April 22, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on

Grace to you

Imagine an artist. Let’s say, an amazing painter. This artist paints with oils in textures and colours that are simply breathtaking. To watch the artist at work is to watch a prayer being prayed visually. Only a poet could describe their painting with any sense of accuracy. Now imagine this artist had a child.

The young child had no interest in drawing or colouring-in or painting, yet the child loved to play with plaster-seen. As the child grew in years so the child grew in skill as a sculpture – in clay, wood and stone.

Now what do you think is more likely: the artist being angry their child did not become a painter or the artist celebrating that there is another artist in the family, be it in a different genre?

Surely the parent would celebrate rather than be angry! Surely we would be shocked were this not the case, especially if the parent were to curse their child’s eternal future because they became an artist in a different field to themselves. If the parent were to resent their child’s chosen discipline we would probably question whether the parent possesses the spirit of an artist at all, regardless of how beautifully they paint.

Now let us transfer this brief route of reasoning to faith.

Imagine a believer. Let’s say a Christian believer whose child grows up and does not believe as they believe – perhaps the child’s belief finds form in a different denomination or religion or in a practice outside of defined religion.

Will the parent celebrate or be angry? If we are not as sure about this as we are about the artist mentioned earlier – then we would do well to pause and ponder why this is so. This will reveal a great deal about what we believe about faith and God and our parental responsibilities.

A parent is never to enforce an art or faith form on their child. No more than a parent should ever force their child to fall in love with a particular person. A parent’s deepest responsibility is to live out their own art or faith form as passionately and faithfully as their integrity demands. To witness a parent’s passion, faithfulness and integrity is an awesome gift. A gift that gives the child courage to be the artist – the believer and the lover as their own integrity demands. This is always beautiful to behold.

Grace
Alan

Spirit of Resurrection

Spirit of Resurrection

April 15, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Spirit of Resurrection

Grace to you

The philosopher Susan Griffin tells a beautiful story that encapsulates the spirit of resurrection:

“A story from a survivor of the holocaust: Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Desnos reads the man’s palm.

Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.

As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination.

Because I am seized by the same despair as my contemporaries, for several days this story poses a question in my mind. Can the imagination save us? Robert Desnos was famous for his belief in the imagination. He believed it could transform society. And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.

In the interest of realism, this story must be accompanied by another. Desnos did not survive the camps. He died of typhus a few days after the liberation. His death was one among millions, men, women, and children who died despite countless creative acts of survival and the deepest longings to live.

In considering what is possible for the future one must be careful not to slide into denial. Imagination can so easily be trapped by the wish to escape painful facts and unbearable conclusions. The New Age idea that one can wish oneself out of any circumstance, disease, or bad fortune is not only sadly disrespectful toward suffering, it is also, in the end, dangerous if escape replaces awareness.”

~ Susan Griffin

Resurrection is the ultimate liberation of the imagination. Yet, like imagination, resurrection is not at odds with realism but rather it adds depth to realism and it never disrespectfully denies the Cross in the world … and therein saves us.

Practice resurrection,
Alan

Who are we?

Who are we?

April 8, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Who are we?

Grace and Peace

“Who are we?” “What does it mean to be human?” This is the ever-present question that every person and generation is called to wrestle with.

Depending on where and when we ask this question will in some ways determine what we discover or uncover. Quite often we are forced to ask this question in moments of death and tragedy and great vulnerability. I guess it is because in these moments our humanity feels most exposed and most in need of being held in renewed understanding.

Calvary is one such place that begs for our humanity to be understood.

In the shadow of the Cross we are convicted to ask: “Who are we?”

The Cross answers in haunting and hopeful tones about our humanness.

Hauntingly the Cross declares: “We are those who all carry the cruel capacity to crucify”. Hopefully the Cross announces: “We are those who all carry the powerful potential to love”. Hauntingly we can cowardly and lovelessly inflict suffering on others and hopefully we can courageously and lovingly respond to suffering.

According to the Cross, we are not one or the other. We are one and the other. We are both with each taking turns to lead and be led although almost certainly not in equal measure; but who is to know for certain.

Yet we are tempted to forget that we are both. This is true in how we think of ourselves as well as how we think of others. For some reason we are drawn to a singular narrative or truth. The “one or the other”.

“Both” seems too much for us to hold onto. In so doing we credit one of the narratives as all-powerful, in that it dismisses and even deletes the other. This over-powering narrative actually says more about us and our own needs, fears and prejudice than anything else.

This “one or the other” approach regularly crystalises in relation to those we most revere as well as those we most fear. We have seen this play itself out in South Africa this past week. We tend to paint our heros as untouchably perfect and our villains as altogether evil. When we do this we deny the rich and disturbing truth of their humanity revealed by the Cross.

We not only deny what the Cross reveals of our humanity but we deny what the biblical narrative reveals as a whole. Think about it, every biblical character of any significance crisscrosses between saint and sinner repeatedly. In these Easter days think of Peter as just one example: Peter is the one who confessed Christ to be the Messiah, but he was also the one who Jesus bluntly told to “get behind me Satan”. Peter denied even knowing Jesus and yet was named by Jesus as the Rock upon which the church would be built.

The honesty of the biblical narrative is what makes us return to it time and again. We return to read it and most importantly to be read by it. Its ability to hold light and dark, weed and wheat, disciple and satan, tax-collector and evangelist all together is what enables us to deepen our understanding of who we are.

