Celebrate don't Regulate

Celebrate don’t Regulate

September 9, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Celebrate don’t Regulate

Grace to you

Last week we listened to the beautiful, sensual and erotic literature of Song of Songs. We heard the strong voice of a woman passionately sing of her sexual desires. There is no shame or judgement in her voice. She sings with joy and delight. This front-of-stage location of a woman’s voice is unprecedented in the whole of scripture.

A literal reading of Song of Songs affirms human sexuality as God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. By refusing to take the Song of Songs literally, biblical interpreters fail to affirm the flesh as good and perpetuate the false belief that bodily pleasure is wrong or at least less spiritual. Sexuality divorced from spirituality results in our spirituality being less likely to shape our sexuality. When this occurs, sex as gift, gives way to sex as performance, conquest and commodity.

Sadly the church has been more focused on regulating sexuality than celebrating sexuality. Fear and anxiety, denial and repression have determined the bulk of religious discussions on sexuality. This is more hurtful than helpful, and in this area of our lives people already carry too many wounds. As Jo Ind writes in Memories of Bliss: “We are all wounded. We are all vulnerable in matters of the groin.” For some of us it is also the area we have wounded others most acutely.

To regulate more than to celebrate is like an artist focusing more on the frame surrounding a painting than on the painting itself. This is both odd and unnecessary, for if we are moved by a painting’s priceless beauty, we will know it needs a special frame to hold it and with delight rather than duty we will seek one out.

The poet Marge Piercy in her poem, The Seven of Pentacles invites us to: “Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses. Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.” If we are going to learn to “make love that is loving” we first need to embrace our sexuality as the magnificent mysterious and glorious gift that it is, as Jo Ind does in telling her lover: “Yes you may bow down before my awesome, mysterious body and my clear, original mind; you may honour my story, be tender with my wounds, cherish my yearnings and unspoken dreams; you may pay homage to my magical juicings and pungent smells, the secret caverns and magnificent connections of my resplendent sexuality.”

Secondly we need to adopt a new sexual ethic. I support the statement from the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing that declares: “Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation.”

By embracing our own sexuality and adopting a new sexual ethic we will “make love that is loving”. In this we will also honour the woman in Song of Songs – too long denied and dismissed. Yet she refused to be silenced over the centuries – singing with firey joy and delicious delight, ever hoping we will hear her unashamed voice and join her in singing the chorus with our own God-given sexuality.

Grace,
Alan

Womb-Justice

Womb-Justice

September 2, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Womb-Justice

Grace to you

Imagine all of us here today were not quite born yet. Imagine we were still all hanging out in an extra large womb. Imagine we didn’t know who we would be once we were born. We could be any nationality, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, colour, age. We could be rich or desperately poor. We could be employed or jobless, with a home or homeless. We could be healthy or sickly. We could be blind or deaf or neither. Now imagine having an opportunity to write the laws for the society that we are about to be born into – but remember – we don’t know who we will be when we take our first breath. What values will you write into law for your future society?

The philosopher, John Rawls answered this question by suggesting that we would always want to secure the best possible situation for those who are in the worst possible position – just in case that person happens to be us. I agree with him. Every time I ask groups of people what they would do – the answer is unanimous: “We want equality. We want justice. We don’t want any super rich and desperately poor. No one must be homeless, etc.” I have yet to meet anyone willing to take the risk of being born into a society of great inequality. No one wants to play “birthing-roulette”. When there is the slightest possibility of us ourselves being at the bottom of society we become very clear on what a just and good society looks like. We become convicted that it is wrong to have a society of rich and poor and we write laws to prevent this.

The challenge is for us to honour the just life we so clearly could see while in the womb. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant by calling us to be “born again” and again and again. Live out of the knowledge of the womb! Jesus also told us that he knows who he will by outside the womb. He tells us he will be the poorest of the poor when he says: “What you do to the least of these you do to me” so another motivating factor for his followers is to write laws that not only protect us if we happen to be at the bottom but to protect Jesus who is already at the bottom.

Scripture is full of laws for society to practice to honour this innate sense of Womb-Justice. Here are a few verses from Leviticus 19: 

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

13 You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning.

14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour.

16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the Lord.

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.

