2021 02 28 Alan Storey: Hoping against Hope
To change, takes time. It is seldom, if ever, instant. This goes for individuals and society alike. Sure, we may be enlightened by something new in a split second, but we often miss the myriads of change receptors / ingredients that come before to make the change possible. Furthermore, authentic change demands a lengthy period of unlearning that requires grace and guilt and grace and truth and grace and work and grace and time and grace… This is not always communicated by motivational speakers or preachers. Sports coaches are probably more honest about the time and training that change demands!
Saul’s light blinding fall to the ground, voice-hearing, Damascus Road experience (Acts 9) is often falsely interpreted as “change in an instant”, but a closer reading reveals that it too took grace and time and … One prior change receptor / ingredient may have been Saul witnessing the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8). It also took a few days for Saul’s eyes to be opened and what is more, according to scholars, he spent a number of years living in communities like Antioch (Acts 11) before he started “being the change” and teaching the change.
The narrative of instant change sets us up with false expectations and ultimately for massive disappointment. The “name it and claim it in Jesus’ name” that is touted as a sign of “real faith” is not helpful. It is not helpful because it is not true. Singing praises to Jesus does not promise a quick fix. Just take a look at Peter and the rest of the disciples for proof: Jesus had three years with them and that was still not enough! Peter was still racist until Acts 10.
When we can embrace this truth about change and let go of the illusion of instant change / salvation then we may be able to be more truthfully present with who we are and simply with what is. The truthful acceptance of what is (free of denial, blame, wishes and should be’s) paradoxically unhooks us from what is and creating space for change.
Free from the quick fix illusion we may embrace a daily practice of acceptance rather than achievement. To give ourselves humbly to a practice (prayer, meditation, contemplation, art, walking …) that encourages us to be truthfully attentive to our lives and living and world.
The following poem describes the shift from a false to a truthful understanding of change:
You keep waiting for something to happen,
the thing that lifts you out of yourself,
catapults you into doing all the things you’ve put off
the great things you’re meant to do in your life,
but somehow never quite get to.
You keep waiting for the planets to shift
the new moon to bring news,
the universe to align, something to give.
Meanwhile, the pile of papers, the laundry, the dishes the job —
it all stacks up while you keep hoping
for some miracle to blast down upon you,
scattering the piles to the winds.
Sometimes you lie in bed, terrified of your life.
Sometimes you laugh at the privilege of waking.
But all the while, life goes on in its messy way.
And then you turn forty. Or fifty. Or sixty…
and some part of you realizes you are not alone
and you find signs of this in the animal kingdom —
when a snake sheds its skin its eyes glaze over,
it slinks under a rock, not wanting to be touched,
and when caterpillar turns to butterfly
if the pupa is brushed, it will die —
and when the bird taps its beak hungrily against the egg
it’s because the thing is too small, too small,
and it needs to break out.
And midlife walks you into that wisdom
that this is what transformation looks like —
the mess of it, the tapping at the walls of your life,
the yearning and writhing and pushing,
until one day, one day
you emerge from the wreck
embracing both the immense dawn
and the dusk of the body,
just as you are.
~ Leza Lowitz
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.
16763 ft (5109 m) above sea level | The highest point in Uganda
Grace to you
We know of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania – the highest summit in Africa, but have you heard of Rwenzori Mountain? I hadn’t until this week. It is Africa’s third highest summit and is situated on Uganda’s western border.
Within its shadow is the very poor and remote community of Kasese. Kasese is strung out between three national parks and dwarfed by Rwenzori Mountain. The mountain is capped with snow all year round and very significant to the Kesese people. So much so that they call themselves Banyarwenzururu i.e. people of the snow. (Banyarwen = people, Nzururu = snow)
The growing numbers of people in the village and their reliance on biomass and kerosene for cooking have been putting strain on the conservation area. They could see that, but what could they do? They don’t have electricity, because it was not feasible for the power companies in Uganda to supply them. Who would pay for the infrastructure and service especially with many household incomes literally being zero?
