Taxes and Death

 

Friends,

This Sunday we will reflect on Jesus being questioned about paying taxes to the emperor. It is a topical issue at the moment. In South Africa we are faced with daily revelations of state / private corruption that detail the squandering of State collected taxes. Taxes meant to be spent for the public good have instead been criminally syphoned off for private gain. Further afield we learn of a president who routinely boasts of how wealthy he is and yet shamelessly withholds paying taxes. Sunday’s reflection: Taxes and Death.

Please read Psalm 99 and Matthew 22:15-22 in preparation for Sunday.

Sunday’s service will take place via zoom at 10am.

Email: welcome@cmm.org.za for the zoom link.

Now for a few thoughts regarding more broadly what I see taking place in the States at this time. I share this with the hope that we will be reminded of some crucial lessons from our own history as well as to draw attention to the disturbing up-swing of authoritarian regimes and populous demagogues around the world.

Using Scripture as the lens to focus our thoughts, in this case, specifically Exodus 1:8-22 and Isaiah 59: 1-16a. Rather than use scripture in a “proof text” or “literal / fact based” kind-of-way, I will try to unearth and be guided by the archetypal truth embedded within the given narrative. In this way the ancient text enlightens our present context and our present context informs our understanding of the text. Meaning moves both ways.

The book of Exodus is the story of a slave people taking the gap … to freedom. It was so impossible that it was compared to sneaking through an ocean split dry. This great escape includes moments so unforeseen that the only word in human vocabulary to be able to describe it was a “miracle”. Even the secular press turned to this word for help when they ran out of all others to describe the event – which itself was another miracle.

We turn to the text to guide us:

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. [Exodus 1:8-14]

We read, “… a new king of Egypt who did not know Joseph”. How strange? How could that be possible that one be so forgetful? What terror-ble amnesia! This new king must have either been so narcissistic that there was no room within his heart to remember anyone but himself, or it was a profound act of wilful-forgetfulness. Forgetful of Joseph is a proxy for being forgetful of YHWH. When one is forgetful of the Ultimate One then one is inclined to exaggerate one’s own sense of self. This forgetful king thus had no reason to be humble. His forgetfulness made him accountable to none and to live in steadfast service of himself.

We read this forgetful king was also fearful. Now just as love casts out fear, so fear casts our love. A fear-full leader is therefore a love-less leader. A love-less leader is a terror. Not surprising then that he would soon be signing off executive decisions that dealt with people “shrewdly”, “ruthlessly” and murderously.

Forgetfulness of the Higher Power of Truth and Justice, together with fear of one’s neighbour, are always present at the birth of authoritarianism.

Notice how the forgetful and fearful king changes a long held truth into a dangerous lie. The Israelites were no longer their neighbours of many years. They were now named soon-to-be traitors. What a re-framing! Fear mongering. Naming and blaming. Othering! Othering that instils fear and hate with the aim to divide and conquer. Next we witness the major trick performed by every successful authoritarian ruler. Just like a magician covers their hat with a handkerchief before they pull out a rabbit, so the authoritarian covers everything they say with the blanket of national security. This blanket is decorated with holy cows grazing in fields of evergreen nationalism that silences those with questions. When it is pulled back, we see that a remarkable thing has taken place: the victims have become the perpetrators and the perpetrators have become the victims. (Water into wine eat your heart out!). With this deceptive reversal in place the victims (read: real perpetrators) are justified to crackdown on the perpetrators (read: real victims). So children are separated from parents and locked in cages. Dare not call this cruel. It is not. The reason it is not is that it is a matter of national security. So the uniformed dare not question their orders. Instead they efficiently do what is evil enjoying the praise for doing good. (But one day they will have to answer. And the defence, “I was just following orders” will not be accepted as a valid reason for their evil. A millstone may be put around their neck for causing little ones to be so terror-ised.)

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’”

Authoritarians take the institutions that are designed to promote and protect life and begin to employ them to bring death or in the very least begin to prevent them from fulfilling their life enabling function. Pharaoh calls the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Birth enablers are employed as facilitators of death. Sometimes this is communicated bluntly and sometimes subtly. Sometimes the forgetful, fearful king simply ignores and encourage others to ignore the instructions of well-meaning institutions, that if followed, would save life. In so doing they fail to do anything to prevent the death of 222 891 people (as of 16/10/20). Fascists are perversely turned on by death, especially the death of the weak. So Pharaoh does not mourn. There is no apology. Only lying denials. Read Isaiah 59 to see how authoritarians lie and lie. They spin a deadly web of lies that cause the “truth to stumble in the public square and justice to be turned back”.

“YHWH is appalled.” (Isaiah 59:16a) that so few intervene and so many remain silent. Especially the silence of the community called church.

But there are some who do intervene. Many of whom are ordinary people or even so-called “little people”. Wise as serpents and gentle as doves (non-violently) they courageously resist genocidal fascists with creative acts of sabotage. The midwives were so in-spirit-ed by the wonder of life that they had no space within themselves to fear this forgetful and fearful Pharaoh. They made up a story about how “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women” and Pharaoh bought it because it confirmed his existing prejudice. Proving how prejudice makes one so stupid.

Eventually Pharaoh openly sanctions genocide: drown them!

