Prioritise hope.

Grace to you

The picture above was the cover picture for the Optimists Edition of Time Magazine earlier this year. The Artist is our own Nelson Makano from Limpopo Province. His particular style, often using a young cousin as his model, is to draw and paint South African children with a new sense of brightness and depth.

The editor of the Optimist Edition, Ava Du Vermay, explained that art can be used for optimism and hope. “Prioritizing hope, whenever possible, is a brave and bold thing to do.” She believes that art embraces all our feelings and imaginings and that despite our socio-political disjuncture, we need each other, and to engage in a shared, fearless way. She believes Art can do this in all its manifestations. Makano’s cover portrait was the fitting representation. He has drawn international recognition. He commented on his passion, saying, “Later in life we sometimes forget there is beauty in being human, but children are just discovering that. I look at someone, and the moment I’ve seen them can feel so beautiful. I want to capture that moment on canvas.”

Yes we do forget that there is so much beauty in being human. A child’s eyes and ears, absorbing everything sponge-like, seeks to process information with a liberating innocence. The artist is depicting the hope in a young child’s eyes, and reminding us of the joy that we should all feel for children, these gifted promises of God. Makano titled the picture, “Visions of a limitless future.”

The plight of vulnerable children is a barometer for society highlighting the failures of institutional and other responses to make a real difference for upholding the personhood and humanity of children. As people journeying in faith, do we have a message of hope for our children, for other vulnerable daughters and sons of God? Can we be bold in hope? Not just sharing the bright side, but more. Much more. Deeper. Can we dare to try to comprehend the grace of God in Jesus, bringing Hope to a broken world?

Jesus, (Luke 18:15ff), reprimands the disciples when they shoo the children away. Children brought by their parents for a blessing! The disciples saw the children as a nuisance. Eugene Peterson’s, The Message uses these words for the reprimand “let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are at the very centre of life in the kingdom.”  The children, the poor, the sick, the foreigner, the other. All these vulnerable humans are often shooed away figuratively and literally. Life, however, in all its daily complexity, confronts us also with loved ones who may be vulnerable in time and place. And we may actually engage in a disengaging way. We disengage with good intentions, with well-meaning platitudes, with impatience and disdain, with fear and anxiety with anger and rejection, with paternalism and self-righteousness, with pain and suffering. In those moments, pregnant with hope, do we come between Christ and the other?

And what of us when we are vulnerable?

Du Vermay also quotes Howard Thurman “Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” Do we have a faith message of hope? A message, a presence, lived moments that are boldly professing hope in Christ. A way to engage, and a way to be engaged, to release the beauty in being human.

I share this contemplative insight from Nan Merrill’s book: Lumen Christi … Holy Wisdom:

Arise! Become a rebel for the Spirit!
Let not worldly wars and woes
paralyze your aspiration
to unite in the birth of a new dawn.

Discouragement and despair burden
the heart:
dark thoughts often lead to
deadly deeds.

Dive deeply into the Cosmic Ocean of Love!
Here harmony, beauty, peace, truth,
and inspiration reign:
needed for the healing and repair
of this wondrous world.

Become a beneficial rebel in the service
of Love and Light!
Look within the Silence:

Divine Hints will set you on the pathway
to new Life offering guidance,
comfort, and strength
for the journey.


In love, by love, for love

Grace to you

The line in love, by love, for love, is Central Methodist Mission’s (CMM) key phrase. I am not sure that I fully understand what it means, but I think attending CMM has opened for me the possibility for a different type of engagement with God, my faith and love.

Seeking God in a church or faith community often comes with a desire for certainty. We want some rules, mantras, guidance and explanations of how to live our lives. We hope for some assurance that tragedy will not strike us if we are believers and that believing will explain to us tragedies we have experienced. Many people think belonging to a church makes them different or better human beings.

None of that holds true if one engages the phrase in love, by love and for love.

