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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com
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.
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:
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for the Zoom link.
The Prophet Isaiah was right when he declared: “and a little child shall lead them”. [Isa. 11:6] Greta Thunberg the 16 year old from Sweden is leading the world at the moment. We either listen to her and live, or we don’t listen to her and we die. Her talks are short and simple a bit like Jesus – stating the obvious that most are too afraid to mention – especially those in power. Here is part of her latest speech to the European Union. She brilliantly flips the accusation of who really are the naïve, the irresponsible and who needs to do their homework:
“Tens of thousands of children are school striking for the climate on the streets of Brussels. Hundreds of thousands are doing the same all over the world. We are school-striking because we have done our homework. People always tell us that they are so hopeful – they are hopeful that the young people are going to save the world, but we are not. There is simply not enough time to wait for us to grow up and become the ones in charge because by the year 2020 we need to have bended the emissions curve steep downwards – that is next year.
We know that most politicians don’t want to talk to us – good – we don’t want to talk to them either. We want them to talk to the scientists instead. Listen to them, because we are just repeating what they are saying and have been saying for decades. We want you to follow the Paris agreement and the IPCC report. We don’t have any other manifesto or demands – unite behind the science – that is our demand.
When many politicians talk of the school strike for the climate – they talk about almost anything except the climate crisis. Many people are trying to make the school strikes a question of whether we are promoting truancy or whether we should go back to school or not. They make up all sorts of conspiracies and call us puppets who cannot think for ourselves. They are desperate to try and remove the focus from climate crisis and change the subject. They don’t want to talk about it because they know that they cannot win this fight, because they know they haven’t done their homework, but we have.
Once you have done your homework you realise that we need new politics. We need new economics where everything is based on a rapidly declining and extremely limited remaining carbon budget. But that is not enough. We need a whole new way of thinking. The political system that you have created is all about competition. You cheat when you can because all that matters is to win, to get power. That must come to an end. We must stop competing with each other. We need to co-operate together and to share the resources of the planet in a fair way. We need to start living within the planetary boundaries and focus on equity and take a few steps back for the sake of all living species. We need to protect the biosphere, air, the oceans, soil, and the forests.
This may sound very naïve, but if you have done your homework then you know that we don’t have any other choice. We need to focus every inch of our being on climate change because if we fail to do so all our achievements and progress have been for nothing, and all that will remain of our political leaders’ legacy will be the greatest failure of human history and they will be remembered as the greatest villains of all time because they have chosen not to listen and not to act.
This does not have to be. There is still time. According to the IPCC report we are about 11 years away from where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control. To avoid that, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society need to have taken place within this coming decade, including a reduction of our CO2 emissions by at least 50% by the year 2030, and please note that those numbers do not include the aspect of equity which is absolutely necessary for the Paris Agreement to work on a global scale. Nor do they include tipping points or feedback loops like extremely powerful methane gas released from the thawing arctic permafrost. They do however, include negative emissions techniques of a huge planetary scale that is yet to be invented and many scientists fear will never be ready in time and will anyway be impossible to deliver at the scale assumed.
We have been told that the EU intends to improve its emissions reduction target. In the new target the EU is proposing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 45% below 1990’s level by 2030. Some people say that is good or that is ambitious but this new target is still not enough to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This target is not sufficient to protect the future for children growing up today. If the EU is going to make its fair contribution to stay within the carbon budget for the 2 degree limit then it needs a minimum of 80% reduction by 2030 and that includes aviation and shipping, so around twice as ambitious as the current proposal.
The actions required are beyond manifestos or any party politics. Once again they sweep their mess under the carpet for our generation to clean up and solve. Some people say we are fighting for our future, but that is not true, we are not fighting for our future – we are fighting for everyone’s future. And if you think that we should be in school instead then we suggest that you take our place in the streets striking from your work or better yet, join us so we can speed up the process.
And I am sorry but saying that everything will be alright and continue doing nothing at all is just not hopeful to us, in fact it is the opposite of hope and yet this is exactly what you keep doing. You can’t just sit around and wait for hope to come, then you are acting like spoiled irresponsible children. You don’t understand that hope is something you have to earn and if you still say we are wasting valuable lesson time then let me remind you that our political leaders have wasted decades through denial and inaction. And since our time is running out we have decided to take action. We have started to clean up your mess and we will not stop until we are done.”
