Doubt & Faith

Doubt & Faith

Jun 23, 2019  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Doubt & Faith

In praise of doubt

Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I’d like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance

Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it
Left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.

Thus, one day a man stood on the
Unattainable summit
And a ship reached the end of
The endless sea.

O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor’s cure
Of the incurable patient!

But the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent
Raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength of their oppressors.

 (excerpt by Bertolt Brecht, 1932)


I’ve been thinking about Doubt a lot lately. Everything seems to scream and mock from every corner that there is nothing good about doubt. The remedies are many, none more so than having faith it seems which seems to plunge me into the darkest of abyss or on a blind path, like anything can be contained so neatly. As if God could only find me pleasing if I have faith.

And then this poem, it was like every nerve ending stood to attention. At last something I could relate to. It seems to me that Doubt can be BOTH a ‘gift’ and a ‘curse’. Its curse is the continuation or other half of this poem, if you choose to read it to its end. Its curse seems to be a universal human condition of always being certain of one’s own treasured beliefs, holding tightly onto a faith that will not be shaken, even in oneself.

Perhaps it’s not as I have always believed an either… or… but rather a Faith that walks hand in hand with Doubt, both necessary to each other.

Perhaps doubt is rather a Divine gift urging us on to seek and search our inner most beliefs, shaking something deep within ourselves, challenging us to doubt what we have always believed, our certainties, actions, the status quos in this world, enlarging and forcing us at last, to recognise the light within the darkness of ourselves.

Bertolt Brecht was a German playwriter and poet who made popular Epic theatre. The purpose of which was to force the audience to see their world as it is, by using historical contexts and connecting them with current social or political issues. He wanted his audiences to think. He seemed to think we could change the world because to quote him he said (another excerpt) “General, man is very useful. He can fly and he can kill. But he has one defect: He can think.”

Trusting in Doubt
Pam

 

Manifest Christ in our living

Manifest Christ in our living

Jun 16, 2019  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Manifest Christ in our living

Grace to you

In Bristol in the United Kingdom is the oldest Methodist chapel, built in 1739 by John Wesley. It is called the New Room. The Chapel is still in use but is now part of the Museum at the New Room depicting the development of Methodism and the story of the Wesleys. The displays highlight the spiritual work as well as the social issues.

In the museum is a list of “Principles for the 18th century” by John Wesley. The museum added the line: A Political Manifesto for Today? The Principles seem to be a hope-list for the many hope-less, covering a broad catchall of human misery and failure of so many others over centuries, before and after Wesley. It did not only focus on the immediate needs but includes a broader world view.

 It is as relevant today, nearly 300 years later, as then, but more urgently so. Our land and people still weep for lost generations, lost opportunity and lost hope. Education, employment, modern slavery, intolerance, abuse, violence, inequality still destroy life, liberty, living and love. More recently we have become more and more aware of our abuse of our planet and the effects of human induced climate interference. We have also not yet freed ourselves from abusing those made in the image of God, especially women and children. By what principles are we living, if we profess Christ, how do we seek to manifest Christ in our living? What will be said of us in 300 years, or 30?

Moral issues are also raising new frontiers of contention. Politicians, businessmen and other leaders, even in the religious sector, can be blatantly dishonest, lie and cheat and continue in their positions with wheels of intervention turning slowly or not at all. Civil protest and taking a stand continues to be necessary instruments for change. Often, with profound personal consequences.

Martin Prozesky, a local professor, researcher and writer, wrote an article in the City Press titled: The Innocent Until Proven Guilty Fallacy. He writes: “there is a dangerous error about people who are suspected on good grounds of wrongdoing, but who have never been charged or found guilty in a court of law. The error is to claim that one is in fact innocent until proven guilty so that a person can legitimately occupy public office just like anybody with an impeccable legal and moral record. That is not what the law says. Our constitution in section 35, (3) (h) of the Bill of Rights says that every accused person has the right “to be presumed innocent” until proven guilty by a court of law. That is absolutely not the same as actually being innocent … the person is for the time being neither innocent, nor guilty, but in a position between them as if innocent, until law or disciplinary procedures have taken their course. Such a person therefore is actually under a cloud ethically.”

