“You strike the women, you strike the rock”

This past week we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the women’s march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Sixty years ago, on August 9, 1956 20,000 women took to the streets with a petition signed by 100,000 people calling for the end to the pass laws. The march was led by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams. When the women arrived, they began to chant words that women still chant today, “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!” They translate to, Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock. The phrase has evolved to what we often hear today, “You strike a woman, you strike a rock” and it represents the courage and strength of women in South Africa.

The women of 1956 also stood for thirty minutes in silence with their hands raised in a congress salute. Anyone who practices silence knows that thirty minutes is a period of time that one often works up to. It is not easy to achieve thirty minutes of silence right away. Yet, it is as if these women used the silence to speak for them. In the quiet of their stand together, their message was clear. It was as if in the quiet things could be heard, “We are here. We are serious. We have strength you know nothing about.” Their silence spoke volumes.

Simamkele Dlakavu, Tinyiko Shikwambane, Naledi Chirwa, and Amanda Mavuso are the names of four women who recently engaged in a silent protest during a press conference where Jacob Zuma was announcing the election results. They stood silently dressed all in black, holding signs that read: Remember Khwezi, Khanga, Ten years later, and I am 1 in 3. Their protest they named was against patriarchy and the culture of rape of women, where 1 in every 3 women in South Africa are likely statistically speaking to have been raped. They were remembering “Khwezi” the pseudonym given to the woman who accused Jacob Zuma of rape ten years ago.

One does not even have to support the cause of these four women to recognize the power of their witness. They used their creativity to give voice to their convictions and their message was broadcast worldwide. The South African Police share that a woman is raped every 36 seconds in this country, while many activist groups challenge that data naming it is closer to every 26 seconds. For four women to silently |protest such a culture in the midst of a political event, hats off to Simamkele, Tinyiko, Naledi, and Amanda.

The women of 1956 were persecuted for the ways in which they organized for change in the world. Lilian Ngoyi spent 70 days in solitary confinement and lived with bans placed on her for 11 years. Helen Joseph was arrested several times and had her last ban lifted when she was 80 years old. She was the first person to be placed under house arrest under the Sabotage Act and was a constant target with bullets smashing windows and a bomb even exploding at her front gate. During the Truth & Reconciliation Commission she was quoted as sharing, ““How a weary old girl, an ou tannie like me can be a threat to state security only they can say.” Yet, threat often comes from those who know how to organize for change.

Silence is a discipline that is held across many faith traditions. It is not a comfortable place to be, for in silence things bubble to the surface. In silence truths become clear, actions become visible, and words become sharpened. I encourage us all this week to sit in silence remembering the people who have inspired us in the ways they have worked for change. In our silence may we reflect on the world around us and the ways we might be called to be involved in the work of bringing much needed change. Silence roots us in the place of depth that brings strength, conviction, courage, and a peace we can’t explain. May our time of reflection root us for the work of change.

With you on the journey,


Do not fear, you are favoured

Grace and peace to you and through you …

Last week I wrote about the short and simple nature of “conversations with God” as portrayed in the Gospels. They go something like this: God says, “do not fear … you are favoured … now live my vision of a new society in which everyone can know that they are priceless”.  In other words live life so everyone may know they are favoured and have nothing to fear. I concluded by saying that to honour this conversation with God will demand much contemplation and much action on our part: Contemplation, i.e. trustfully sitting in the knowledge of our fear-expelling-favour and action in our daily reshaping of the structures of society to value the pricelessness of all people. It will include silence and raising our voice. It will include stillness and marching. It will include a profoundly personal exploration of self and a serious analysis of society. It will be personal and political and discovering that they are inseparable. Which brings me to the elections.

Last week we had the privilege to vote. It is a privilege to participate in how society is shaped without having to kill the person who thinks differently to us. This is the great gift of the social experiment we call democracy. Shaping society without killing people who want to shape it a different way to us. Now voting doesn’t provide all the solutions, as Judith February says, “it merely provides the space to find them”. That is what we did last Wednesday. By voting we created the space to work out solutions without killing each other in a winner-take-all frenzy.

