All life is valuable

Grace and peace to you and through you …

This past week Charlize Theron spoke at the 21st International AIDS Conference in Durban. She spoke the truth not simply about HIV / AIDS but about the stubborn state of our world and humanity that enables HIV to continue to be a death-sentence when it needn’t be:

“I think it is time that we acknowledge that something is terribly wrong. I think it’s time we face the truth about the unjust world we live in. The truth is we have every tool we need to prevent HIV in the world … and yet in SA alone 180 000 people died of AIDS last year. …let’s ask ourselves why haven’t we beaten this epidemic?

The real reason we have not beaten this epidemic boils down to one simple fact: We value some lives more than others. We value men more than women. Straight life more than gay life. White skin more than black skin. The rich more than the poor. An adult more than adolescents. I know this, I know this because AIDS does not discriminate on its own. It has no biological preference for black bodies, for women’s bodies, for gay bodies, for youth or the poor. It doesn’t single out the vulnerable the oppressed or the abused. We single out the vulnerable the oppressed and the abused. We ignore them. We let them suffer. And then we let them die.”

She then called on the next generation of youth to end it. #GenEndIt

“I just want to be clear what the ‘it’ is. ‘It’ is not just AIDS. ‘It’ is the culture that condones rape and shames victims into silence. ‘It’ is the cycle of poverty and violence that traps girls into teen marriages and forces them to sell their bodies to provide for their families. ‘It’ is the racism that allows the white and the wealthy to exploit the black and the poor and then blame them for their own suffering. ‘It’ is the homophobia that shames and isolates LGBT youth and keeps them from life-saving healthcare and education.

HIV is not just transmitted by sex. It is transmitted by sexism, racism, poverty and homophobia. And if we are going to end AIDS we have to cure the disease within our own hearts and within our own minds first and I believe the young people can do it.”

In line with the biblical prophets Theron did three things: First, she correctly highlighted the core issue of our idolatrous faithlessness: that we value some lives more than others. Second, she drew attention to the vulnerable who suffer as a result of our idolatry – and the multi-layered nature of vulnerability that some endure. Third, she reminded us that the most public and political issues are at one and the same time the most intimate and personal. To transform the streets we must also transform our hearts.

Grace, Alan

Sunday 17 July 2016 Prayer

Loving God…
Utterly, utterly loving God we gather to celebrate your love:

Your love that is woven into the fabric of the universe that we inhabit,
Your love that punctuates the night with meaning and the day with delight,
Your love that is known by many names and millions of unnamed knowings,
Your love that searches for us when we have wandered far down the tunnels of despair,
Your love that finds us when we are lost to ourselves … when we don’t know who we are anymore,
Your love that reaches out to us when the arms of our own love cannot embrace you or any other,
Your love that joins us when our lives are hand-cuffed to a past we long to leave behind,
Your love that holds us together from the inside without us even knowing we are held,
Your love that rejoices in our presence when we have lost all sense of our own beauty,
Your love that connects us to others who are equally in need of love, reminding us that our need is not only to be loved but also to love. And yet even though we have this need to love we struggle to honour it. We struggle to live it.

Utterly loving God, as we celebrate your love, we trust you to hear and hold our confession regarding our struggle to love…

We have struggled to love in more ways than we can fully fathom and others are hurt because of it. Today there are people who are hurting because of the things we have done or not done – the things we have said or not said. So they are probably in a better position than us to confess our sins because they carry the scars from them. Even so we share a sample of where we struggled to live life lovingly:

We confess that we have ignored people – sometimes purposefully and sometimes not but either way we have caused some to feel invisible – as if they don’t exist – as if they shouldn’t exist.
We have cut people off mid-sentence, undermining their contribution and causing them to think twice about sharing themselves with others again.
We have laughed and mocked when we needed to be serious and we have been dead-pan when we needed to be joyfully engaged.
Our facial expressions have skillfully communicated condemnation and the tiniest of condescending smirks have sent others into a self-doubting silence.
We have rushed past people. Failing to listen with openness and attentiveness. And when we have heard the words spoken we have not always felt the feelings within the words. We make quick assumptions and jump to false conclusions. We secretly think we alone are right and sometimes not so secretly. We prefer the sound of our own voice.
And when we speak we shave the edge off the truth – a little bit here and a little bit there depending on whom we are with. We do so because we fear the truth will not win us the approval we so desire. We lie – more often than not – not in what we say but in what we leave unsaid. We think it is harmless because how will anyone know…and yet it manifests within us as sadness and rage.
We live in our heads – obsessively preoccupied with our own lives unable to meaningfully engage the pain of the world around us – pain embodied by people who are considered by the dominant order to be different and dangerous.