34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

35 You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity.

36 You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

37 You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the Lord.

For Womb-Justice,
Alan

Come home

Come home

August 26, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Come home

Grace and peace

Gloria Anzaldúa describes 7 spaces or stages on the path of awareness and growth. They don’t necessarily follow in a neat order one after each other – but I find them helpful to locate my constantly changing self on this journey we call life. I especially love the paradoxical nature of the 7th stage. Here they are:

1st Space/Stage: “Rupture, fragmentation…an ending. It is a catalyst, a deeply emotional and spiritual moment of dissonance and disconnection from your established worldview and your established self-view.”

2nd Space/Stage: “Torn between ways … split between before and after … you’re two people … the space in between or in the middle … is the space of seeing multiple, frequently contradictory perspectives having been torn from a comfortable, single, stable story.”

3rd Space/Stage: “Overwhelmed by chaos caused by living between stories you break down descending into the third space – the depths of despair – self-loathing and hopelessness – with the temptation to turn away and deny possibilities and new realities.”

4th Space/Stage: “Here you begin to see the possibilities of rebirth. That nothing is fixed. The pulse of existence, the heart of the universe is fluid. Identity, like a river, is always changing. Like a river downstream, you’re not the same person you were upstream. You begin to define yourself in terms of who you are becoming, not who you have been. This space is the call to action which pulls you out of your depression.”

5th Space/Stage: “Intellectual, emotional and spiritual awareness come together as you critically examine and deconstruct all “shoulds” and imposed stories from the dominant culture. Here the development of a new story takes shape and the process of active transformation is discernable.”

6th Space/Stage: “You offer your ‘new’ story to the world, testing it. When you or the world fail to live up to your ideals you are cast into conflict with yourself and others. What takes a bashing is not so much you but the idea/picture of who you think you are, an illusion you’re hell-bent on protect-ng. This feels like a death-threat on your bodily integrity – a body perceived as a container separating the self from other people and other forms of knowledge. New insights threaten your sense of what’s “real” when it’s up against what’s “real” to the other. But it is precisely this threat that triggers transformation.”

7th Space/Stage: Home as bridge. You realise that ‘home’ is that bridge, the in-between place and of constant transition, the most unsafe of all spaces. Bridging is the work of opening the gate to the stranger, within and without. To step across the threshold is to be stripped of the illusion of safety because it moves us into unfamiliar territory and does not grant safe passage. To bridge is to attempt community, and for that we must risk being open to personal, political, and spiritual intimacy, to risk being wounded. Effective bridging comes from knowing when to close ranks to those outside our home, group, community, nation—and when to keep the gates open.”

Here is a link to a fuller article.

It is good to remember that the word for religion in Latin means link or bridge. Religion is meant to assist us in this bridging work – this home-coming work. It is meant to enable us to occupy unfamiliar spaces and to attempt community.
Grace,
Alan

Live while you are alive

Live while you are alive

August 19, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Live while you are alive

Grace to you

Arundhati Roy – author of the highly acclaimed “The God of Small Things” is in South Africa. She is here to promote her latest novel “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”. Yet, Roy would probably say that she is here for something far more significant than book promotion. She is not moved by prize or price or praise. Perhaps this is why she is such a compelling writer. She has higher interests and deeper values. “If you ask me what is at the core of what I write, it isn’t about ‘rights’, it’s about justice. Justice is a grand, beautiful, revolutionary idea.” Roy lives for justice. In this she imitates God’s own heart.

To do justice is to name and expose and mock and defy all the reasons given by society to justify unfairness and to unpick them thread-by-thread wherever they are woven together to entrench inequality in the systems of society. Above all, Roy calls out any and all who try and legislate love into colour or caste or any other constructed category. As her caste crossing characters silently grieve: “But what was there to say? Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-colored shoulder had a semicircle of teeth marks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief. Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.”

Roy knows that the easiest way to prevent someone from doing justice is to make them a beneficiary of the status quo. Roy understands that fame can tame the pen: “Years of imprisoning and beheading writers never succeeded in shutting them out. However, placing them in the heart of a market and rewarding them with a lot of commercial success, has.” For this reason Jesus pointed out we cannot serve both God and mammon – “we either love the one and hate the other”.

Knowing we can chose death, God invites us to choose life. It is a choice, not a certainty. Jesus expressed his life’s purpose as bringing “life in all its fullness”, and Roy in her own poetically urgent way encourages us to make this same choice:

“The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

I share these thoughts as a comforting reminder that there are many who know the heart of God and who embody the teachings of Jesus without using the label Christian. Jesus never said “They will know you are my disciples by what you call yourself”. He said: “They will know you are my disciples by your love.”

