Jesus first

Focus more time and energy on what we are for
than on what we are against.

Today is Christ the King Sunday — it is also the last Sunday of the Christian year. This is perfectly appropriate for it reminds us where all of time is headed as well as the purpose of our year-in and year-out living — putting Jesus first in all things. As the author of Colossians puts it: “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created though him and for him … so that he may come to have first place in everything.” (Col 1:15-16 and 18).

I was listening to a preacher the other day that left me feeling very perturbed. The sermon was saturated with devil talk — even though the text made no mention of the devil (in fact very few do!). I was hearing more about the devil than I was about Jesus.

Aldous Huxley — of Brave New World fame wrote a book called, The Devils of Loudun. This 1952 non-fiction novel is a historical narrative of supposed demonic possession, religious fanaticism, sexual repression, and mass hysteria which occurred in 17th century France surrounding unexplained events that took place in the small town of Loudun.

This is what Huxley says:
The effects which follow too constant and intense a concentration upon evil are always disastrous. Those who crusade not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes even perceptively worse than it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself, (p.192)…

No man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected. To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous. Every crusader is apt to go mad. He is haunted by the wickedness which he attributes to his enemies; it becomes in some sort a part of him. (p 260)

On this Christ the King Sunday we are reminded to put Jesus first in everything we think, say and do as our years focus. To focus more on what we are “for” than on what we are “against”. This will protect us from focusing too much on others and not enough on our own need for transformation. It may also prevent us from being perpetual faultfinders with nothing better to do than issue complaints. Even if our complaints have some validity it is tiring to be in the presence of one who only ever finds fault.

As our New Year begins next week — on the first Sunday of Advent may our default stance be for Jesus. What does it mean to be for Jesus? It means to be for what he was for. To be for: truth, gentleness, forgiveness, generosity, compassion for the vulnerable, to live lives of prayer, peace, joy and justice etc. This stance for Jesus is the most faithful way we can prepare for his birth among us.

An Alcohol-Free December

Why an alcohol-free December? Well why not?

Alcohol is very very expensive! I am not referring to the cost in Rand terms — although this is no small amount. I am referring to its cost in relationships and ruined lives. So many arguments, ugliness, child neglect and abuse, fights, killings, road accidents … you name it … are all exacerbated by alcohol.

For those of us who struggle with addiction December is one of the most difficult months and it would be great to know that others are FASTING in SOLIDARITY with us.

Peace, Alan

Mindfulness

Thích Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. He lives in the Plum Village Monastery in the Dordogne region in the South of France.

Below follows Thích Nhat Hanh’s Five Mindfulness Trainings which represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality and ethic. To practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings is to cultivate the insight of interbeing, or Right View, which can remove all discrimination, intolerance, anger, fear, and despair.

Remember the first key (Manna and Mercy) of Christian interpretation is to ask: “Would Jesus say amen to this?” I invite you to hold this question as you read through these Five Mindfulness Trainings…

The Five Mindfulness Trainings
1. Reverence For Life
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

2. True Happiness
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

3. True Love
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

4. Loving Speech and Deep Listening
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

5. Nourishment and Healing
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

By: Thích Nhat Hanh | www.plumvillage.org

Become love

Sidewalk art!
Witty and theologically on the money!
This is a ‘bench’ next to a Gautrain bus stop.

One of the people I return to over and over again when my clarity of purpose fades, is Gordon Cosby — the founder and pastor/prophet of the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC. Listen:

Jesus makes it crystal clear. Our work is to become love, and from the state of being love, we are to love. He sums it up this way: “Love one another as I have loved you”. To fail to become love is to fail life. It is to fail to become human.

No matter how varied and rich our experiences, how honoured we’ve been, how great our achievements, we will have missed what life was all about if we do not become love. We will not at all be ready for the only milieu that matters, the one we will enter when we are poured out at death.

I think one of the great failures of ministers like myself is that we have exhorted people to love, and we have deplored the lack of love in the world, yet we have not become love. We have not known how to instruct our own souls in the art of loving.

Suppose I really hear Jesus say: Gordon, do you love me? How will I stop answering in generalities? What will be my specific practices that will bring inner change? Has love become my primary work, my central activity, my core being?

I think Jesus is saying, if you aspire to love one another as I have loved you, then see one another as I have seen you. I see you as sacred. You are precious beyond any measure of preciousness. Accept that I see you this way. See every person you meet as I see you. Learn to experience yourself and others with reverence.

There is more in each of us that is beyond what we can grasp. Will I dare to see it? In the person who is telling me off? In the one who is trying to get closer than is comfortable, in those who are pressuring me? Will I dare to enjoy the presence of the sacred even in those who annoy me?