This was until the snow cap on their mountain started melting. This was very serious. With the snow gone they would lose their identity. So they decided to implement a plan for their area to become 100% Renewable. They created a community-owned Renewable Energy Power business and connected people in the village to the power grid. For remote areas they got funding from the WWF for standalone Solar Power systems. They got enough money for 4,000. They bought the systems and the community learnt to install it themselves. Then they charged the people a small fee every month similar to what they would have paid for kerosene. Now they have money to roll out another 17,000.
They now have LED streetlights, replacing the lamps they had and saving 50% in energy costs. All of this has created employment. They are planting trees, growing food through-out the year, and a host of other activities. Their case study is bringing people from all over the world to see what they are doing. By 2020 they want no more smoke hanging over the city. The mayor of Kasese (Godfrey Baluku Kabbyanga Kime) reminds the community and those from around the world who come to learn: “It’s from the small initiatives that we grow and develop the courage to tackle the larger ones”.
There are three lessons I learn from this:
- When we reaslise that our identity is interconnected to our environment (the snow) and that to lose or damage the environment is to lose and damage our humanity, then we will be more inclined to do something.
- [a] If the poorest of the poor can make this change there is no excuse for the wealthy. [b] Wealth may be our actual problem. Truly I tell you, it is easier for a solar panel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kin-dom of simple living.
- This is another “feeding of the 5000” story that invites us to trust “when a little is shared it becomes a lot”. When we start with the small initiatives the large problems get sorted.
Grace and peace to you and through you
One of the most beautiful things about Cape Town is the healthy religious diversity that flourishes among us. For some of us this religious diversity is planted within our own households. This is to be celebrated and cherished. To discover and learn from others what for them is sacred is a crucial part in honouring their humanity and loving them as our neighbour. This is especially so as we have just entered the month of Ramadan – a sacred time to Muslims of fasting for inner spiritual attunement.
At our Synod two weeks ago we were addressed by Mr Ebrahim Rhoda from the Strand Muslim community who shared with us a brief historical overview of the Strand Muslim community from between 1822 – 1966. In his talk he brought to our attention the relationship that early Methodists had with the early Muslim community. Some of the statements from the Methodist and other Christian clergy make you want to hide in shame. One missionary declared: “It has been my endeavour, within my humble sphere, to check this growing evil, but generally without success.” Another says, “With few exceptions they follow either a base, sinful course of life, or are ensnared by the awfully prevalent delusion of Mohammedanism.” From this we are reminded that we are often tempted to speak of another’s religion in the least charitable terms while taking a most generous view of our own. This is fueled by blind passion, hidden insecurity or both.
Rhoda also spoke of the great cooperation between Methodists and Muslims. One such story of collaboration resulted from a fishing disaster in which both Muslims and Methodists drowned. And from this we are reminded that shared suffering is often the knife that cuts through our shallow differences awakening us to our shared unity. Only when we know a person’s deepest hurt can we say that we know them.
There is a story of how Francis of Assisi (1181? – 1226) who rejected the call for war and instead during the Fifth Crusade went to meet Al-Kamil, a Kurdish ruler and Sultan of Egypt. His original intension was to convert the Sultan to Christianity but he left their time together with a profound sense that the Muslim Sultan was a person of God. Francis thereafter instructed his fellow monks to live at peace with Muslims with no need to convert them.
In these days where difference is often the basis for division may we learn to do difference differently. May difference be a lens through which we can learn and grow. And may we come to experience the mystery of how difference awakens us to our oneness at our depths.
In this may we hear Jesus say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” and a minute later he says, “They who keep my commandments are those who love me.” [John 14: 15 & 21]
The Sacrifice of Isaac ~ Rembrandt van Rijn 1635
Lover of the unlovable, we are captives of the world. Recapture our loyalties, not by defeating our will but by drawing it to yours. Seize our spirits, not by forcing us into your grasp but by freeing us from our ways of sin…
Our ears strain for the sound of you, our eyes for the sight of you; our hearts tremble in anticipation of your presence.
Make us your captives Lord. Amen.
E Tilson & P Cole
Last week while reflecting on the terrifying story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22) we referred to Rembrandt’s painting of the scene which he did in 1635 (above). This bold 6 feet by 4 feet painting was done by Rembrandt in his prime.