As we view our principles, what are we justifying as a community, or as an individual in relation to our inaction, our prejudice, our bias, and our forgetfulness of Christ in our living and Christ in our lives?

As we consciously try to become more Christ-like in our world, John Wesley challenges us to:

Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
as long as ever you can
.

Grace,
Gilbert

What is your story?

What is your story?

Jun 9, 2019  |  Pentecost, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on What is your story?

Grace and love to you

One evening, a number of years ago, while driving in Kruger Park we came across two lionesses with their cubs. The lionesses were peering very intently into the distance while the cubs played around them. After a while we decided to move on, heading off in the direction the lionesses had been looking. Not more than 200 metres along the road we came across a mother and her two children sitting by the side of the road. It rapidly dawned on us that they were refugees taking their chances at crossing into South Africa through the park. Aware that they were headed straight towards the lionesses we urged them to get into the car. After much persuasion this fearful family eventually climbed in, weak from hunger and dehydration. We were able to connect them with some people leaving the park and know they made it out safely, carrying with them just a small rucksack and the phone number of a contact. Sadly many others like them have not made it alive through the park.

We walk through Greenmarket Square every Sunday to come to church and I find it almost overwhelming to know that nearly every person working there has a story to tell, not only of how they made it into South Africa, but of the desperation that made them take the chances they did. These very courageous people have become our neighbours… in every sense of the word.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, a God-coming moment when we remember visitors from all over the world coming to Jerusalem and marvelling as they heard their own languages being spoken, telling of God and God’s wonderful ways. I’m not suggesting that we all learn to speak Lingala, Swahili, French, Somali, or Arabic, although that would not be a bad thing, but I wonder what language our visitors from various parts of Africa hear from us in South Africa.

So far it has been a language of indifference, hate, disregard, exclusion, avoidance and ignorance. They hear this language through their treatment by home affairs as they stand in queues from early morning till late only to have to return the next day and the next. They hear it in the exclusion of their young people from tertiary education because they have not been able to obtain I.D. books and therefore do not qualify for bursaries and grants. They hear it as their shops are burnt and those who were their customers one day become their killers the next. They hear it when they are made to pay private fees at hospitals because the system does not acknowledge their refugee status. They hear it in their exclusion from SONA speeches. They hear it… over and over and over.

Yet all over the world God is coming to us in the guise of a refuge-seeker yearning for us to open our arms to do everything we can to welcome those with whom God identifies. God comes to ask us, to plead with us, to speak a language that conveys a different message. A language that says, “We see you. You are welcome. You are home.”

May we learn to take God seriously…
Joan

Finding free space and time

Finding free space and time

Jun 2, 2019  |  Ascension, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Finding free space and time

Grace to you

Every seven years Methodist ministers are given a three-month sabbatical. My sabbatical starts tomorrow and I will be away until the middle of August. This is my third sabbatical and each time I realise that it is not only a gift to myself but also for the congregation. For a congregation who listens to me preach week in and week out, I think it is important to hear different voices telling different stories from different perspectives. If there is anything that I say that is truthful then at most it is just a tiny slither of a much larger and brighter Light. Listening to varied voices will thicken our faith and stretch our understanding. So over the next 10 weeks there will be a different voice every week – my hope is that we will be open to hear new truth.

I can’t easily imagine life without the rhythm of sermon preparation each week. This discipline is so engrained in my being which is both a gift and danger. The gift is that it keeps me rowing out into the depths each week – even when I would prefer to splash around in the shallows. The danger is that the rhythm is so engrained it can be little more than a habit on auto-pilot or a task to tick off each week or perhaps even worse, a show to put on for your entertainment.