Patriarchy goes hand in hand with authoritarianism. Pharaoh undermined girls/women. He believed only boys/men could possibly be a threat to him. He admitted that he would just grab a girl/woman when and how he wanted. And yet history will show it was girls/women who were the founding members of the anti-Pharaoh Struggle. Besides the midwives, there was a mother and sister who with the wisdom of serpents placed their baby boy on the river instead of in the river. So it is with resistance struggles throughout history. Liberation is won, changing one letter at a time. Pharaoh’s own daughter worked behind enemy lines – eventually getting one of the enemy not only into Pharaoh’s house, but adopted into his family! Viva Caroline Giuliani viva!

As we have said repeatedly over the last couple of weeks: the exploitation of people goes hand in hand with the exploitation of creation. The one leads to the other. People will eventually revolt and creation will eventually rebel. Creation rebels by confronting us with the consequences of our exploitative ways. Insecticides contaminate the soil. The run-off poisons the water. The fish die, as do those that feed on the fish. We become chronically ill. When illness catches up to Pharaoh himself there is the hope that a lesson will be learnt and that a humbling change will take place … but alas, this is not always the case.

Pharaoh was given many opportunities to do the loving / liberating thing, yet he repeatedly decided not to. In the process his heart was hardened, until one day it was fixed in its hardness. All that remains then is self-destruction on a massive scale. The deathly consequences of this self-destruction are impossible to over play, for during the very time we should be doing everything we can to prevent the oceans from rising, we have to concern ourselves with a Pharaoh in denial who is leading a people into the ocean to drown. All because of his desperate attempt to fill the gaping void within his own life.

Fascism relies on the public believing that their nation is so exceptional that “it will never happen here”. Exceptionalism is idolatry. It is a lie, for just as all people have fallen short of the glory of God, so have all nations fallen short. It is a slippery slope from exceptionalism to fascism. A slippery slope constantly greased by Christian fundamentalists, Constitutional originalists and white supremacist militia.

In closing, let us read the text again while being attentive to who we identify with in the text. Let’s check our natural inclinations to quickly self-identify with the persecuted, re-denying any existence of the persecutor within us. Even if we struggle to see ourselves as a Pharaoh-type, can we wrestle with the possibility that there may be others who view us as Pharaoh? Who are they? How would they like us to change? Oh that we may take out the log from within our own eye…

Grace,
Alan

 

 

 

 

 

 

The death of the weak fits into their sense of justice.

 

 

meant to give life and repurpose them to that life-giving institu

 

 

The Exodus tracks a people’s long walk to freedom from slavery. Truth is that slavery sticks around into the future unless it is completely confessed and justly redressed. If not it will be a long walk indeed.

 

 

 

 

You may know the phrase, “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.” In other words there are ripple effects of USA actions on politics, policy, economics, religion and culture around the world. What happens there affects the rest of the world, be it for good or bad. It therefore warrants our attention especially at this time with the US elections just around the corner.

 

Another reason to be observant of what is taking place in the US is that

 

 

 

 

 

When the USA sneezes – the rest of the world catches a cold. It is difficult not to be drawn into the up-coming elections in the US.

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Golden Calf Truth

Friends,

Reflection on Exodus 32:1-14

Truth is larger than fact. There are times when the facts simply can’t adequately hold the truth. For example, there is no fact that could sufficiently account for a parent’s love for their child. Or for the liberation of a long-oppressed people. When the facts fail the truth, we turn to metaphor and myth, satire and story, parable and poetry. To say that someone is the most beautiful person in all the world is not meant to be evaluated on a factual basis, but rather to be appreciated for the truth that the statement makes about their love or attraction toward the person.

Similarly, the validity of the Exodus narrative (and much of Scripture) does not rest on whether it factually took place once upon a time or not, but rather on the truth that it announces for all time. (It is most likely that the Exodus narrative was the accumulative wisdom gleaned from many cycles of oppression and liberation all sewn together into a single archetypal liberation narrative.) The narrative’s purpose is to speak timeless truth:

  • The truth about God (ultimate reality) who is always on the side of truth and justice (the universe’s bending moral arc) and therefore forever listening to the cries of the oppressed and liberating the oppressed from bondage.
  • The truth that little people (midwives) who remain faithful to the Life-Giver bring down genocidal fascists.
  • The truth about how power hardens human hearts (Pharaoh had heart problems.)
  • The truth about the anxious, stubborn, devious and paranoid ways of Empire (Time and time again the Pharaoh regime promised to let the people go but reneged each time. Power is very seldom given up willingly. Codesa 1 and Codesa 2.)
  • The truth that when those who have access to the perks and privileges of palace power (Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses) choose rather to join in solidarity with the enslaved and exploited, a united front begins rolling mass action that not even all of Pharaoh’s chariots will be able to stop.
  • The truth that exploitation of people goes hand in hand with the exploitation of the environment, with the environment ultimately rebelling via plagues. (Contaminated topsoil poisons the water.)
  • The truth that liberation always looks impossible (like walking through an ocean) until it isn’t (ocean split in two) and then it looks inevitable.
  • The truth that a liberated people move quickly from gratitude to complaint. From dancing praise of their courageous leaders to accusing them of selling out. (Moses have you brought us out here to die? HIV does not cause Aids.)
  • The truth that a liberated people often forget their pain-filled past (we ate meat in Egypt) and soon begin to imitate the ways of their past oppressors. (Another name for State Capture is Greed.)
  • The truth that populous ‘leaders’ (read: fascists) will always be ready to exploit the frustrations and fears of the people, promising everything they want but securing just the opposite (We see you Aaron. We see you CIC in red overalls. We see you with the MAGA cap.)
  • The truth that it takes a long time for a new constitution to be carved into our hearts of stone and therefore in the interim it remains very tempting to return to the golden calf of oppression that falsely promises us a quick fix. (During the writing of our New Constitution our new leaders were negotiating the arms deal. A deal that was corrupt in essence and in process. A deal more in tune with the ways of Egypt than of liberation.)