Now for us to work out the solutions on how we do life together we are going to need to return over and over again to conversations with God. Why? Because Democracy is risky. It doesn’t guarantee that we will find the solutions. Often the space created by Democracy can be hijacked to secure power and privilege for the few at the expense of the many, as our present experience teaches us. We need to be reminded that God longs for family fairness to be fixed into the fabric of society – our laws and policies – so that all will know they are priceless – that all are favoured and have nothing to fear. The work of fixing family fairness into the fabric of society is not easy. It is difficult and dirty even as it is too beautiful to describe. It is slow and exhausting even as it gives life. It is dangerous and despairing even as it is secure in faith, hope and love.

To sustain us in this work we need to rest in the truth that we are born in love, by love and for love … and so too are those who oppose us. To be protected against cynicism we need to trust that people do not have to change so much as they have to become who they really are. To be kept from self-righteousness we must  be reminded that we are all one. To be spared from despair we need to accept that we are part of a much larger story – God’s story – the end of which we may not see but the end of which we can contribute to now in the way we follow Jesus.

On Wednesday evening at 7 pm we will gather to sit in silence … to contemplate our favour … and be released of fear … to live life revealing the pricelessness of all.

Grace, Alan


Conversations with God

Grace and Peace to you and through you …

In the Gospels we notice that conversations with God follow a particular pattern. They are brief. They are simple. And they are ultimately about what God wants to do through them rather than to them. The conversations all start the same way: “Do not be afraid”. That is the very first thing God is determined to tell people. “Do not fear”. God knows fear makes us deaf to the Divine voice. Only until we get through our fear will our hearts be open to hearing anything else and will we be able to honour what we have heard. Fear is the great stumbling block to living faithfully, because fear casts out love.

The converse is equally true: Love casts out fear, therefore the second thing God is determined we realise is: “You are favoured”. In other words, we are graced, i.e. un-deservedly and un-reservedly loved. We live in a world however, where some people are valued more than others. This is the great lie. The Divine wants all to know that our lives are priceless. We are set free from our fear the moment we accept that we are favoured, priceless and held in Love. We are invited to trust that nothing can separate us from this Love, because we live and move and have our being in Love – Divine Love. Jesus teaches us that the ultimate authority in the universe (heaven) is a Loving Parent – a Loving Parent who we do not need to fear and a Loving Parent who we do not need to impress in order to love us.

Thirdly, what comes next is the “Jesus move”. In order to respond to the love of our Loving Parent, Jesus calls us to love our neighbour.
In other words the way we love God is by loving our neighbour. The “Jesus move” is returning our love to God by directing our love towards our neighbour. As Jesus said, God desires mercy not sacrifice. We can’t love God by perform-ing rituals – no matter how sacred we deem them. We can only love God by showing mercy to our neighbour and all of creation. When people like Mary heard that they were favoured and therefore had nothing to fear, they were given a vision of what life should look like according to our Loving Parent’s own heart – a life where all are valued including the lowly and poor. This involves correcting past injustices and restructuring of society through its laws and policies fixing fairness into the fabric of society.

So in the Gospels we see that conversations with God follow this flow: do not fear … you are favoured … now live my vision of a new society in which everyone can know that they are priceless. To honour this conversation will demand much contemplation and much action on our part: Contemplation, i.e. trustfully sitting in the knowledge of our fear-expelling-favour and action in our daily reshaping of the structures of society to value the priceless-ness of all people.

Grace, Alan

All life is valuable

Grace and peace to you and through you …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace, Alan

Practicing Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With you on the journey,

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

Words and Actions

Grace and Peace to you and through you …

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

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

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

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

Grace, Alan

There’s Something

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


Salvation is the gift of life

Grace and Peace to you and through you

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

So what do we do?

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

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

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

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

Grace,  Alan

Toppie Town … watch this space!