The purpose of a sabbatical is not only to relax and rest which is of course crucial for renewed vitality – but also to revisit areas neglected and review areas of focus: Basically to unplug and push the reset button to be ready for a new season.

In the past I have filled my sabbaticals with much activity and new experiences. This time round when I have tried to make plans they all felt like an avoidance strategy. So I have no plans. And I am hoping to stick to that plan. To embrace emptiness. To welcome nothingness. To face boredom. To wander the wilderness.

In the Bible the people were instructed to let the fields lie fallow every 7th year. One definition of fallow is: land left unseeded after being ploughed and harrowed to regain fertility for a crop. Renewed fertility is the aim of fallow.

Winnie the Pooh puts it simply: “Doing nothing leads to the best kind of something”. This is my hope that nothing will lead me to something. I look forward to returning fertile for a crop…

Grace,
Alan


“O persistent God,
deliver me from assuming your mercy is gentle
pressure me that I may grow more human,
not through the lessening of my struggles,
But through the expansion of them.

That will undamn me
and unbury my gifts.
Deepen my hurt
until I learn to share it
and myself
openly,
and my needs honestly.
Sharpen my fears
until I name them
and release the power I have locked in them
and they in me.

Accentuate my confusion
until I shed those grandiose expectations
that divert me from the small, glad gifts
of the now and the here and the me.

Expose my shame where it shivers,
crouched behind the curtains of propriety,
until I can laugh at last through my common frailties
and failures,
laugh my way toward becoming whole.

O persistent God let how much it all matters pry me off dead center so if I am moved inside to tears or sighs or screams or smiles or dreams they will be real and I will be in touch with who I am and who you are and who my sisters and brothers are.

O God, help me to believe in beginnings and in my beginning again, no matter how often I’ve failed before…help me to make a beginning and to be a beginning for others.”

~ Ted Loder

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

What gardening has taught me

What gardening has taught me

May 5, 2019  |  Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on What gardening has taught me

I recently attended a conference hosted by the Mediterranean Garden Society in Portugal.

I have lived and gardened in a Mediterranean type climate, that is the Cape Peninsula, for eight years now and it was an opportunity to listen and talk to people who garden in other Mediterranean type climates around the world.

So places like W. and S. Australia, Chile, S. California and of course the Mediterranean itself.

My gardening and spiritual journeys are closely intertwined ones. What gardening in Cape Town has taught me is to look truthfully at the unique vegetation that surrounds us and work with the natural rhythms that a Mediterranean type climate produces.

Most importantly this means accepting the fact that we live in a part of the world that experiences summer dormancy. This natural dormancy is brought on by heat, no rain and in the case of the Cape Peninsula, a consistent and strong S.E. wind that blows from October through March.

It makes perfect sense that the plants hibernate during this tough period and then emerge in autumn when the growing conditions improve.

As a gardener I battled to get my head around this simple truth and was determined to create a beautiful garden during summer, because that is when my clients and I spend most time in the garden. So I spent at least five years bashing my head against that wall.

Walking on Table Mountain helped shift this mind set; and now I look forward to the summer months as a time of doing other work and letting the garden rest and recuperate. I no longer see neat and green lawns as part of the Mediterranean style of gardening, but rather use chipped-up bark or gravel to carpet pathways and open spaces. I also now see how the endemic vegetation is perfectly adapted to these summer dormancy periods and hate getting watered during the summer months.

It has been about accepting this truth and seeing that there is as much beauty in the dormant cycle of a garden as there is during the growing phase, which here in the Cape, is during our winter.

But what was the most enlightening aspect of the conference was to change my approach to how I prepare soil, ahead of planting.

My horticultural training at the Natal Technikon, was based on a traditional European system that has its methods deeply entrenched in the Royal Horticultural Society’s way of doing things. It formed an important foundation of my training and has stood me in good stead for over 30 years now.

An important tool when preparing soil is the garden fork. The action of forking over the soil is very effective, but it turns the soil away from you as you progress.

There is an element of detachment about it.

