Understanding Apathy

Friends,

One of the people I return to over and over again for clarity of thought is Joanna Macy. She writes plainly:

“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. We are assaulted by news of tornadoes and hurricanes, fleeing refugees, an entire village buried in mudslides, thousands of bodies under the rubble, another species lost, another city bombed. Our planet is sending us signals of distress that are so continual now they seem almost normal. Reports proliferate about the loss of cropland and the spreading of hunger, toxins in the air we breathe and the water we drink, the die-off of plant and animal species. 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… In the face of what is happening, how do we avoid feeling overwhelmed and just giving up?” [World as Lover, World as Self p17-19]

Deep into her book she reminds me that our pain and despair for all that is going on in the world is our hope. Yes, our pain is our hope. Our despair is our hope. Why? Well, I guess because it means we can still feel. And if we can still feel it means that we are still alive. And if we are still alive it means there is hope. Much more despairing is an inability to feel despair. As Macy writes:

“Have we ceased to care what happens to life on earth? It can look that way. Activists decry public apathy. The cause of our apathy, however, is not indifference. It stems from a fear of the despair that lurks beneath the tenor of life-as-usual. Sometimes it manifests in dreams of mass destruction, and is exorcised in the morning jog and shower or in the public fantasies of disaster movies. Because of social taboos against despair and because of fear of pain, it is rarely acknowledged or expressed directly. It is kept at bay. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurrent response, produces a partial numbing of the psyche. Expressions of anguish or outrage are muted, deadened as if a nerve had been cut.

The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. It not only impoverishes our emotional and sensory life – flowers are dimmer and less fragrant, our loves less ecstatic – but also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies. Fear of despair erects an invisible screen, filtering out anxiety-provoking data. In a world where organisms require feedback in order to adapt and survive, this is suicidal. Now, when we most need to measure the effects of our acts, our attention and curiosity slacken as if we are already preparing for the Big Sleep. Doggedly attending to business-as-usual, we’re denying both our despair and our ability to cope with it.

So it’s good to look at what apathy is, to understand it with respect and compassion. Apatheia is a Greek word that means, literally, non-suffering. Giving its etymology, apathy is the inability or refusal to experience pain. What is the pain we feel – and desperately try not to feel – in this planet-time? It is of another order altogether that what the ancient Greeks could have known; it pertains not just to privations of wealth, health, reputation or loved ones, but to losses so vast we can hardly name them. It is pain for the world.

Pain for the world is not only natural, it is a necessary component of our healing. As in all organisms, pain has a purpose: it is a warning signal, designed to trigger remedial action. It is not to be banished by injections of optimism or sermons on “positive thinking”. It is to be named and validated as a healthy, normal human response to the situation we find ourselves in. Faced and experienced, its power can be used. As the frozen defenses of the psyche thaw, new energies and intelligence are released.

The problem lies not with our pain for the world, but in our repression of it. Our efforts to dodge or dull it surrender us to futility …

The prospect of uncovering our innermost feelings about what is happening in our world is daunting. How to confront what we scarcely dare to think? How to face such grief and fear and rage without going to pieces?

It is good to realise that falling apart is not such a bad thing. Indeed, it is as essential to evolutionary and psychological transformations as the cracking of outgrown shells. Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski calls it “positive disintegration”.” [World as Lover, World as Self p 94-95]

In the sermon last week we touched on the language of Lament. Lament is the language that honours despair and therein lies its hope. By reading the book of Lamentations and many of the Psalms may our tongues be loosened to lament.

In grace,
Alan

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Why we worship

The Cellists of Sarajevo

 

Friends,

We become what we worship, so it says in the Psalms:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but they do not speak;
they have eyes, but they do not see;
they have ears, but they do not hear,
and there is no breath in their mouths.
Those who make them and all who trust them
shall become like them. [Psalm 135:15-18]

Therefore, all the more reason for us to be deliberately conscious of who/what we worship. The tricky part is that there can obviously be a difference between who/what we say we worship and who/what we actually worship. As Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord…” Jesus also said that we have a tendency to worship both God and money and that this is practically impossible. It is either one or the other, says Jesus.

In other words, attending “Church” is not necessarily “proof” of the focus of our worship. Perhaps a more accurate measure is what we spend our money and time on. That said, to the extent that our weekly practice of worship is authentic, is to the extent that we will be transformed into the likeness of the One we worship. Last week we were reminded that God is a lover of the poor and a lover of justice and therefore one measure of the authenticity of our weekly worship is whether our love for the poor is deepening and our love for justice is strengthening. May this be so.

