Prime Minister of New Zealand:
Photograph: Kirk Hargreaves, Christchurch City Council
Grace and peace to you
As we reflected last Sunday, after calling Herod a fox, Jesus cried: “Jerusalem Jerusalem … how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Luke 13)
Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern has lived this text into being this past week. In so doing she has shown the world what healthy, wise and strong leadership looks like. Ardern is not reading from a prepared script. She is simply honouring her heart and head – a heart that feels deeply and a head that is deeply thoughtful. Her own grief has set the tone for her nation’s grief. She articulates both her anger at the cause of grief and expresses her gentleness for the grieving. She rightly chooses to keep the spotlight on the loved ones of the deceased rather than the killer.
Ardern’s repeated words to the grieving: “You are us.”, are the most healing words she could possibly say. Spoken with the authority of a surgeon, she sews together with her words the truth that the killer attempted to shatter with his bullets. We are all one. These words at the same time expose the killer’s blindness and the blindness of Islamaphobia as well as all other forms of discrimination.
Without hesitation she has named the instrument (actually it’s an idol) – the gun – that when mixed with fear and hate, causes death on a massive scale. Simply put: she cares more about saving lives than a tiny group of people’s desire to own a firearm.
Prime Minister Ardern is a challenging sign of hope to us all.
A story by Steve Mellon: “A woman approached the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh mostly unnoticed and carefully placed a bouquet of yellow flowers among the branches of a bush near the center’s concrete steps. She then crossed Bigelow Boulevard and sat on a stone retaining wall and wept.
The flowers and her quiet, anony- mous presence were gestures of solidarity with the Muslim community, she said. When a man at the mosque learned of the woman’s presence, he briefly held his hand to his heart, then crossed the street to chat with her.
Moments later, he guided her back across Bigelow Boulevard, up the concrete steps, and into the center’s lobby. The man offered the woman a chair and introduced her to others then gathering for traditional Friday prayers.
In the sunlit room, people of different faiths gathered in a small circle and shared stories of pain and sadness and strength and hope.”
Grace and peace to you
True or false: “All people are etched equally with the glorious image of God.”
This really is the most foundational of all faith questions and precisely the reason why the Bible editors answer the question on the first page in the affirmative: “True! It’s true!” Up until that biblical time the answer was always: “No! It’s false!”
To declare “it is true” is to make many declarations all at the same time: All people are equal in worth. The worth of a human person is not to be attached to anything (anything means anything) other than the mere fact of them being alive. God is equally shared, present and connected to all. God values all equally. This is what makes the story of humanity told through the scriptures so radical. The scriptures declare up front no one is less than or more than any other. Therefore students of scripture should know better than anyone else that they are no better than anyone else.
However, the Bible is not just a book of statements answering faith questions, it is a travel log of a people’s journey to live into their statements of faith, ever seeking deeper understanding and integrity. So the story is a long one because it doesn’t skip out the numerous times when the people forget their first foundational principles. The story doesn’t leave out the many times the people declare in word and deed and prayer that others, because of their nationality or beliefs, should be smote to smithereens. Vengeance and violence stain the pages, all in God’s name, with all breaking the foundational principle. This is Divine defamation.
The scriptures also tell of the bizarre hypocrisy of a people believing they are better and more deserving than others, precisely because they believe in a God who is the loving Creator of all. Let that sink in! In three-year-old speak: “Our God is love which makes our God better than your God and our God will beat yours up to prove it.”
Thankfully there was always a remnant on the journey – in both Hebrew and Christian testaments – who bravely held true to the foundational principle and living out the truth of God’s image etched in all, despite the noise and threats directed at them. Jesus stands in this tradition and invites us to do the same.
The gift of the scriptures’ honest telling of a people’s long wayward journey is that we are able to see our own journey in theirs, and get honest about our walk. As in the scriptures, Church history is filled with first principles being quoted and then denied in action. We witnessed this two weeks ago when the United Methodist Church in the US voted to remain a body that denies the dignity of LGBQTI people. Effectively, like our own Methodist Church of Southern Africa’s baptising bigotry. The sin has never been two people of the same-sex loving and respecting and intimately caring for each other. Rather, the sin has always been the denial and exclusion and punishment of such love. Heterosexism is as sinful as racism and sexism.
Thankfully when the church is blind to this, God uses others – like the Constitutional Court – to expose our blindness and hopefully open our eyes as it did last week in relation to the Dutch Reformed Church.
Be assured that at CMM we will continue to stand in the Jesus tradition of non-discriminatory love.
Grace and peace to you
In Methodist-speak, the Central Methodist Mission is not a Church, but rather a Society, a word that has an inclusive ring to it. A place where all are welcome to come and worship and where nobody is excluded.
Like all Societies, CMM relies on members of the congregation to assist with the running of the Society. These volunteers are known, uniquely at CMM, as Donkeys.
