Breaking free

Grace and peace to you …

There is a group of Catholic workers in Cape Town that run an organization called Prison Care Ministry. They support the care of prisoners in various different ways, one of which is engaging in restorative justice work. The program is seven weeks long, leading the inmates through Biblical narratives relating to forgiveness and restoration. At the end of the journey their families are invited to join so that the prisoners can apologize to them, and if the families are ready they can extend forgiveness.

Last week I traveled with the team to witness the work that they do. When we arrived at the prison, we were shuttled from the parking lot inside to the prison entrance. There were 29 inmates gathered and rows and rows of family members. Sister Mary Brady, of the Prison Care and Support Network spoke to the group about the importance of forgiveness and shared that it was a process and not one that should be rushed. I appreciated the importance she placed on the prisoners also working to forgive themselves.

The work of restorative justice is to restore the prisoner in relationship with those they have wronged. The Prison Care and Support Network were focusing on restoration with family, community and self the day I was with them. I wondered if the crowd would have the patience to sit through all the stories, but many would shake their heads in understanding as each person shared. Family members were crying with other families. It was simply amazing the connection that was made between these 29 inmates and their families. After each family had shared, they would light a candle at the front.

One man stood and shared that he had not seen his family in sixteen years. His parents had died while he was in prison, but his sister was there. It is unlikely this man will ever be released from prison for he murdered several people and committed multiple crimes. Yet, when he stood before his sister there was something within him I could sense breaking free. He was sharing with her that he believed that he could still make a good life for himself even inside the prison walls. I couldn’t help but weep as he was talking to her. His sister shared with him that she accepted his apology and forgave him. The joy on his face was such a beautiful thing to witness.

As we were leaving, there were too many people to fit on the first bus, and I was one of the ones left behind. I found myself feeling stress as I was waiting for the bus to return. I can’t imagine living behind prison walls for an entire life, but so many of us actually do. There are ways of living out in the world where we can breathe the air of the free, but still live within a prison in our minds or the patterns we have set in our life.

Jesus’ words, “I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” from John 10:10 are a call to break free from the prisons in our minds and our patterns of living. To witness a man so free who will live behind bars for the rest of his life was quite convicting. A question I feel we must all ask ourselves is, “What does it look like to truly be free?

With you on the journey, Michelle

Wondrous Creatures or Dry Bones?

Grace and Peace to you …

On Monday two weeks back I was in Hermanus. Just about where the crowds stand scanning the waters for whales there is this amazing sculpture. It is called “Seemingly Peaceful”.

The old woman – Ouma Sarah – is made mostly out of metal cable. She is sitting on whalebones. A bronze bird joins her. A book is open to a single page of poetry. The sea crashes into the old harbour just beyond her limited gaze.

With her hat pulled down to her eyes and her body folded over her walking stick I was immediately drawn to Ouma Sarah. I had a desire to sit next to her and listen to her story.

Her story given to us through the poetry alongside her should be compulsory reading for everyone. The poem opens our ears to the questions that our great-great grandchildren will ask us.

In the future will our great-great grandchildren witness wondrous creatures at play or will there only be bones for them to sit on?

As Joanna Macy writes: “Life on our planet is in trouble. It is hard to go anywhere without being confronted by the wounding of our world, the tearing of the very fabric of life… Our planet is sending us signals of distress that are so continual now they seem almost normal… These are warning signals that we live in a world that can end, at least as a home for conscious life. This is not to say that it will end, but it can end. That very possibility changes everything for us… With isolated exceptions, every generation prior to ours lived with the assumption that other generations would follow… Now we have lost certainty that there will be a future for humans.” (From her book: World as Lover World as Self).

The day after Hermanus I was in Malmesbury where they are experiencing a terrible drought. And yet sadly very few houses seemed to have JoJo tanks attached to their roof drainpipe systems. All of us will have to do this at some stage in the near future. (We are exploring how to do this even here at CMM.) Treasuring every drop of water so that our great-great grandchildren may not die of thirst should be our task.