We know these things about ourselves and yet we struggle to self-correct ourselves. Even the things about ourselves we resent we struggle to remove. And often when we try we end up tying ourselves in self-righteous knots. So, utterly, utterly loving God we gather here to bear witness to your love that is ever present within our struggle to love.

And we gather in trust that your love holds us even as we struggle to love … and that somehow – we know not how – your loving hold on us will heal us and ultimately transform us into your loving ways. So be it…

Practicing Love

To love, really love is the most vulnerable thing. There is an openness we enter into, a gift we give, and one we are invited to receive. There is a standing there in that love and a breathing in of something that we know has caught us in a net of life that must then widen beyond ourselves in a risky norm shattering way. To commit to love is to trust, really trust and that is an incredibly hard thing sometimes to do.

Yet, this is the love that God calls forth from us. “Trust in me. Trust in my ways. Trust in the truth that is larger than your fears. Trust in the promises that will sustain longer than your days. Trust that it is worth dying for, the abundant life. Trust that all the change that comes with it, will lead in the end to the good.”

One of the women in my life who I always seek counsel from told me that strength to stand in love comes from the fire.

There is a sense that learning to love and love well is like learning to dance in fire. Sacrificial love that pours out oneself for others, that meets people in the middle, that pulls in the claws of harsh words and retributive actions, and stands in all that is right and just in the world catches us in a life changing heat that we have to learn to live in or we risk not really living at all.

To speak words of forgiveness to an enemy, to admit the ways you are wrong, to be quiet and let another speak, to risk harm coming to the skin of your body in order that the skin on another’s body might be honored as beautiful as yours, to stand in the threat where lines of division are cast, to know the cross is before you and to still carry on. Where does the strength come from for that?

We are more and more able to live love as we kneel for it and receive from the one who knows us better than we know ourselves, who can strip away illusions that we live with, rattle our skeletons till our closets are bare, and who chooses not to leave us in that vulnerable place alone, but chooses to enter in and love us from strength to strength in order that we might more and more be love in the world.

Strength comes from learning to dance in the fire of life. Finding our way in prayer, risking to stand in love in moments when it would be easier to sit, and trusting that strength rises in us as we risk a life that is more about God and others than ourselves. There is great vulnerability in this work of practicing love, we yield to it our very lives, and receive back from it life that makes more sense, for it is life lived in truth.

Martin Luther King Jr. named that “the ultimate measure of a man (woman) is not where he (she) stands in comfort and convenience, but where he (she) stands in times of controversy.” Our lives must be shaped by disciplines that allow us to be ready to live love in the moments of controversy, to be ready to stand for justice in the moments when we see it, and to know that practicing love takes strength and strength is raised up within us in the fires of living.

We are never without places to stand and practice love. The question is will we be vulnerable enough to enter each day more fully into the Jesus way of living? Submitting ourselves to the shaping fire is a vulnerable move that leads to great change in our being. As we allow the change in ourselves we do become part of the change needed in the world and I don’t know about you, but I don’t imagine the sidelines are the place we would find Jesus today. So, I encourage you to enter the dance in the fires that bring change.

With you on the journey,

I hope to see some of you this Wednesday as we are led through the Lord’s prayer by Emily Dao.

Love your enemies … (link to GroundUp)

Grace and peace to you and through you …

Last week in our reading from 2 Kings 5 we were introduced to two people. They couldn’t have been more different from each other yet we found them laying side by side, separated only by a tiny punctuation mark. In verse 1 we met Naaman, the commander in chief of King Aram’s army. In verse 2 we met a nameless slave girl. These two are polar opposites and yet connected. Connected in how Naaman was the cause for the girl’s capture and slavery and connected in how the girl was the catalyst for Naaman’s healing. I guess that is how it goes: we are either contributing to people’s oppression or liberation.

