2021 03 07 Alan Storey
Checking our God
As the clock completes its annual circuit, we are invited to pause…
To pause to examine our lives. To go through each month of the past year – remembering what took place around us and within us. We do so without judgement and without the need to justify anything. We steer between the unhelpful cliffs of condemnation and complacency. Instead, we hold all things – all situations and all people in compassion. Compassion is the life-giving combination of grace and truth. Truth without grace can be mean, while grace without truth is meaningless. Together they convict and comfort (strengthen)… this frees us to make our confession (get real about our living).
We pray: Spirit of truth and grace come and convict and comfort me today, that I may get real about my living. Amen.
This past year:
These questions are simple signposts inviting us to explore a particular direction of our living. How far we would like to wander along each path is up to each of us…
Note: This time of pause is served best if we carve out unhurried time. We cannot “speed reflect” – like we may be able to speed read. We can only do 30 minutes reflection in 30 minutes – no more. If a question fails to connect with us straight away, we are invited to stick with it for a little longer …
Below are a few reflections from Augustine of Hippo. A person known for his confessions. The Augustine Confessions is, next to the Bible, the most widely read book in history. It is also the first autobiography as we know them. It is devoted to telling Augustine’s passionate journey of faith and life. We are invited to read and re-read his words – sensitive to what convicts and comforts us.
“Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so…
O eternal Truth, true Love, and beloved Eternity, you are my God, and for you I sigh day and night. As I first began to know you, you lifted me up and showed me that, while that which I might see exists indeed, I was not yet capable of seeing it. Your rays beamed intensely on me, beating back my feeble gaze, and I trembled with love and dread. I knew myself to be far away from you in a region of unlikeness, and I seemed to hear your voice from on high: “I am the food of the mature: grow, then, and you shall eat me. You will not change me into yourself like bodily food; but you will be changed into me”.
Accordingly, I looked for a way to gain the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.
Clear is your response, but not all hear it clearly. They all appeal to you about what they want, but do not always hear what they want to hear. Your best servant is the one who is less intent on hearing from you what accords with his own will, and more on embracing with his will what he has heard from you.
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you, they would not have been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
When at last I cling to you with my whole being there will be no more anguish or labour for me, and my life will be alive indeed, alive because filled with you. But now it is very different. Anyone whom you fill you also uplift; but I am not full of you, and so I am a burden to myself. Joys over which I ought to weep do battle with sorrows that should be matter of joy, and I do not know which will be victorious. But I also see griefs that are evil at war in me with joys that are good, and I do not know which will win the day.
This is agony, Lord, have pity on me! It is agony! See, I do not hide my wounds; you are the physician, and I am sick; you are merciful, I in need of mercy.”
2020 12 20 Alan Storey
Advent Evangelism: Graced to Grace 2
It seems that Covid-19’s second bite is bigger than its first bite. “The Western Cape has more cases confirmed in the second wave, than compared to the first wave.” This is according to Dr Keith Cloete, the Head of the Department of Health in the Western Cape. My own anecdotal evidence confirms this. I know far more people with COVID-19 during this second wave than I did during the first. I also know of more people this time around who have died, and others who are struggling in ICU.
As many have said, if we are not careful over this Christmas time this could be our last Christmas. For this reason, we will not be having any in-person services at CMM. Our services will remain via zoom, including Christmas Day at 10 am. We will re-assess this situation only when there is a marked reduction in the spread of COVID-19.
Please remember to wear a mask, wash hands and keep at least 1.5 m away from each other. This prevention trinity is the kindest thing we can do for each other at this time. In the short term this will remain true until we have all received the vaccine. In the medium to long term, if we do not radically change the way we humans do life on earth, we can expect more lethal and frequent pandemics in the future. The choice really is, change or die.
Tragically not everyone agrees with the science. Some think COVID-19 is a hoax and sadly only find out it is not when they struggle to breathe. We may debate each other, but reality does not debate. Reality reigns. Gravity will bring us down every time.
Equally disturbing are those who are anti-vaxxers. History shows that vaccines are nothing short of miraculous in the way they have reduced death rates. From the mandatory smallpox vaccination in the 19th century to the polio vaccine of about sixty years ago, the world has been spared much suffering. Yet from the beginning of vaccines there has been opposition by a minority for a number of reasons, many of which continue to motivate anti-vaxxers to this day. Namely:
We can go to the internet to find out the latest anti-vaccine theories and how they have been debunked, especially around the measles-mumps-rubella vaccines supposed link to autism. This continues to circulate even though it has long since been shown to have zero merit. With equal ease however, we can go to the internet to have any number of conspiracy theories validated. I guess this is a case of, “we will find whatever we are looking for”. This points to another deathly virus plaguing the world: the spread of misinformation.