So I invite you to take a seat next to Ouma Sarah and listen to her story…

Listening, Alan

Today on All Saints’ Day we remember those in our community who died in 2015 as well as all loved ones through time:

Kate Brown, Dianne Hilderbrand, Clement Johnson,
Reginald Johnson, Gwen Kruger, Isabelle Martheze,
Gwen Abrahams, Roy Smith & Elizabeth Storey.


Build a stable foundation

Grace and Peace to you …

A few months ago the old Tulip Hotel was demolished. A well-placed detonator determined its implosion. It came down like a ton of bricks. If you go to the corner of Buitengracht and Strand Street today you will see into the depths of the earth as the foundations are being laid of what will be a new hotel complex.

These foundations will never be seen again (well not for a long time, in any case). Yet it is the foundation that will determine the shape and stability of the entire structure that will be seen. What is below the ground will determine what is above the ground. What is unseen will determine what is seen.

I’ve been astounded at the detail of the metal and cement work. I confess I used to think it was only the finishing touches that demanded such detail, but for the foundation and central core, precision is key. There can be no skimping if the building is later to be safely enjoyed for generations to come.

As you probably guessed – this could be a parable for our lives.

We seldom have the luxury of building on clear ground – almost always we are going to have to get rid of something to make room for something new to be built. And so, most times we will need to demolish stuff in our life before we build anew. This is seldom easy.

Our attachments to what we have always known run deep. Familiarity sometimes breeds comfort when contempt would be more appropriate. So what relationship or habit or dream do we need to detonate? What do we need to leave behind before we can move in a new direction? Boom!

Now we can begin to attend to our hidden life which will ultimately shape and support our public living. To skimp here thinking that no one will notice is a lie too many of us fall for ultimately the public exposes the private – it is only a matter of time. It just takes a storm of sorts to hit.

Foundation building in our life is done on our knees in prayer. It is done in the private sanctuary of reading the heart-exposing Scriptures. Prayer/reading/reflecting … repeating this practice over and over is how a solid foundation is built.

The purpose of which is to discover and cultivate the Divine Centre of God’s presence in our life. As Thomas Kelly so beautifully describes:

“Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma. And Christian practice is not exhausted in outward deeds. These are the fruits, not the roots. A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light…

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Centre, a speaking Voice to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is the dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men (sic). It is a seen stirring to life if we do not choke it… the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.” (A Testament of Devotion)

In Practice, Alan

What’s your story?

Grace and peace to you …

One of my favorite things in life is to read stories to little children with exaggerated flare. It makes me smile to witness them scoot up close, put their hands on their chins, and really listen. The little things they pick up from what you read or share are amazing to me. Their minds are so innocent and free from the fear of stepping out of the bounds, which helps their imaginations take flight in ways that are so incredibly beautiful. It is in these moments that I am fully aware of our responsibility to the children of this world.

One of the hardest things I have had to do in my ministry as a Pastor called to global ministry is to visit countries where my hands have touched the face of a child hours before they died of HIV/AIDS, I have knelt on the floor in a hospital praying with a mother who was watching three of her children die for lack of medicine that they never should have been denied, and I have held the clothes of a child blown apart by a bomb explaining to her mother that the God she believed she saw in my eyes would not punish her by taking her child.

There are changes we need to witness in the world around us that actually happen when we allow the eyes of our heart to really see the pain and the suffering of those around us. We can become overwhelmed or we can begin to make choices with how we invest the minutes of our lives. My particular passion is to develop the capacity for strong leadership bases wherever my feet hit the ground. I love listening to peopIe, waiting for the moment that their eyes sparkle in hope, and encouraging them to follow in the direction of their particular passion or calling.

As I have traveled the world, there is something common that I have found about every strong leader I have met. They all are people who understand the importance of history. They have a way of mapping a way towards the future that reaches back to the “dust in the ground” of the past. They do this through their use of story. Sue Monk Kidd has shared that, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

Next Sunday there is an invitation for the community of Central Methodist Mission to gather at 12:00 at the District 6 Museum to be together, celebrate the gift of life together in community, and to tell stories. There is no way to measure the impact of the telling of the stories of the District 6 community not just on the congregation here in Cape Town, but on those that hear them from around the world.