We hope the name becomes infectious.
People often ask why? Why use the name of an animal that is seen as a joke (jackass), is not considered beautiful (when compared to a horse or zebra) and stands last in the queue when it comes to needing attention?
A donkey is present at the birth of Christ; as it would have carried a heavily pregnant Mary to Bethlehem.
As we enter Lent we also know that on Palm Sunday it was on the back of a donkey that Jesus entered Jerusalem, ahead of his arrest, trial and murder.
I believe that the presence of the donkey in the story of both Christ’s birth and death is not coincidental, but rather a very calculated and understated lesson. It is always in the misunderstood, the abused, the neglected, the supposedly ugly, and the other that we find Jesus, his way and his teaching.
In the rural parts of South Africa, donkeys play an important role in assisting people to collect water and firewood as well as transporting families between the farms as they do seasonal agricultural work, such as sheep shearing and the harvesting of crops.
Like their owners, these donkeys are often treated badly and neglected.
I own two donkeys and they have taught me a great deal. That with basic care, donkeys are very willing and hardworking animals. They are highly intelligent, intuitive creatures and able to remain in good condition in a tough environment such as the Karoo.
A well cared for donkey will live up to the age of 50. They have a long gestation period and are excellent parents. Unlike horses, they cannot be made to perform, and prefer to quietly get on with their work.
So they are the perfect tool to help uplift poor communities.
Volunteers at CMM are proud to be called Donkeys.
So next time you see a donkey on your travels, I would encourage you to take some time out to stop, say hello and share an apple or a carrot. You may meet Jesus.
– A Member of the Donkey Team
Grace to you
Thank you to all those who sponsored me to ride the Cape Town Cycle Tour on behalf of Stepping Stones Children’s Centre. Together we raised R43540.00!
Truth be told, I get a bit anxious about the ride each year. It’s a bit manic and the crashes that one inevitably witnesses don’t do the nerves any good. I prefer the solitude and silence of cycling on my own. Yet on Sunday something beautiful happened to me. Let me try and explain: Arguably one of the most import skills in cycling is the ability to secure a position behind another cyclist. This is called “slip-streaming” or “drafting”. This is the reason cyclists form bundles – ever-seeking a place behind the next and “shelter from the storm” [as Bob Dylan would say]. Slip-streaming not only shields one from headwinds [thankfully there was no wind on Sunday], but actually “sucks” the drafting cyclist along. Drafting typically saves about a third of a following rider’s energy. If three or more riders are in single file, the riding gets easier the farther back you are. When the speed is up, the bundle thins out into a long train and if you are out of the slip-stream it will pass you by in a flash. And here is the real frustrating part: they fly past you while using less effort. This would even make a Zen Monk lose their sense of mindfulness.
So, on Sunday around 10 km into the ride when the “bundle” was long and thin and fast I was watching the train steam past me. While trying my utmost to keep up next to it, I was pretty much going backwards. Then I heard a voice from behind me: “Hey Alan you want to come in? Slip in in-front of me…”. A cyclist made room and the next second, I was in the train going faster while using less energy which is equivalent to the joy of a Zen Monk reaching full enlightenment.
Now I know that this is quite a trivial event, but it touched me nevertheless. For a second, I forgot that my name was printed on my race number on the back of my jersey, so when I heard my name I was very surprised. To have a complete stranger be thoughtful enough to call me by my name made this act of kindness an act of intimacy. Suddenly, the race and the position and the speed was transcended by something truly beautiful. Yes, beauty caresses way above its weight.
I noticed two things that flowed from this truly beautiful something: First, I found myself smiling each time it came to mind – even while going up parts of Suikerbossie (obviously not all of it because I am not a Zen Monk). Second, for the rest of the ride I looked for opportunities to let other riders onto the train, inviting them by name to get on board.
For the people who start something beautiful within us and through us I am grateful…
Grace to you
If for any reason you are feeling torn or stuck or lost or simply drifting along or disconnected or uprooted or in-between, I hope you will take comfort in this poem by Judy Brown:
There is a trough in waves,
A low spot
Where horizon disappears
And only sky
Are our company.
And there we lose our way
We rest, knowing the wave will bring us
To its crest again.
There we may drown
If we let fear
Hold us within its grip and shake us
Side to side,
And leave us flailing, torn, disoriented.
But if we rest there
In the trough,
The low part of the wave,
Our energy and
Noticing the shape of things,
Then time alone
Will bring us to another
Where we can see
Horizon, see the land again,
Regain our sense
And where we need to swim.
In the dips of life Brown invites us to rest. She reminds us that our lives are not the only moving parts – that if we still ourselves we will still be moved. It’s counter-intuitive.
The trough is not to be denied, but nor is it to be feared. Brown reminds us that fear is fatal and being lost or overwhelmed is manageable.