In the painting we see that Isaac takes up the full foreground/half-naked/pale in the light/stretched open/vulnerable/neck exposed. Abraham’s disproportionately large left hand covers Isaac’s entire face. It doesn’t just cover — it smothers in a life-threatening manner. Abraham looks startled and puzzled by the angel’s “put down” — almost saying to himself “now where did you come from and why are you interrupting me?” The angel catches Abraham just in time. The angel’s left hand is raised signalling “stop” or perhaps even in rebuke “what are you doing harming your boy?” while the other hand has forced Abraham to drop the knife which is left in mid-air.
We then contrasted this painting with a small etching (6 inches by 5 inches) that Rembrandt did of the same scene twenty years later. The etching was done after Rembrandt had married, lost three children in infancy, and lost his wife after she gave birth to their only child who lived to adulthood.
Rembrandt’s 1655 interpretation of the scene is vastly different to his early painting. Here we are able to see the love Abraham has for Isaac who is kneeling next to him/head almost on his lap/held close. Abraham gently covers Isaac’s eyes wanting to protect him from seeing what he was about to do. Perhaps most interestingly, Abraham is holding the knife in his left hand — his weaker hand — such is his painful reluctance to go through with the killing. The angel is embracing Abraham — there is no sense of reprimand or force — a comforting hold and you can almost hear the words: “it’s okay … everything is going to be okay … spare the boy”. The angel’s wingspan almost touches the frame and certainly aims to cover the full multitude of Abraham’s anguish. Abraham is relieved but he is also scarred — never to be the same again.
In the first it looks to me as if the angel is focused on saving Isaac and in the etching it looks like the angel is almost more focused on saving/comforting Abraham. Only this week did I notice that the first is called The Sacrifice of Isaac, while the etching is called The Sacrifice of Abraham.
As our life experiences change I hope we too will see the scriptures — especially those most familiar to us — in new ways. May we never hold onto one interpretation so tightly that we cannot receive another.
We read the Gospel as if we had no money,
and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the Gospel.
John Haughey – Virtue and Affluence: The Challenge of Wealth
Money is an emotionally-charged issue. Our feelings about money run deep. It is extremely difficult for many of us to speak openly and honestly about money. What we earn is often our best-kept secret (sometimes even from our spouse), assisted of course by the fact that many of us from a young age were taught that it is impolite to ever ask someone about their personal financial matters. Financial matters are deemed private. Yet, there are few other areas of our private lives that are as publicly influential.
This hesitancy to speak openly about money is equally prevalent among Christians as it is among any other group of people. This may not surprise us, but it should disturb us on at least two accounts.
First, it perpetuates the false belief that faith and finance have nothing to say to each other – as if they were meant to live in blissful independence of each other, seemingly replacing the old slogan: Politics and religion don’t mix.
Second, it differs remarkably from the testimony of Scripture and above all the example of Jesus, who it seems, couldn’t speak enough about money-matters. In fact, outside of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God, he spoke more about money-matters than any other topic.
“In the Old Testament, the subject of the poor is the second most prominent theme. Idolatry is the first, and the two are often connected. In the New Testament, one out of every sixteen verses is about the poor! In the Gospels, the number is one out of every ten verses; in Luke’s Gospel one of every seven, and in the book of James one of every five” (Wallis 1994:149).
The fact that Scripture is saturated with references to money-matters and that Jesus speaks about issues of wealth and poverty constantly throughout his ministry makes money a central concern of Christian spirituality. By Christian spirituality, I simply mean “living with Jesus at the centre” (Nouwen 1988:5). To live with Jesus at the centre is more than a commitment to a particular kind of lifestyle, it is the acceptance of and trust in “another reality” (Willard 1988:67).
Another reality that “celebrates a divine reality that pervades every aspect of our existence, where the harmony intended for the universe can already begin to be experienced” (Wink 1998:13).