 

This brings us to this Sunday’s reading: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us … Aaron took the gold from them and formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf…”

It is important to note that the golden calf may be seen as a replacement of the liberating YHWH or a representation of YHWH. The latter is a far more subtle form of idolatry and therefore potentially more dangerous. An idolatrous representation of YHWH would include attributing non-liberative characteristics to YHWH (see last week’s reference to “make no wrongful use of the name of God”.) An example today is the prosperity teaching (read: heresy / cult) calling on Jesus’ name in order to prosper financially by TV evangelists who believe owning a private jet is crucial for them to spread the word about the humble sandalled Jesus. (The same Jesus who happened to warn that it was pretty impossible to fly a jet through the eye of a needle.)

An even subtler form of idolatry includes that which is not necessarily religious at all and as a result are seldom named as gods / idols, yet they solicit our unquestionable belief in their professed saving power. Like believing that the death penalty will save us from crime. Or the gun will keep me safe. Or low taxes on the rich will be good news for the poor. Or that the quality of health care or education must correlate to how much money one has. These come to us through laws and systems rather than doctrines and creeds. We learn proverbs like “time is money” off by heart until we believe that everything is a product to be traded and that the value of anything or worth of anyone is ultimately determined in monetary terms.

With the above-mentioned examples, it should be clear that there is no such thing as a “non-believer”. We all believe in something. We all worship something. And whatever we worship is our god – like it or not. If the word worship does not connect with you then ask yourself what is the object of your ultimate concern? (See: Paul Tillich.) The answer to this question is our god. Simply put, whatever we give our heart to is our god, religious or not. For this reason, we are called to do the urgent and crucial work of “know yourself” to discover who / what we believe in. Warning: We may be surprised to discover that we don’t always believe in what we would like to think we believe in or what we profess to believe in. (Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the reign of God – says Jesus.) This is why the scriptures care less about atheism than they do about idolatry, because we could be worshiping the very ways that crucified Jesus while singing his praises on our lips.

How do we know the difference between God and an idol? Or God and false gods? In short: Idols or false gods always demand sacrifice. Idols take life while promising new life. Think of the military or of the idol of nationalism or tribalism that worship little lines in the ground called borders. Drawn and defended with blood. The true God on the other hand does not demand sacrifices. Rather the true God demands justice, mercy, humility, truth, gentleness. In other words, the true God demands that which will promote and protect life – all of Life in all its fullness.

This is the only scale that really matters: does our living bring life or death?

So just because we may never have carved out an image of a calf doesn’t mean we do not worship any idols. Furthermore, just because we have Jesus’ name repeatedly on our lips does not necessarily mean Jesus is our God. And for those of you reading this who think you are exempt from idolatry because you don’t believe in any God or god or idol – well once you have found the words that work for you – I invite you to check what your ultimate concern is and whether honouring your ultimate concern brings life or death – for all of life.

Know thyself sister. Know thyself brother.

Grace upon grace,
Alan

 

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Slave Freedom Charter

Friends,

I invite you to read and reflect on Exodus 20:1-17

Before you read the reflection below, I encourage you to do your own wrestling with the text.

Paradoxically this is sometimes more difficult to do with those passages of scripture that are best known to us.  In this instance, the 10 Commandments.

If we wrestle faithfully we must not be surprised if we are wounded by the text and left with a Divinely defined limp as it was with Jacob of old. The hope is that we too will be able to re-see our enemy-Esau as family.

Remember the context is a people freshly freed from slavery. And context gives meaning.

Grace, Alan


Reflection: Exodus 20: 1-17

Think slavery: The cruel continuous brutality. The shackles and sjamboks. The beatings and killings. The constant hunger and everlasting exhaustion. The trauma of daily terror. Everything that is done is done to break your spirit and to erase your human dignity. Every effort is made to whip the dream of freedom out of you. Any attitude other than submission is smacked down to teach you a lesson, to set an example and to send a message: “I own you”. “Don’t ever think of rebellion.”

Think escape: The calculations. The planning. The praying. The risk. The courage. The tenacity. The stealth. The strength. The water rationing. The breath-holding. The knowing that death is certain if captured, and the knowing that to accept slavery is to die. Freedom or death!

Think freedom: The amazement. The wonder. The miracle. As miraculous as an ocean splitting in two forming a path of dry ground to walk through. The tears of joy. The speechless gratitude. The musical celebration. The deep breath of relief. The rest. The resolve: “Never, never and never again shall it be that we will be anyone’s slave”.

It is through this lens of slavery, escape and freedom that I invite you to reflect on the Ten Commandments, for it is within this context that they were originally carved. In other words their aim is specific rather than general.

Just as the South African Constitution of 1996 was written with the specific aim to prevent a return to Apartheid and discrimination of any kind, so the Ten Commandments were written with the specific aim to prevent a return to slavery and oppression of any kind. A freedom charter to be gratefully celebrated rather than a moralistic code to be fearfully obeyed.

