Walking into the wisdom of change

Sunday’s Sermon:
2020 10 25 Alan Storey: Our first duty to the dead.
[Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Matthew 22:34-46]

 

Friends,

To change, takes time. It is seldom, if ever, instant. This goes for individuals and society alike. Sure, we may be enlightened by something new in a split second, but we often miss the myriads of change receptors / ingredients that come before to make the change possible. Furthermore, authentic change demands a lengthy period of unlearning that requires grace and guilt and grace and truth and grace and work and grace and time and grace… This is not always communicated by motivational speakers or preachers. Sports coaches are probably more honest about the time and training that change demands!

Saul’s light blinding fall to the ground, voice-hearing, Damascus Road experience (Acts 9) is often falsely interpreted as “change in an instant”, but a closer reading reveals that it too took grace and time and … One prior change receptor / ingredient may have been Saul witnessing the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8). It also took a few days for Saul’s eyes to be opened and what is more, according to scholars, he spent a number of years living in communities like Antioch (Acts 11) before he started “being the change” and teaching the change.

The narrative of instant change sets us up with false expectations and ultimately for massive disappointment. The “name it and claim it in Jesus’ name” that is touted as a sign of “real faith” is not helpful. It is not helpful because it is not true. Singing praises to Jesus does not promise a quick fix. Just take a look at Peter and the rest of the disciples for proof: Jesus had three years with them and that was still not enough! Peter was still racist until Acts 10.

When we can embrace this truth about change and let go of the illusion of instant change / salvation then we may be able to be more truthfully present with who we are and simply with what is. The truthful acceptance of what is (free of denial, blame, wishes and should be’s) paradoxically unhooks us from what is and creating space for change.

Free from the quick fix illusion we may embrace a daily practice of acceptance rather than achievement. To give ourselves humbly to a practice (prayer, meditation, contemplation, art, walking …) that encourages us to be truthfully attentive to our lives and living and world.

The following poem describes the shift from a false to a truthful understanding of change:

Waiting

You keep waiting for something to happen,
the thing that lifts you out of yourself,

catapults you into doing all the things you’ve put off
the great things you’re meant to do in your life,

but somehow never quite get to.
You keep waiting for the planets to shift

the new moon to bring news,
the universe to align, something to give.

Meanwhile, the pile of papers, the laundry, the dishes the job —
it all stacks up while you keep hoping

for some miracle to blast down upon you,
scattering the piles to the winds.

Sometimes you lie in bed, terrified of your life.
Sometimes you laugh at the privilege of waking.

But all the while, life goes on in its messy way.
And then you turn forty. Or fifty. Or sixty…

and some part of you realizes you are not alone
and you find signs of this in the animal kingdom —

when a snake sheds its skin its eyes glaze over,
it slinks under a rock, not wanting to be touched,

and when caterpillar turns to butterfly
if the pupa is brushed, it will die —

and when the bird taps its beak hungrily against the egg
it’s because the thing is too small, too small,

and it needs to break out.
And midlife walks you into that wisdom

that this is what transformation looks like —
the mess of it, the tapping at the walls of your life,

the yearning and writhing and pushing,
until one day, one day

you emerge from the wreck
embracing both the immense dawn

and the dusk of the body,
glistening, beautiful

just as you are.

~ Leza Lowitz

Grace,
Alan

Taxes and Death

2020 10 18  Alan Storey : Taxes and Death
[Psalm 99; Matthew 22:15-22]

 

Friends,

This Sunday we will reflect on Jesus being questioned about paying taxes to the emperor. It is a topical issue at the moment. In South Africa we are faced with daily revelations of state / private corruption that detail the squandering of State collected taxes. Taxes meant to be spent for the public good have instead been criminally syphoned off for private gain. Further afield we learn of a president who routinely boasts of how wealthy he is and yet shamelessly withholds paying taxes. Sunday’s reflection: Taxes and Death.

Please read Psalm 99 and Matthew 22:15-22 in preparation for Sunday.

Sunday’s service will take place via zoom at 10am.

Email: welcome@cmm.org.za for the zoom link.

