Walking into the wisdom of change

Sunday’s Sermon:
2020 10 25 Alan Storey: Our first duty to the dead.
[Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Matthew 22:34-46]

 

Friends,

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:

Waiting

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,
glistening, beautiful

just as you are.

~ Leza Lowitz

Grace,
Alan

The speed of life

Friends,

Two photos of exactly the same river from exactly the same position at almost exactly the same time, yet so different. The different shutter speeds of the camera captures the same reality … differently. On the left the water is sharp and distinct, while the exact same water on the right, taken at a slower shutter speed, is smooth and misty like the first faint brushstrokes of undercoat.

This is a metaphor for our Covid-19 times. The speed of our living has changed. In fact, the speed of everything has been forced to change. This enables us to see the same reality differently. That which was a misty blur, is now seen sharply defined. For this reason, to site one example, some of us have been able to see or at least acknowledge the dehumanising inequality that exists within our society and world at large. It has always been dehumanisingly present, but it is easily ignored at a certain speed. The forced speed change of Covid-19 has sharply defined this inequality as well as the systems that create and perpetuate it. This sharpness pierced our conscience with the knowing that we are complicit in what is wrong with our world. It also crystallised our convictions about what justice demands. This is the painful ‘gift’ of Covid-19.

As the speed of our living slowly increases again (even though we have not reached peak Covid-19 death and devastation) the temptation will be to forget the reality we were enabled to see under Covid-19 lockdown-shutter-speed. It is this we must guard against. Therefore, I invite you to write down the reality that was revealed to you by lockdown-shutter-speed. Write down what you felt. Write down what you said you would never do again. Write down what you promised to start to do …, etc. In this way our living may honour Covid-19 time as a Kairos time. In this way the grief of Covid-19 may also be known to us and others as well the creation at large as a time of grace.

Grace,
Alan

P.S. I will be on leave for the next couple of weeks. The Sunday CMM Chats will continue with some wonderful facilitators. I encourage you to tune in at 11h11 each Sunday. Please email welcome@cmm.org.za for the zoom link if you would like to join. I am also glad to report that the restoration of the Sanctuary will soon be completed. Thank you for your continued generosity.

 

P.P.S. Remember Max the fruit seller that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago? Well Max is back, which means Church Street is filled with nourishing colour again. Foot traffic is still low, so if you’re in town please support him.

Thank you.

Hagar vs. Sarah, Abraham and God

Friends,

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 welcome@cmm.org.za

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.

Grace, Alan

 

The Story of Hagar

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:

Genesis 16; Genesis 21:1-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Email welcome@cmm.org.za for the Zoom link.

Grace, Alan

‘You are us.’

Prime Minister of New Zealand:

Jacinda Ardern

 

Photograph: Kirk Hargreaves, Christchurch City Council


Grace and peace to you

As we reflected last Sunday, after calling Herod a fox, Jesus cried: “Jerusalem Jerusalem … how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Luke 13)

Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern has lived this text into being this past week. In so doing she has shown the world what healthy, wise and strong leadership looks like. Ardern is not reading from a prepared script. She is simply honouring her heart and head – a heart that feels deeply and a head that is deeply thoughtful. Her own grief has set the tone for her nation’s grief. She articulates both her anger at the cause of grief and expresses her gentleness for the grieving. She rightly chooses to keep the spotlight on the loved ones of the deceased rather than the killer.

Ardern’s repeated words to the grieving: “You are us.”, are the most healing words she could possibly say. Spoken with the authority of a surgeon, she sews together with her words the truth that the killer attempted to shatter with his bullets. We are all one. These words at the same time expose the killer’s blindness and the blindness of Islamaphobia as well as all other forms of discrimination.

Without hesitation she has named the instrument (actually it’s an idol) – the gun – that when mixed with fear and hate, causes death on a massive scale. Simply put: she cares more about saving lives than a tiny group of people’s desire to own a firearm.

Prime Minister Ardern is a challenging sign of hope to us all.

Grace,
Alan


A story by Steve Mellon: “A woman approached the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh mostly unnoticed and carefully placed a bouquet of yellow flowers among the branches of a bush near the center’s concrete steps. She then crossed Bigelow Boulevard and sat on a stone retaining wall and wept.

She said she’d lost a family member when a man of hate entered the Tree of Life synagogue in October and gunned down people of faith. Now bullets had shattered lives at two New Zealand mosques.

