious and the shadow was our unconscious. It is important to note that the shadow is not all negative – it includes both negative and positive – yet simply that which has been cut off from our consciousness for whatever reason – quite often to conform to our surrounding culture.

Sadly many of us have grown up with an understanding that in order to be holy we must delete (which often means deny) the ‘bad’ within us. But it is impossible to cut off the shadow (as pointless as trying to run away from our own shadow!). True holiness is the owning and embracing of our shadow. This is why if we read the journals of those who we call Saints, they write extensively about their shadow – they own it – and in so doing they don’t have any need to project it onto anyone else causing great harm – thus they are Saints.

Jung also taught us that the unconscious cannot discern the difference between a real act and a symbolic one which is good news because it means that we can honour our shadow (because it demands to be honoured as much as its corresponding light) in symbolic ways.

Good theology makes for good psychology! Every week we move through an order of service that helps us own and honour our shadow. We always start by acknowledging the great grace of God that then frees us to be bold to explore our dark side which we do through confession. Confession is nothing short of bringing to consciousness that which we are most inclined to deny and delete. The Cross is the ultimate sign of our shadow side – as we projected our sin onto Jesus. Churches that exclude confession from their worship or who leave the Cross out of the sanctuary in the hope to make the congregation feel as comfortable as possible, perpetuate the unhealthy denial of our shadow. We will be doomed to project it onto others and in the process causing enormous harm. The aim of confession is not about guilt as much as it is about grief. We are invited to grieve the death within us and what we cause around us. It is grace that will bring us to grief and grace that will bring us through grief to joy.

Grace, Alan

Jesus is the way

Jesus is the way

March 15, 2015  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Jesus is the way

Grace and Peace to you

We are fast approaching Holy Week. As usual we will begin this final week of Lent with the showing of a movie on Palm Sunday evening (29 March). Our Holy Week journey to the Cross and Empty Tomb will include evening reflections on The Jesus Way. The basis for our reflections will be Eugene Peterson’s book entitled: “The Jesus Way” — a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way.

Peterson writes: “The world as such has no interest in following the crucified King. Not that there isn’t plenty of lip-service offered along the way across a spectrum ranging from presidents to pastors. But when it comes down to an actual way of life, most of the language turns out to be court protocol — nothing to do with the way we actually order our affairs. Those of us who understand ourselves as followers of Jesus seem to be particularly at risk of discarding Jesus’ ways and adopting the world’s ways when we are given a job to do or mission to accomplish, when we are supposed to get something done “in Jesus’ name”. Getting things done is something that the world is very good at doing. We hardly notice that these ways and means have been worked out by men and women whose ambitions and values and strategies for getting things done in this world routinely fail the “in Jesus’ name” test. Once we start paying attention to Jesus’ ways, it doesn’t take us long to realise that following Jesus is radically different from following anyone else.”


During the week of 29 March — 5 April we are invited to be attentive to the intensity of Jesus final days. To help us keep focused, I encourage us to fast during this week. Our fast can take various forms. We could change when we eat, what we eat and how much we eat. The purpose of fasting is not to self-justify ourselves but rather to tune ourselves into the remarkableness of Jesus’ journey.

Grace, Alan

Marked by Ashes

Marked by Ashes

March 8, 2015  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Marked by Ashes

Marked by Ashes

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given,
or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness
and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day,
for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around
on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with some confidence,
only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

~ Walter Brueggemann

 

We are grateful to Lee Slabber for the picture.

Wade into the Psalms

Wade into the Psalms

March 1, 2015  |  Lent, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Wade into the Psalms

Grace and Peace to you

Last week we reflected on the Psalms. Psalm 25 to be specific. We noted that Psalms are better pondered than preached. They are best prayed or sung than read. There is a depth to Psalms that cannot be known, explained or explored by reading them as mere prose. They must be felt to be understood. We need open hearts and not simply alert minds.

They demand that we drill down into the words and not merely brush their letters on the surface. The Psalmist cries “Deep cries to deep”. And that is how it is. We are most often drawn to the Psalms when we find ourselves in the depths. And I can say with confidence that the Psalms will always be able to go the deep distance with us. They will never forsake us to our darkness.

Strange that what brings us comfort through the Psalms (most of them anyway) is not the voice of God addressing us but the voice of the Psalmist addressing God. We find comfort in the rawness of the truth spoken. We find courage in knowing that we are not alone — that another has tread this path before us. The Psalms give us permission to speak what we would otherwise think is unthinkable or blasphemous. This was true for Jesus too who turned to Psalms in his distress from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Psalm 22:1].

This Lent we are invited to seek silence — to contemplate our faith and life. This is the cry of Lent to each of us. The Psalms are a wise companion in introducing us to our human condition.

Go on, wade into the Psalms and don’t come out until you are drenched.

Grace, Alan.


Prayerful Preparation

“Contemplation cannot construct a new world by itself. Contemplation does not feed the hungry; it does not clothe the naked … and it does not return the sinner to peace, truth, and union with God.

But without contemplation we cannot see what we do in the apostolate. Without contemplation we cannot understand the significance of the world in which we must act. Without contemplation we remain small, limited, divided, partial: we adhere to the insufficient, permanently united to our narrow group and its interests, losing sight of justice and charity, seized by the passions of the moments, and, finally, we betray Christ.

Without contemplation, without the intimate, silent, secret pursuit of truth through love, our action loses itself in the world and becomes dangerous.”

~ Thomas Merton