 

American Authoritarianism

Now for a few thoughts regarding more broadly what I see taking place in the States at this time. I share this with the hope that we will be reminded of some crucial lessons from our own history as well as to draw attention to the disturbing up-swing of authoritarian regimes and populous demagogues around the world.

Using Scripture as the lens to focus our thoughts, in this case, specifically Exodus 1:8-22 and Isaiah 59: 1-16a. Rather than use scripture in a “proof text” or “literal / fact based” kind-of-way, I will try to unearth and be guided by the archetypal truth embedded within the given narrative. In this way the ancient text enlightens our present context and our present context informs our understanding of the text. Meaning moves both ways.

The book of Exodus is the story of a slave people taking the gap … to freedom. It was so impossible that it was compared to sneaking through an ocean split dry. This great escape includes moments so unforeseen that the only word in human vocabulary to be able to describe it was a “miracle”. Even the secular press turned to this word for help when they ran out of all others to describe the event – which itself was another miracle.

We turn to the text to guide us:

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. [Exodus 1:8-14]

We read, “… a new king of Egypt who did not know Joseph”. How strange? How could that be possible that one be so forgetful? What terror-ble amnesia! This new king must have either been so narcissistic that there was no room within his heart to remember anyone but himself, or it was a profound act of wilful-forgetfulness. Forgetful of Joseph is a proxy for being forgetful of YHWH. When one is forgetful of the Ultimate One then one is inclined to exaggerate one’s own sense of self. This forgetful king thus had no reason to be humble. His forgetfulness made him accountable to none and to live in steadfast service of himself.

We read this forgetful king was also fearful. Now just as love casts out fear, so fear casts our love. A fear-full leader is therefore a love-less leader. A love-less leader is a terror. Not surprising then that he would soon be signing off executive decisions that dealt with people “shrewdly”, “ruthlessly” and murderously.

Forgetfulness of the Higher Power of Truth and Justice, together with fear of one’s neighbour, are always present at the birth of authoritarianism.

Notice how the forgetful and fearful king changes a long held truth into a dangerous lie. The Israelites were no longer their neighbours of many years. They were now named soon-to-be traitors. What a re-framing! Fear mongering. Naming and blaming. Othering! Othering that instils fear and hate with the aim to divide and conquer. Next we witness the major trick performed by every successful authoritarian ruler. Just like a magician covers their hat with a handkerchief before they pull out a rabbit, so the authoritarian covers everything they say with the blanket of national security. This blanket is decorated with holy cows grazing in fields of evergreen nationalism that silences those with questions. When it is pulled back, we see that a remarkable thing has taken place: the victims have become the perpetrators and the perpetrators have become the victims. (Water into wine eat your heart out!). With this deceptive reversal in place the victims (read: real perpetrators) are justified to crackdown on the perpetrators (read: real victims). So children are separated from parents and locked in cages. Dare not call this cruel. It is not. The reason it is not is that it is a matter of national security. So the uniformed dare not question their orders. Instead they efficiently do what is evil enjoying the praise for doing good. (But one day they will have to answer. And the defence, “I was just following orders” will not be accepted as a valid reason for their evil. A millstone may be put around their neck for causing little ones to be so terror-ised.)

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’”

Authoritarians take the institutions that are designed to promote and protect life and begin to employ them to bring death or in the very least begin to prevent them from fulfilling their life enabling function. Pharaoh calls the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Birth enablers are employed as facilitators of death. Sometimes this is communicated bluntly and sometimes subtly. Sometimes the forgetful, fearful king simply ignores and encourage others to ignore the instructions of well-meaning institutions, that if followed, would save life. In so doing they fail to do anything to prevent the death of 222 891 people (as of 16/10/20). Fascists are perversely turned on by death, especially the death of the weak. So Pharaoh does not mourn. There is no apology. Only lying denials. Read Isaiah 59 to see how authoritarians lie and lie. They spin a deadly web of lies that cause the “truth to stumble in the public square and justice to be turned back”.

“YHWH is appalled.” (Isaiah 59:16a) that so few intervene and so many remain silent. Especially the silence of the community called church.