The flowers and her quiet, anony- mous presence were gestures of solidarity with the Muslim community, she said. When a man at the mosque learned of the woman’s presence, he briefly held his hand to his heart, then crossed the street to chat with her.

Moments later, he guided her back across Bigelow Boulevard, up the concrete steps, and into the center’s lobby. The man offered the woman a chair and introduced her to others then gathering for traditional Friday prayers.

In the sunlit room, people of different faiths gathered in a small circle and shared stories of pain and sadness and strength and hope.”

@Stevemellon412

Plant gardens when others plant bombs

Grace to you

Two weeks back I recommended some Advent-time reading. During Advent-time our imaginations are stretched to include the possibilities of a world where the poor are prioritised and not persecuted and suggested that Tomatoes and Taxi Ranks will help us in this reorientation of our priorities. Advent-time is also most beautifully and powerfully honoured by those who dare to “prefigure” a hoped-for-future in the present. This is wonder-fully captured by a war photojournalist by the name of Lalage Snow in her book: War Gardens – A journey through conflict in search of calm.

Snow honours Advent-time by refusing to deny the horrors of war while at the same time exposing people’s stubbornness against despair as expressed through their daring and caring acts of garden planting.

While interviewing one restorer of gardens in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Snow got the sense that they “were effectively tidying up after two decades of chaos, the conflict erupting around them and all the trappings which skip alongside war were merely an annoyance rather than an existential threat. The restoration almost belittles the war. It says, ‘OK, you guys carry on fighting, we’ve got more important things to sort out.’ If war is anxious, uncertain and terrifying, gardens are the antithesis. They are solid worlds of hope and life, and their gardeners work at a cognitive distance from violence.”

In another interview, Mohammed Kabir is introduced as a gardener for the Kabul municipality. His garden is mostly for subsistence living – beans, potatoes, okra. Snow writes: “’But what about the flowers?’ I point at the messy square of colour in the middle of the courtyard. ‘Well’, Kabir says, ‘I just decided to bring some seeds from my home and plant them in the courtyard. The soldiers helped me to dig and water. I am an old man,’ he reminds me. I ask him why he would make a garden in the ruins of a forgotten palace where only the military and the ghosts will see it. He looks at me as if I’ve asked him to count up to three. ‘Everyone needs a garden. This is our soil. When you work with it, things grow. It’s nature, life. I am a poor man, sometimes my family and I only eat once a day, but I can live without food; I couldn’t live without seeing green leaves and flowers. They come from heaven. Each one,’ he insists ‘is a symbol of paradise. I have a flower in my garden at home and have counted seventy colours in its petals; tell me that it doesn’t come from heaven!’ he exclaims… ‘Since starting this garden I feel I am getting younger. Every tree, every plant, every flower gives me energy.’

Alexi lives in Donetsk in the Ukraine and declares: ‘Tonight I will sleep in the shelter in the ground like my plants.’ While Hamidullah in Parwan, Afghanistan explains: ‘I had a friend in the army, an officer. He was like a brother to me. He was killed, fighting, about a year and a half ago. I was so sad. I … I couldn’t sleep for grief. I tried to garden to forget him but in the end, I planted to remember him and when one grew, it was like I had a new friend.’

Advent-time is planting a garden when others are planting bombs.

Grace,
Alan

We praise you, God

Invitation to Prayer

God, whose word spoke life and creativity into a formless universe,
and order to a nation of escaped slaves,
whose strong and compassionate voice challenged injustice through frail prophets,
we praise you.

Jesus, whose touch smoothed the broken skin of lepers,
and brought a bleeding woman back to health and belonging,
whose hand raised dead girls, and refused to throw stones at prostitutes,
we praise you.

Spirit, whose breath restores souls and bodies, and whose presence comforts the grieving,
whose fire ignites compassion within us for the healing of the nations,
we praise you.

In the noise of voices calling for revenge, judgement and punishment,
we pray for the courage to speak out for restoration.

When pain, poverty and persecution leave people blind to grace and compassion,
we pray for the courage to carry the light of love and forgiveness.

Where the quest to even the score has left our world angry and wounded,
we pray for the courage to release our grievances and seek wholeness for all.

As you intercede for us, Jesus, we intercede for our world that all may know
the Good News of restoration in Christ.

God of wholeness, we celebrate the healing you bring
to us and our world, and we celebrate the promised
wholeness that awaits all of creation in your eternal reign.