Rest and silence gift us with insight. We see and observe and notice. We are given fresh perspective as we come to discover our bearings. The wave doesn’t deliver us – we still need to swim – but at least now we have energy and clarity of direction.
Grace to you
The bell in the CMM steeple has not sounded since 1897. Apparently when the 3.5-ton bell rings it shakes the foundations of the nearby buildings. Deemed a safety risk, it was silenced. The bell is a reminder of what a Church is meant to do, and that is to shake the foundations of the surrounding society as it sounds the Divine call for justice and mercy for all.
Seeing as we are not allowed to ring the bell, we decided a few years ago to use the well-positioned steeple in a different way, yet hopefully in a way that still shakes the foundations of our society. We decided to hang bright yellow banners from the steeple to call attention to various issues of injustice and suffering. Often we would partner with civil society organisations that were involved in engaging the particular issue we were addressing. We also seek to address the issue from a uniquely theological perspective. This week is no different.
It is crucially important for the church to join the call for the de-criminalisation of sex-work for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that the scriptures are very clear that we are to safeguard the lives of the most vulnerable and stand in solidarity with those that society in general treats as outcasts. To state the obvious, sex-workers are some of the most vulnerable people in our society who are consistently treated as outcasts.
The basis of our protection and care for the well-being of sex-workers is rooted in the theological fact that all human beings are engraved with the indelible image of God and therefore are to be treasured as the priceless gifts they are. In other words, our care for another has nothing to do with how they live and everything to do with the mere fact they are alive.
The Gospels are full of Jesus doing exactly this, over and over again. The outcasts of his day were so grateful for his welcoming invitation, affirming word and loving touch, but this caused much displeasure among the religious of his day as it does to this day. Yes the church is often better known for its judgement and rejection of the social outcast than loving solidarity. In other words, the church is often the one who throws the first stone! Sadly this is often done in the name of Jesus – the same Jesus who saved a woman whom the law had criminalised – from being stoned by religious men. By intervening, Jesus effectively de-criminalised her in that moment.
Now, if we are to protect the vulnerable and stand in solidarity with the outcast, then surely we must also oppose that which contributes to their vulnerability and outcast status. The criminalisation of sex-work does just this, and more, including violent abuse. For example, sex-workers are often abused by law enforcement (SAPS, Metro Cops and even security guards) by demanding sexual favours for sparing arrest, or securing early release.
The criminalisation of sex-work also disempowers the sex-worker to demand clients to practice safe-sex, thus adding to the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. [In fact according to research in the Lancet Medical Journal the de-criminalisation of sex-work could prevent between 1/3 and almost ½ of all new HIV infections globally in the next 10 years among sex-workers and clients.] Furthermore the criminalisation of sex-work contributes towards increased prejudice against them from both individuals and also service institutions like healthcare facilities. This may cause some not to seek out care when they are sick or injured placing their lives at great risk.
Finally on a simple level of logic: The criminalisation of sex-work has not eradicated sex-work as it intended to do and nor will it ever do so. So why would anyone continue to support a law that cannot ever do what it aims to do, yet in the process of repeatedly trying it causes such terrible harm?
Grace to you
Titus Masika lives in the small village of Yatta in Ukambani in Eastern Kenya. The Yatta catchment area is a semi-arid area and long considered to be one of the poorest in Kenya.
Between the years 2000-2005 he began a process of reflection over the plight of Africa and the people of Ukambani.
“My Kamba community was caught in the web of stagnation. We have become reliant on relief food, and political contestations were often around who would supply food in order to get our votes. We had become reliant on rain-fed agriculture and the erratic nature of rainfall had closed our eyes to new possibilities.”
As a priest, people from the village would often ask Masika to pray for rain. They would also question him on why God had not blessed them with enough rain. “Was God or the spirits punishing them?” – they would ask. Masika’s reply was that God does send us enough rain but the problem is that we fail to catch it.
So at the heart of Masika’s transformation plan was to “catch” or harvest the little rain that did fall by building numerous dams. Perhaps ‘dam’ is too big or deep a word to use. We are talking swimming pool size holes in the ground – that could be easily dug out by a family using picks and spades. Some that were built through the collective effort of the whole community were a little larger.
The first to embrace this idea of ‘catching’ the rain were the elderly women of the community. “We believed that we could do it ourselves through the merry-go-round approach, we went around each homestead assisting one another to dig up water pans. Slowly we moved from digging a few earth dams to more than 3000 water dams in 4 years.”
The number of women involved in the project had also grown from 45 to around 3000 of all ages from all over Yatta. The dams became a stable source of irrigation.