But there are some who do intervene. Many of whom are ordinary people or even so-called “little people”. Wise as serpents and gentle as doves (non-violently) they courageously resist genocidal fascists with creative acts of sabotage. The midwives were so in-spirit-ed by the wonder of life that they had no space within themselves to fear this forgetful and fearful Pharaoh. They made up a story about how “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women” and Pharaoh bought it because it confirmed his existing prejudice. Proving how prejudice makes one so stupid.

Eventually Pharaoh openly sanctions genocide: drown them!

Patriarchy goes hand in hand with authoritarianism. Pharaoh undermined girls/women. He believed only boys/men could possibly be a threat to him. He admitted that he would just grab a girl/woman when and how he wanted. And yet history will show it was girls/women who were the founding members of the anti-Pharaoh Struggle. Besides the midwives, there was a mother and sister who with the wisdom of serpents placed their baby boy on the river instead of in the river. So it is with resistance struggles throughout history. Liberation is won, changing one letter at a time. Pharaoh’s own daughter worked behind enemy lines – eventually getting one of the enemy not only into Pharaoh’s house, but adopted into his family! Viva Caroline Giuliani viva!

As we have said repeatedly over the last couple of weeks: the exploitation of people goes hand in hand with the exploitation of creation. The one leads to the other. People will eventually revolt and creation will eventually rebel. Creation rebels by confronting us with the consequences of our exploitative ways. Insecticides contaminate the soil. The run-off poisons the water. The fish die, as do those that feed on the fish. We become chronically ill. When illness catches up to Pharaoh himself there is the hope that a lesson will be learnt and that a humbling change will take place … but alas, this is not always the case.

Pharaoh was given many opportunities to do the loving / liberating thing, yet he repeatedly decided not to. In the process his heart was hardened, until one day it was fixed in its hardness. All that remains then is self-destruction on a massive scale. The deathly consequences of this self-destruction are impossible to over play, for during the very time we should be doing everything we can to prevent the oceans from rising, we have to concern ourselves with a Pharaoh in denial who is leading a people into the ocean to drown. All because of his desperate attempt to fill the gaping void within his own life.

Fascism relies on the public believing that their nation is so exceptional that “it will never happen here”. Exceptionalism is idolatry. It is a lie, for just as all people have fallen short of the glory of God, so have all nations fallen short. It is a slippery slope from exceptionalism to fascism. A slippery slope constantly greased by Christian fundamentalists, Constitutional originalists and white supremacist militia.

In closing, let us read the text again while being attentive to who we identify with in the text. Let’s check our natural inclinations to quickly self-identify with the persecuted, re-denying any existence of the persecutor within us. Even if we struggle to see ourselves as a Pharaoh-type, can we wrestle with the possibility that there may be others who view us as Pharaoh? Who are they? How would they like us to change? Oh that we may take out the log from within our own eye…

Grace,
Alan

 

Slave Freedom Charter

Friends,

I invite you to read and reflect on Exodus 20:1-17

Before you read the reflection below, I encourage you to do your own wrestling with the text.

Paradoxically this is sometimes more difficult to do with those passages of scripture that are best known to us.  In this instance, the 10 Commandments.

If we wrestle faithfully we must not be surprised if we are wounded by the text and left with a Divinely defined limp as it was with Jacob of old. The hope is that we too will be able to re-see our enemy-Esau as family.

Remember the context is a people freshly freed from slavery. And context gives meaning.

Grace, Alan


Reflection: Exodus 20: 1-17

Think slavery: The cruel continuous brutality. The shackles and sjamboks. The beatings and killings. The constant hunger and everlasting exhaustion. The trauma of daily terror. Everything that is done is done to break your spirit and to erase your human dignity. Every effort is made to whip the dream of freedom out of you. Any attitude other than submission is smacked down to teach you a lesson, to set an example and to send a message: “I own you”. “Don’t ever think of rebellion.”

Think escape: The calculations. The planning. The praying. The risk. The courage. The tenacity. The stealth. The strength. The water rationing. The breath-holding. The knowing that death is certain if captured, and the knowing that to accept slavery is to die. Freedom or death!