I will now share a few thoughts on the first five Commandments using the lens of slavery, escape and freedom for you to consider:

The preamble [Exodus 20:2] is wondrously simple and profound, not unlike the incredible preamble to the South African Constitution that is a poetical summary of the Constitution’s purpose. In the case of the Ten Commandments it is all about freedom and the protection of human dignity – the exact opposite of dehumanising slavery. God listens to the cries of the oppressed [Exodus 3:7] and works liberation with them to end their oppression.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me. This is not a general statement of belief that there is a God. It is specific to freedom from slavery. Nothing is to be put before the freedom and dignity of people. No system of domination of one over another is ever to be accepted. If our God (our ultimate belief or value system) is not first and foremost a listener and liberator of the oppressed then our worship of this god will lead us back into slavery. This calls us to check our God! Who does our God listen to? The oppressed or the powerful? The poor or the rich? The landless or the propertied? The marginalised or the privileged? Who do we pay most attention to? Who do we listen to? Who do we work with and to what end? Whose interest do we take to heart? Answering these questions will enlighten us to whether we have given our heart to the listening and liberating God, or not.
  2. Make no idol. This is not a general statement about statues and the like, made out of wood or stone, etc. but the specific instruction to make sure that everything we make or create serves the purpose of freedom. This is especially true of the systems we create. Economic systems. Health systems. Education systems. Religious systems. Legal systems. These systems take on a life of their own. And they are very powerful. They are meant to be at the service of human dignity and freedom but too often they are used to oppress some while securing privilege for others.
  3. Make no wrongful use of the name of God. This is not a general statement about swearing when we hit our thumb with a hammer. It is the specific instruction that we dare not name God incorrectly. By calling something godly when it is not. The old South African Constitution is an example of this. To suggest God is anything other than liberative is a wrongful use of God’s name.
  4. Keep Sabbath (Day, Year and Jubilee). The practice of Sabbath is to be grounded within every human system to ensure that every system contributes towards human dignity and freedom and ultimately safe-guard against returning to a form of slavery. Rest on the 7th Day and remember the Listening and Liberating God alone is to be honoured. Furthermore, a slave can never rest and therefore weekly rest is an act of resistance to slavery, especially if it is built into all human systems. It places limits on work and therefore exploitation. Let the soil rest every seven years. This too is an act of resistance to exploitative practices – for the exploitation of the soil goes hand in hand with the exploitation of people. The one inevitably leads to the other. Finally, practice Jubilee – in other words place a limit on inequality. Every 50 years push the reset button of the whole economy. Cancel debt, for debt is the first step in the direction of slavery. Redistribute wealth – so that those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little. The more equal a society is, the less likely slavery will take hold within that society.
  5. Honour your parents. Sadly, this instruction is predominantly understood in exactly the opposite way it was intended. In so doing the 3rd instruction about the wrongful use of God’s name is often broken. For instead of protecting the vulnerable it is used to silence, dominate and marginalise the vulnerable. Children, especially young children, are vulnerable. Abuse from some parents and elders is sadly a reality. Looking at this through the lens of slavery, escape and freedom, this is almost certainly not referring to the relationship between parents and their young children. If it were it would surely have been written the other way round: Parents honour your children, i.e. the powerful honour the vulnerable. Therefore, this instruction is directed at the middle aged child to honour her/his now vulnerable parents who are mature in age. In this reading the powerful are instructed to honour the vulnerable as opposed to forget and forsake.

I invite you to continue through commandments 6-10 employing the same lens of slavery, escape and freedom.

  1. No killing
  2. No adultery
  3. No stealing
  4. No false witnessing
  5. No coveting.

This week and next week’s lectionary reflections will form the content of our CMM Chat.

Our next CMM Chat will be on 7th October at 20h00.

Please email welcome@cmm.org.za closer to the time for the link.

Grace,
Alan

 

 

 

 

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Friends,

Someone has said that 2020 will be known as “the year without a calendar”. This sounds about right to me, for I can’t believe we are in October. Where have all the other months gone?

That we have not met within the CMM sanctuary this year may contribute to this dislocated sense of time. The last time we gathered together at CMM was on Christmas Day 2019. The violent conflict that took place among the refugees staying in the CMM sanctuary on the 29th December 2019 prevented us from gathering at CMM. You recall that we relocated CMM worship services to the Observatory Methodist Church for the first three months of 2020. By the end of March, SA went into Lock-down. In April the refugees were removed from the CMM by the SAPS. The restoration of the sanctuary began in May and continues. The Sunday CMM Chat also started in May enabling some of us to connect on-line.

The restoration process is due to be completed by the end of October / beginning of November. Please note: We will not resume in-person worship services at CMM until the restoration work is complete.

In the meantime, we have completed a readiness assessment for CMM in relation to Covid-19. Therefore, as soon as the restoration is completed, we will be ready to implement our plan (principles and protocols) to resume in-person services. This will also depend on there not being a significant 2nd wave in the country.

We will need at least 20 people to be trained to assist us with all the practicalities that will ensure everyone’s safety. If you would like to serve in this way, please email welcome@cmm.org.za This Covid-readiness group will be trained over the next few weeks.

Until we resume in-person services, I will post reflections on the Sunday Lectionary readings via the CMM website. I encourage you to read and reflect and pray through the readings. Set aside Sabbath time: solitude, stillness, silence. I hope you will also take time to connect with the soil, the sea, the mountains. As the psalmist invites, listen out for the trees clapping their hands. This is the great gift of this moment.