“These dams have made it possible for us to plant and harvest and sell crops all year round. We have enough food to eat and extra to sell and earn a decent income. Our crops include: sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cassava, watermelon, mangoes, paw-paw, sunflower among many others…”
In the last week we were told that “Day Zero” has been pushed out even further – now in July. I wonder if we are not witnessing the biblical promise of abundance that takes place when those who have much (too much!) faithfully fast which enables there to be enough for all. The water through our taps will continue to flow like an eternal spring as long as we take only what we need. Need and not want. Need and not greed! This is another form of the merry-go-round approach. A fasting so all may have enough. This is what Lent is all about.
With merry-go-round wonder,
Grace and peace to you
President Zuma has resigned. It happened on Wednesday. Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. Repentance means to turn around. It does not mean to “be sorry”. That is remorse. Remorse is not repentance. Often remorse and repentance may go together, but not always. On Wednesday they did not go together! But no doubt about it there was a huge turn around between Zuma’s delusional and defensive rant in the afternoon and his resignation in the evening. Regardless of the cause and reason for the change and regardless of him showing zero sign of remorse, we can be grateful that there was in fact a turn around that I have no doubt saved lives.
When a person is completely out of touch with the truth of their living they become a danger to everyone around them. When the anchor of their conscience has pulled loose from their moorings they float any way the pre-dominant wind blows and self-interested tide determines. They inevitably bump into anything and everything in their way causing great damage. When principle ceases to determine direction the engine may continue to roar but there is no constructive movement – certainly no movement forward, like when a propeller is entangled in the reeds.
Reeds! Reeds are thin and scrawny strings reaching up from the depths ever-seeking out the light on the surface of the waters. They appear quite insignificant, especially in the face of a powerfully spinning propeller. Yet when a couple of them get together they have the capacity to stall and stop the most powerful of engines. They are smart and wily and above all endlessly courageous. They are not naïve. They know some of them will be cut up and spat out but they also know with cement-like conviction that it is the propeller’s own spinning that will tie itself up in a nasty knot. It is only a matter of time and pressure. The reeds trust through their many doubts that in the end history will smile gratefully on them.
This week I smile gratefully at the journalists, judiciary and activists who with cement-like conviction in their depths courageously searched for the light. Some, at great cost and having to overcome huge waves of fear and intimidation stretched themselves, reaching up reed-like, into the spinning turbulence of corrupting power.
We have witnessed the purring engine begin to splutter…to slow…to stall…to stop?
The reeds win! As in ancient times the Hebrew slaves scampered through the Red Sea to freedom. Interestingly, another name for the Red Sea is the Reed Sea. The reeds win! As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever amen.
This does not mean we have arrived. To stop going in the wrong direction does not mean we are going in the right direction. But it does give us a moment – an Ash Wednesday moment – that invites us to repent. To turn around and to reset our sights on what is just and true.
Written with reed-like certainty,
Grace and peace to you and through you
Last week we were reminded of our human tendency to want to booth or box or contain mystery – as Peter suggested to Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration. Religion / faith is meant to awaken us to mystery – and to open us up to the “more-ness” of life and wonder and God. Yet sadly it has too often been used to contain and manage the mystery – as well as determining access to the mystery. The Divine voice will have none of this … and proceeds to interrupt Peter mid-suggestion!
The whole world is our sanctuary. There is no place more sacred than any other place. All burst with the presence of the Holy. The Holy Land is not a place to visit but ALL land to value. Let us focus on the miracle of LIFE and not simply miracles in life.
Last week in reading from Brian Keenan’s passionate and moving book, An Evil Cradling, in which Keenan wrote about his experience of being held hostage in Beirut, often in solitary confinement. After an interminable time of sitting in the dark, Keenan is brought some small oranges:
“My eyes are almost burned by what I see. The fruit, the colours, mesmerize me in a quiet rapture that spins through my head … I lift an orange into the flat filthy palm of my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange. Before me is a feast of colour. I feel myself begin to dance, slowly, I am intoxicated by colour… Such wonder, such absolute wonder in such insignificant fruit. I cannot, I will not eat this fruit. I sit in quiet joy, so completely beyond the meaning of joy. My soul finds its own completeness in that bowl of colour … I want to bow before it, loving that blazing, roaring, orange colour … In there in that tiny bowl, the world recreated in that tiny bowl … I focus all of my attention on that bowl of fruit … I cannot hold the ecstasy of the moment and its passionate intensity … I am filled with a sense of love.” (pp. 231-2)
An orange is holy. An orange is a miracle to behold. An orange should bring us to our knees with reverence.
As we come to kneel before bread and wine today – let us do so knowing that all bread and wine is sacred and that all meals with our neighbour are holy. We come to the Lord’s Table to learn the significance of every table. As we ponder the mystery of this meal on our knees, we commit to reflect on the mystery of every meal that nourishes our bodies and gifts us with life. This Lenten time invites us to be attentive to the mystery and miracle of life…