Think freedom: The amazement. The wonder. The miracle. As miraculous as an ocean splitting in two forming a path of dry ground to walk through. The tears of joy. The speechless gratitude. The musical celebration. The deep breath of relief. The rest. The resolve: “Never, never and never again shall it be that we will be anyone’s slave”.

It is through this lens of slavery, escape and freedom that I invite you to reflect on the Ten Commandments, for it is within this context that they were originally carved. In other words their aim is specific rather than general.

Just as the South African Constitution of 1996 was written with the specific aim to prevent a return to Apartheid and discrimination of any kind, so the Ten Commandments were written with the specific aim to prevent a return to slavery and oppression of any kind. A freedom charter to be gratefully celebrated rather than a moralistic code to be fearfully obeyed.

I will now share a few thoughts on the first five Commandments using the lens of slavery, escape and freedom for you to consider:

The preamble [Exodus 20:2] is wondrously simple and profound, not unlike the incredible preamble to the South African Constitution that is a poetical summary of the Constitution’s purpose. In the case of the Ten Commandments it is all about freedom and the protection of human dignity – the exact opposite of dehumanising slavery. God listens to the cries of the oppressed [Exodus 3:7] and works liberation with them to end their oppression.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me. This is not a general statement of belief that there is a God. It is specific to freedom from slavery. Nothing is to be put before the freedom and dignity of people. No system of domination of one over another is ever to be accepted. If our God (our ultimate belief or value system) is not first and foremost a listener and liberator of the oppressed then our worship of this god will lead us back into slavery. This calls us to check our God! Who does our God listen to? The oppressed or the powerful? The poor or the rich? The landless or the propertied? The marginalised or the privileged? Who do we pay most attention to? Who do we listen to? Who do we work with and to what end? Whose interest do we take to heart? Answering these questions will enlighten us to whether we have given our heart to the listening and liberating God, or not.
  2. Make no idol. This is not a general statement about statues and the like, made out of wood or stone, etc. but the specific instruction to make sure that everything we make or create serves the purpose of freedom. This is especially true of the systems we create. Economic systems. Health systems. Education systems. Religious systems. Legal systems. These systems take on a life of their own. And they are very powerful. They are meant to be at the service of human dignity and freedom but too often they are used to oppress some while securing privilege for others.
  3. Make no wrongful use of the name of God. This is not a general statement about swearing when we hit our thumb with a hammer. It is the specific instruction that we dare not name God incorrectly. By calling something godly when it is not. The old South African Constitution is an example of this. To suggest God is anything other than liberative is a wrongful use of God’s name.
  4. Keep Sabbath (Day, Year and Jubilee). The practice of Sabbath is to be grounded within every human system to ensure that every system contributes towards human dignity and freedom and ultimately safe-guard against returning to a form of slavery. Rest on the 7th Day and remember the Listening and Liberating God alone is to be honoured. Furthermore, a slave can never rest and therefore weekly rest is an act of resistance to slavery, especially if it is built into all human systems. It places limits on work and therefore exploitation. Let the soil rest every seven years. This too is an act of resistance to exploitative practices – for the exploitation of the soil goes hand in hand with the exploitation of people. The one inevitably leads to the other. Finally, practice Jubilee – in other words place a limit on inequality. Every 50 years push the reset button of the whole economy. Cancel debt, for debt is the first step in the direction of slavery. Redistribute wealth – so that those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little. The more equal a society is, the less likely slavery will take hold within that society.
  5. Honour your parents. Sadly, this instruction is predominantly understood in exactly the opposite way it was intended. In so doing the 3rd instruction about the wrongful use of God’s name is often broken. For instead of protecting the vulnerable it is used to silence, dominate and marginalise the vulnerable. Children, especially young children, are vulnerable. Abuse from some parents and elders is sadly a reality. Looking at this through the lens of slavery, escape and freedom, this is almost certainly not referring to the relationship between parents and their young children. If it were it would surely have been written the other way round: Parents honour your children, i.e. the powerful honour the vulnerable. Therefore, this instruction is directed at the middle aged child to honour her/his now vulnerable parents who are mature in age. In this reading the powerful are instructed to honour the vulnerable as opposed to forget and forsake.