The Sunday CMM Chat will be replaced by a Wednesday Chat on 7th and 21st October at 8pm. The zoom links will be sent out on the relevant Wednesday.

Finally, I remind you that the office is open and if you would like to connect in any way please don’t hesitate to make contact with me.

Grace,
Alan

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Life-saving Pause

Friends,

“I feel so overwhelmed by the desperate state of the world.” I have heard this from a number of you in response to what is happening in the world and especially in relation to our conversations on Climate Breakdown over the past few weeks. I feel it too. Some of us have moved from denial directly to despair, without passing GO. From, “there is no problem” to “the problem is too big”. From, “no need to change” to “no change will make any difference”. We are left stuck, staring at the oncoming headlights shining on our imminent destruction.

Our work is to pause. To pause between denial – – and – – despair. In the stillness we may realise that change is possible while knowing that it is not easy and that it comes with no guarantees. In the pause we may realise that perhaps the main reason we struggle to change is because: We are dependent on our sin for our survival. In other words: We are dependent on a way of life that is killing us, for our survival. Spot the problem? To survive off what is killing us, means our survival will not survive. Death alone will win this race.

One of the first things to die is the human imagination, and with it our ability to envision living life in any other way. Soon thereafter we find ourselves reciting the cynic’s creed: “The way things are, is the way things will always remain”.

‘Dependent’ may be too soft a word. ‘Addicted’ is more accurate. We are addicted to a deathly way of life for our survival. When we try to kick our addiction, it feels like we are dying, so we stop trying and return to our deathly ways that falsely promise life. No wonder Jesus says, if we want to be his disciples (i.e. people living life in life-giving ways) we must be willing to die, for we first have to die to our deathly way of living before we can walk in a life-giving way. To change is to die so we can live. This takes great grace and enormous courage. The type of grace and courage that accompanies the alcoholic to AA and through the 12-step programme. This journey to sanity (not simply sobriety) to unsuicide ourselves begins with confession of our powerlessness to kick our deathly way of living.

Once we are able to confess our addiction and our state of powerlessness then we are ready.

On Sunday at 11h11 we will explore this a little more. We will do so in relation to the Gospel reading (Matthew 21:23-32) for this Sunday. If you would like to be part of the conversation, please email welcome@cmm.org.za for the zoom link.

Below you will find a number of resources that may strengthen us to pause between denial – – and – – despair.

Last week we focused briefly on the grieving soil that YHWH invites us to listen to. Here is a new documentary on Netflix about the saving power of soil.

Basically, we need to save soil (at least stop destroying soil) so that soil can save us. Soil remember is 24/7 busy with the miraculous work of resurrection. And here is some great information on how we can “save” the soil to save us. 

Also following on from last week I invite you to watch this brief animated video about “talking trees”. 

Grace,
Alan

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Listen to the soil

It is probably the first time in history that cold sober scientists are the ones making apocalyptic type predictions, rather than religious fanatics. Such is the devastating evidence of climate breakdown. The science says humanity must rapidly and radically change the way we live if human life (and many other forms of life) are to have any long-term prospects of survival. Yet the urgent changes necessary to save life remain largely off the agendas of those in power. Our refusal to change is selfish, stubborn and stupid. It is also suicidal. Sampson-like we are bringing down the roof on ourselves.

“The fierce urgency of now” demands we “unsuicide”. This is the dramatic word that Richard Powers uses in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory

His exquisite novel is an invitation to enter into a learnership relationship with trees: “The tree is saying things, in words before words.” He humbles us when he asks: “Which is more childish, naïve, romantic, or mystical: the belief that we can get away with making Earth revolve around our personal appetites and fantasies, or the belief that a vast, multi-million-pronged project four and a half billion years old deserves a little reverent humility?”

To unsuicide is to live in reverent humility for all of life. It is to enter into a learnership relationship with the plants, as we heard last week: “Ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you.” (Job 12:7-8). This week we are invited to go even deeper and let the soil be our teacher. We are to put our ears to the ground to listen:

“The fields are devastated, the ground mourns.” (Joel 1:10).

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled, and few people are left.” (Isaiah 24:4-6).

“How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, ‘He is blind to our ways.’ … Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me. The whole land is made desolate, but no one lays it to heart.” (Jeremiah 12:4, 10-11).

When we put our ear to the ground / to the soil / to the land we hear that the ground grieves. The soil sobs. The land laments. The soil does so as a result of bearing the weight of our sins (our deathly ways). For YHWH the liberation struggle of the soil is as important as the liberation struggle of the Hebrew slaves because all of life is interconnected. Therefore, just as YHWH heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves and worked for their freedom so we read that YHWH hears the cries of the soil and calls us to work for the soil’s liberation. And if we don’t, “even the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). This is our unsuiciding work.

During our CMM Chat at 11h00 on 20/09/20 we will discuss the incredible interrelatedness between ourselves and the soil. If you would like to receive the zoom link for this conversation, please email: welcome@cmm.org.za

PS: Scripture this week is Genesis 4:1-16. We will also look at other scriptures, so please have your Bible handy for Sunday’s Chat.

Grace,
Alan

PPS: Some soil stats:

A teaspoon of healthy soil holds more tiny organisms than there are people on earth. And, it’s not just about quantity; the diversity of this same teaspoon has been compared to that of the Amazon rainforest. This is an impressive quarter of all of Earth’s biodiversity. Some of these organisms are visible to the eye—things like earthworms, beetles, and ants—while others are impossible to discern from other elements in the soil—such as bacteria, algae, fungi, nematodes, and many more. In fact, soil organisms are so numerous and abundant that scientists are still in the very early stages of identifying and understanding them. These little creatures are major players in soil health and should be respected for the hard and important work they do.