In grace,
Alan

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– WB Yeats

Bread and Roses

Dedicated to the belief that the world and its abundance belongs to all of us — not only to a privileged few:

Bread and Roses was a poem and song that emerged during the women’s millworker strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. Women were fighting for fair wages, child labour laws, overtime pay, fair working conditions. Part of their strike proclamation read:

We, the 20,000 textile workers of Lawrence, are out on strike for the right to live free from slavery and starvation; free from overwork and underpay; free from a state of affairs that had become so unbearable and beyond our control, that we were compelled to march out of the slave pens of Lawrence in united resistance against the wrongs and injustice of years and years of wage slavery.”

This song came to mind recently because of the workers who are fighting for jobs, and for their union bargaining rights — fighting against the rich and powerful who seem to be trying to make workers and labour unions the enemy. My heart goes out to all who struggle for bread and roses.

As we go marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,

For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

 As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead,
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew,
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race,
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,

 But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

 – John Oppenheim

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The Purple Shall Govern

Picture from the Exhibition

 

Friends,

There is a hidden treasure right on our doorstep and yet many do not know of it. This treasure is as inspiring as it is challenging. I am referring to the exhibition entitled: Truth to Power by the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. You will find it at The Old Granary Building – two blocks down from the District Six Museum on Buitenkant Street. The Old Granary itself is an artform to behold – and no less so since it has been transformed to house the Tutu Peace Centre.

“The Truth to Power exhibition is a comprehensive showcase of the life and legacy of the late Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. It aims to foster the values of Desmond and Leah Tutu among the youth, and to inspire a new generation of leaders who will build peace and justice in South Africa and the world.

The exhibition is divided into six themes which chart Tutu’s life within the context of the painful history of South Africa under Apartheid, where the Archbishop remains the gold thread of hope, outspokenness, faith and healing. It includes his ongoing activism in the democratic South Africa and sets the challenge to all of us to take on his baton of courageous leadership and unwavering values.”

The Six Themes of the Exhibition

Theme 1.               Apartheid Education: The Most Evil Act of All.
Theme 2.               The Struggle in the Church: Fighting a False Gospel.
Theme 3.               Faith in Action: The Campaign for Sanctions.
Theme 4.               Protest and Peace Making: In the Streets and Stadiums.
Theme 5.               Unfinished Business: Tutu, Truth and Reconciliation.
Theme 6.               TU + TU = Freedom.

The Purple Shall Govern

Included in the exhibition is a photo-reminder of the Apartheid police spraying protesters with a water canon of purple dye –
effectively tagging all protesters present (as well spraying the Central Methodist Mission on 2 September 1989). This gave rise to the ingenious graffiti “The Purple Shall Govern”.

I highly recommend taking the time to visit this exhibition. It is not only an important reminder of our recent history, but a beautiful witness of a good and faithful life. Both this important reminder and beautiful witness invite us to surrender our lives into the service of justice and mercy.

With grace,
Alan

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Faith and Finance

Friends,

Last week my colleagues and I gathered for our Spring Seminar in Paarl. The theme was: Faith and Finance: Towards a Christ-like Theology of Money. It took the form of 15 TEDx-like presentations, followed by group discussions. Motivated by at least two reasons: 1) In the Gospels Jesus speaks more about money matters than just about any other topic, yet very often the only time ‘the church’ speaks about money is when it needs/wants money – as opposed to helping people live justly and mercifully with money, as was the focus of Jesus’ teaching. 2) We live in the most unequal country in all the world and a country where corruption – the theft of astronomical amounts of money is endemic – by people, it must be said, who are not strangers to the pews within our churches. No doubt 1) and 2) are somehow related.

The seminar was both an enlightening and a startling experience to hear how diverse our theology of money is – and this from a group of 50 odd clergy from within the same denomination. One of the troubling unquestioned assumptions that underpinned many presentations was that giving to God = giving to church. This is a dangerous equation – whether implicitly or explicitly stated. It is simplistic and potentially a very manipulative teaching that has more to do with the sustainability of a religious institution (and pastor’s income) than the practice of Jesus’ justice and mercy. We certainly have work to do as the Methodist Church of Southern Africa to develop a Christ-shaped theology of economics for justice and mercy to be more fully known within the church and society at large.

Little wonder then that John Wesley – the founder of the Methodist Movement – emphasised money matters as Jesus did. It was a consistent theme of his preaching and personal practice. Sadly, when it came to money and Methodists, Wesley was concerned. The conundrum for Wesley was: “… the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently, they increase in goods. Hence, they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.”