I invite you to continue through commandments 6-10 employing the same lens of slavery, escape and freedom.

  1. No killing
  2. No adultery
  3. No stealing
  4. No false witnessing
  5. No coveting.

This week and next week’s lectionary reflections will form the content of our CMM Chat.

Our next CMM Chat will be on 7th October at 20h00.

Please email welcome@cmm.org.za closer to the time for the link.

Grace,
Alan

 

 

 

 

Listen to the soil

It is probably the first time in history that cold sober scientists are the ones making apocalyptic type predictions, rather than religious fanatics. Such is the devastating evidence of climate breakdown. The science says humanity must rapidly and radically change the way we live if human life (and many other forms of life) are to have any long-term prospects of survival. Yet the urgent changes necessary to save life remain largely off the agendas of those in power. Our refusal to change is selfish, stubborn and stupid. It is also suicidal. Sampson-like we are bringing down the roof on ourselves.

“The fierce urgency of now” demands we “unsuicide”. This is the dramatic word that Richard Powers uses in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory

His exquisite novel is an invitation to enter into a learnership relationship with trees: “The tree is saying things, in words before words.” He humbles us when he asks: “Which is more childish, naïve, romantic, or mystical: the belief that we can get away with making Earth revolve around our personal appetites and fantasies, or the belief that a vast, multi-million-pronged project four and a half billion years old deserves a little reverent humility?”

To unsuicide is to live in reverent humility for all of life. It is to enter into a learnership relationship with the plants, as we heard last week: “Ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you.” (Job 12:7-8). This week we are invited to go even deeper and let the soil be our teacher. We are to put our ears to the ground to listen:

“The fields are devastated, the ground mourns.” (Joel 1:10).

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled, and few people are left.” (Isaiah 24:4-6).

“How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, ‘He is blind to our ways.’ … Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me. The whole land is made desolate, but no one lays it to heart.” (Jeremiah 12:4, 10-11).

When we put our ear to the ground / to the soil / to the land we hear that the ground grieves. The soil sobs. The land laments. The soil does so as a result of bearing the weight of our sins (our deathly ways). For YHWH the liberation struggle of the soil is as important as the liberation struggle of the Hebrew slaves because all of life is interconnected. Therefore, just as YHWH heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves and worked for their freedom so we read that YHWH hears the cries of the soil and calls us to work for the soil’s liberation. And if we don’t, “even the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). This is our unsuiciding work.

During our CMM Chat at 11h00 on 20/09/20 we will discuss the incredible interrelatedness between ourselves and the soil. If you would like to receive the zoom link for this conversation, please email: welcome@cmm.org.za

PS: Scripture this week is Genesis 4:1-16. We will also look at other scriptures, so please have your Bible handy for Sunday’s Chat.

Grace,
Alan

PPS: Some soil stats:

A teaspoon of healthy soil holds more tiny organisms than there are people on earth. And, it’s not just about quantity; the diversity of this same teaspoon has been compared to that of the Amazon rainforest. This is an impressive quarter of all of Earth’s biodiversity. Some of these organisms are visible to the eye—things like earthworms, beetles, and ants—while others are impossible to discern from other elements in the soil—such as bacteria, algae, fungi, nematodes, and many more. In fact, soil organisms are so numerous and abundant that scientists are still in the very early stages of identifying and understanding them. These little creatures are major players in soil health and should be respected for the hard and important work they do.

When talking about soil health, we think it’s helpful to think of soil as a “macro-organism” or living network made up of smaller lifeforms. Soil is a complex web of interrelated organisms that rely on and support one another. It’s an ecosystem. Some use the analogy of a human body to show the importance of each (organ)ism to the whole. Soil is made up of these hard-working organisms along with organic matter, minerals like sand, clay, and rock particles—the non-living “dirt”—and the air and water in the spaces between. The health of soils is all about the balance and diversity of these components.

Another thing that makes this ecosystem unique is that most of these organisms don’t merely exist in the soil, they physically create it. They break down organic materials like dead leaves—burrowing, eating, and churning them up—resulting in the rich humus that crops and other plants need to grow. We (and all living things) rely on these organisms’ role in growing the food we eat and, increasingly, the potential for drawing harmful carbon dioxide gas out of the air.