When talking about soil health, we think it’s helpful to think of soil as a “macro-organism” or living network made up of smaller lifeforms. Soil is a complex web of interrelated organisms that rely on and support one another. It’s an ecosystem. Some use the analogy of a human body to show the importance of each (organ)ism to the whole. Soil is made up of these hard-working organisms along with organic matter, minerals like sand, clay, and rock particles—the non-living “dirt”—and the air and water in the spaces between. The health of soils is all about the balance and diversity of these components.

Another thing that makes this ecosystem unique is that most of these organisms don’t merely exist in the soil, they physically create it. They break down organic materials like dead leaves—burrowing, eating, and churning them up—resulting in the rich humus that crops and other plants need to grow. We (and all living things) rely on these organisms’ role in growing the food we eat and, increasingly, the potential for drawing harmful carbon dioxide gas out of the air.

Soil is a nonrenewable resource, meaning it cannot be created within a human’s lifespan. Unhealthy soils are subject to wind and water erosion, blown and washed away to areas where they cannot be used for agriculture. Globally, some scientists estimate that we have only 60 years of farming left, if we continue to degrade our soils. These facts are an important indication of the need for regenerative agriculture and building up soil carbon.

 

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and you will be made to eat grass …

Garden and I – 13 September 2020 by Athol McLaggan – Sunday’s CMM Chat/input

My Octopus Teacher is a mesmerising documentary that came out on Netflix this past week. It is the story of one person addressing his burn-out with the “social prescription”* of submerging himself daily into the kelp-forest-waters off Simon’s Town. During his daily practice of underwater attentiveness, he meets an Octopus … as one does. Consistency, curiosity, vulnerability, gentleness, trust and bravery alchemise over a year into steadfast (sucking) friendship. It turns out to be a human-healing friendship. The human student learns from the Octopus Teacher how to be more fully human.

You may not know, but this powerfully healing “social prescription” comes straight out of the scriptures:

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
            the birds of the air, and they will tell you; 
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
            and the fish of the sea will declare to you.” 

                                                            ~ Job 12:7-8

Here the human is clearly instructed to be in a learnership relationship with land, creature and plant. In short, the text is a call for humans to be humble. We are to start with confession. The confession of our ignorance: to know that whatever we know is less than all that we do not know and therefore we are to proceed with caution and care (read Miraculous Magnolia again)! As T.S. Eliot writes: “In order to arrive at what / you do not know / you must go by a way which / is the way of ignorance.”

Instead of beginning with confession (conscious awareness of our ignorance), humanity more often than not has begun with praise. Praise of ourselves. As a result we are unashamedly human supremacists in both belief and behaviour. Religion, economics and education are co-opted to promote the lie of separate development: that we can develop separately from the earth, forgetting that we do not live on the earth but from the earth. This is murderous and suicidal. Recent research shows how deadly humanities refusal to walk humbly is: “Global populations of wildlife have plunged by 68% since 1970. Two years ago, the figure stood at 60%. We are wiping wildlife from the face of the planet.”

Though time is against us, redemption (liberated life for Life) is still possible. We can still change from arrogant abusiveness to walk the way of humble care. This possibility is powerfully told in the book of Daniel Chapter 4. Here we see that Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, experiences a Job-like wake-up-call. As a result of his increasingly arrogant abusiveness to all life forms, his kingdom crumbles and he is brought to his knees. Remember: arrogant abusiveness is murderous and suicidal.

Now read Daniel 4:15-16:

But leave its stump and roots in the ground,
      with a band of iron and bronze,
      in the tender grass of the field.
Let him be bathed with the dew of heaven,
      and let his lot be with the animals of the field
     in the grass of the earth. 
Let his mind be changed from that of a human,
     and let the mind of an animal be given to him.
    And let seven times pass over him. 

I have always viewed these verses as Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment or debilitating self-imposed consequence, but now I read them as his “social prescription” graciously given by Yhwh for his healing and the liberation of life within the land. “You will be made to eat grass like oxen” (v25). Basically, Yhwh tells Nebuchadnezzar that he is grounded. He is to learn again that his life, like that of the oxen, is dependent on the grass, the soil and the dew from heaven that nurtures them. And we read that as Nebuchadnezzar took on this daily practice of grounded attentiveness his “reason returned” to him (v36). Then walking humbly, he returned to the “works of truth and the ways of justice” (v37). “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” ~ Baba Dioum.

On Sunday we will continue this theme at our 11:11 CMM Chat. If you would like the link for the Zoom meeting, please email welcome@cmm.org.za. This Sunday the “guru of greenery” Athol McLaggan will be sharing with us.

Grace,
Alan

* “Social prescription” – refer to last week’s reflection.

 

 

 

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Miraculous Magnolia

A brief summary of Dr Dee Paterson-Jones’ input on Sunday 6 September during the Sunday Chat

In the light of our troubled times of major climate shifts and increasingly divisive politics I have turned increasingly to nature for inspiration on our human condition, hoping to rediscover some fundamental truths.

Over the past few months, I have spent many hours in the garden, next to a favourite tree, watching its quiet form and reflecting on what I can learn from its subtle character.

