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

Take the third option

Take the third option

February 26, 2017  |  Sunday Letter, Transfiguration Sunday  |  Comments Off on Take the third option

Grace and peace to you and through you

“Fight or flight” are the two options we are easily socialised into believing are the only two options we have when it comes to engaging evil (deathliness) in the world. In myriads of ways we are taught that if we are “big and strong” we should stay and fight and if we are “small and weak” we should run away as fast as our little legs can carry us. As a result of these two options being presented as the only options we have to choose from, many people throughout the ages have attempted to validate either option by suggesting that one or the other is the option God or Jesus favours. Some have said Jesus teaches us to accept suffering without resistance (like a passive doormat) while others have said Jesus calls us to righteously destroy the wicked (like some Old Testament or Apocalyptic warrior).

But to say that Jesus favours either of these options demands a severe culling of the Gospels. The truth is closer to the bumper sticker that advises: “When faced with only two options. Take the third.” In a two-option world Jesus invites us to imagine and practice a third. This third option Jesus taught (in his sermon on the mount) and lived out (on mount Calvary).

Refusing to resist oppression denies our own sacred worth etched with God’s image, while destroying our oppressors denies their sacred worth etched with the same Godly image. Jesus invites us to resist but not to retaliate. In other words, we are to oppose evil without imitating evil. “Satan cannot drive out Satan” says Jesus. Equally, violence cannot drive out violence.

In this world that teaches us to “Do to others as they have done to us” Jesus teaches us to “do to others as we would have them do to us.” Our actions towards our enemies according to Jesus are meant to expose to them the evil (deathliness) of their ways with the hope that their eyes are opened and they change. But if they fail to see and change then our actions are meant to expose their deeds to the surrounding community who through collective action or non-cooperation, make it impossible for them to continue to practice their evil (death-creating deeds).

On the Wednesdays of Lent we will be reflecting on what this may mean for us at a practical level. This coming Wednesday is ASH Wednesday and we will be having a service at 7 pm in the Sanctuary. Each Wednesday thereafter we will be meeting in the Hall (cnr. Burg and Church Streets) for silent meditation at 6 pm and discussion and learning from 7 pm – 8:30 pm.

Grace,
Alan

 

Choose Life or Choose Death

Choose Life or Choose Death

February 19, 2017  |  Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Choose Life or Choose Death

Grace and peace to you and through you

“I have set before you life and death … choose life!” (Deut. 30:19). This is our primary choice: life or death. The roots of all other choices are planted within this primary choice. And the fruit of all other choices nourish one or the other.

The Creator of Life – God – calls us to honour life as our primary priority. Meaning, we are to orientate our living to value, protect, heal, mend, treasure, share, give and affirm life in all we are and do. When we do this we honour the Creator of Life regardless of what religion or faith perspective we have or not. Note: God cares more about whether we honour life than what religion we subscribe to and probably only appreciates our religion to the extent it helps us to honour life.

We are commanded not only to treasure our own life, but all life. Jesus states clearly that if we only treasure our own life we will lose it … as well as cause death all around us. All life includes the lives of all people, all creatures and all of creation.

In this death-dealing world we need people to choose life. This means we need people who are humble enough to admit that we are part of the death-dealing in greater or lesser degrees and to take responsibility to do something to move from a greater to a lesser death-dealing degree. It also means that we need to fear our fears more than anything else – because in a state of fear we tend to make and justify decisions that destroy life.

The reason I want to learn to be a follower of Jesus is because of how he honoured life by choosing life in all he did – and in this way he honoured the Creator of Life.

The reason I want to learn to be a follower of Jesus is because Jesus refused to be part of the death-dealing systems of his day. In this he exposed the deathly systems that people actually thought of as life-giving. For example – he would question the purpose of the Sabbath that people religiously adhered to without thinking if it were bringing life or death. Jesus is not interested in religious practice per se but only whether our religious practice affirms and nourishes life – especially life of the marginalised and suffering. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4).

The reason I want to learn to be a follower of Jesus is because Jesus submitted his fear to the love he received from the Creator and the love he had for all life – all people. This love – received and shared – gave him the strength to rather give up his life for the sake of others than save his own life at the expense of others. Ultimately this is what choosing life rather than death boils down to.

During the Wednesdays of LENT – starting on ASH Wednesday (1st March) we will meet to reflect on the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ Manifesto for Life. From the Sermon on the Mount we will journey to Mount Calvary where Jesus lived out what he preached.