Soil is a nonrenewable resource, meaning it cannot be created within a human’s lifespan. Unhealthy soils are subject to wind and water erosion, blown and washed away to areas where they cannot be used for agriculture. Globally, some scientists estimate that we have only 60 years of farming left, if we continue to degrade our soils. These facts are an important indication of the need for regenerative agriculture and building up soil carbon.

 

and you will be made to eat grass …

Garden and I – 13 September 2020 by Athol McLaggan – Sunday’s CMM Chat/input

My Octopus Teacher is a mesmerising documentary that came out on Netflix this past week. It is the story of one person addressing his burn-out with the “social prescription”* of submerging himself daily into the kelp-forest-waters off Simon’s Town. During his daily practice of underwater attentiveness, he meets an Octopus … as one does. Consistency, curiosity, vulnerability, gentleness, trust and bravery alchemise over a year into steadfast (sucking) friendship. It turns out to be a human-healing friendship. The human student learns from the Octopus Teacher how to be more fully human.

You may not know, but this powerfully healing “social prescription” comes straight out of the scriptures:

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
            the birds of the air, and they will tell you; 
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
            and the fish of the sea will declare to you.” 

                                                            ~ Job 12:7-8

Here the human is clearly instructed to be in a learnership relationship with land, creature and plant. In short, the text is a call for humans to be humble. We are to start with confession. The confession of our ignorance: to know that whatever we know is less than all that we do not know and therefore we are to proceed with caution and care (read Miraculous Magnolia again)! As T.S. Eliot writes: “In order to arrive at what / you do not know / you must go by a way which / is the way of ignorance.”

Instead of beginning with confession (conscious awareness of our ignorance), humanity more often than not has begun with praise. Praise of ourselves. As a result we are unashamedly human supremacists in both belief and behaviour. Religion, economics and education are co-opted to promote the lie of separate development: that we can develop separately from the earth, forgetting that we do not live on the earth but from the earth. This is murderous and suicidal. Recent research shows how deadly humanities refusal to walk humbly is: “Global populations of wildlife have plunged by 68% since 1970. Two years ago, the figure stood at 60%. We are wiping wildlife from the face of the planet.”

Though time is against us, redemption (liberated life for Life) is still possible. We can still change from arrogant abusiveness to walk the way of humble care. This possibility is powerfully told in the book of Daniel Chapter 4. Here we see that Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, experiences a Job-like wake-up-call. As a result of his increasingly arrogant abusiveness to all life forms, his kingdom crumbles and he is brought to his knees. Remember: arrogant abusiveness is murderous and suicidal.

Now read Daniel 4:15-16:

But leave its stump and roots in the ground,
      with a band of iron and bronze,
      in the tender grass of the field.
Let him be bathed with the dew of heaven,
      and let his lot be with the animals of the field
     in the grass of the earth. 
Let his mind be changed from that of a human,
     and let the mind of an animal be given to him.
    And let seven times pass over him. 

I have always viewed these verses as Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment or debilitating self-imposed consequence, but now I read them as his “social prescription” graciously given by Yhwh for his healing and the liberation of life within the land. “You will be made to eat grass like oxen” (v25). Basically, Yhwh tells Nebuchadnezzar that he is grounded. He is to learn again that his life, like that of the oxen, is dependent on the grass, the soil and the dew from heaven that nurtures them. And we read that as Nebuchadnezzar took on this daily practice of grounded attentiveness his “reason returned” to him (v36). Then walking humbly, he returned to the “works of truth and the ways of justice” (v37). “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” ~ Baba Dioum.

On Sunday we will continue this theme at our 11:11 CMM Chat. If you would like the link for the Zoom meeting, please email welcome@cmm.org.za. This Sunday the “guru of greenery” Athol McLaggan will be sharing with us.

Grace,
Alan

* “Social prescription” – refer to last week’s reflection.