God’s love is most elegantly experienced in the chaos it occasions. It has transformative power if we embrace it with the willingness to experience uncertainty. Exploring the Bible, we find many examples where God’s love unsettles the norms, the establishment, the existing ‘way of doing things’. The stories we read are hardly ever about certainty or predictability but more often about surprise and wonder. The gospels where Jesus heals sick people and performs miracles are not only transforming the physical health of the healed person, but it transforms the understanding of love and acceptance of others. It questions a system that allowed it to dehumanise people because of their gender, health issues or societal status. Love is at the centre – God is love. So scriptures are not a moral compass telling us how to live our lives but offer us the experience of transformative love.

The most practical example where I experience this transformative, embracing and chaotic love is as a parent. My experience as a mother is that this little human being creeps into every inch of my physical and mental space. Having a child evokes all sorts of feelings from pain, deep introspection, doubt and anger to absolute joy and unimaginable wonder. The love for my child makes me do things I haven’t dreamt of and has turned my world upside down. In Matthew 18:2-4, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I believe that this scripture is not only about the innocence of children as many interpret this section. I think it is about the ability to love and be loved in an absolute transformative yet uncertain way. Children have the ability to love us entirely as we are. They don’t have doubts or questions if and why they should love us and what to do to show their love. They just love.

A friend of mine elegantly summarised what I have learned at CMM: believing in God is about embracing the many possibilities occasioned by love – those might be traumatic, chaotic or joyous. Believing in God liberates one to engage with all those possibilities. It allows for the embrace of uncertainty. And only in the uncertainty can wonder emerge, possibility grow and love thrive.


Skin Colour

Grace and peace to you

While reading the following poems, Skin by Pie Corbett and What’s your colour? by Julia Donaldson, I reflected on the pain of skin colour that continues to haunt us during our twenty-five years of democracy. The power of the colour of skin and its ability to discriminate and inflict pain and suffering on humanity, is intolerable.

The issue of skin keeps appearing in our media and in our conversations. Why are we still so intimidated by people of another colour; or sometimes, only certain people of a certain skin colour?

Thuli Madonsela suggests that it is about recognising enduring racially-skewed power relations as a legacy of the past artificial racial categories.

The way in which we perceive people and practice colourism, continues to impede the growth and development of a new humanity in our country. It is all about how we treat and value human life, when we allow skin colour to dictate and determine a person’s worth and place in our society. Our colour prejudices, our perceptions and our generalisations of “the others” need to change if we are going to make a difference in God’s world.


What is it about skin; That gets people so excited?
Skin is the body bag; That holds us together.
Skin is the smothering; That keeps out the weather.
Skin is the curtain – Drawn down at the start.
Skin is the wrapper – That contains the heart.
Skin is the spray – Round the ragbag of bone.
Skin is the sleeping bag – Into which we are sown.
Skin is thin – Even a rose thorn can rip skin.
And yet some people – Are afraid of it –
Even though we are all made of it.

(Pie Corbett)

This poem confronts us with the truth that God the loving creator has covered us all with skin. So then as followers of Jesus, how are we measuring up to Jesus’ words: “I have come that you might have life and life in all its fullness.”? Are we aligned to the plumb-line and example of Jesus’ life, ”the man for others”, of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness? Are we able to look beyond skin colour and are we able to relate to others who are different; especially those folk who choose not to be tolerant in the creation of a new humanity for all. This is our daily struggle to move from resentment and suspicion, to acceptance and growth and understanding that we all need each other or as Martin Luther King challenges us “to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools”.

What’s your colour? 

‘What’s your colour, the colour of your skin.’
‘The colour of the envelope that you’re wrapped in.’

(Julia Donaldson)

The above two lines are the repetitive refrain from a poem that focuses on skin colour. Reflecting on the question that the poet asks, demonstrates the role of the skin as an envelope that contains the body and all that it is: body, mind and soul. The skin as an organ is referred to as an instrument which has the capacity to shape our identity and determine and define our being.