Grace
Alan

 

It really is not okay

It really is not okay

February 12, 2017  |  Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on It really is not okay

Grace and peace to you and through you

We live in a violent world.

There is state-sanctioned violence between nations. Anonymous drones drop death. There are wars within countries as people fight to hold onto power and resources. Adults acting like children and children turned into soldiers. There is conflict coded along ethnic and religious grounds. Gangs fight for turf in the streets. Bullies transform school corridors into tunnels of horror. Women live under unspoken curfews that determine where and when they can go. Marriages can alternate between kissed lip and bleeding lip … sometimes in the same night.

From the outside we may abhor this physical violence but those involved in it most often think it is necessary and justified. Just this past week on Wednesday there was an incident outside this Sanctuary. A young man mugged a couple in the market. He was chased and caught and brought back to the scene of the crime.
In seconds a large crowd surrounded him – some hitting him and others swearing at him. Some shouting: “F-him up. Beat him. Klap hom. Teach him a lesson.” I was told that “pastor we know how to deal with these people – leave us alone”.

In the same week President Zuma ordered the Army to provide “law and order” during the State of the Nation Address. The army should never ever be used for policing – it is a blood bath waiting to happen. But a fearful leader is a loveless leader.

At the same State of the Nation ceremony the traditional 21 gun salute is fired, again somehow endorsing the power of the gun and the power it protects.

Much closer to home – in fact, in some of our homes –  there is fear and there is terror. The fear and terror of domestic abuse. The cycle of physical and emotional violence followed by days of silence and walking on tip-toe or followed by apologies and remorse and flowers and promises … only to evaporate under fresh outbursts of madness.

In your most intimate relationships please, please know that you never ever “deserve” to be hit. Never ever! Please know that you did not “cause” your partner to hit you. Please know that you are not responsible for their anger management – they are! Please know that refusing to report domestic abuse “out of love” for you partner is not helping your partner. A person who beats their partner needs help. Professional help. Please know that “staying for the sake of the children” is seldom good for the children because of how they witness violence being normalised. This encourages abusive behaviour to be passed on from generation to generation.

Please know that you never ever have a right to hit your partner. If you have hit your partner you need help. And you can be helped. Let’s talk.

Grace,
Alan

Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit

February 5, 2017  |  Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Strange Fruit

In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded a song called, “Strange Fruit.” The lyrics came from a poem written two years before by Abel Meeropol. It was a protest song against racism in general, but it was naming the horror of the lynching trees. The words were written after the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith on 7 August, 1930. One listener names that the song is, “the ugliest song, that it tears too much at the gut.” It is not a song you would have playing on repeat, but it is also not often that a song is found that can reach such a deep place in the gut. Here are the words:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant south, the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, here is a strange and bitter crop.

I heard this song for the first time in a cross-racial clergy group and our response was stunned silence and then prayers began to rise, the words of which were as raw as any prayer I had heard uttered before. There is strange fruit alive in the world today. The injustices that exist are like a stripping of a people, a slapping in the face of humanity, and a rape of the ways in which we are called to live as people working to sort out life the way Jesus embodied it. “One can have an awareness of a moral wrong on an intellectual level, without being wholly emotionally engaged” another shared, “Listening to strange fruit is literally like being kicked in the gut.” 

Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane was a prayer of the gut. He would have been in touch with the beauty and wonder of the world, but the horrors would have been before him as well. The word Gethsemane literally means—olive press. His prayers were a pressing of his spirit, like olives being pressed for their oil, only the fruit of Jesus’ prayer was a life of faithfulness even if the cost was his blood. “If it be possible for this cup to pass from me, He prayed, “but nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, there are no roses or lilies, the garden is a grove of olive trees. We are told Jesus went there often to pray, to a place known as the olive press. 

Billie Holiday’s, Strange Fruit, is a haunting song. When I listen to it, I see the lynching tree and I see images of children washed up on the shore, attempting to find refuge. I see people lit on fire a tire around their neck, I see schools falling apart–children struggling to learn, I see women in tears beaten and bruised, I see people oppressed for worshipping in a different way. I see a world thirsty for something more and struggling to find its way there.