Grace, Alan

Find your voice and live

Find your voice and live

August 12, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Find your voice and live

Grace to you

The poets all agree, find your voice and live:

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” says Maya Angelou.

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes” says the graffiti on the side of a derelict house.

“Most [people] lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them” – says Henry Thoreau.

“you can not remain at war between what you want to say (who you really are) and what you should say (who you pretend to be) your mouth was not designed to eat itself”says Nayyirah Waheed.

The poets all agree, find your voice and live.

Yet we know it is not so easy to find our voice – to speak what we want to say. We know the agony of our silence. We have experience of taking our song to the grave – for the moment we did not speak or sing has passed – has died and is buried.

Fear silences us: Fear of our own voice (often unconsciously) and fear of how our voice will be received by others (often consciously).

If it is true that “Love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) then we will only find our voice, speak our truth and sing our song to the extent that we have fallen in love with our voice (self worth / love) and fallen in love with the one/s who we are meant to share our song with (our neighbour).

Fear silences us while love lets us speak. The very brave are the very loving.

The author of Ephesians calls us to “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In this we are reminded that speaking truth is most fruitful only when we are committed to love being birthed as a result of the truth spoken. To speak the truth, to hurt and belittle or to “teach them a lesson” is no basis to speak the truth. If this is our intention it is better that we keep quiet.

Grace
Alan

 

Start small

Start small

August 5, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Start small

Margherita Peak

 

16763 ft (5109 m) above sea level  |  The highest point in Uganda


Grace to you

We know of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania – the highest summit in Africa, but have you heard of Rwenzori Mountain? I hadn’t until this week. It is Africa’s third highest summit and is situated on Uganda’s western border.

Within its shadow is the very poor and remote community of Kasese. Kasese is strung out between three national parks and dwarfed by Rwenzori Mountain. The mountain is capped with snow all year round and very significant to the Kesese people. So much so that they call themselves Banyarwenzururu i.e. people of the snow. (Banyarwen = people, Nzururu = snow)

The growing numbers of people in the village and their reliance on biomass and kerosene for cooking have been putting strain on the conservation area. They could see that, but what could they do? They don’t have electricity, because it was not feasible for the power companies in Uganda to supply them. Who would pay for the infrastructure and service especially with many household incomes literally being zero?

This was until the snow cap on their mountain started melting. This was very serious. With the snow gone they would lose their identity. So they decided to implement a plan for their area to become 100% Renewable. They created a community-owned Renewable Energy Power business and connected people in the village to the power grid. For remote areas they got funding from the WWF for standalone Solar Power systems. They got enough money for 4,000. They bought the systems and the community learnt to install it themselves. Then they charged the people a small fee every month similar to what they would have paid for kerosene. Now they have money to roll out another 17,000.

They now have LED streetlights, replacing the lamps they had and saving 50% in energy costs. All of this has created employment. They are planting trees, growing food through-out the year, and a host of other activities. Their case study is bringing people from all over the world to see what they are doing. By 2020 they want no more smoke hanging over the city. The mayor of Kasese (Godfrey Baluku Kabbyanga Kime) reminds the community and those from around the world who come to learn: “It’s from the small initiatives that we grow and develop the courage to tackle the larger ones”.

There are three lessons I learn from this:

  1. When we reaslise that our identity is interconnected to our environment (the snow) and that to lose or damage the environment is to lose and damage our humanity, then we will be more inclined to do something.
  2. [a] If the poorest of the poor can make this change there is no excuse for the wealthy. [b] Wealth may be our actual problem. Truly I tell you, it is easier for a solar panel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kin-dom of simple living.
  3. This is another “feeding of the 5000” story that invites us to trust “when a little is shared it becomes a lot”. When we start with the small initiatives the large problems get sorted.

Grace,
Alan

Refuse to sit down

Refuse to sit down

July 29, 2018  |  Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Refuse to sit down

Grace to you

Question: How do you stop a jumbo jet from taking off?
Answer: You stand up. You refuse to sit down. You keep standing. (Eph. 6:13-14)

You may have seen the viral video clip by now of Swedish activist Elin Ersson (21) live-streaming her protest to pre-vent an asylum seeker from being deported back to Afghanistan. Ersson refused to sit down and fasten her safety belt. She delayed the flight until eventually the person to be deported was taken off the plane.