Maybe we should all stop and reflect now on the following questions: What kind of envelope is containing me, shaping me, defining me and by whom? What is restricting me or freeing me to be? What is my exterior about and how is it aligned to my inner being? Can I reflect on my skin as an organ which has the power to determine the manner in which I relate to others in our world? What are my choices of access to opportunities or access denied at the moment? Am I a victim because of the colour of my skin or am I wrestling with my being called “You are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son.”?

We are all vulnerable and in need of healing and in need of each other as we together work at making a difference in God’s world, regardless of skin colour!


The cycle of life

Grace and peace to you

Being present to and engaging with the cyclical nature of Life can be an incredibly grounding rhythm, connecting us with our true nature. We live in a culture obsessed with fast pace, constant productivity at any cost, and a denial of diminishment, loss, weakness, vulnerability, mortality and even death. 

 The cycle of life, death and rebirth is the only way all things flourish. It is in resistance to this that we truly suffer. 

 To those open to learn, we are taught these ways – from the dawn and dusk of every day, to the monthly cycle of the moon. From the seasons, graphically displayed in a grand forest, with its dramatic change of colours in the autumn, the surrendering of its leaves and its bold stance of naked branches against the grey sky, to the menstrual cycle in a female body, with the preparation for new life, new ventures, new opportunities, both physically and psychologically, and then slowing down to a death and grief of what could have been and a gentle turning inward, or, the self-sacrifice initiated to birth a new human being. 

As we have just passed the winter solstice, perhaps we could heed the invitation to be present to a latent time, a time after death and letting go, a time of rest and hibernation, hiding and germinating, with the promise of Spring and Summer gently held in the silence and the stillness. May we exercise the courage and appropriate the grace to be with the potential discomfort this season may bring up, as we face what is, in and around us. Letting go the illusion of control in doing, in order to witness and experience the emerging mystery in Being. 

 Towards abundant life. 

The Winter of Listening

No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,

what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

What we hate
in ourselves
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.

All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.

All those years
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.

All those years
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

And the slow
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous
Silence and winter
has led me to that

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own. 

David Whyte (The House of Belonging)





Chaos & Order

What gardening has taught me…

A gardener’s job is never done. Although the winter months are seen as the dormant time of the gardening year, there is always something that needs attending to, and for me these cold winter months are when I get next season’s compost heap going.

The process starts in the autumn when the deciduous trees start to shed their leaves. Then the Cape storms that wash over the Peninsula deliver all sorts of debris in the form of branches, sticks and evergreen leaves. Winter is also a time to prune and so all that material ends up in the compost heap, along with any weeds that may have to be removed from the garden beds. Finally there may be some grass clippings that will also end up in the mix.

So the compost heap starts out as a chaotic mix of different and unrelated materials.

The wetness of our winter months helps settle the compost heap and then as the weather starts to warm during Spring and the early Summer months, the pile will start to steam as the materials within the heap decompose. It really gets going during the second half of summer and after Christmas I often need to turn over the heap. Then all going well, come autumn, you end up with a beautiful homogenous pile of dark brown compost that you can spread as a blanket over your garden beds.

The making of compost is a journey between chaos and order. You take a whole mix of mess and then with work, time and a bit of magic, that chaotic mess turns into a usable and nutritious product that will define the next season’s abundance of food and flowers.

I find that my own life follows that same routine. My journey through life is a constant swing between chaos and order and if you are anything like me, more chaos than order.

I am always planning to have an ordered life and hope that it could be like that end pile of neat compost rather than feeling it is mostly like the chaotic mess of leaves, branches and lawn clippings that is the starting point of the compost heap.

I am slowly learning to embrace the idea of chaos, to rather accept it and learn how to ride the swing between chaos and order. Just as I could never produce a beautiful load of compost without the chaotic and messy pile in the beginning, so it is unrealistic of me to expect my own dreams and plans to materialise without a messy and chaotic journey along the way.