As my empathy for my tree grew, I began to see with new eyes many things that previously I had taken for granted. Unlike human beings my tree, like most plants, is rooted to the ground. Its footprint is small, it is flexible but unyielding during life’s storms. It provides a home for birds, lizards, spiders, and insects which co-exist in its branches. My tree can only be described as giving, a powerful reminder that I should strive to be the same.

 

Through the winter my tree’s stark shape was laid bare. Outwardly resting, it was quietly gathering
its reserves for the coming spring. It is the best time to see the uniqueness of each one of its kind. Some are scarred, others stunted or lopsided. Nevertheless, each retains the essence of its kind and continues to grow in their various ways for the duration of its lifetime, often far outstripping us by centuries. They stay resilient and adaptable. This inspires me to pursue a path of inward growth till the very end.

 

 

 

When spring arrives, I find my tree transformed. It is in full flower, bearing beautiful, carmine pink chalices at the branch tips. They identify it as being a magnolia. Looking into them I see the imprint of their ancestral form which first appeared nearly 95 million years ago. I am in awe that such fragile beauty predates the origin of man by so many eons. Human’s arrival on Earth is recent, only 200,000 years ago. Today magnolias are spoken of in South Africa as alien exotics, but these plants evolved
at a time when there were no borderlines on Earth. We are cautioned to be careful of how we classify things, particularly with respect to those of our own species who are treated as aliens.

 

 

As we approach summer, fresh green leaves emerge. They are nature’s wonders, the powerhouses of the natural world that contain myriads of chloroplasts which can be likened to microscopic factories that run on solar power. Their raw materials are water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which they convert into oxygen and sugar. These carbon-rich sugars provide the building blocks for all living things, and the gift of oxygen allows all life to grow.

 

 

The origin of photosynthesis ranks as one of the most significant events in the history of life. Dating back to 400 million years ago it led to Earth’s skies becoming blue and the land more habitable. We now know that it evolved as a result of a symbiotic partnership between chlorophyll-carrying bacteria and the earliest plant prototypes. The bacterium provided the benefits of its green pigments and the proto-plant gave the bacterium protection in return. This triggered a massive increase in new land plant species which spread across the world. One can think of this unique symbiotic partnership as laying down the first thread in what has become the web of life. At one level this suggests that we should not judge others on superficial appearances. At a deeper level, one can only be filled with awe at the energy, interdependence, and beauty of Nature.

When thinking about the deep history of life on Earth, I turn to the Bible to seek out the timeless truths it contains. The symbolism of Moses and the Burning Bush that remains unconsumed immediately comes to mind. It speaks of an ever-present God, symbolised by a vibrating white light, and an energy that flows from God through the entire living world. In today’s context
I see this as a powerful reminder that we should live our lives sustainably and in balance with Nature, ensuring that there is
enough for all — the message so wonderfully revealed in the Lord’s Prayer.

Dr. Dee Paterson-Jones

 

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Liberation by the Power of Wonder

Friends,

While on leave I exchanged the tools of my trade. My office was now a garden. Not quite swords into ploughshares, but pen and white paper were traded in for a spade and wet muddy soil. Office lace-ups into gum boots that rejoiced every outing into the wet muddy soil. Digging, planting, clearing, cutting, trimming and watering replaced reading and writing. Weeding (endless weeding) substituted spellchecking. Raking became my new practice of meditation. (Oh the complete satisfaction to rake.) At the beginning and end of each day I would do a wandering inspection, hoping my fragile plantings survived the wind and rain. Grieving the destroyed and celebrating the new life. Noticing the tiny daily transformations that, when added together over a few weeks, were revolutionary (see the above photos of the 4 stages of the wondrous beauty of a Protea pincushion).

My office colleagues also took on completely new identities. The two legged were replaced by the four legged, the two winged and the slithering. Snails left their bread crumbs of silk across the railroad sleeper bridge. Thick juicy earthworms squiggled annoyed at me for disturbing their underworld activities. Francolins taking advantage of the turned up soil, followed my progress Pink Panther-like, three steps forward and two steps back. Looking skyward a Kingfisher paradoxically fluttered its wings while remaining dead still in the air above its catch. A Pintail Whydah checked itself out in the car’s side mirror – repeatedly kissing itself (self-love!). Sunbirds and sugarbirds blew into their flower trumpets. A Yellow Bishop did a routine fly-by (perhaps sent by my own Bishop to keep an eye on me?). I watched helplessly as a mole claimed my freshly planted vegetable patch as its private figure-of-eight-race-track. In the dead of night I spotlighted the bulb-thief with its Mohican of quills locked and loaded in my direction, and I shouted to no effect at the day time delinquent who tipped my compost bin over. The blasé baboon did not easily scare.

I discovered at new depths how healing it is to have one’s hands in the soil. How wonderful it is to feel – actually feel – rooted and grounded. It seems that people all round the world intuitively know this to be the case. According to a recent New Yorker article “in the week before lockdown began, U.K. sales of plants, seeds and bulbs were reportedly up 35% from 2019. “Whenever there’s a crisis – be it a war, or the aftermath of war, or a natural disaster – we see this phenomenon of urgent biophilia,” British psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith said. “We gain sustenance from nature’s regeneration.”