I understand why Jesus would pray in a place called the olive press, for it is when we are pressed on every side and relying on God, that we find our way to new fruit, fruit that is undeniably of God in that it breaks open reminding the world of the power of love. God’s fruit is born in the world one seed at a time, one act of defiance against systems that kill at a time, one–self-sacrificing ‘not my will, but yours’ love–at a time. And Jesus bids to us on his knees in a grove of olive trees, “Come, stay awake in prayer with me. Take care that you don’t become tempted to sleep.”

With you on the journey,
Michelle

A living sacrifice

A living sacrifice

January 29, 2017  |  Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on A living sacrifice

Grace and peace to you and through you

Today we renew our covenant – our promise – with God. The promise we make is nothing short of offering ourselves to be a living sacrifice. The living away of our life – for God’s sake – for Love’s sake – for Life’s sake – for Light’s sake. The Scriptures are full of people offering sacrifices to God – yet the prophets tell us that God does not delight in sacrifices. God does not need or want blood to be shed – be it the blood of one’s first born, or goats, sheep and bulls or of one’s enemies. A humble and contrite heart that seeks to do justice and relate to all in mercy is what God delights in.

Our covenant promise to be a living sacrifice is focused on delighting God. It is not a down payment for God’s favour. It is not what we need to do to get God to be on our side, but to re-orientate our living to be on God’s side. It is us at God’s service rather than God at our service. It is about reminding us that we are not to be the center of our own universe.

It is also a reminder (as the traditional marriage vows are too) that our relationship with God and our determination to delight God is not to be dependent on our own well-being but rather to remain faithful regardless of our circumstances in other words, in health and in sickness, for riches and for poverty.

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom  you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Grace, Alan

 

May God protect our people

May God protect our people

January 22, 2017  |  Sunday Letter, Third Sunday after Epiphany  |  Comments Off on May God protect our people

Grace and peace to you and through you

At the start of another year I invite you to re-read the preamble of South Africa’s Constitution. These words could have come straight out of the mouth of Jesus. They embody so many of his priorities and they do so in such a helpfully contextualised way…incarnating Jesus’ call among us.

The words of the preamble begin with “We” and not “I”. A bit like the Lord’s Prayer starting with “Our” and not “My”. In other words, we cannot live out these words on our own—we will do it together or not at all. The first injunction—to “recognise”—reminds us of how Jesus used to open people’s eyes to see anew. We are called to recognise injustices (our sin) in the past…and present. Sin is the choice of death over life. The words that follow after recognising the injustice, places us on the path of repentance and reparation beginning with the honouring of those who have suffered for justice and freedom, and ending with the truth that we are all fundamentally one family with the rest of the world.

We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; 

Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

May God protect our people.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba
sa heso. God seën Suid-Afrika.
God bless South Africa.
Mudzimu fhatutshedza Afurika.
Hosi katekisa Afrika.

I share this with you not only to remind us of our contextualised task, but also to remind us that Gospel comes to us through the Scriptures and through many other texts—for the Spirit blows where it wills…and she refuses to be captured. May we be able to discern the Spirit’s life-giving invitation in South Africa today.

Grace, Alan

Trust

Trust

January 15, 2017  |  Second Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Trust

I was walking up Kloof Street some time ago after presiding at a communion service for Good hope MCC’s evening service. I had my clergy collar on and was stopped several times by people on the street. Some of them were people who I saw every day as I walked to and from work, but they didn’t know I was a Pastor until they saw me in the collar. They asked questions that made me laugh. The common one was had I stocked up on Doom. Yet, many shared the same thing, that they had lost interest in Church. I was fascinated by how many were drawn to ask me questions though they were naming a disinterest in Church. It is the mystery of the collar.

I sat for some time with a woman who when she saw me asked if she could ask me some questions. As she shared her questions, her story of deep pain and struggle unfolded. I shared a coffee with her, listened and sadly had no real answers for her other than the truth that God was with her, she was not alone, that there was no darkness in the world that God’s love was not able to break through. I still see this woman on the streets almost every day. Her life is still challenging, but I see it in her eyes that the connection we made no matter how brief and the daily seeing of one another on the streets has helped her to feel less alone.

There is a real hunger and thirst for God that I recognize in the world around us, though the lack of trust in the Church is real. That might be why different models of what it looks like to be church are arising in the world around us. Trust is something that is earned and it builds over time by the investments we make. There are people in the world that feel that the Church is not investing in them and they are the ordinary people out in the world around us. I am not a fan of clergy attire in general, but that evening reminded me of the power of the Church being present in unexpected places in the world.