 

 

 

Liberation by the Power of Wonder

Friends,

While on leave I exchanged the tools of my trade. My office was now a garden. Not quite swords into ploughshares, but pen and white paper were traded in for a spade and wet muddy soil. Office lace-ups into gum boots that rejoiced every outing into the wet muddy soil. Digging, planting, clearing, cutting, trimming and watering replaced reading and writing. Weeding (endless weeding) substituted spellchecking. Raking became my new practice of meditation. (Oh the complete satisfaction to rake.) At the beginning and end of each day I would do a wandering inspection, hoping my fragile plantings survived the wind and rain. Grieving the destroyed and celebrating the new life. Noticing the tiny daily transformations that, when added together over a few weeks, were revolutionary (see the above photos of the 4 stages of the wondrous beauty of a Protea pincushion).

My office colleagues also took on completely new identities. The two legged were replaced by the four legged, the two winged and the slithering. Snails left their bread crumbs of silk across the railroad sleeper bridge. Thick juicy earthworms squiggled annoyed at me for disturbing their underworld activities. Francolins taking advantage of the turned up soil, followed my progress Pink Panther-like, three steps forward and two steps back. Looking skyward a Kingfisher paradoxically fluttered its wings while remaining dead still in the air above its catch. A Pintail Whydah checked itself out in the car’s side mirror – repeatedly kissing itself (self-love!). Sunbirds and sugarbirds blew into their flower trumpets. A Yellow Bishop did a routine fly-by (perhaps sent by my own Bishop to keep an eye on me?). I watched helplessly as a mole claimed my freshly planted vegetable patch as its private figure-of-eight-race-track. In the dead of night I spotlighted the bulb-thief with its Mohican of quills locked and loaded in my direction, and I shouted to no effect at the day time delinquent who tipped my compost bin over. The blasé baboon did not easily scare.

I discovered at new depths how healing it is to have one’s hands in the soil. How wonderful it is to feel – actually feel – rooted and grounded. It seems that people all round the world intuitively know this to be the case. According to a recent New Yorker article “in the week before lockdown began, U.K. sales of plants, seeds and bulbs were reportedly up 35% from 2019. “Whenever there’s a crisis – be it a war, or the aftermath of war, or a natural disaster – we see this phenomenon of urgent biophilia,” British psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith said. “We gain sustenance from nature’s regeneration.”

In her new book, The Well-Gardened Mind, Sue Stuart-Smith says: “When the future seems either very bleak, or people are too depressed to imagine one, gardening gives you a toehold in the future.” When one feels locked into the past or stuck in the present this is such a gift of grace! Again according to the New Yorker article: “In recent years, the benefits of gardening to mental health have become widely acknowledged in Britain. Primary-care doctors increasingly give patients a “social prescription” to do something like volunteer at a local community garden, believing that such work can sometimes be as beneficial as talk therapy or antidepressants. Some hospitals have been redesigned to incorporate gardens, spurred by findings that patients recovering from catastrophic injuries can heal more quickly if they have access to outdoor spaces with plants. Stuart-Smith’s book compares the uses of gardening in historical and contemporary mental-health treatments, and reports on empirical research into gardening’s effects on mood.”

I just love the idea of a “social prescription”.

Connecting with plant life is not only healing, it is also mentoring and liberating. If we slow down long enough to pay attention, plant life will wisely guide us to an understanding of humanity that we may discover as Gospel (Good news for the poor). The mentoring power of plant life will be the theme of our Sunday Chat at 11:11 this Sunday so I will not dwell on it now.

While I have been away the lectionary readings have turned to that long walk from slavery to freedom, (from 23 August to 18 October the OT readings are from the book of Exodus). Last week’s reading came from Exodus 3 where we witness Moses overwhelmed with wonder and brought to a barefoot humility before a burning bush, (remember to take a metaphor literally is an absurdity). Literalism limits the burning bush mystical moment to a single historical event, while the wild truth is that every bush is ablaze with Divine glory when the light of the day and the openness of our soul are graced with wondrous alignment. (Look again at the photos above … burning in beauty.)