Grace,
Alan

Christ is risen!

Christ is risen!

April 1, 2018  |  Easter, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on Christ is risen!

Grace to you

Today we will begin worship with the joyful announcement: Christ is risen! And the instant response: Christ is risen indeed!

Yes indeed, Christ is risen and roaming, seeking the lost and searching for the lonely, convicting the stubborn and humbling the proud, liberating the oppressed and embracing the marginalised, touching the outcast and healing the broken, en-couraging the fearful and even giving birth to people again and again … and again.

Yes Jesus is risen indeed and he is still coming out of the tomb to call us by name to new life.

In a sermon two weeks ago I read from St Augustine’s Confessions – here are his words. I invite you to read them in the light of Resurrection. In the light of Jesus seeking Augustine out from the inside and releasing (resurrecting) Augustine to fall in love – better late than never. Augustine’s freshly “fallen-in-love-life” is a beautiful sign of Jesus’ living and loving presence in the world.

Where did I find you in order to make your acquaintance in the first place? You could not have been in my memory before I learned to know you. Where then could I have found you in order to learn of you, if not in yourself, far above me? “Place” has here no meaning: further away from you or toward you we may travel, but place there is none. O Truth, you hold sovereign sway over all who turn to you for counsel, and to all of them you respond at the same time, however diverse their pleas.

Clear is your response, but not all hear it clearly. They all appeal to you about what they want, but do not always hear what they want to hear. Your best servant is the one who is less intent on hearing from you what accords with his own will, and more on embracing with his will what he has heard from you.

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong – I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being, were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace. When at last I cling to you with my whole being there will be no more anguish or labour for me, and my life will be alive indeed, alive because filled with you.

Grace, Alan

The Cross of Christ

The Cross of Christ

March 30, 2018  |  Good Friday  |  Comments Off on The Cross of Christ

Grace to you

Today we survey the Cross of Christ. To survey its wonder, as the hymn writer implores, we must first survey its terror. Yes, before the Cross is wondrous it is torturous and to deny the terror is to dilute the wonder.

The cross was more than a Roman tool of torture. It was a sign of intimidation – put up for all to see as a reminder to all who dared to think of rebelling against the authority of Rome, to think again.

Rome – like almost every oppressive nation – thought that they were the very incarnation of God on earth – and treated any threat to their power as not only treason but an affront to the Divine or at least what they believed to be “their God-given right”. Throughout the ages oppressive regimes have used religion to endorse their oppression while convincing their followers that evil is holiness and holiness is evil. We’ve seen this in our past where those in power convinced their followers that racism was a virtue and not a sin. When good and evil are literally swopped around terror-ble things are done by people who believe they are not only doing good but that they are actually pleasing God.

As T.S. Eliot reminds us: “Most of the evil in the world is done by people with good intensions.” This is certainly what the Calvary Cross exposes, for it was religious people who called for Jesus’ crucifixion. Ironically religious people turned out to be the greatest threat to Jesus. They believed nailing Jesus was holy and pleasing to God. In “defending” God they were in fact denying God. The Calvary Cross teaches us that throughout history the so-called “defenders” of God almost always do so by destroying human beings.

One would hope that the followers of Jesus would never do this, but alas history is littered with examples to the contrary. The reason one would expect Jesus-followers not to fall for this is, because at the heart of Christ-like faith, is the belief that God has taken on human form – flesh of our flesh – and therefore to diminish or destroy human life is at one and the same time diminishing and denying God. As the author to Colossians writes: “Christ is all and in all.” [Colossians 3:11]. Or remember the heavenly words of question to Saul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” See, God takes human persecution personally!

In short – the torturous Cross of Calvary teaches us that when we kill human beings we kill God. This begs our wonder…

Grace,
Alan

“Take care of God”

March 25, 2018  |  Palm Sunday, Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on “Take care of God”

Grace to you

We can tell a great deal about someone by the prayers they pray. This is true especially when trouble is in the air or in the soul.

In last Sunday’s scripture reading [John 12] we read that no sooner had Jesus spoken of being troubled – did he begin to pray. He prayed not to be saved from his troubles, but rather: “Father glorify your name”. He refused to center his prayer on himself, but rather on the true center of his being – the one he knew as Father – the Parental Love that holds all life together.

Last week I read out the prayer of another who lived during troubled times – Etty Hillesum – a young Jewish woman from Amsterdam who was killed at age 27 in Auschwitz in 1943. She too refused to center her prayers on herself. She prayed not to be saved but rather to “take care of God” and to “guard” that place in her where God dwells.

A week before she was killed, Etty prayed:

“I shall promise you one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself.

I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us; that we must help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.

Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much you yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last … You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labour for you and remain faithful to you and I shall never drive you from my presence.“

Perhaps we can begin to pray for our prayers to center less on ourselves and more on others and the Divine Lover of all. A simple prayer may get us going: “Make my prayer less about me …” Perhaps this will lead us to salvation. Salvation as in: saved from the need to be saved – which is what this next week – Holy Week – is all about. If we want to save our life we will lose it, but if we can give it away for Love’s sake – we will find it.

Grace and gratitude,
Alan

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

 

There is still lots of time …

March 8, 2018  |  Sunday Letter  |  Comments Off on There is still lots of time …

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