As each of us works towards the best ways to make a difference in the world around us, let us be formed and shaped together by the wisdom of the past.

Question for Reflection:

  • As you think about the world you want to leave for the children of the next generation,
    what changes do you hope to see?
  • How can you be a part of helping to bring about this change?
  • Remember prayer, it makes a difference!

With you on the journey, Michelle

Humility is the foundation

St Augustine 354 – 430

“Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence,
in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any
other virtue except in mere appearance.”

~ Augustine of Hippo

Grace and peace to you,

The Augustine Confessions is, next to the Bible, the most widely read book in history. It is also the first autobiography as we know them. It is devoted to telling Augustine’s story of faith, his dramatic journey from wild student to church father.

Feel his passion and love for “his true Love” seep through the page:

Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so…

O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me”.

Accordingly I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.

Clear is your response, but not all hear it clearly. They all appeal to you about what they want, but do not always hear what they want to hear. Your best servant is the one who is less intent on hearing from you what accords with his own will, and more on embracing with his will what he has heard from you.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!

You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.

I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

When at last I cling to you with my whole being there will be no more anguish or labour for me, and my life will be alive indeed, alive because filled with you. But now it is very different. Anyone whom you fill you also uplift; but I am not full of you, and so I am a burden to myself. Joys over which I ought to weep do battle with sorrows that should be matters of joy, and I do not know which will be victorious. But I also see griefs that are evil at war in me with joys that are good, and I do not know which will win the day.

This is agony, Lord, have pity on me! It is agony! See, I do not hide my wounds; you are the physician and I am sick; you are merciful, I in need of mercy.

Grace, Alan

Be pro-courage

Grace and peace to you …

On Tuesday evening I was privileged to be at the launch of Sober and Sexy – Fiona McCosh’s naked calendar exhibition celebrating the journey of recovery from addiction. The courage it takes to pose naked in front of a camera was symbolic of the much greater courage it takes for people to strip away the blankets of denial and come clean about being an addict. The courage to lay one’s life bare about the things we are powerless over in the presence of others is huge. This is the courage of the recovery movement that includes Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous as well as other 12 step programmes. I continue to believe that these movements are some of the most faithful expressions of what Church is meant to be. A community so full of grace (non-judgment forgiving love) that we can risk being more truthful about our own lives. This alone will heal and set us free from our inner prisons of guilt and shame. We need grace (embodied in a person or group) to en-courage us to face what we experience as the shame-full truths of our living. And ultimately it is this grace that siphons away the power of our shame.

Then on Wednesday some us were part of the Unite Against Corruption march to parliament. I was struck by what Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said:

“It’s time to stop marching against corruption. Yes‚ you heard me right. It’s time to stop marching‚ having discourses and debates‚ writing and repeatedly speaking about being anti-corruption. Why? Because it’s not about being anti-corruption… It’s about being pro-courage.” Courage was the single most important ingredient in the success of the old Struggle. Yet‚ today‚ those same leaders who showed such courage in the old Struggle have not only abandoned the concept of courage; today they punish anyone who tries to uphold the principles of courage. Today we shouldn’t be here rallying against corruption. Today we should be asking… Aren’t we ready to fulfill our country’s destiny‚ by showing the same level of courage that won our liberation from apartheid?”

To be set free from the many social ills that beset our land it is going to take courage! So too overcome the demons within and without we must pray for courage.

“Courage, then, is the place where change begins. As Katharine Butler Hathaway wrote, “If you let fear of consequence prevent you from following your deepest instinct, then your life will be safe, expedient and thin. Courage is the first requirement to start a new life…”

Graced to be courageous, Alan

Corruption within and without … Statement from the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

The Methodist Church of Southern Africa joins all our partners in faith in endorsing the anti-corruption marches set to take place on 30 September in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.

Corruption is rampant in every aspect of our lives including the private sector, business and government; it is a silent cancer that is mercilessly eating away at the very soul of our nation. Materialism at whatever the cost has become the dominant culture and impunity a way of life. Enough is enough!

We repent of any corruption that may exist within our ranks and call for reform within the church as we commit to pray and act against this pervasive evil that if not curbed will be the downfall of all our institutions and eventually our very economy.

