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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The speed of life

Friends,

Two photos of exactly the same river from exactly the same position at almost exactly the same time, yet so different. The different shutter speeds of the camera captures the same reality … differently. On the left the water is sharp and distinct, while the exact same water on the right, taken at a slower shutter speed, is smooth and misty like the first faint brushstrokes of undercoat.

This is a metaphor for our Covid-19 times. The speed of our living has changed. In fact, the speed of everything has been forced to change. This enables us to see the same reality differently. That which was a misty blur, is now seen sharply defined. For this reason, to site one example, some of us have been able to see or at least acknowledge the dehumanising inequality that exists within our society and world at large. It has always been dehumanisingly present, but it is easily ignored at a certain speed. The forced speed change of Covid-19 has sharply defined this inequality as well as the systems that create and perpetuate it. This sharpness pierced our conscience with the knowing that we are complicit in what is wrong with our world. It also crystallised our convictions about what justice demands. This is the painful ‘gift’ of Covid-19.

As the speed of our living slowly increases again (even though we have not reached peak Covid-19 death and devastation) the temptation will be to forget the reality we were enabled to see under Covid-19 lockdown-shutter-speed. It is this we must guard against. Therefore, I invite you to write down the reality that was revealed to you by lockdown-shutter-speed. Write down what you felt. Write down what you said you would never do again. Write down what you promised to start to do …, etc. In this way our living may honour Covid-19 time as a Kairos time. In this way the grief of Covid-19 may also be known to us and others as well the creation at large as a time of grace.

Grace,
Alan

P.S. I will be on leave for the next couple of weeks. The Sunday CMM Chats will continue with some wonderful facilitators. I encourage you to tune in at 11h11 each Sunday. Please email welcome@cmm.org.za for the zoom link if you would like to join. I am also glad to report that the restoration of the Sanctuary will soon be completed. Thank you for your continued generosity.

 

P.P.S. Remember Max the fruit seller that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago? Well Max is back, which means Church Street is filled with nourishing colour again. Foot traffic is still low, so if you’re in town please support him.

Thank you.

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Face truth!

Friends,

Last week we reflected on the harrowing story of Hagar. We included a picture of George Segal’s sculpture of Abraham’s embrace of Ishmael as he and his mother Hagar were about to begin their journey of banishment.

Here is a photo of another sculpture by the same artist. I alluded to this sculpture during our CMM Chat last Sunday. Here is a little history about this sculpture:

“George Segal, who taught sculpture at Princeton from 1968 to 1969, was commissioned in 1978 by Kent State University to create a memorial to the four students killed by members of the National Guard during an antiwar demonstration on their campus. Segal found a metaphor for the tragedy in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In Segal’s version, Abraham, dressed in contemporary clothing, looms over a college-aged Isaac, who is stripped of his shirt and bound with rope. Kent State University officials refused it, interpreting it as a politically volatile depiction of murder. According to Segal, however, this group misunderstood the memorial: the theme, in Segal’s words, was “the eternal conflict between adherence to an abstract set of principles versus the love of your own child.” Segal selected Princeton’s site for the sculpture, near the University Chapel, to reinforce the work’s biblical associations.” 

This sets the scene for our discussion on Sunday regarding Abraham’s decision to sacrifice and then not to sacrifice his son Isaac as recorded in Genesis 22:1-14. As we engage the ancient text we are asked to reflect on our understanding of the passage in the light of Jesus and his teachings. The primary question we always ask is: Would Jesus say ‘amen’ to our interpretation or not? Then as we move to our present context we ask how children continue to be sacrificed in the name of “god” or “abstract sets of principles”.

In our reflections I invite you to read the short story entitled: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin. This story is disturbing. As disturbing as Abraham considering to sacrifice Isaac. This story was written in the early 1970s but is even more true today. Let us ask ourselves: How is this story true today? I include links to the story and a brief commentary.

This may be all too much for us to hold, but we dare not turn our face away from the truth of things. Our liberation and healing rests in facing the truth. To help us stand in the presence of the traumatising truths of our living I invite you to lean into Psalm 13 – the set psalm for this week. The psalm is one of lament. Lament is risky speech. Lament is speaking the unspeakable. It is to voice the terrifying truth. It is in no way doubtful speech. Rather it is determined and demanding. The Deliverer must now deliver! The psalmist demands that grief stops leading the dance of life.