In her new book, The Well-Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith says: “When the future seems either very bleak, or people are too depressed to imagine one, gardening gives you a toehold in the future.” When one feels locked into the past or stuck in the present this is such a gift of grace! Again according to the New Yorker article: “In recent years, the benefits of gardening to mental health have become widely acknowledged in Britain. Primary-care doctors increasingly give patients a “social prescription” to do something like volunteer at a local community garden, believing that such work can sometimes be as beneficial as talk therapy or antidepressants. Some hospitals have been redesigned to incorporate gardens, spurred by findings that patients recovering from catastrophic injuries can heal more quickly if they have access to outdoor spaces with plants. Stuart-Smith’s book compares the uses of gardening in historical and contemporary mental-health treatments, and reports on empirical research into gardening’s effects on mood.”

I just love the idea of a “social prescription”.

Connecting with plant life is not only healing, it is also mentoring and liberating. If we slow down long enough to pay attention, plant life will wisely guide us to an understanding of humanity that we may discover as Gospel (Good news for the poor). The mentoring power of plant life will be the theme of our Sunday Chat at 11:11 this Sunday so I will not dwell on it now.

While I have been away the lectionary readings have turned to that long walk from slavery to freedom, (from 23 August to 18 October the OT readings are from the book of Exodus). Last week’s reading came from Exodus 3 where we witness Moses overwhelmed with wonder and brought to a barefoot humility before a burning bush, (remember to take a metaphor literally is an absurdity). Literalism limits the burning bush mystical moment to a single historical event, while the wild truth is that every bush is ablaze with Divine glory when the light of the day and the openness of our soul are graced with wondrous alignment. (Look again at the photos above … burning in beauty.)

It was before a bush – plant life aflame with beauty – that Moses heard God’s pain-filled trauma of seeing a people’s misery and hearing their cries for freedom. It was in front of a bush that Moses ran out of excuses to stay clear of Pharaoh (a parasite in plant-life-terms – a ruler living off the people instead of for the people). It was before a wilderness shrub that Moses hesitantly realised it was time for him to go and face his past (remembering that Pharaoh was his adopted grandfather). We note that the political journey of liberation will always be an intensely personal one – fought in the public streets and the hidden corridors of our own hearts, because true liberation is never only from oppressive others but also from our oppressive selves.

I guess there are many en-couraging motivations to resist a parasite ruler like Pharaoh. I believe what gave Moses the courage to begin this journey of liberation was Wonder. Wonder at creation that led to praise of the Creator of creation. Praise of the Creator that led to protest Pharaoh’s parasitic rule. The burning beautiful bush is a mystical moment that moves Moses beyond himself towards solidarity with the suffering of others and at the same time towards a healing within himself. A mystical moment is one that does not fit into our day to day measurements of meaning. They refuse to be limited by the logic of the status quo. They escape categorisation. They cannot be fully calculated and they firmly resist commodification. A mystical moment is an encounter with the More of Life. Note, that an authentic mystical moment does not lead to one seeking more mystical moments. The proof of a mystical moment is that it results in the overcoming of fear by the power of love. Love that joins oneself with the suffering of the world. Love that freely gives itself for the sake of Life in all its fullness. Before Moses was moved by mystical wonder to resist the authoritarian Pharaoh there was a pair of midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh’s deathly command to kill all Hebrew boys at birth. They had more wonder for God than Pharaoh and why wouldn’t they? They experienced over and over again the mystical wonder of new birth. Mystical wonder that almost every parent knows and who in that moment is overwhelmed with a love so great that they will not hesitate to give their own life to save the life they now cradle. Mystical wonder is nothing short of the death defeating power of love. Mystical wonder opens one’s eyes to see Pharaoh’s power as phony and a sham. I mean how can fireworks truly compare to the stars? How can flags waving compare to the wind that waves them? How can military parades compare to a flock of flamingos taking off from a salt lake at sunrise or a herd of elephants on a dusty African plain? How can Pharaoh’s prejudice and bigotry and genocidal commands not finally fail if faced by those who have seen a bush burning with beauty and who have entered into a life liberating partnership with the bush-burning-with-beauty’s Creator? After all, “where was Pharaoh when God laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4 adapted.)

“Lost in wonder, love and praise”, Moses returns to resist Pharaoh. (Not a bad time to sing “Love Divine, all loves excelling”.)

The world today is desperate for Moses-like and midwife-like people, (Romans 8:18-30). People rooted in mystical wonder who have been set free from fear by the power of love to enter into solidarity with the suffering of the world for the sake of Life in all its fullness. Moses was moved by a bush ablaze with non-consuming fire. The world today stubbornly refuses to be moved by the threat of every bush ablaze with a consuming fire as we get closer to the point of no-turn from complete Climate Breakdown. I think one of the reasons we are not moved to change is because we are no longer in meaningful relationship with plant life. And as a result we no longer carry the appreciative knowledge of our complete dependence on soil and tree. We have fallen out of love with plant life and therefore we fail to see any reason to give our life (change our way of life) to save our Mother earth. This refusal to love for Life’s sake will be humanity’s undoing.

Get out into the garden. Walk out in the veld. Stand shoeless beneath a tree. Kneel before a blade of grass. Pray that you fall in love again with the earth that sustains you. Marvel at the mystery that our lives cannot exist without the tiniest earthworm far beneath the soil and the forests of trees above. Maybe, just maybe, if we do this we will hear God’s trauma and respond with courage in the power of wonder.

I leave you with three short extracts from Martin Luther King Jr’s. speech at Riverside Church, exactly one year before his assassination on the 4th April 1967.

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. 

 If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

 Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world.” 

In 2020 we are faced with the fierce urgency of now more than ever.

Grace,
Alan

 

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