From Naaman we learnt that if we take any verse of our life and read it carefully we will discover contradictions. Naaman was successful and sick at one and the same time. Naaman was victorious on the battlefields of war and defeated in the secret chambers of his heart. We are always saint and sinner across every verse of our life. We see that a perfect CV does not a perfect life make. There are areas of our life that stubbornly refuse to be polished. Healing and liberation will escape us until we accept this unsatisfying fact, rather than anxiously try and fix it. Some things cannot be fixed. Some things thrive especially when we try and get rid of them. Some things feed on being fought. Some things only evaporate when we acknowledge them. Some things leave only after we have welcomed them. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said: “Do not resist an evildoer.” Jesus then went on to instruct his followers to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Well long before Jesus spoke these counter-cultural-words, this slave girl lived them out. She lived them into being in relation to Naaman. She knew that part of the death that Naaman carried within his body resulted from the death he had caused to other bodies. So she wisely and bravely medicates him: “Go back across the border – this time not to pillage and murder – but to ask for help from those who have every reason to hate you.” Who doesn’t have places and people to return to because we left part of our humanity there?

She knew that if Naaman were to find healing it would be by grace alone and the healing itself would be grace. Grace is love we don’t deserve. Grace is most acutely known through the love of those who have every reason not to love us. If there are parts of us that can only be healed by grace then it means there are parts of our being that can only ever be healed by our enemies because our enemies have experienced us at our most sick, our most brutal and our most deadly. It is our enemy’s forgiveness that reaches to the depths of our dis-ease like no other. Their mercy manages to extract every last fiber of tumor twisted around our stone-like heart. The best surgeons are our enemies who have exchanged their knife of revenge for a scalpel of healing. No wonder Jesus says we should love our enemies.

May we find both Naaman and the slave girl within us.

Grace, Alan

Words and Actions

Grace and Peace to you and through you …

South Africa is an extremely violent society. We cannot stand to absorb the full extent of this truth. To preserve our sanity we blot large parts of it out. We have become numb by necessity. As a people we carry high levels of trauma, and anger is never far from the surface of our living. A gun in this context can only spell death. There are many factors that contribute to our extreme levels of violence. Guns are one key factor. Removing the gun does not guarantee ending the violence but it does drastically reduce the lethality of the violence. Easy access to guns makes killing easy, more likely and more frequent, while strong gun laws have been shown, including within recent South African history, to reduce gun violence.

In such an extremely violent society it is a no brainer to legislate more stringent restrictions on gun ownership. Yet sadly this remains a struggle to achieve. Once again there are multitudes of reasons for this. The most basic reason is the continued belief that guns keep us safe. Sadly, because people are moved by fear more than the facts people acquire guns to keep safe, yet in the process place themselves in greater danger with the increased risk of accidents, fatal suicide, family-murder, femicide, as well as creating an incentive for crime that ends up arming criminals making society a whole lot less safe. Guns in the home place people within the home 3 to 4 times at greater risk in becoming a victim of gun violence.

The evidence shows that guns are excellent instruments of attack but are very poor instruments of defense. A 2015 FBI study shows that successful defense is outnumbered 34-1 by successful attack. And what is more, for every successful use of a firearm in defense there are 78 suicides and 2 fatal accidents by firearms. Even though this is what the evidence shows however, it is not what common logic holds on to.

I write about this for two reasons. First, because I have been attending a Gun Free SA seminar in Johannesburg this past week. Second, because I think we can transfer this behaviour of “common logic versus the evidence” into multiple areas of our life. We would all do well to check ourselves and better still to invite others to check us (because quite often we are blind to ourselves) on how our words and actions perpetuate the very things we hope to eradicate. In other words how we are part of the problem while we think we are part of the solution.

Grace, Alan

There’s Something

You can stop me
drinking a pepsi-cola
at the café
in the Avenue
or goin’ to
an Alhambra revue,
you can stop me doin’
some silly thing like that
but o
there’s somethin’ you
can never never do;
you can stop me
boarding a carriage
on the Bellville run
white class
or sittin’ in front
of the X-line
on the Hout Bay bus,
you can stop me doin’
some silly thing like that
but o
there’s somethin’ you
can never never do;
you can stop me
goin’ to Grootte Schuur
in the same ambulance
as you
or tryin’ to go to heaven
from a Groote Kerk pew
you can stop me doin’
some silly thing like that
but o
there’s something you
can never never do;
true’s God
you can stop me doin’
all silly things of that sort
and to think of it
if it comes to that
you can even stop me
but o
there’s somethin’ you
can never never do –
you can’t
ever stop me
even you!
~ Adam Small


Salvation is the gift of life

Grace and Peace to you and through you

I think there is a deep part of us that demands immunity from the terrifying terrors of life. Our hidden fears drive this demand. We want exemption status from the basic unpredictability of life. We do not easily embrace the truth that our lives are exposed and vulnerable and fragile. As David Whyte says “… the personality continues to seek power over life rather than power through the experience of life…”. Yes we want to be in control of life and the difficult truth for us to bear is that much of life is beyond our control.