God of restoration, in our blindness and ignorance,
you open our eyes and lead us to truth;

in our arrogance and defiance, you still our souls and teach us humility;
in our weakness and displacement, you protect us and lead us home;
While we deserve only judgement and the heavy burden of paying our debts,
you offer us grace, and the hope of life renewed.

And so we praise you
and thank you,
with all our hearts. Amen.

~ Nicole Terblanche

 

God, love us into loving

Grace and Peace

Utterly Loving God – lover of the world – lover of all of humanity. Please love us into loving.
Your love is without limit.
Your love is faithfully consistent.
Your love is flexible and firm and supple and strong like water – able to flow through or around the failings of those you love: saturating and surrounding our failure with your forgiveness.

Your love is free but it is not cheap. It costs you rather than us, the recipient. We love only because you have first loved us. In our loving your love is ever expanding and stretching and growing.

Your love has no favourites. Your love is for all – yet with special attention on those who need it most because we falsely believe we least deserve it. Like water, your love follows the gravity of our guilt – pooling itself in the lowest parts of our beings – the most desperate and deprived, depraved and debauched areas of our lives – and there your love slowly swirls and invites us to wash – to bathe – to be baptised – to be refreshed and renewed.

We confess we struggle to love. What we call love is often not very loving. Often it is nothing more than petty ego-centric acts of manipulation – brittle and easily offended – all the while being offensive and brutish.

You invite us to love our enemies – yet we even struggle to love our lovers – the people we share a name with … a home, a table, a bed, a past, present and future. We swing between smothering closeness and isolating distance … between caring and controlling. We betray promises – we lie – we break commitments – we slice each other with cold silence. We punish each other with our perfect recall of each other’s mistakes. We judge and we condemn and we hold to ransom. We speak in demands rather than requests. Gentleness forsakes our tone and sometimes our touch. We get bored with each other – stuck in confined corners void of curiosity for each other. Our imagination for something new becomes dull and dead – and the ability to start over seems beyond impossible so we either run away or we cynically settle into our discomfort.

Utterly loving God open us to be loved by you – that you will grow our trust in your love – so that we may be reminded again that we are indeed lovely and lovable. Unless we awaken to this truth of being born in love, by love and for love, you know that we will struggle to love those around us, as we will forever be casting them in our unlovable image.

Utterly loving God, please love us into loving today.
Amen.

Come home

Grace and peace

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.
Grace,
Alan

Grace that won’t let you go

Delayed and cancelled Cape Town trains
are a time bomb waiting to explode.

Grace to you

There are some verses of scripture that are literally bursting with Gospel meaning. They are squeezed full of faith, hope and love. They overflow with justice, mercy and humility. They act as single summaries of all sacred words ever written. They remain ever before us calling us into the depths of living and never to be ticked off the list of completed tasks.

These verses of scripture are more demanding and more haunting than others. Not because they are difficult to comprehend. Rather, because they are so profoundly simple to understand. Their simplicity is what burdens us with the responsibility to act on them because we can’t pretend to not know what they mean. Therefore we have no excuse not to allow them to shape our living. An example of such a verse is when Jesus says: “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” [Matt 25:40].

This verse is easy to understand. It is clear what Jesus is saying: Our action for or against those whom society names or treats as the least is at one and the same time our action for or against Jesus. How we treat the vulnerable and marginalised of society is how we treat Jesus. If we love Jesus and long to honour Jesus we must love the scorned and honour the stigmatised. To ignore the despised is to ignore Jesus. This is true regardless of whether we pray daily with Jesus’ name on our lips.

In response to this we probably need to be reminded of what G.K. Chesterton said about our faith:

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

It is difficult! We will need grace upon grace for this journey. Grace that reminds us that we are loved regardless of our struggle to love. Grace forgives our failures inviting us to try and try again. But also the fierce grace that refuses to let us off the hook. As Father Joseph Wresinski writes about grace:

“Grace is God getting hold of you and making you love others to the point of wanting them to be greater than you, better, more intelligent than you. Grace is the love that sees others as equal and wants them to be happier than oneself; that wants others at any price to love fully, with all their heart. It is God who goads us into wanting others to be able to free the world from poverty, and therefore from injustice, war, and hatred. God leads us where we do not want to go. Grace is “more”, knowing that we are not just a distant reflection of God, but that the Lord is permanently present and living in us.”

May this grace get hold of us all,
Alan