Jesus loved stirring the pot and creating chaos wherever he went. Chaos is always needed to challenge the status quo and so if you embrace the Jesus way, the one guarantee is that chaos and mess are going to come your way. But out of that chaos a new sense of order always develops and just when you are getting comfortable and think you have all the answers, you will be challenged to make a new compost heap.

In my own little garden my compost heap is visible from the cottage that I live in. In fact, at the moment it is as big as my cottage and is the focal point of the outdoor space that surrounds me. Not a water feature, not a rose garden, but rather the compost heap. The compost heap should be the visual focal point of every garden and not hidden away in the backyard. Seeing it each morning as I drink my first cup of tea, reminds me that chaos and order are intricately linked and a very necessary part of my life. My challenge is to face the constant swing between chaos and order with love, grace, humility and most importantly, gratitude.

Sincerely, Athol

Doubt & Faith

In praise of doubt

Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I’d like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance

Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it
Left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.

Thus, one day a man stood on the
Unattainable summit
And a ship reached the end of
The endless sea.

O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor’s cure
Of the incurable patient!

But the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent
Raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength of their oppressors.

 (excerpt by Bertolt Brecht, 1932)

I’ve been thinking about Doubt a lot lately. Everything seems to scream and mock from every corner that there is nothing good about doubt. The remedies are many, none more so than having faith it seems which seems to plunge me into the darkest of abyss or on a blind path, like anything can be contained so neatly. As if God could only find me pleasing if I have faith.

And then this poem, it was like every nerve ending stood to attention. At last something I could relate to. It seems to me that Doubt can be BOTH a ‘gift’ and a ‘curse’. Its curse is the continuation or other half of this poem, if you choose to read it to its end. Its curse seems to be a universal human condition of always being certain of one’s own treasured beliefs, holding tightly onto a faith that will not be shaken, even in oneself.

Perhaps it’s not as I have always believed an either… or… but rather a Faith that walks hand in hand with Doubt, both necessary to each other.

Perhaps doubt is rather a Divine gift urging us on to seek and search our inner most beliefs, shaking something deep within ourselves, challenging us to doubt what we have always believed, our certainties, actions, the status quos in this world, enlarging and forcing us at last, to recognise the light within the darkness of ourselves.

Bertolt Brecht was a German playwriter and poet who made popular Epic theatre. The purpose of which was to force the audience to see their world as it is, by using historical contexts and connecting them with current social or political issues. He wanted his audiences to think. He seemed to think we could change the world because to quote him he said (another excerpt) “General, man is very useful. He can fly and he can kill. But he has one defect: He can think.”

Trusting in Doubt


Manifest Christ in our living

Grace to you

In Bristol in the United Kingdom is the oldest Methodist chapel, built in 1739 by John Wesley. It is called the New Room. The Chapel is still in use but is now part of the Museum at the New Room depicting the development of Methodism and the story of the Wesleys. The displays highlight the spiritual work as well as the social issues.

In the museum is a list of “Principles for the 18th century” by John Wesley. The museum added the line: A Political Manifesto for Today? The Principles seem to be a hope-list for the many hope-less, covering a broad catchall of human misery and failure of so many others over centuries, before and after Wesley. It did not only focus on the immediate needs but includes a broader world view.

 It is as relevant today, nearly 300 years later, as then, but more urgently so. Our land and people still weep for lost generations, lost opportunity and lost hope. Education, employment, modern slavery, intolerance, abuse, violence, inequality still destroy life, liberty, living and love. More recently we have become more and more aware of our abuse of our planet and the effects of human induced climate interference. We have also not yet freed ourselves from abusing those made in the image of God, especially women and children. By what principles are we living, if we profess Christ, how do we seek to manifest Christ in our living? What will be said of us in 300 years, or 30?

Moral issues are also raising new frontiers of contention. Politicians, businessmen and other leaders, even in the religious sector, can be blatantly dishonest, lie and cheat and continue in their positions with wheels of intervention turning slowly or not at all. Civil protest and taking a stand continues to be necessary instruments for change. Often, with profound personal consequences.