John the Baptiser heard the call to “prepare the way for the Lord”. His scriptural instructions were: to smooth the potholed path, to lower the mountainous path and to make straight the crooked path. Sounds like the construction business – road construction to be precise. This is difficult work – hot work – hard work – thankless work – anonymous work … and if you don’t believe me ask yourself when last you ever stopped to get to know and show appreciation for those who disturb the flow of traffic in order to reconstruct a highway or build a bridge?
On 5 December (the anniversary of Mandela’s death as well as Sobukwe’s birth) I spent the night on Robben Island. Pilgrimaging through the cells, I was struck by how many of the political prisoners I had never heard of. Some of them stayed on Robben Island even longer than Mandela! Truly the social con-struction business of preparing the way of the Lord – which is the way of justice, gentleness, generosity, truth, mercy, integrity, radical inclusion, etc. – is often a thankless and anonymous task that demands huge courage and deep humility.
All photographs are of political prisoners on Robben Island are photos of John the Baptiser with different names.
Gloria Anzaldúa describes 7 spaces or stages on the path of awareness and growth. They don’t necessarily follow in a neat order one after each other – but I find them helpful to locate my constantly changing self on this journey we call life. I especially love the paradoxical nature of the 7th stage. Here they are:
1st Space/Stage: “Rupture, fragmentation…an ending. It is a catalyst, a deeply emotional and spiritual moment of dissonance and disconnection from your established worldview and your established self-view.”
2nd Space/Stage: “Torn between ways … split between before and after … you’re two people … the space in between or in the middle … is the space of seeing multiple, frequently contradictory perspectives having been torn from a comfortable, single, stable story.”
3rd Space/Stage: “Overwhelmed by chaos caused by living between stories you break down descending into the third space – the depths of despair – self-loathing and hopelessness – with the temptation to turn away and deny possibilities and new realities.”
4th Space/Stage: “Here you begin to see the possibilities of rebirth. That nothing is fixed. The pulse of existence, the heart of the universe is fluid. Identity, like a river, is always changing. Like a river downstream, you’re not the same person you were upstream. You begin to define yourself in terms of who you are becoming, not who you have been. This space is the call to action which pulls you out of your depression.”
5th Space/Stage: “Intellectual, emotional and spiritual awareness come together as you critically examine and deconstruct all “shoulds” and imposed stories from the dominant culture. Here the development of a new story takes shape and the process of active transformation is discernable.”
6th Space/Stage: “You offer your ‘new’ story to the world, testing it. When you or the world fail to live up to your ideals you are cast into conflict with yourself and others. What takes a bashing is not so much you but the idea/picture of who you think you are, an illusion you’re hell-bent on protect-ng. This feels like a death-threat on your bodily integrity – a body perceived as a container separating the self from other people and other forms of knowledge. New insights threaten your sense of what’s “real” when it’s up against what’s “real” to the other. But it is precisely this threat that triggers transformation.”
7th Space/Stage: Home as bridge. You realise that ‘home’ is that bridge, the in-between place and of constant transition, the most unsafe of all spaces. Bridging is the work of opening the gate to the stranger, within and without. To step across the threshold is to be stripped of the illusion of safety because it moves us into unfamiliar territory and does not grant safe passage. To bridge is to attempt community, and for that we must risk being open to personal, political, and spiritual intimacy, to risk being wounded. Effective bridging comes from knowing when to close ranks to those outside our home, group, community, nation—and when to keep the gates open.”
Here is a link to a fuller article.
It is good to remember that the word for religion in Latin means link or bridge. Religion is meant to assist us in this bridging work – this home-coming work. It is meant to enable us to occupy unfamiliar spaces and to attempt community.
One of the psalms set for today is Psalm 107. It is a “redemption song” that recounts the myriads of occasions of the Lord’s steadfast love delivering a despairing people. A people lost, wandering aimlessly in desert wastes. A people hungry and thirsty, about to faint with fatigue. A people sitting in darkness, unable to see and stand. A people locked in leg irons, prisoner to the past in the present. A people broken and bent by hard labour. A people sick and dying of disease. A people tossed about on stormy seas drenched in fear. But then, interspersed between the trauma and tragedy the psalmist sings: “They then cried to the Lord in their trouble, and the Lord saved them from their distress. Let them thank the Lord for the Lord’s steadfast love and wonderful works to humankind.”