Missionaries and Martyrs

Grace and Peace to you …

Today some of us are in Namaqualand. We have been attending our annual Synod since Wednesday. A few of us cycled up here while others travelled by bus. We are in Namaqualand because it is the 200th anniversary of the Namaqualand Methodist Mission Station – yes the Methodist mission work has been going on since 1816 – the mind boggles!

This building has a particular connection with the Namaqualand Mission because we have Rev. Barnabas Shaw’s tombstone in this building [front left on the floor] and it was Shaw who established the first Methodist Mission Station in Namaqualand in 1816. Barnabas Shaw began his ministry in the country among the Methodist soldiers attached to the various regiments stationed at the Cape – despite the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset’s refusal to grant him permission on the ground that “the soldiers already had their chaplain and that preaching to slaves might offend the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church who were well established”.

Shaw writes in response to being refused permission: “Having received this answer I therefore left His Excellency and determined to commence reaching without it. My resolution is also fixed never again to ask any mere man’s permission to preach the glorious Gospel … If Lord Charles Somerset be afraid of offending either the Dutch Ministers or English Chaplains, I am not, and will therefore do my duty. In the course of a few days I began to preach, without any hindrance or interruption…” This means that the Methodist work began by an act of civil disobedience, reminding us all that our primary allegiance is never Caesar but God.

He soon left for the “interior”. After a few days on their journey and just beyond the Olifants River they met the chief of the Little Namaquas travelling to Cape Town to seek a Christian Missionary. This was on 4 October 1816. This “desert meeting” Shaw regarded as a “particular providence”.

At Lily Fountain they built the first Methodist Mission Station in South Africa. The first fruits of Shaw’s ministry was Rev. Jacob Links who in 1822 became the first South African to be ordained into the Methodist Church. Sadly in 1825 Rev. Jacob Links together with Rev. William Threlfall and Johanness Jager were ambushed and killed en route to establishing another mission – making them the first Methodist martyrs.

We know that the words and deeds by colonial missionaries were not all innocent or helpful. Sometimes colonial missionaries were patronising, disrespecting traditional beliefs and at times even murderously brutal. So our celebrations for the Methodist Missionary work cannot be without honest critique.

This reminds us that in all we say and do, regardless of how pure our intentions and strong our convictions, we must remember that we may well be hurting people rather than helping them.

May the story of the missionaries give us courage and humble us at the same time.

Grace, Alan


Plant a Sequoia Tree

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay.
Want more of everything ready-made.
Be afraid to know your neighbours and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery any more.
Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit
they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag.
Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Expect the end of the world.
Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

Grace and Peace to you …

This poem by Wendell Berry is quite powerful in its entirety, but there is one line that I have been sitting with…

Plant a Sequoia Tree

It is no small thing to plant a Sequoia tree as Wendell Berry proposes. Sequoias are literal giants among trees! One of the oldest Sequoia trees is thought to be 3,500 years old. Many grow to be 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter and more than 250 feet (76 meters) tall. When I think of Sequoia trees, I think these are the type of trees that the Psalmist describes “they are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” Psalm 1:3.

So, what does it mean to plant a Sequoia tree? What might it look like to invest part of our energy in things that might not make a drastic difference in our present reality, but will make a marked difference in a future that we may or may not see? I invite you to reflect this week about things that invoke in you a sense of holy discontent. What do you wrestle with deeply about the world around you? Change does not come through simply wrestling. Lasting change comes through prophetically imaginative acts like planting Sequoia trees.

I invite you to find two to three people within your life to have a conversation with this week. Ask them about where their holy discontent resides. Share with them yours and begin to wonder about ways you can make a difference. March is water conservation month and I am wondering if there are two or three among you that would like to dream with me about ways we as a community might Plant a Sequoia tree in our water reality. We can know the children of the future will thirst and talk about it or we can work to change this reality a little bit at a time through educating, making changes in our lives, and being a parable community who demonstrates for the world the ways we can come together to make a difference. Let’s do it.

Let’s Plant Sequoia Trees!

With you on the journey, Michelle

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