The psalm is a mere six verses. The first four verses (the majority of verses) voice the isolation, pain of the soul, sorrow of the heart, diminishment of being and overall deathliness of life. Followed by two verses of praise. Is this a sign that the psalmist has turned the corner? Does it mean the Deliverer has in fact delivered? If so, how long did it take the psalmist to move from verse 4 to verse 5? Or are the last two verses of the psalm the psalmist’s act of defiance and resistance? Perhaps there has been no change and no deliverance. In this case the psalmist is hanging on to the side of a cliff with just two fingers (verses). Hanging on for dear life. Somehow holding onto praise with bare fingertips…? Like the ones who walk away from Omelas.

If you would like the link for the 11h11 CMM Chat on Sunday – please email welcome@cmm.org.za

Grace,
Alan

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Hagar vs. Sarah, Abraham and God

Friends,

This week’s reading focus for our CMM Chat on Sunday is Genesis 16 and Genesis 21:1-21. It is the harrowing story of Hagar. I invite you to read and re-read this 2-part story.

One of the things we are often reminded about at CMM is how important it is to understand the context of a scripture to understand its meaning. This includes the social, economic and political context of the time as well as the theological context. It also includes being aware of the context of the story within the Scriptures. We noted how important this is to do when we reflected on John 14 a few weeks ago and how it related to the context of Jesus’ last supper and Peter’s bold statement of faithfulness in John 13. All this holds true if we are to understand the stories of scripture more deeply, but this week I would like to ask you to do exactly the opposite.

This week I invite you to divorce the story of Genesis 16 and 21 from the scriptures entirely. Read it simply as a short story in and of itself. I believe that this approach will help us to read the story more honestly.

For it seems to me that some stories within scripture escape a truthful reading precisely because they are located in scripture. What I mean by this is that because they are in scripture, we approach them with a pre-understanding or interpretation that directs our final understanding or interpretation. This pre-understanding causes us to focus on certain aspects of the story while ignoring others. As a result, we raise certain questions and not others. We give certain characters the benefit of the doubt while we come down hard on others. We may brush over some people’s pain and anguish because we are caught up in the bigger story at play. Put simply, we sometimes apply an “end justifies the means” approach to our reading. This is most clearly seen with the dominant interpretation of the crucifixion itself. The bloody horror on Mount Golgotha is sanitised by our pre-understanding / interpretation of the larger story that “God is saving the world”. And if God is busy saving the world then any piece in the salvation puzzle, no matter how gruesome and no matter what ethical questions it raises about the Divine, are unquestioningly accepted for the sake of the final salvation puzzle to be completed. So, questions like what kind of God needs a human sacrifice to save the world are simply not asked.

This sacrificing of the single puzzle piece for the sake of the whole puzzle is what I think often happens with the story of Hagar. Hagar’s horrific treatment by Sarah, Abraham and even God (according to the narrator’s take on God) is ignored or even justified for the sake of the larger puzzle of God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham.

Therefore, I propose we look at the two Hagar pieces of the puzzle, Genesis 16 and 21, on their own. I hope that our sharpened focus will provoke new questions to be asked and emotions to be felt. The ultimate hope is that Hagar will be honoured.

Hagar’s story is a painfully relevant scripture for us to be grappling with at this time. It intersects our own context on multiple fronts: This Sunday is Father’s Day and who can forget the Sunday school song: Father Abraham had many sons…? Abraham as a father of Ishmael and Isaac demand our critique. What does it mean to hold Abraham up as the epitome of faithfulness (Read Hebrews 11:8-18) in the light of his role with Hagar? The patriarchy of Abraham’s times demand we critique the patriarchy of our own times. In recent days we have had a renewed reminder of the horror of violence by men against women and how it continues unceasingly across our land. This intersects with Hagar’s horror. Furthermore, Hagar’s ignored rape anticipates the ignored rape of women through the centuries.

We will discuss together these intersections between this ancient text (short story) and our context on Sunday. I look forward to connecting with you all. If you would like the Zoom Link for the 11h11 CMM Chat please email welcome@cmm.org.za

This evening Bishop Yvette Moses will be delivering her Synod Address live via: Capemethodist Facebook page from 7pm.

Tomorrow the Synod will meet (be it a smaller version) online to complete all essential Synod work. This is going to be a challenge under the circumstances but hopefully we will be able to get everything done.