This redemption song was sung to en-courage all the despairing to doggedly resist their despair. To ‘vasbyt’ and keep the faith, the hope and the love when doubt, despair and fear monopolised the evidence on hand. Singing of redemption past was more than a mere act of memory. It was a protest. It was to re-member it to the now. To sing of redemption past was to subversively plant redemption into the soil of the present that would break open a new future.
Redemption may sound like a religious word to our modern-day ears but long ago it meant being set free for the sake of the just-ordering of society where everyone had enough and none was superior or inferior to the other.
As we witness “things fall apart …” in our present days, one redemption song we must not tire to sing into the present is that of our Constitution. Yes, our Constitution is a redemption song. The preamble of which encapsulates so succinctly and contextually the gospel’s call for redemption: the just and merciful ordering of society. It was written in the wake of what many called a miracle. A miracle because many thought it was impossible. As it was written before the cement of what was possible and impossible could set, it calls us to imagine again what some have stopped believing is possible in SA today: a truly just land and healed people. God’s steadfast love has not given up on us. Our past tells us the impossible is possible…again…and again. We must keep singing our redemption song:
We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso.
God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa.
Mudzimu fhatutshedza Afurika.
Hosi katekisa Afrika.
I have been trying to rest but now it is not the time for me to retreat.
I have been singled out as a troublemaker by those that would have me go quiet. I have been accused of extreme ill-discipline for standing for what I believe.
Whilst many of my comrades support me some have come after me, accused me of sedition as they have chosen to side with those that would hurt me, our movement and indeed murder of our nation.
I made a conscious decision when these death threats began that if indeed death was to be my reward then I was not going to die silently.
Many of our comrades have died silently – the memory of a young woman who dared to “cry rape” against a powerful man lingers in the atmosphere, even as she was banished to die a silent death.
Our comrades have dropped like flies in Richmond, Umzimkhulu and other areas – the deaths amount to over 80 in total; yet before even one person has been brought to justice for the merciless killing of our comrades, it is me that they would want to exact their sinister justice on. Yet, why should I die silently? Why should my body be added to those who have died innocently and keep quiet about it? Many of my comrades died while remaining silent, many of my comrades will die silently still, (especially as December approaches) yet those who accuse me have done nothing about it. They have let our dead comrades down, now they come for those of us who are alive. They can’t kill us all. Let them label me but I for one have made my mind up, I will not go quietly into the night. The death threats continue.
Makhosi Busisiwe Khoza
20 July 2017
There is a modern day parable about a Monastery that had fallen on hard times…basically the old monks were dying without being replaced by the next generation. So the Abbot of the Monastery goes to visit a Rabbi who occasionally retreated at a hut deep in the forest. The Abbot asks for advice but the Rabbi says he has none to give…except a parting comment about “the messiah is among you” or as some versions say, “the messiah is one of you”. As the parable goes the monks begin to relate to each other in new and wonder-full ways…all due to the possibility that one of them may be the messiah. And slowly the monastery is revitalised with a new Spirit and this begins to attract the interest of visitors to the area.
As a parable there are beautiful meanings we can draw from it, not least we learn that often it is our parting or throw away comments that land and take greatest effect.
At other times when we go looking for guidance we find the Rabbi is absent and the destined forest hut unoccupied. Its emptiness enlarges our own sense of emptiness and its vacancy adds to our lost-ness.
With time and with grace we may be nourished in the emptiness or with more time and lots more grace, the emptiness itself may be transformed into nourishment. It is impossible to explain, a bit like water into wine.
For the passing comments that have given us new life – let us be grateful. And for the nourishment within emptiness and nourishment of emptiness – let us bow.
Here is a poem that invites us to trust if we find the forest hut empty…
A wanderer comes at last
to the forest hut where it was promised
someone wise would receive him.
And there’s no one there; birds and small animals
flutter and vanish, then return to observe.
No human eyes meet his.
But in the hut there’s food,
set to keep warm beside glowing logs,
and fragrant garments to fit him, replacing
the rags of his journey,
and a bed of heather from the hills.
He stays there waiting. Each day the fire
is replenished, the pot refilled while he sleeps.
He draws up water from the well,
writes of his travels, listens for footsteps.
Little by little he finds
the absent sage is speaking to him,
This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way – startled –
I find I have heard you. When I need it,
a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand, inscribed by yours: messages
until I would listen.
“The Spirits Appeased” by Denise Levertov