Anti-vaxxers are not the only stumbling block to the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccination. Rich countries have placed hoarding orders (some countries have ordered up to six times more doses than their population size) making it almost impossible for poor countries to secure enough vaccines.
In the wilderness of old, the freshly freed slaves from Egypt learnt that hoarding stinks of death. When some have too much, others will have too little. One would therefore have hoped that we would have learnt something from COVID-19, that we are all interdependent, and that we are only as healthy as the sickest among us, but sadly not.
It reminds me of the story of the 10 lepers who were healed by Jesus and only one of them returned to say thank you. This person was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). They were all united together when they suffered leprosy together, but as soon as they were healed, other divisions, like ethnicity, came to the fore. Separating them again. In today’s situation a nationalism and classism, rather than a world-wide humanitarianism, now determine who will be first in line for vaccine treatment.
This past week South Africa together with India and later supported by Eswatini and Kenya, requested the World Trade Organisation TRIPS Council that certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19 be waved to ensure greater ease to acquire the COVID-19 vaccine. This was not agreed to. Unsurprisingly, the debate was pretty much split along economics: rich countries vs poor countries.
Time is running out for the human species to mature. To literally grow up and recognise the real reality (that does not debate, but reigns) of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all of life. Only then will we end the apartheid between nations that selfishly secures privilege for a few at the exclusion and exploitation of the many. In short, a mature human person recognises that all people are family. For this reason, we pray: OUR Father / Mother in heaven… To take that three-letter word seriously is to change the world we live in.
If you would like the Zoom link for Sunday’s Service – please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Saturday I attended the Grow to Live Workshop at the Soil for Life Resource Centre in Constantia. The workshop bio says: “Directly, or indirectly, all food comes from the soil. Today soils are tired, overworked, depleted, sick and poisoned by synthetic chemicals. The quality of our food has suffered and so has our health. All life will be healthy or unhealthy according to the fertility of the soil. Since soil is the basis for all human life, our only hope for a healthy world rests on re-establishing the harmony in the soil.”
Soil for Life is a public benefit organisation that teaches people how to grow their own food, improve their health and well-being, and nurture and protect the environment.
Soil for Life believes that “EVERYONE has the potential to grow nutritious food with whatever resources they have available. Since we started in 2002 we have helped thousands of people in resource-poor communities to develop productive and sustainable home food gardens”.
I can testify that just being in the abundantly luscious garden made me feel more alive. The connection with everything living was obvious. I think I even heard the food growing.
There was so much to learn and now so much to practice. There was a time when everyone grew their own food. The awareness of feeling more alive made me realise just how detached I am from what gives me life. Why was I not taught this at school when I was growing up? Seems crazy that it wasn’t on the syllabus year in and year out!
Please consider supporting this LIFE-GIVING work. I hope you will visit Soil for Life especially if you have not done so already. You can buy your vegetables from them and support their valuable training programmes.
PS: For Zoom link for Sunday’s service please email email@example.com
This Sunday we will reflect on Jesus being questioned about paying taxes to the emperor. It is a topical issue at the moment. In South Africa we are faced with daily revelations of state / private corruption that detail the squandering of State collected taxes. Taxes meant to be spent for the public good have instead been criminally syphoned off for private gain. Further afield we learn of a president who routinely boasts of how wealthy he is and yet shamelessly withholds paying taxes. Sunday’s reflection: Taxes and Death.
Sunday’s service will take place via zoom at 10am.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org for the zoom link.
Now for a few thoughts regarding more broadly what I see taking place in the States at this time. I share this with the hope that we will be reminded of some crucial lessons from our own history as well as to draw attention to the disturbing up-swing of authoritarian regimes and populous demagogues around the world.
Using Scripture as the lens to focus our thoughts, in this case, specifically Exodus 1:8-22 and Isaiah 59: 1-16a. Rather than use scripture in a “proof text” or “literal / fact based” kind-of-way, I will try to unearth and be guided by the archetypal truth embedded within the given narrative. In this way the ancient text enlightens our present context and our present context informs our understanding of the text. Meaning moves both ways.