See you Sunday.

Grace, Alan

 

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The Story of Hagar

This Sunday at 11:11 we will reflect together on the story of Hagar. For this reason I’ve added Genesis 16 to be read first and in conjunction with Genesis 21:1-21 for the fuller story.

I invite you to read Hagar’s story as for the first time. Try and set aside all previous interpretations. Be aware of your feelings as well as the questions that arise for you. One question to ask is: what would Jesus feel and say about Hagar’s story? And furthermore, where is Jesus in the story?  How does this story relate to the horror of gender-based violence today?

The scripture readings for this Sunday are:

Genesis 16; Genesis 21:1-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Email welcome@cmm.org.za for the Zoom link.

Grace, Alan

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Listen!

June, 14 2020 The Sermon this week comes to us through the words of Rev. Victoria Safford, a minister in the Unitarian Church. They are words from 2005 but I believe them to be very connecting with our times. You decide if that is true for you. You may also want to see how the scripture readings for this week connect with her words. [Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7); Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)]

See you tomorrow at 11h11 for CMM Chat … “the holy occasion of hearing one another, of beholding one another.”

 

Friends,

Psalm 116 begins:
1 I love the Lord, because the Lord has heard
 my voice and my supplications. 
2 Because the Lord inclined his ear to me,
 therefore I will call on the Lord as long as I live. 

Basically, the psalmist is saying: Wow I have been listened to!! Being heard is the basis for the psalmist’s love and lifelong commitment. What is so wondrous according to the psalmist, is that the All-Powerful One, who by rights does not have to listen to anyone, has indeed listened to this psalmist’s cry.

The Lord heard my cry, is no small claim. In fact, it is this very claim that sparked the liberation of the Hebrew slaves back in the day. Back then the dominant theology of Empire taught (as Empire theology always does) that God only spoke and listened to the king who then represented or incarnated God on earth. It was treason to suggest that God listened to anyone besides the king. In Exodus 3:7 we read the radical declaration from the lips of the Lord: “…I have heard their cry…”. Being heard by the Lord helped them to discover and trust their true identity. They were the Lord’s “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5) and not Pharaoh’s slave. On the basis of being heard by the Power above all other powers, the Hebrew slaves demand their freedom and are prepared to walk through oceans and deserts to get it.

The declaration that the All-Powerful One listens to the lowly and trodden upon, is one of the most radically subversive statements of the Scriptures. It is also the primary instruction for those in positions of power to imitate. Listen longest to the lowliest. In truth most of us practice just the opposite.

One of the reasons “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is that our desire to listen seems to decrease in direct proportion to the increase of our power. Perhaps this is because listening and humility go hand in hand and if anything tests our humility it is power. After all, “why do I need to listen to you, if I have the power to just tell you what to do?” This is especially tempting when we are pressured and rushed or feeling vulnerable and afraid ourselves.

If power is not bridled by accountability, we can be almost certain that there will be abuse. The refusal to listen is the beginning of this abuse. It is to treat another as if they do not count. And if they don’t count, it raises the question why do they exist at all? From here it is a slippery slope to doing them further harm.

When institutions constantly cover for those among their ranks, right or wrong, then a culture of impunity soon saturates the structures of that institution which make the abuse of power by members of the institution not just possible but probable. We have witnessed this among the police and army, both here and abroad in recent weeks. We have also witnessed it within religious institutions who have covered up sexual abuse over many years. And in recent days we have heard again of how multiple forms of discrimination are routinely ignored and go unaddressed within elite schools. This occurs when institutions exist to protect and preserve themselves above all else. The moment an institution closes ranks to save itself in this way, it begins to die. And while dying it causes death. This is the public law of self-destruction that Jesus spoke of in personal terms: “If you want to save your life you will lose it.”

Conversely, to listen to another is to affirm their existence and honour their being. To listen is to help another discover and trust their true identity as precious. To listen is the beginning of the liberation journey.

Many are asking, what can we do? We can start by checking who we give our ear to. We can start by listening. We can start by listening to the cries of people, especially the people from the margins of society. And in these June days we are called to listen especially to young people. To listen without argument or the need to answer. To listen to feel and to learn for the sake of liberation.

Please email welcome@cmm.org.za if you want the link to Sunday’s chat.

Grace,
Alan

PS: From June 2018 in the States

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