In the wake of the numerous scandals that have bedevilled South Africa with no evident resolutions, the time has come for all citizens to take back their power and hold everyone in any form of leadership accountable to promote good stewardship and good governance.

We, call all Methodists to exercise their consciences in support of the march and other anti-corruption campaigns and to speak out against dishonesty, fraud and any forms of duplicity at every opportunity.

May the Lord help us,
Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa

Hinges of History

Grace and peace to you …

Phyllis Tickle died this past week at the age of 81. She was known for her teaching on emerging Christianity and dedication to marked hour prayer. The image of Phyllis is taken with another well-known Christian thinker, Nadia Bolz-Weber who is often called the tattoo-loving Lutheran pastor. What I love about this image is that it shows two leaders from different generations embracing the beauty of the other. There is a sense that what these two women did to cross their generational and experiential divides is prophecy for the Church at large today.

God is always turning a page in every generation and our work is to be listening for the direction God is moving, so that our way does not get lost from the way that God is giving birth to in the new. When the hinges of history turn in communities of faith, the door opens with the work that begins on our knees in prayer and unfolds through a journey that shapes the next course of human history. It is exciting stuff!

Many of those who shared comments about Phyllis in celebrating her life named that she lived with hope always believing that the Holy Spirit was up to something just around the corner. I believe this too! Around every corner is an opportunity for us to witness a beautiful expression of the love of God alive in the world.

Before Phyllis died, I was in the midst of reading the Mystic way of evangelism by Elaine Heath. She and Phyllis are similar thinkers. They are both strong believers in the practice of prayer and both understand the Church to be most alive when it engages in community and is at work on the margins. Heath communicates an understanding of the Church being in what she describes as the dark night of the soul. She argues that what is needed are leaders who can lead their congregations like the Mystics of old to re-imagine the present and future for the Church.

There is a sense that the Holy Spirit is doing something new in the life of the Church at large as well as in the life of Central Methodist Mission. I know this without a doubt because the Holy Spirit is always stirring up something new. There is a rich history connected to this place that is the DNA — the dust in the ground that God will draw from with anything new born along the way. As a community, we have an opportunity coming up in October to gather as a church family, listen to some of the stories from the past, and allow space for what God might be speaking to us today. Phyllis Tickle was also described to have eyes that danced. May we find our eyes dancing with dreams of all God is calling this community to in the days ahead!

With you on the journey, Michelle.

We thank God for the gift of over 150 people walking to celebrate recovery on Heritage Day!

May the journey towards new life continue for all of us!


Grace and peace to you …

The Bible begins with humanity settled in the Garden of Eden, all their needs sorted and nothing to hide behind — they were naked. Physical nakedness marked an innocence that was lost when Adam and Eve took that first tempting bite. Their work to cover their nakedness alerted God that they had chosen their own way, rather than walking in the way that was marked out for them. They worked quickly to hide the decision they had made, but they were not created to hide. Humanity was made to be found — to be swept up in a love that promises to never leave or forsake us.

The vulnerability experienced in the Garden of Eden is something that we as human beings struggle to return to. Brené Brown released a Ted Talk years ago on the power of vulnerability. She shared that fear and shame keeps us from being vulnerable. Vulnerability, she shared, is the birthplace of many emotions. We are able to experience grief, shame, and disappointment as we lean into vulnerability. Yet, too often we work to numb those emotions and she shared that in seeking to numb grief, shame, and disappointment we then numb the other emotions that are also born out of vulnerability — joy, gratitude, and happiness.

To be vulnerable is to be comfortable with the naked truth of life. The church has so much to learn from the Recovery Community in learning how to be vulnerable. People who struggle with addiction and live within the 12 Step Programs that the recovery community offers have a way of living with an authenticity rarely seen in the world around us. Part of the work they do is to name right away that they have a problem and that they are not going to be able to manage this problem on their own. They are charged with giving an honest assessment of their lives to understand how the patterns of addiction in their lives have harmed themselves and others. One can understand how this work reveals the naked truth of life.