To live with Jesus at the centre means that we accept and trust that the world really is the way Jesus described it to be. It means that we adopt Jesus’ operating assumptions about the nature of the universe. This means that vulnerable love, humble service, sacrificial generosity, bold gentleness, deep truth-telling, open and inclusive community, measureless mercy, justice for all, especially for the least are the truest expressions of God’s character, the construction of the universe and the core image of the human person. Christian spirituality calls us to live into and out of this reality. And this is the reality that we are called to honour in the relationship we have with our money.
Sadly the Church has a history of only speaking about money when it needs money itself. This has often been combined with the motivation (manipulation!) that “giving to the church is equal to giving to God”. Giving to God involves giving to the least — as Jesus said, “what you do to the least of these you do to me”. So to the extent that the Church (like any other group, organisation etc.) is being good news for the poor is to the extent that our giving may be equated to giving to God.
Just as the Gospel invites, commands, calls and reminds us to be more loving, truthful, gentle, fair etc. so the Gospel invites, calls, commands and reminds us to be more generous. Generous in creative and thoughtful ways that aim to partner God in sharing good news with the poor (all the vulnerable of the world) by healing this world of its injustice.
Live generously, Alan
You will further recall that at the Conference 2013 we focused on the theme: “TOGETHER a transforming discipleship movement,” and I am pleased with the reports of serious engagement of this theme around the connexion. This must be pleasing to the Lord. Resolution 2.36 on page 96 of the Yearbook 2014 further reads:
“Seeing that prayer is the heart of the life of discipleship, Conference resolves that Lent 2014 be set aside as a focused time of prayer for repentance which leads to discipleship and also about the social ills affecting our people at this time.”
My dear sisters and brothers, I urge you to take this request very seriously. I know that some local churches have already made some plans in this regard. This is not additional to your plans, but an integral part thereof. Please encourage all Methodist people to use this time for lament for ourselves; our communities and the whole of creation. Let us use the time to listen each other’s stories, asking God to open our hearts to each other’s pain, fears and hopes. May the God of Life help us all to be fully human – working TOGETHER against violence, hatred, abuse and lack of care for the vulnerable. We are a praying movement.
Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa: Ziphozihle D. Siwa
One of my favourite quotes from John Wesley is about preaching:
“Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”
As I write this I am stuck at JFK Airport in New York after a week of teaching in Yakima, Washington State. Apparently the aircraft is not fit to go so they’re putting us up in a hotel for the night. This unexpected day of doing nothing has given me an opportunity to chill a little in the relaxing sense which is a whole lot better than chilling in the snow — which I have also done on this trip. And no matter how often I travel I am never able to pack suitably for the cold when it is hot at home. It is difficult to dress for another climate. As it is difficult to live in the world and not of the world. As it is to live the Covenant Prayer we will pray today in a world of fearful selfishness.
On this day of “doing nothing” I have been reading a beautiful book of poetry by Mary Oliver called Thirst, and through her poems I am reminded again of what it means to live out our covenantal faith. She writes in
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird — equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…
Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth
and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling them all,
over and over, how it is that we live forever.
Another called, Musical Notation 1:
The physicality of the religious poets should not be taken idly. He or she, who loves God, will look most deeply into His works. Clouds are not only vapour, but shape, mobility, silky sacks of nourishing rain. The pear orchard is not only profit, but a paradise of light. The luna moth, who lives but a few days, sometimes only a few hours, has a pale green wing whose rim is like a musical notation. Have you noticed?
Another Mary Oliver poem called, When the Roses Speak, I Pay Attention:
“As long as we are able to
be extravagant we will be
hugely and damply
extravagant. Then we will drop
foil by foil to the ground. This
is our unalterable task, joyfully.”
And they went on, “Listen,
the heart-shackles are not as you think,
death, illness, pain,
unrequited hope, not loneliness, but
lassitude, rue, vainglory, fear, anxiety,
Their fragrance all the while rising
from their blind bodies, making me
spin with joy.
A Pretty Song:
From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.
Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.
Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.
And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song.
And I say to my heart: rave on.
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but a doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
To live out our covenantal faith we need the poet’s gift of attentiveness. To pay attention to the miracle of life that is saturated with holiness. “Our [covenant] work is to love the world … it’s mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…”
With gratitude, Alan