Facing frustrated and angry passengers she stood her Elin- Ersson-ground: “I’m not going to sit down until this person (asylum seeker) is off the plane. I’m just asking: What is more important, a life or your time?” Her protest was motivated by simple logic: “Afghanistan is a land at war, but European countries continue to deport people to a place where they can’t be sure if they will live for another day … It’s my firm belief that no one should be deported to a land at war.” This is long-hand for “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The commentary about her actions have focused on the power of what “one individual” can do. This is crucial to remember when we are tempted to rationalise doing nothing because “I am only me … just a drop in the ocean”. Every week we end our service with the following words of benediction: “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.” Ersson was surely blessed in this sense.

But on another level it is not true that Ersson was “just one individual”. This is crucial for us to remember. She was part of an organisation working to safeguard the lives and dignity of asylum seekers. She was well informed about the law. She knew her rights. She was following a well thought-out strategy. She was aware of the “pressure point” of the context: that the pilot could make the decision about the passenger being deported or not, and that the plane couldn’t take off while she was standing. She also strategically used livestreaming. In other words it is organisations employing creative actions that enable individuals to make a life-saving difference in the world.

Some have scoffed at her actions pointing out that she did not stop the deportation, but merely delayed it and what is more she may be charged for disobeying the pilot and receive jail time herself. This is true but it misses the point of her action. The power of doing what is right or just (as in choosing life when life and death are before us) does not rest on its so-called success, as in achieving one’s immediate and permanent goal without suffering any personal cost. The power of doing right (serving life) is immeasureably powerfiul in and of itself.

Like the tiny seeds distributed by a bursting flower hidden to the naked eye, doing justice spreads new life far and wide – only to be noticed in a season or two’s time. I foresee a beautiful field of Errson-flowers in the future.

Stand,
Alan

Ode to the Sunlight

Ode to the Sunlight

July 22, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Ode to the Sunlight

Grace to you

Nieu-Bethesda is a small village in the Eastern Cape beneath the southern foothills of the exquisite Sneeuberge about 50 km from Graaff-Reinet. I went there to visit the home – now museum – of the remarkable artist Helen Martins – known as The Owl House. During the last 30 years of her life she transformed her home into a kaleidoscope of glittering colour and with the help of Koos Malgas transformed her yard into a landscape crowded with over 300 pieces of sculpture known as the Camel Yard. The misunderstood and often shunned Martins died in 1976 at age 78 and yet now the once outsider is the one who calls people from all round the world to visit.

As the sun (Martins’ faithful friend and co-performing-artist) triangled in through the windows, the walls of her reclusive rooms shimmered. The red painted walls burst into flame as the sunlight polished the finely crushed glass that Martins had mixed into the paint. The green ceilings were like dew dazzling meadows – as if Martins had turned the world upside down – boldly declaring: “look up and see the grass”. Her home is called The Owl House because of the many owl sculptures perched here there and everywhere, ever-watching through their round-wine-bottled-eyes. However, I would have called the house The Cantata of Colour or Ode to the Sunlight.

The Camel Yard is equally under-named and I am sure the many sculptured camels would agree. For the camels together with the other sculptures of animals and persons do not exist for themselves. Though they draw our attention they do not seek our attention. They refuse to be the focus. Rather, our focus is to follow their focus. John-the-Baptist-like they point beyond themselves to another. Their procession of praise is pointed to a nativity scene and then beyond – yes we are not to stop with a baby Jesus. Happy to mix her religions as she did her paints, the procession of praise is directed to Mecca with a smiling Buddha also enjoying the journey.

The still cement creations moved me by the way they themselves seemed to move. It can’t be explained, only felt. What could be “deader” than hardened cement – and yet once it has passed through the artist’s hands it is resurrected to live forevermore – alive with changing expressions throughout the day, as the sun clothes and undresses their sculptured bodies. Speaking of hands, they reach out to one from everywhere in the yard – cupped hands, open hands, outstretched hands, lifted-up hands, pointing hands, staff-holding hands, prayerful hands, questioning hands, ponder- ing hands, offering hands, asking hands … but all in the process and purpose of praise which is at one and the same time a protest against the dark confinements of her time.

Terry Tempest Williams writes:
“Awe is the moment when ego surrenders to wonder.”

