I have always found it a strange and wonderful gift arriving at a new congregation, not completely dissimilar to the transformation of “water into wine”. I would arrive as a stranger but instantly be welcomed as family. So, what was I, stranger or family? Water or wine? It might be the difference between fact and truth. The fact was, we were strangers (we simply didn’t know each other when we met) but the deeper truth was that we were family. Family, not only because of the tradition we share but as in the deepest sense of our shared humanity. Church at its best re-cognises the stranger as family. Living out the truth of our human family-ness is what I would call true enlightenment. Welcoming the stranger and discovering a sister, brother, mother or father. Drawing water … and … tasting wine. For this reason, I always pray before each sermon: “Water within each of us the desire to be your faithful family forever”. Thank you for allowing me into your homes and hearts as family.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the agony of being called to speak a word – an uncomfortable word to the world – only to have a greater agony trying to hold it in: “If I say, I will not speak any more in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer. 20:9). I know this damned if you do, damned if you don’t agony. To speak with one’s feeble voice or not. I have experienced it almost every Saturday night for 33 years. Maya Angelo wrote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Up until now I have chosen the lesser agony. I will now no doubt experience the greater agony as I seek out silence and solitude.
I am grateful to the Methodist Church who trusted me to tell “the old, old story … of Jesus and his love.” I am also grateful for the responsibility and accountability that came with it. Truth be told I would not have chosen many of the places that the church sent me to, but each turned out to be unforgettably enriching as I met family across the rich diversity of this country: From the streets of Johannesburg city to Rustenburg and Mooinooi (1991), then Welkom (1995), then Midrand (1998) and finally CMM (2008).
I was 21 when I started. Looking back, I think it was quite crazy to let me loose on a congregation at that age. Yet, the other day I asked a barber how they learnt how to cut hair. I wondered if they started out practicing on wigs. The barber laughed and said – “I was thrown in the deep-end and simply told to cut a client’s hair … a real live human being. No wigs!” So, I guess this is how we learn. We learn with real live human beings. We learn by being trusted. Trusted to start. Trusted with an opportunity. Trusted to learn through doing. It’s crazy! And of course, we learn by sitting multiple classes with the great teacher called Failure, who hopefully gives us a degree in humility.
Thank you CMM for the last 15 years. It has been a tremendous joy and privilege to share life with you. Thank you for your love and care for me and for allowing me to love and care for you. A relationship of 15 years can only last with large amounts of grace and truth. Grace frees us to explore ever greater depths of truth, and truth inevitably exposes us to our need for grace. One without the other is either meaningless or mean. You have gifted me with both.
Thank you for allowing me to grow and change with you. I say this specifically in relation to preaching Sunday after Sunday. I will forever be grateful for the freedom to wrestle with the ancient texts in explorative and questioning ways in the hope to work out what it means to take Jesus’ teaching and example seriously in the world today.
Finally, a special thank you to Adrienne, Oscar and Sharon as well as all those in the Donkey Teams over the years – I am grateful to each of you.
Alan and Jubilee
The first Yellow Banner that CMM raised was in 2011. In solidarity with The Right To Know Campaign (r2k) and many other civil society organisations CMM decided to spread the disturbing news about The Protection of Information Act, more honestly known as The Secrecy Bill. A Bill that would seriously curtail the press and punish whistle-blowers. In short, it was a law that would make it easier to lie and more difficult to speak the truth. We figured Jesus would object to it, so we objected to it.
This kick-started CMM’s Yellow Banner Campaign that would result in 18 more Yellow Banners being raised up CMM’s steeple tower, covering topics as varied as: The Arms Deal; ARVs; Xenophobia; Gender based violence; Sex Work; Homophobia; COVID; Marikana; Housing and State Capture among others.
What they all had in common was 1] an abuse of power resulting in vulnerable people becoming more vulnerable and 2] a remnant of courageous resistance.
I am excited to let you know that a book about CMM’s Yellow Banner Campaign is about to come out. It is called The bell, banners and blasphemy. This book hopes to tell a little of CMM’s story for the past 13 years or so. The book includes large colour photos of the banners and a social and theological commentary of each Yellow Banner. There is also a photo essay of CMM’s hospitality to the refugees.
As a result of a gift, a 100% of the sales for the first 250 copies will go directly to Stepping Stones Preschool.
You will be notified of a book launch as soon as a date is confirmed. If you have any enquiries or if you would like to purchase the book or host a discussion / launch, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week I visited Humanity, an evolution exhibition at the Iziko South African Museum of Natural History – situated in the Company Gardens. (It is time the Company Gardens be renamed!) I highly recommend this exhibition as it invites us to reflect on ‘What makes us the SAME’, ‘What makes us DIFFERENT’ and ‘What makes us HUMAN’.
The exhibition makes an important stand against discrimination and racism in particular. It states clearly that “Races are not real. Racism is”. We are reminded that every single human being shares 99.9 % identical DNA with the next person. How the world needs to be reminded that every painfilled legacy of discriminatory othering is based on less than 0.1% of a human being!
The exhibition that is profound in its simplicity and accessibility critiques how evolution studies have been studied and communicated over the years. In this way it ‘decolonises’ this discipline. Remember a couple of years back some people were asking how it was possible to ‘decolonise’ science, after all “science is science” they said. Well, this exhibition is a brilliant example of decolonising education. It reveals the historical biases (and blatant prejudices) of white men in the field of evolutionary studies. The exhibition exposes stuff that I took for granted and never even thought to question.
This example of decolonising of education is a challenge to all of us to critique our own fields of interest or expertise. For example, if we look at the inside structure of CMM with its fixed pews in straight lines, it is easy to see column of colonial soldiers marching in straight lines. Eyes front! Focused on the back of the soldiers’ head in front of them. No talking! Only one person speaks. The commander in the front – who shouts the commands. Everyone else must listen and obey. So instead of community we have columns. Instead of “braided” truth we have single truth spoken. Instead of seeing each other’s faces – we see the back of each other’s heads. We don’t know if a person is happy or sad, weeping or frowning. Sadly, this model is replicated over and over again – even in churches without fixed pews. Free standing chairs are placed in straight rows revealing how we willingly participate in our own “confinement” opting for columns over community, and so undermining the gospel we proclaim.
May we continue to learn… unlearn… relearn…
War & World Cup Whiplash
Do you also have whiplash from Wars and World Cups?
News broadcasts flick from horrifying death and destruction to Ama Bokke Bokke celebrations. Division and death alternating with an inspiring team that is ‘stronger together’. One second overwhelmed with despair and then a second later high fiving the person next to us in uncontrollable excitement. We mourn the fact that there are only losers in war, as we celebrate victory in sport. This whiplash of emotion and spirit is real.
When I find myself questioning whether I should allow myself to celebrate anything at all – while people are being buried alive in rubble, I am reminded of a poem. A poem that has saved me from drowning in despair many times in my life. This poem does not deny the suffering that is awash in the world, while at the same time it refuses to allow this suffering to dilute joy and beauty that continue to exist despite everything.
May you have the stubbornness to accept your gladness…
A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come
At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!
But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.
Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school…
asking about him
and sending him regards.
But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.
Nazareth April 15, 2006
Poem © 2006 by Taha Muhammad Ali. English translation © 2006 by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin.
Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011). Palestinian poet from Galilee that was first bombed then bulldozed during the 1948 War to make room for an Israeli settlement.
PS: Here is the link to Alan’s sermon on Gaza – Baptism against Brutality – from last week.