The book of Exodus is the story of a slave people taking the gap … to freedom. It was so impossible that it was compared to sneaking through an ocean split dry. This great escape includes moments so unforeseen that the only word in human vocabulary to be able to describe it was a “miracle”. Even the secular press turned to this word for help when they ran out of all others to describe the event – which itself was another miracle.
We turn to the text to guide us:
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. [Exodus 1:8-14]
We read, “… a new king of Egypt who did not know Joseph”. How strange? How could that be possible that one be so forgetful? What terror-ble amnesia! This new king must have either been so narcissistic that there was no room within his heart to remember anyone but himself, or it was a profound act of wilful-forgetfulness. Forgetful of Joseph is a proxy for being forgetful of YHWH. When one is forgetful of the Ultimate One then one is inclined to exaggerate one’s own sense of self. This forgetful king thus had no reason to be humble. His forgetfulness made him accountable to none and to live in steadfast service of himself.
We read this forgetful king was also fearful. Now just as love casts out fear, so fear casts our love. A fear-full leader is therefore a love-less leader. A love-less leader is a terror. Not surprising then that he would soon be signing off executive decisions that dealt with people “shrewdly”, “ruthlessly” and murderously.
Forgetfulness of the Higher Power of Truth and Justice, together with fear of one’s neighbour, are always present at the birth of authoritarianism.
Notice how the forgetful and fearful king changes a long held truth into a dangerous lie. The Israelites were no longer their neighbours of many years. They were now named soon-to-be traitors. What a re-framing! Fear mongering. Naming and blaming. Othering! Othering that instils fear and hate with the aim to divide and conquer. Next we witness the major trick performed by every successful authoritarian ruler. Just like a magician covers their hat with a handkerchief before they pull out a rabbit, so the authoritarian covers everything they say with the blanket of national security. This blanket is decorated with holy cows grazing in fields of evergreen nationalism that silences those with questions. When it is pulled back, we see that a remarkable thing has taken place: the victims have become the perpetrators and the perpetrators have become the victims. (Water into wine eat your heart out!). With this deceptive reversal in place the victims (read: real perpetrators) are justified to crackdown on the perpetrators (read: real victims). So children are separated from parents and locked in cages. Dare not call this cruel. It is not. The reason it is not is that it is a matter of national security. So the uniformed dare not question their orders. Instead they efficiently do what is evil enjoying the praise for doing good. (But one day they will have to answer. And the defence, “I was just following orders” will not be accepted as a valid reason for their evil. A millstone may be put around their neck for causing little ones to be so terror-ised.)
15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’”
Authoritarians take the institutions that are designed to promote and protect life and begin to employ them to bring death or in the very least begin to prevent them from fulfilling their life enabling function. Pharaoh calls the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Birth enablers are employed as facilitators of death. Sometimes this is communicated bluntly and sometimes subtly. Sometimes the forgetful, fearful king simply ignores and encourage others to ignore the instructions of well-meaning institutions, that if followed, would save life. In so doing they fail to do anything to prevent the death of 222 891 people (as of 16/10/20). Fascists are perversely turned on by death, especially the death of the weak. So Pharaoh does not mourn. There is no apology. Only lying denials. Read Isaiah 59 to see how authoritarians lie and lie. They spin a deadly web of lies that cause the “truth to stumble in the public square and justice to be turned back”.
“YHWH is appalled.” (Isaiah 59:16a) that so few intervene and so many remain silent. Especially the silence of the community called church.
But there are some who do intervene. Many of whom are ordinary people or even so-called “little people”. Wise as serpents and gentle as doves (non-violently) they courageously resist genocidal fascists with creative acts of sabotage. The midwives were so in-spirit-ed by the wonder of life that they had no space within themselves to fear this forgetful and fearful Pharaoh. They made up a story about how “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women” and Pharaoh bought it because it confirmed his existing prejudice. Proving how prejudice makes one so stupid.
Eventually Pharaoh openly sanctions genocide: drown them!
Patriarchy goes hand in hand with authoritarianism. Pharaoh undermined girls/women. He believed only boys/men could possibly be a threat to him. He admitted that he would just grab a girl/woman when and how he wanted. And yet history will show it was girls/women who were the founding members of the anti-Pharaoh Struggle. Besides the midwives, there was a mother and sister who with the wisdom of serpents placed their baby boy on the river instead of in the river. So it is with resistance struggles throughout history. Liberation is won, changing one letter at a time. Pharaoh’s own daughter worked behind enemy lines – eventually getting one of the enemy not only into Pharaoh’s house, but adopted into his family! Viva Caroline Giuliani viva!