One of the members of the recovery community that meets at Central Methodist Mission, Fiona McCosh, has wrestled with the negative perceptions people have of those in the Recovery Community. Fiona has worked to document the naked beauty of several of the members of the Recovery Community here in Cape Town in order that the beauty of who they are might be revealed. I hope that we as a community will work to support her work at her exhibit, which opens Tuesday, September 29, 6 p.m. at the Issi Café, 130 Bree Street.

Question for reflection: In what ways am I hiding in my life? How might I embrace the vulnerability that will give birth to a more authentic life?

With you on the journey, Michelle.

Listen and be brave

Grace and peace to you …

As Anna Quindlen writes: “Acts of bravery don’t always take place on battlefields. They can take place in your heart, when you have the courage to honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and yes, your soul by listening to its clear, clear voice of direction instead of following the muddied message of a timid world.”.

One such brave person in our land is Advocate Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector. Amanda Khoza from News24 reports about Madonsela’s keynote address on Women’s Month at the University of KwaZulu-Natal:

“Women and female animals are the most vicious when you threaten what they love,” said Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, responding to questions about how she handles the constant barrage of attacks from politicians. “Just threaten a woman’s child or an elephant’s offspring and you will see fire… I understand that sometimes humans kick because they are afraid. So when they kick me, I know that they are doing the best that they can and the driving force is fear… Instead of being angry at them, I just have compassion and hope that they will stop being fearful and instead act from a position of power…”

Madonsela said it helped her to focus on what she loved, rather than on herself: “When you put the attention on yourself, you see yourself as a victim and once you see yourself as a victim, you are a danger to yourself and to society because victims tend to do nothing wrong…

“As the public protector I make important decisions that are based on facts. I know that when those matters get to court, they will see that it was 1 + 2 = 3 not 1 + 2 = 5.

“When somebody starts insulting you, just know that you have won and that they are surrendering their power to you. It is the same thing when people stop discussing the issue at hand and start discussing you. They do it in soccer when the player starts playing the man instead of the ball, it is because they are desperate and they are losing the game.”

Be brave, Alan

A friend texted me while he was en route to Hungary by train to compete in the Canoeing Marathon World Championship: “On a train loaded to the gills with Syrian refugees.”.

This is an amazing parable of life. We’re all on the same train. Maybe even in the same compartment. But can we really speak of being on the same train? Some of us are on the train living a dream while others are experiencing a nightmare.

Ultimate Reality

Grace and peace to you …

Over the past two weeks we have reflected on the gift and the danger of religion. First is was Solomon “building a house for the Lord” and then he realised that the Lord is way too big to fit into any human made house. The problem arises when we forget that God is bigger than any of our attempts to define or name. The gift and purpose of the temple was to remind people that God is present and accessible to all, yet the danger was that God would be trapped in the temple and controlled by those who run the temple.

Throughout history there are those who are sent to us to remind us that “nothing in heaven or on earth can contain the Lord”. Thomas Keating is one such person. He is a Trappist Monk and is known as one of the “fathers” of the Centering Prayer Movement. I would recommend anything that he has written – he is a faithful guide for any who want to journey into the depths. The depths of ourselves and the Divine. Keating has been inspirational in the Snowmass Interspirituality Dialogue which has convened over a thirty-year period with religious leaders from the major world religions. Here is a short list of the points of agreement that they believe all religions share, and which I find very helpful:

  1. The world religions bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality, to which they give various names.
  2. Ultimate Reality cannot be limited by any name or concept.
  3. Ultimate Reality is the ground of infinite potentiality and actualization.
  4. Faith is opening, accepting, and responding to Ultimate Reality. Faith in this sense precedes every belief system.
  5. The potential for human wholeness – or, in other frames of reference, enlightenment, salvation, transcendence, transformation, blessedness – is present in every human being.
  6. Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices, but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service to others.
  7. As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it is subject to ignorance and illusion, weakness and suffering.
  8. Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment is not the result of one’s own efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness with Ultimate Reality.

Grace and peace, Alan

Read – Reflect – Renew

In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know,
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess,
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not,
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

~ TS Eliot