Martin Prozesky, a local professor, researcher and writer, wrote an article in the City Press titled: The Innocent Until Proven Guilty Fallacy. He writes: “there is a dangerous error about people who are suspected on good grounds of wrongdoing, but who have never been charged or found guilty in a court of law. The error is to claim that one is in fact innocent until proven guilty so that a person can legitimately occupy public office just like anybody with an impeccable legal and moral record. That is not what the law says. Our constitution in section 35, (3) (h) of the Bill of Rights says that every accused person has the right “to be presumed innocent” until proven guilty by a court of law. That is absolutely not the same as actually being innocent … the person is for the time being neither innocent, nor guilty, but in a position between them as if innocent, until law or disciplinary procedures have taken their course. Such a person therefore is actually under a cloud ethically.”

As we view our principles, what are we justifying as a community, or as an individual in relation to our inaction, our prejudice, our bias, and our forgetfulness of Christ in our living and Christ in our lives?

As we consciously try to become more Christ-like in our world, John Wesley challenges us to:

Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
as long as ever you can


What is your story?

Grace and love to you

One evening, a number of years ago, while driving in Kruger Park we came across two lionesses with their cubs. The lionesses were peering very intently into the distance while the cubs played around them. After a while we decided to move on, heading off in the direction the lionesses had been looking. Not more than 200 metres along the road we came across a mother and her two children sitting by the side of the road. It rapidly dawned on us that they were refugees taking their chances at crossing into South Africa through the park. Aware that they were headed straight towards the lionesses we urged them to get into the car. After much persuasion this fearful family eventually climbed in, weak from hunger and dehydration. We were able to connect them with some people leaving the park and know they made it out safely, carrying with them just a small rucksack and the phone number of a contact. Sadly many others like them have not made it alive through the park.

We walk through Greenmarket Square every Sunday to come to church and I find it almost overwhelming to know that nearly every person working there has a story to tell, not only of how they made it into South Africa, but of the desperation that made them take the chances they did. These very courageous people have become our neighbours… in every sense of the word.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, a God-coming moment when we remember visitors from all over the world coming to Jerusalem and marvelling as they heard their own languages being spoken, telling of God and God’s wonderful ways. I’m not suggesting that we all learn to speak Lingala, Swahili, French, Somali, or Arabic, although that would not be a bad thing, but I wonder what language our visitors from various parts of Africa hear from us in South Africa.

So far it has been a language of indifference, hate, disregard, exclusion, avoidance and ignorance. They hear this language through their treatment by home affairs as they stand in queues from early morning till late only to have to return the next day and the next. They hear it in the exclusion of their young people from tertiary education because they have not been able to obtain I.D. books and therefore do not qualify for bursaries and grants. They hear it as their shops are burnt and those who were their customers one day become their killers the next. They hear it when they are made to pay private fees at hospitals because the system does not acknowledge their refugee status. They hear it in their exclusion from SONA speeches. They hear it… over and over and over.

Yet all over the world God is coming to us in the guise of a refuge-seeker yearning for us to open our arms to do everything we can to welcome those with whom God identifies. God comes to ask us, to plead with us, to speak a language that conveys a different message. A language that says, “We see you. You are welcome. You are home.”

May we learn to take God seriously…

Finding free space and time

Grace to you

Every seven years Methodist ministers are given a three-month sabbatical. My sabbatical starts tomorrow and I will be away until the middle of August. This is my third sabbatical and each time I realise that it is not only a gift to myself but also for the congregation. For a congregation who listens to me preach week in and week out, I think it is important to hear different voices telling different stories from different perspectives. If there is anything that I say that is truthful then at most it is just a tiny slither of a much larger and brighter Light. Listening to varied voices will thicken our faith and stretch our understanding. So over the next 10 weeks there will be a different voice every week – my hope is that we will be open to hear new truth.