I have a t-shirt that says, “Church can happen anywhere.” Sometimes I wear it to marches in the city and I get the same response as I did when I wore my clergy collar. People want to know where I got the shirt. They want to know what Church I belong to. They want to know my thoughts about God and the things that are real. It is amazing to me how God can use us in the most amazing of ways and in the most interesting of places. My walk to and from home every day is one of the times when I am constantly surprised. Car guards will stop me to ask questions, taxi drivers will shout out “hey lady Pastor”, and people bless me constantly.

Trust in God is not something people out in the world are readily willing to do. Yet, they are intrigued by the people who do. So, my question for us all is how can we be a people who those around us witness as people of faith. It is a great question to live with as we continue in the living of this New Year. As you live in the question, remember the words of Proverbs 3:5&6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God and your paths will become straight.”

With you on the journey,
Michelle

Restore Compassion

Restore Compassion

January 8, 2017  |  First Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Restore Compassion

Grace and peace to you and through you

Today we remember our Baptism as we reflect on the Baptism of Jesus. Baptism is to be washed – more like soaked – in the ways of Jesus. One aspect of Jesus’ character that the world desperately needs to soak itself in – is compassion. Compassion is the willingness to suffer with. The root of the word is connected to womb – wombishness. This reminds us that the suffer-ing we are willing to share is what enables new birth – new life. It may come as a surprise to you, that apathy is in actual fact the opposite of compassion. We under-stand apathy to mean – uncaring, which it is – but apathy’s root-meaning actually means the fear or refusal to suffer … with others.

A number of years ago Karen Armstrong co-ordinated the writing of the Charter for Compassion which is especially directed towards the religious. As we renew our baptism vows today let us renew our commitment to the Charter of Compassion again:

Charter for Compassion

“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all reli-gious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

Grace, Alan

The Wisdom of Trees…

The Wisdom of Trees…

January 1, 2017  |  First Sunday after Christmas, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on The Wisdom of Trees…

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, there is an old tree that is called the Friendship tree. It is a Live Oak tree that is believed to be five centuries old. It has weathered the test of time and many a windy storm. The first time I came upon this tree, I felt as if it was drawing me in preparing to tell me a story. Any living part of creation that survives five centuries certainly must have a story to tell. There are trees that line the Gulf Coast that are younger, but they survived the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina and I call them the Grandfathers, for they carry the damage of the storm in their bark and in the shaping of their limbs. You can feel their weathering standing next to them, but you can also feel their strength.

Psalm 1:3 shares that “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not whither. In all that they do, they prosper.” The they in the psalm is meant to be the Israelites. They were likened to trees—trees that would find life giving water and strength. I remember sharing one day with a friend how much I loved the trees in the Company Gardens here in Cape Town. I was astonished to learn from him that the trees in the gardens grow so beautifully because underneath their ground flows a river of water from the mountains. Some of that mountain water is carried away and wasted, but the trees are situated strategically to receive and they witness to the truth of what it means to be catchers of that resource and in their lives be refreshed by it.

Live Oak trees have lateral roots that can grow ninety feet from the trunk line and from the lateral roots extend what are known as sinker roots, which create the anchoring that gives the trees such strength. Where are our anchors? Are our anchors in busy-ness? Are our anchors in the electronic maze? Are our anchors in the climb to the top of we don’t even know what or where? A tree searches for nutrients, that will bring it sustenance and strength. For the people of God, we find sustenance in God’s word. It is the best place for us to anchor ourselves, for in the Word of God is where we come alive.

There is a type of Fig tree called the Banyan Tree that bears multiple fruit. They are a tree that has a system of roots underneath, while they also drop roots from their limbs. The network of the roots pushes the tree to grow further in its life. There is a Banyan tree in Fort Meyers, Florida that was planted at four feet tall and now covers the span of an acre of land. To bear fruit in our lives that creates such growth not just in ourselves, but in the world around us, this is what it means to truly live! Revelation 22:2 speaks of a tree of life that stands in the middle of the city with a river of water flowing on both sides and the leaves of the tree, we are told, are for “the healing of the nations.” In this New Year, I invite you to find a tree. Examine its bark, wonder at its height, and work to emulate its network. Trees don’t simply reach up; they also reach out. Receive the gift of their majestic truth.

With you on the journey,
Michelle