So what do we do?

Sadly, instead of accepting the truth of life’s randomness as a given, we often embrace the illusion of control, certainty and security. Sometimes our religious view or faith understanding feeds the embracing of this illusion. We project our desire for control onto God through the mantra “God is in control”. As if belief in God were some kind of insurance policy against tragedy and that somehow my belief in God is going to keep me safe in this unsafe world. If that be the case then all I can say is this “God of protection” has done a pretty lousy job over the centuries and as of late, with people being killed here, there and everywhere. Surely we have to ask: “What kind of God would favour me over them? What kind of God would protect me and not them?”. A selectively-protective-God makes no sense to me and I believe this kind of reasoning has more to do with my inability to accept life’s fragility than it does with the nature of God. If the life and death of Jesus teaches us anything, it is that no one is immune from life’s piercing.

This is why I personally do not pray for physical protection. God promises salvation not safety. Salvation is the gift of life in all its fullness… regardless of life’s circumstances. Therefore I do pray for salvation. I pray that in all of life’s unpredictable ups and downs I will be alive to God’s loving presence in my life and in the world. Rather than being granted immunity from pain, I want to be alive to God, to Love within the pain. For those with eyes to see, all of our lives are graced with this gift of salvation. One of the greatest privileges in my ministry is to witness people who under the burden of serious hardship or terminal illness embrace the harrowing truth of their situation as a new medium through which to experience the Divine. These people live and die differently – with light in their eyes.

Another catchy phrase that some of us like to say with the same purpose of gaining some control over the uncontrollability of life is: “Everything happens for a reason.”. Well of course everything happens for a reason otherwise it would not have happened. It is obvious, but when we say it we are not meaning it in this obvious sort of way. Rather, what we mean is that whatever has happened is part of a well-orchestrated plan arranged by God or caused by “the universe” (which is the non-religious way of referring to God these days). This often places horrific deeds at the foot of God’s door – as if somehow attributing God responsibility for the deed makes it less horrific or even holy.

Dare we accept the unpredictability of life as a gift that liberates life from an oppressive mundaneness? This does not mean that I resign myself fatalistically to “what will be, will be”. No. I have an ultimate hope that all things will be gathered up within the loving embrace of the Divine. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope”.

Grace,  Alan

Toppie Town … watch this space!

Let the truth be unearthed

Grace and peace to and through you

One of the prophets of our time, Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, currently serving a 35-year prison sentence for violating the Espionage Act in the USA, insightfully wrote in the wake of the Orlando killings at the Pulse nightclub, “[our] response can be more dangerous than the attack”. These words are rooted in the sad truth of history. We only have to think of the USA’s response to 9/11.

In moments such as these there is a temptation to reduce the reasoning for such events to a single source rather than a multiplicity of contributing factors that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Single framing is about scapegoating or exploiting the event for a specific agenda rather than unearthing the truth.

The first response by the authorities to the Orlando killings was to singularly frame it as a terrorist attack. This framing conveniently validates the “safety and security” narrative so often used by those in power to extract more and more concessions from the public, resulting in intrusive surveillance and ethnic and religious profiling. It is the purchase of a nation’s freedom using the currency of its fear. This terrorist framing also feeds Islamophobia as if the act of one is representative of all, which is never the case when a Christian commits a similar crime, then it is quickly labeled the act of a lone-wolf who does not reflect Christian values and teaching.