It was with this conundrum in mind that Wesley lamented: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” (Aug. 4, 1786).

Wesley further lamented that even his sermon on “The Use of Money” that he had preached (and re-preached) had been ignored, if not totally misinterpreted. The sermon included the following catchy points: “Gain all you can, save all you can and give all you can”.

Not one to mince his words, Wesley later wrote: “Of the three rules which are laid down … you may find many that observe the first rule, namely, ‘Gain all you can.’ You may find a few that observe the second, ‘Save all you can.’ But how many have you found that observe the third rule, ‘Give all you can’? Have you reason to believe that 500 of these are to be found among 50,000 Methodists? And yet nothing can be more plain than that all who observe the first rules without the third will be twofold more the children of hell than ever they were before.”

Remembering that to give to God is not to be equated to giving to Church, we must therefore not reduce “Give all you can” – to what we contribute to the Sunday offertory. Rather, to give to God is to give in such a way that the poor will hear good news. This means the focus of all our generosity is to bend the structures of society towards justice while at the same time mercifully caring for those wounded and marginalised within society. There are many avenues that invite our contributions to do justice and love mercifully within society at large. I believe one of the most Godly avenues of ‘give all you can’ is education – starting with pre-school education all the way through to university. Education gives life! Education really is a gift that keeps on giving – for generations! Here is a prayer we can pray: “Jesus, give me opportunities to give towards a person’s education. Amen.”

With grace,
Alan

P.S. In today’s sermon we will reflect on one of the many parables Jesus shared about economics. We will see how this parable alone was enough to get Jesus killed by the authorities. We will see how Luke’s Gospel (and I would argue – the entire Bible) is best understood as an economic textbook rather than a religious book.

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Daniel Erlander

 

                 

Friends,

Dan Erlander, the artist-author of MANNA and MERCY: A brief history of God’s unfolding promise to mend the entire universe, died last Sunday. I join many whose hearts are filled with grief and gratitude for his life-giving living.

I remember the first time I came across MANNA and MERCY. It was a ring-bound copy that my dad had been given in the early-to-mid 90s. I read it in one go and thought it was sheer brilliance and so I started using it in retreats from 1996. It was hands down the best thing I had ever read and I am convinced that it’s Jesus’ favourite version of the bible J. I am convicted and disturbed and inspired every time I open MANNA and MERCY – which is often!

All of Dan’s work reveals his astounding ability to draw the big picture of God’s dream for the universe small enough for us to digest. With clarifying and humorous simplicity Dan would hold the radical challenge of Jesus’ liberating ways before us – so simply drawn and described that none of us can ever use the excuse that we do not understand what Jesus is on about. Unlike much of what passes as “Christianity” today, Dan resisted the temptation to dilute Jesus’ message of ‘justice and mercy for all’ to make it more palatable for our individualistically indoctrinated lives and consumer driven society (and church) to swallow. Dan truly trusted that the so-called “hard sayings of Jesus” – the one’s we usually wish-to-God Jesus never said – about loving money too much and loving enemies too little – was not only good news but also the only way of living life that would save Life on planet earth.

In MANNA and MERCY we are called to face our “BIG DEAL” tendencies and our addiction to building our piles of stuff into bigger and Bigger piles of stuff. Basically, what the world calls success – the scriptures call suicide. In the space of just two simple drawings, Dan showed how the “Big DEALing” tendencies of our heart systematically shaped society and therefore Salvation demanded both confession on our knees and resistance on the streets to transform the hierarchical structures of privilege and power for a few into a banquet of fairness for all. Privilege and power that Dan showed was baptised by a type of religion that was in the pocket of the king and the supportive shadow of the military. True to his carrot (religion) and stick (military) analysis of what underpins oppressive power, Dan published BY FAITH ALONE – A LUTHERAN LOOKS AT THE BOMB in 1983, exposing the clear contradiction between the gospel and the “system called the arms race” and in which Dan humbly invites the reader: “As an American, I am part of a people who have been seduced into idolatry – we believe in the power of violence … and that is our darkness. Lord have mercy.”

As Dan calls us to break partnership with the BOMB (and all systems of violence in the world), he invites us to be YHWH’s Partner People. Fancy that – God decides to need us to bring healing and liberation in this world. What could be more humbling and affirming than this? What greater responsibility and privilege could there possibly be in this life?

And now I have really good news for you. Instead of a long sermon from me this morning, I will be reading a few short stories from another work of art by Dan – called: Tales of a Pointless People. Do I hear an Amen?

With gratitude for Dan – friend and teacher,
Alan

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