It was before a bush – plant life aflame with beauty – that Moses heard God’s pain-filled trauma of seeing a people’s misery and hearing their cries for freedom. It was in front of a bush that Moses ran out of excuses to stay clear of Pharaoh (a parasite in plant-life-terms – a ruler living off the people instead of for the people). It was before a wilderness shrub that Moses hesitantly realised it was time for him to go and face his past (remembering that Pharaoh was his adopted grandfather). We note that the political journey of liberation will always be an intensely personal one – fought in the public streets and the hidden corridors of our own hearts, because true liberation is never only from oppressive others but also from our oppressive selves.

I guess there are many en-couraging motivations to resist a parasite ruler like Pharaoh. I believe what gave Moses the courage to begin this journey of liberation was Wonder. Wonder at creation that led to praise of the Creator of creation. Praise of the Creator that led to protest Pharaoh’s parasitic rule. The burning beautiful bush is a mystical moment that moves Moses beyond himself towards solidarity with the suffering of others and at the same time towards a healing within himself. A mystical moment is one that does not fit into our day to day measurements of meaning. They refuse to be limited by the logic of the status quo. They escape categorisation. They cannot be fully calculated and they firmly resist commodification. A mystical moment is an encounter with the More of Life. Note, that an authentic mystical moment does not lead to one seeking more mystical moments. The proof of a mystical moment is that it results in the overcoming of fear by the power of love. Love that joins oneself with the suffering of the world. Love that freely gives itself for the sake of Life in all its fullness. Before Moses was moved by mystical wonder to resist the authoritarian Pharaoh there was a pair of midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh’s deathly command to kill all Hebrew boys at birth. They had more wonder for God than Pharaoh and why wouldn’t they? They experienced over and over again the mystical wonder of new birth. Mystical wonder that almost every parent knows and who in that moment is overwhelmed with a love so great that they will not hesitate to give their own life to save the life they now cradle. Mystical wonder is nothing short of the death defeating power of love. Mystical wonder opens one’s eyes to see Pharaoh’s power as phony and a sham. I mean how can fireworks truly compare to the stars? How can flags waving compare to the wind that waves them? How can military parades compare to a flock of flamingos taking off from a salt lake at sunrise or a herd of elephants on a dusty African plain? How can Pharaoh’s prejudice and bigotry and genocidal commands not finally fail if faced by those who have seen a bush burning with beauty and who have entered into a life liberating partnership with the bush-burning-with-beauty’s Creator? After all, “where was Pharaoh when God laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4 adapted.)

“Lost in wonder, love and praise”, Moses returns to resist Pharaoh. (Not a bad time to sing “Love Divine, all loves excelling”.)

The world today is desperate for Moses-like and midwife-like people, (Romans 8:18-30). People rooted in mystical wonder who have been set free from fear by the power of love to enter into solidarity with the suffering of the world for the sake of Life in all its fullness. Moses was moved by a bush ablaze with non-consuming fire. The world today stubbornly refuses to be moved by the threat of every bush ablaze with a consuming fire as we get closer to the point of no-turn from complete Climate Breakdown. I think one of the reasons we are not moved to change is because we are no longer in meaningful relationship with plant life. And as a result we no longer carry the appreciative knowledge of our complete dependence on soil and tree. We have fallen out of love with plant life and therefore we fail to see any reason to give our life (change our way of life) to save our Mother earth. This refusal to love for Life’s sake will be humanity’s undoing.

Get out into the garden. Walk out in the veld. Stand shoeless beneath a tree. Kneel before a blade of grass. Pray that you fall in love again with the earth that sustains you. Marvel at the mystery that our lives cannot exist without the tiniest earthworm far beneath the soil and the forests of trees above. Maybe, just maybe, if we do this we will hear God’s trauma and respond with courage in the power of wonder.

I leave you with three short extracts from Martin Luther King Jr’s. speech at Riverside Church, exactly one year before his assassination on the 4th April 1967.

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. 

 If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

 Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world.” 

In 2020 we are faced with the fierce urgency of now more than ever.

Grace,
Alan

 

The speed of life

Friends,

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

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

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

Grace,
Alan

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

 

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

Thank you.

Face truth!

Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace,
Alan

Hagar vs. Sarah, Abraham and God

Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you Sunday.

Grace, Alan

 

The Story of Hagar

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

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

The scripture readings for this Sunday are:

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

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

Grace, Alan