I can’t easily imagine life without the rhythm of sermon preparation each week. This discipline is so engrained in my being which is both a gift and danger. The gift is that it keeps me rowing out into the depths each week – even when I would prefer to splash around in the shallows. The danger is that the rhythm is so engrained it can be little more than a habit on auto-pilot or a task to tick off each week or perhaps even worse, a show to put on for your entertainment.

The purpose of a sabbatical is not only to relax and rest which is of course crucial for renewed vitality – but also to revisit areas neglected and review areas of focus: Basically to unplug and push the reset button to be ready for a new season.

In the past I have filled my sabbaticals with much activity and new experiences. This time round when I have tried to make plans they all felt like an avoidance strategy. So I have no plans. And I am hoping to stick to that plan. To embrace emptiness. To welcome nothingness. To face boredom. To wander the wilderness.

In the Bible the people were instructed to let the fields lie fallow every 7th year. One definition of fallow is: land left unseeded after being ploughed and harrowed to regain fertility for a crop. Renewed fertility is the aim of fallow.

Winnie the Pooh puts it simply: “Doing nothing leads to the best kind of something”. This is my hope that nothing will lead me to something. I look forward to returning fertile for a crop…


“O persistent God,
deliver me from assuming your mercy is gentle
pressure me that I may grow more human,
not through the lessening of my struggles,
But through the expansion of them.

That will undamn me
and unbury my gifts.
Deepen my hurt
until I learn to share it
and myself
and my needs honestly.
Sharpen my fears
until I name them
and release the power I have locked in them
and they in me.

Accentuate my confusion
until I shed those grandiose expectations
that divert me from the small, glad gifts
of the now and the here and the me.

Expose my shame where it shivers,
crouched behind the curtains of propriety,
until I can laugh at last through my common frailties
and failures,
laugh my way toward becoming whole.

O persistent God let how much it all matters pry me off dead center so if I am moved inside to tears or sighs or screams or smiles or dreams they will be real and I will be in touch with who I am and who you are and who my sisters and brothers are.

O God, help me to believe in beginnings and in my beginning again, no matter how often I’ve failed before…help me to make a beginning and to be a beginning for others.”

~ Ted Loder

Where do we draw the line?

Grace to you

When I finished preaching last Sunday – someone in the congregation called out: “But where do we draw the line?” The book of Acts records the early church wrestling with this very question: Who is in and who is out? Who is welcome and who is not? Where do we draw the line?

In fact the first Synod, called the Council of Jerusalem, had only one item on the agenda: “Are uncircumcised people welcome as is?” Peter thankfully convinced the assembly that God “made no distinction between them and us” [Acts 15:9].

The same question has topped the agenda of many synods since. Of course the issue is no longer circumcision but something else that is used to other and exclude, like gender. Regardless of the difference in ‘category’ it’s the same question: Does God make a distinction between us or not? “Where do we draw the line?”

Sadly, history shows that as we learn that God does not make a distinction between others and us in one area, we find another area to make distinctions in and we have to learn the lesson all over again. The lesson being that we have done evil believing we were doing good and we have caused pain while thinking we were being kind.

We seem to need endless reminding that God’s including mercy and love is for all – and all actually does mean all. This is why we often sing the hymn, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind.

At our 190th Synod last week we witnessed the incarnation of God’s wide mercy among us as women were elected into the office of Bishop and Presiding Bishop. A great celebration even though long overdue. We also voted overwhelmingly for our Church to stop discriminating against LGBTI clergy and in favour of allowing LGBTI clergy to enter into a civil union – while the church continues to wrestle with its theology around marriage. (Please note that these decisions are not the new policy of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa because they would need to first be debated and accepted at our Conference in September for that to be the case. But this localised expression of God’s mercy at our Cape of Good Hope Synod is not without significance.)

Jesus crossed every possible distinction and barrier of his times – so nothing less is expected of those of us who desire to follow him.