Using a singular frame to hold this event has more to do with blaming others so we don’t have to deal with our own complicity in the killings. Our complicity includes our religions that continue to marginalise Queer people. This includes the position of the Methodist Church that is both contradictory and hypocritical as it seeks to affirm the dignity of Queer people while at the same time stating that Queer people cannot be married and also be a priest. Further our homophobic culture makes it painfully difficult to come out as Queer and our fear of rejection leads to an internal massacre of our own worthiness often ending in suicide, but seldom making headlines. Our complicity includes our addiction to guns and the fear we have to address this issue. Our intellect crumbles in the face of pathetic slogans like “Guns don’t kill people / People kill people”. When actually it is people with guns who kill people – and we do so more easily and frequently with guns than we would be able to do so without guns. Our complicity includes our passive participation in a culture that is overly individualistic denying our interdependence with each other. Our complicity includes our uncritical acceptance of the segregated and homogenous communities we live in, making it easier to “other” others. Our complicity includes our shallow stereotyped understandings of masculinity as if a “real man” were called to be anything other than gentle and respectful of all.

The Orlando killings took place in a nightclub called Pulse. Pulse … as if messaging to those made to feel welcome there: “You have a pulse. You have a heart. You are human!” This is the affirming truth Jesus calls us to live out.

Grace, Alan

Call to Worship

Grace and peace to you in Jesus, who is killed over and over again when we kill each other,
And also with you.

We gather here in the beauty of this sanctuary to lift up our hearts to you oh Lord and to open our hearts to each other,
As we gather give us assurance Lord that you not only occupy the places of beauty but the places of pain.

 The pain of Soweto ?76,
Carry us Lord as Mbuyisa Makhubo carried Hector Pieterson.

The pain of Orlando 2016,
As thousands gathered to donate blood, remind us you have already donated your blood to transfuse our fear and hate into love and respect.

The pain of family murder,
Let the children who have killed their parents hear your voice: “Let the children come to me…”

The pain of domestic violence,
You hear the screams behind locked doors – even celebrity locked doors.

The pain of a British MP and contesting counselor candidates in our land, shot and killed,
You were killed by some who thought killing was the solution, open our minds to see this lie.

The pain of our paralysis and despair,
May we hear today your liberating and healing words spoken to the paralysed: “Pick up your mat and walk … walk humbly, love mercy and do justice”. Amen.


The gift of our imperfections

There is a strive in life towards perfection that actually can be found in our recognizing our imperfection. Human beings were made in community, realized for community, and wired for it in our very being. The strive for perfection outside of the perfection that comes from the sacred dance of catch and release in community, will lead to an unrealized potential and an isolated reality, rather than the movement towards the community we are called to in the Christian faith.

At the core of it all is trust. Joan Chittister in her book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by HOPE, shares:

If we refuse to ask for help, if we distance ourselves from the strengths of Others. If we cling to the myths of authority and power where trust is needed, we leave out a piece of life. We condemn ourselves to ultimate failure because someday, somewhere, we will meet up with the thing we cannot do and our whole public self will depend on our being able to do it. It is trust in the limits of the self that leaves us open and it is trust in the gifts of others that makes us secure. We come to realize that we don’t have to do everything, that we can’t do everything, that what I can’t do is someone else’s gift and responsibility. I am a small piece of the cosmic clock, a necessary piece, but not the only piece. My limitations make space for the gifts of other people. Without the grace of our limitations we would be isolated, dry, and insufferable creatures indeed.(P. 69)

I ordered this book used on Amazon while I was home in the US. When I began to flip through it, I cringed. The person who owned it before me used several different colors of highlighters where I only use one color at a time, preferably lavender or blue—for they are easier on the eyes. The margins of the book were tattooed with writing that frustrated me as I tried to read through the chaos created on the pages.

Yet, somehow through the struggle, there was a blessing. For in the margin near the words above were these words from the previous reader: How can I convince myself that I am a necessary piece? How do I trust others to supply what I don’t have, when I have been so disappointed in the past? When I feel my vulnerabilities have not been met in the past? How do I join, be a part of the human community? Do I really have anything at all to give?

I re-read the book after my first read. This time I looked at all the passages highlighted and scribbled inscriptions carefully. There was such desperation in the reader and the desperation circled around this question, “Will I be accepted, how do I find my way to community?” The call is before us to recognize that if we have found a place, our role is to make a place for others to find their way too and to remember that Jesus was mostly with those who felt cast out. In their imperfections, He claimed them perfect. The Divine lives in each of us, living too alone denies the divinity in the others. Trust is the key. Trust in the love of God and love God gives us to share in relationship with the others we are called to live with in community. Finding our way to that trust is the dance of perfection.

With you on the journey,