As we have said repeatedly over the last couple of weeks: the exploitation of people goes hand in hand with the exploitation of creation. The one leads to the other. People will eventually revolt and creation will eventually rebel. Creation rebels by confronting us with the consequences of our exploitative ways. Insecticides contaminate the soil. The run-off poisons the water. The fish die, as do those that feed on the fish. We become chronically ill. When illness catches up to Pharaoh himself there is the hope that a lesson will be learnt and that a humbling change will take place … but alas, this is not always the case.
Pharaoh was given many opportunities to do the loving / liberating thing, yet he repeatedly decided not to. In the process his heart was hardened, until one day it was fixed in its hardness. All that remains then is self-destruction on a massive scale. The deathly consequences of this self-destruction are impossible to over play, for during the very time we should be doing everything we can to prevent the oceans from rising, we have to concern ourselves with a Pharaoh in denial who is leading a people into the ocean to drown. All because of his desperate attempt to fill the gaping void within his own life.
Fascism relies on the public believing that their nation is so exceptional that “it will never happen here”. Exceptionalism is idolatry. It is a lie, for just as all people have fallen short of the glory of God, so have all nations fallen short. It is a slippery slope from exceptionalism to fascism. A slippery slope constantly greased by Christian fundamentalists, Constitutional originalists and white supremacist militia.
In closing, let us read the text again while being attentive to who we identify with in the text. Let’s check our natural inclinations to quickly self-identify with the persecuted, re-denying any existence of the persecutor within us. Even if we struggle to see ourselves as a Pharaoh-type, can we wrestle with the possibility that there may be others who view us as Pharaoh? Who are they? How would they like us to change? Oh that we may take out the log from within our own eye…
Reflection on Exodus 32:1-14
Truth is larger than fact. There are times when the facts simply can’t adequately hold the truth. For example, there is no fact that could sufficiently account for a parent’s love for their child. Or for the liberation of a long-oppressed people. When the facts fail the truth, we turn to metaphor and myth, satire and story, parable and poetry. To say that someone is the most beautiful person in all the world is not meant to be evaluated on a factual basis, but rather to be appreciated for the truth that the statement makes about their love or attraction toward the person.
Similarly, the validity of the Exodus narrative (and much of Scripture) does not rest on whether it factually took place once upon a time or not, but rather on the truth that it announces for all time. (It is most likely that the Exodus narrative was the accumulative wisdom gleaned from many cycles of oppression and liberation all sewn together into a single archetypal liberation narrative.) The narrative’s purpose is to speak timeless truth:
This brings us to this Sunday’s reading: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us … Aaron took the gold from them and formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf…”
It is important to note that the golden calf may be seen as a replacement of the liberating YHWH or a representation of YHWH. The latter is a far more subtle form of idolatry and therefore potentially more dangerous. An idolatrous representation of YHWH would include attributing non-liberative characteristics to YHWH (see last week’s reference to “make no wrongful use of the name of God”.) An example today is the prosperity teaching (read: heresy / cult) calling on Jesus’ name in order to prosper financially by TV evangelists who believe owning a private jet is crucial for them to spread the word about the humble sandalled Jesus. (The same Jesus who happened to warn that it was pretty impossible to fly a jet through the eye of a needle.)
An even subtler form of idolatry includes that which is not necessarily religious at all and as a result are seldom named as gods / idols, yet they solicit our unquestionable belief in their professed saving power. Like believing that the death penalty will save us from crime. Or the gun will keep me safe. Or low taxes on the rich will be good news for the poor. Or that the quality of health care or education must correlate to how much money one has. These come to us through laws and systems rather than doctrines and creeds. We learn proverbs like “time is money” off by heart until we believe that everything is a product to be traded and that the value of anything or worth of anyone is ultimately determined in monetary terms.
With the above-mentioned examples, it should be clear that there is no such thing as a “non-believer”. We all believe in something. We all worship something. And whatever we worship is our god – like it or not. If the word worship does not connect with you then ask yourself what is the object of your ultimate concern? (See: Paul Tillich.) The answer to this question is our god. Simply put, whatever we give our heart to is our god, religious or not. For this reason, we are called to do the urgent and crucial work of “know yourself” to discover who / what we believe in. Warning: We may be surprised to discover that we don’t always believe in what we would like to think we believe in or what we profess to believe in. (Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the reign of God – says Jesus.) This is why the scriptures care less about atheism than they do about idolatry, because we could be worshiping the very ways that crucified Jesus while singing his praises on our lips.