In the Mediterranean and in Africa, the dominant tool used when preparing soil is the hoe. The hoe is a tool that brings the soil towards you and therefore connects you visually with the earth that you are working with. You will therefore be able to pick up problems or see changes in the soil as you work.

The hoe is a much more intuitive and nurturing tool to work with, compared to a fork.

When I saw this simple truth, I realised that I have only ever used a fork and while this approach has worked, I decided it is time for me to put away the fork and pick up a hoe, a tool I have never used in my life.

Growing up in rural KwaZulu-Natal I was surrounded by women working the soil, intuitively, with their hoes and it made me aware of how I had never seen this very simple but obvious truth.

Jesus encourages us to follow our intuition and to constantly question and possibly reject our traditional training.

Grace, Athol

Resurrection

Resurrection

Apr 28, 2019  |  Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Resurrection

Grace and peace to you

Resurrection can be terrifying. According to the Gospels, “terror” was the most common response to the news of Jesus’ resurrection. The first responders had to be told repeatedly: “Do not be afraid!” One would think that resurrection would provoke uncontrollable celebration but it was not so. Why terror? I do not know why, but I do know that it is a question worth living with. As Rilke says: “Do not strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future.”

I am however aware of other resurrections that I experience as terrifying. The first is the terrifying resurrection of stuff that we bury in ourselves. We all have childhood experiences of great significance – often of some trauma or other – buried in the inner recesses of our being. We bury not only the events / emotions but also our patterned coping mechanism in response to the events that we relied on to “save” ourselves. We can continue to turn to these protecting patterns to rescue ourselves each time we experience trauma or hints of trauma throughout our life. As we get older these “saving” patterns become less and less appropriate, for what is acceptable and understandable for a child may be quite the opposite for an adult. What used to protect us may now imprison us. What used to save now shames. These wounds and patterns finally resurrect. The stone of denial is rolled away. They glow refusing to be ignored. It is terrifying to see our own vulnerability and our attempts at hiding this vulnerability, as well as witness the hurt and damage this has caused others and ourselves in the process. This inner-body-resurrection is terrifying but ultimately it is for our healing and liberation.

The second resurrection we see every day bursts out from tombs of poverty and discrimination. The unaddressed legacy of oppression in South Africa rightly refuses to go quietly into the night. Instead it rages against the darkness of unacknowledged injustice and failed promises of deliverance. After 25 years the rage reminds us that the pain of the past is not past. This resurrection confronts our systemic death. Rage is terrifying to witness, yet it carries the hopeful expectation for new life.

Robert MacFarlane magnificently describes a third form of resurrection that is terrifying in his latest book entitled: Underland. Written with the purpose to “actively ‘unconceal’ the traces of our fast-altering world: its untimely surfacings, its entombments.” In a recent Guardian article MacFarlane explains: “We live in an age of untimely surfacings. Across the Arctic, ancient methane deposits are leaking through “windows” in the earth opened by thawing permafrost… [last year] water levels in the River Elbe dropped so far that “hunger stones” were revealed – carved boulders used since the 1400s to commemorate droughts and warn of their consequences. One of the stones bears the inscription “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” (If you see me, weep). In northern Greenland, an American cold war missile base – sealed under the ice 50 years ago with the presumption that snow accumulation would entomb it for ever, and containing huge volumes of toxic chemicals – has begun to move towards the light.”

MacFarlane continues: “These Anthropocene unburials, as I have come to think of them, are proliferating around the world. Forces, objects and substances thought safely confined to the underworld are declaring themselves above ground with powerful consequences. It is easy to aestheticise such events, curating them into a Wunderkammer of weirdness. But they are not curios – they are horror shows. Nor are they portents of what is to come – they are the uncanny signs of a crisis that is already here, accelerating around us and experienced most severely by the most vulnerable.”

Resurrection can be terrifying. It can be a horror show. Yet acknowledging what we have hidden buried is ultimately the first step to new Life. May we be set free from fear.

Grace,
Alan

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.