This is exactly what I felt happen inside of me while caught up in the procession of praise. The ego surrenders and the cynic submits.

We gather here today to orientate our living to Praise. May it be so.

Grace,
Alan

Preserve your own beauty

Preserve your own beauty

July 15, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Preserve your own beauty

Grace to you

Over the next couple of Wednesday evenings we are going to explore the Enneagram. The Enneagram is an ancient tool used to discern different character or personality types. When used as it was intended, we are taken much deeper than mere behaviour traits to the profound pulls and pushes of the deep patterns of our living.

The Enneagram has an ancient history of many origins, spanning different religions, spiritual practices and philosophies – in other words it is radically inclusive in design and use.

The reason for our Enneagram study is to deepen our self-knowledge and at the same time our understanding of our neighbour. As we grow in knowing we will be invited to grow in loving. We will learn of the gifts of our “type” and the liabilities that come with it. We will search for a truthful way of living life, accepting that for each of us the way will differ in slight or even vast ways. And we will also hopefully discern what specific exercises are necessary for each of us to more fully honour the deepest truths of our humanity.

Teresa of Avila, the great Christian mystic, writes in her masterpiece The Interior Castle:

“Not a little misery and confusion arise from the fact that through our own guilt we do not understand ourselves and do not know who we are. Would it not seem a terrible ignorance if one had no answer to give to the question, who one was, who (their) parents were, and from what country (they) came? If this were a sign of bestial incomprehension, an incomparably worse stupidity would prevail in us, if we did not take care to learn what we are, but contented ourselves with these bodies, and consequently know only superficially, from hearsay, because faith teaches us, that we had a soul. But what treasures this soul may harbour within it, who dwells in it, and what great value it has, these are things we seldom consider, and hence people are so little concerned with preserving their beauty with all care.”

What an incredible concluding sentence! “…and hence people are so little concerned with preserving their beauty with all care.” So herein lies our task: to preserve our beauty with all care. And surely not only our beauty but the beauty of all with all our care. In this act of careful preservation of human beauty we honour and praise the Original Artist of our collective beauty.

Grace,
Alan

Sustainable Living

Sustainable Living

July 8, 2018  |  Ordinary Days of the Spirit, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Sustainable Living

Grace and Peace

I am spending this weekend at Bulungula Lodge which is on the Wild Coast overlooking the (hopefully warm) Indian Ocean. It is situated around 300 km north of East London. If you hit Coffee Bay you have gone too far by about 56 km. If you hit Durban phone a therapist.

I first heard of Bulungula Lodge when I was exploring building an “off-the-grid-house” a couple of years ago. As you know, the Eastern Cape is beset with traumatising poverty and unemployment. This environmentally sustainable lodge, which is embedded within the Nqileni community, hopes to overcome poverty with minimal impact on the environment.

The founders and co-owners, David Martin and Rejane Woodroffe “realised that the biggest problem in the world is the unsustainable economic system we were chasing”. When they first began in the area there was nearly 100% unemployment. Once the Bulungula Lodge opened in 2004 and began to grow in popularity, cash into the area increased slowly.

Social entrepreneurial community interventions, through the Bulungula Incubator (www.bulungulaincubator.org) includes numerous micro-enterprises as well as health and education services covering the full cycle of life – womb to tomb.

While access to quality formal education has always been challenging in the region, cattle farming and farming for staple foods and vegetables is a way of life. It is this traditional knowledge and lifestyle that is leveraged and built upon to improve livelihoods, nutrition and provide opportunities for income-generation and wealth-creation.

The first 18 people directly employed by the lodge were carefully selected by the community as those who needed it most. Many are disabled ex-mine workers or their widows. I would call this Gospel Governance.

Both Martin and Woodroffe believe that despite its poverty, Nqileni is miles ahead of the First World in terms of achieving a form of sustainable living. Nobody owns a car in the village. The village is powered by solar energy and wind power. A solar pump draws water from a spring for the showers while rain water is the drinking source. The famous rocket showers are powered by paraffin that only heats the water that is used, so nothing is wasted. Grey water is recycled through the banana plantation. Compost toilets with a urine diversion system take care of sanitation.

Martin says: “For our community to become a model sustainable and happy society is considerably easier than for, say, Newlands or Sandton, which seem doomed for the next few decades to live fearfully behind high walls, unsustainably addicted to energy that’s running out.”

In gratitude for those who help us to live life in life-giving ways,
Alan