How do we know the difference between God and an idol? Or God and false gods? In short: Idols or false gods always demand sacrifice. Idols take life while promising new life. Think of the military or of the idol of nationalism or tribalism that worship little lines in the ground called borders. Drawn and defended with blood. The true God on the other hand does not demand sacrifices. Rather the true God demands justice, mercy, humility, truth, gentleness. In other words, the true God demands that which will promote and protect life – all of Life in all its fullness.
This is the only scale that really matters: does our living bring life or death?
So just because we may never have carved out an image of a calf doesn’t mean we do not worship any idols. Furthermore, just because we have Jesus’ name repeatedly on our lips does not necessarily mean Jesus is our God. And for those of you reading this who think you are exempt from idolatry because you don’t believe in any God or god or idol – well once you have found the words that work for you – I invite you to check what your ultimate concern is and whether honouring your ultimate concern brings life or death – for all of life.
Know thyself sister. Know thyself brother.
Grace upon grace,
Garden and I – 13 September 2020 by Athol McLaggan – Sunday’s CMM Chat/input
My Octopus Teacher is a mesmerising documentary that came out on Netflix this past week. It is the story of one person addressing his burn-out with the “social prescription”* of submerging himself daily into the kelp-forest-waters off Simon’s Town. During his daily practice of underwater attentiveness, he meets an Octopus … as one does. Consistency, curiosity, vulnerability, gentleness, trust and bravery alchemise over a year into steadfast (sucking) friendship. It turns out to be a human-healing friendship. The human student learns from the Octopus Teacher how to be more fully human.
You may not know, but this powerfully healing “social prescription” comes straight out of the scriptures:
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”
~ Job 12:7-8
Here the human is clearly instructed to be in a learnership relationship with land, creature and plant. In short, the text is a call for humans to be humble. We are to start with confession. The confession of our ignorance: to know that whatever we know is less than all that we do not know and therefore we are to proceed with caution and care (read Miraculous Magnolia again)! As T.S. Eliot writes: “In order to arrive at what / you do not know / you must go by a way which / is the way of ignorance.”
Instead of beginning with confession (conscious awareness of our ignorance), humanity more often than not has begun with praise. Praise of ourselves. As a result we are unashamedly human supremacists in both belief and behaviour. Religion, economics and education are co-opted to promote the lie of separate development: that we can develop separately from the earth, forgetting that we do not live on the earth but from the earth. This is murderous and suicidal. Recent research shows how deadly humanities refusal to walk humbly is: “Global populations of wildlife have plunged by 68% since 1970. Two years ago, the figure stood at 60%. We are wiping wildlife from the face of the planet.”
Though time is against us, redemption (liberated life for Life) is still possible. We can still change from arrogant abusiveness to walk the way of humble care. This possibility is powerfully told in the book of Daniel Chapter 4. Here we see that Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, experiences a Job-like wake-up-call. As a result of his increasingly arrogant abusiveness to all life forms, his kingdom crumbles and he is brought to his knees. Remember: arrogant abusiveness is murderous and suicidal.
Now read Daniel 4:15-16:
But leave its stump and roots in the ground,
with a band of iron and bronze,
in the tender grass of the field.
Let him be bathed with the dew of heaven,
and let his lot be with the animals of the field
in the grass of the earth.
Let his mind be changed from that of a human,
and let the mind of an animal be given to him.
And let seven times pass over him.
I have always viewed these verses as Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment or debilitating self-imposed consequence, but now I read them as his “social prescription” graciously given by Yhwh for his healing and the liberation of life within the land. “You will be made to eat grass like oxen” (v25). Basically, Yhwh tells Nebuchadnezzar that he is grounded. He is to learn again that his life, like that of the oxen, is dependent on the grass, the soil and the dew from heaven that nurtures them. And we read that as Nebuchadnezzar took on this daily practice of grounded attentiveness his “reason returned” to him (v36). Then walking humbly, he returned to the “works of truth and the ways of justice” (v37). “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” ~ Baba Dioum.
On Sunday we will continue this theme at our 11:11 CMM Chat. If you would like the link for the Zoom meeting, please email email@example.com. This Sunday the “guru of greenery” Athol McLaggan will be sharing with us.
* “Social prescription” – refer to last week’s reflection.