To love is not to try to solve anything about a person, not to try and fix a person. It is not to do so much as to be. Just be open to God’s sacred creation. Just love what is.

With the desire to grow in love, Alan

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

People Make Places

I thought I’d bring to your attention the walking tour (2 hours) the Cape Town Partnership is conducting next week Tuesday 12 November. Andrew Putter and myself will facilitate a walk around the east city area: a chance for people of different backgrounds to have some constructive chats around some interesting places and worlds in the city that they walk past daily but may not have necessarily engage with. This includes vibrant afro-cosmopolitan stretches in the city, the daily routes used by trolley pushers, some of the experiences of informal traders, and the organisations such as the Service Dining Room that help marginalised groups on the street.

There is no set agenda or expectations. The purpose of the walk is to rather get some people together, chat and just come out from the experience stimulated in some way. Encountering something that can hopefully plant a small seed.

We start from 6 Spin Street at 9:30 next Tuesday. If you would like to attend please tell Adrienne.

Two emotions, two options

So on Thursday afternoon I was standing on my outside deck
and I heard a noise that sounded like a swarm of bees.
I looked up and saw a “drone” peering down at me.

Big Brother is watching … my garden grow.

 

It has been said that there are really only two emotions — fear and love. In other words whatever we do is rooted in one or the other. By asking ‘why am I doing what I am doing?’ we may discover this to be true. We may also discover that many of us are motivated more by fear than love. The fear of rejection. The fear of the future. The fear of death. The fear of being alone. The fear of not having enough. The fear of change. Even the fear of fear. Or the fear of …

When fear is our predominant motivation it becomes our “true north” that sets our direction. At this point fear has become our god (the most determining factor in our life). Even our prayers to God end up in the service of this god of fear. No wonder the most repeated command in Scripture is “Do not be afraid”.

The scriptures remind us that “perfect love casts out fear”. The opposite is also true: fear casts out love. And because God is love, fear then casts out God because it becomes our god.

Instead of being determined by our fear we may be tempted to deny our fear. The problem with denial is that instead of removing our fear all it does is mask it. Fear then becomes the hidden cause of much of our living, only now it is one step removed from being discerned and dealt with.

The two options of denial and determination are equally debilitating.

Scriptures injunction that “perfect love casts out fear” gives us insight into a third way to relate to our fear. Here we are invited to bring our fear into relationship with love. Remembering God is love, we are invited to bring our fear into relationship with God. In the very least, to love means to acknowledge and accept. This is our first task — to acknowledge and accept our fear. To do this it is sometimes helpful to personify our fear. In other words to give our fear a name, e.g. Wolf. And then to relate to the Wolf without judgement. To explore rather than to evaluate the Wolf. This loving (acknowledging, accepting, exploring without judgement) of Wolf — will over time transform Wolf. Slowly Wolf will determine our living (either consciously or unconsciously) less and less.

Grace, Alan

All are welcome

“So what is this church stuff all about…?” I have carried this question on my sabbatical journey.

Just because we call ourselves ‘church’ does not mean we are church, it just means that is what we call ourselves. After all, by calling myself an astronaut doesn’t make me an astronaut. And by being an astronaut in name only is a real turn off to others considering being an astronaut themselves – after all, who wants to join a bunch of astronauts who never go up into space?

Surely we are only ‘church’ to the extent that as a community we incarnate the life and teachings of Jesus in the world in which we live? So what does it mean to incarnate Jesus in our living?

We incarnate Jesus by hungering for what he hungers for – and he hungers for no one to be hungry.

We incarnate Jesus by bravely loving those who he loves – and he especially loves those who others especially think should not be loved.

We incarnate Jesus by forgiving those who he forgives – ourselves and others, when we least deserve it.

We incarnate Jesus by trusting in what he trusts in: that truthfulness is liberating; that gentleness is real power; that generous giving is actually abundant receiving; that we have come from love and to love we will return, and therefore we need not fear to love here and now.

We incarnate Jesus by believing in what he believes in, and he believes that we should not discriminate against people according to what they believe.

We incarnate Jesus by living out this hymn by Marty Haugen called: All are Welcome…

Grace, Alan

All Are Welcome

Let us build a house
where love can dwell
And all can safely live,
A place where
saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.

Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
Rock of faith and vault of grace;
Here the love of Christ shall end divisions;

All are welcome, all are welcome,
All are welcome in this place.

 Let us build a house where prophets speak,
And words are strong and true,
Where all God’s children dare to seek
To dream God’s reign anew.

Here the cross shall stand as witness
And a symbol of God’s grace;
Here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:

All are welcome, all are welcome,
All are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where love is found
In water, wine and wheat:
A banquet hall on holy ground,
Where peace and justice meet.

Here the love of God, through Jesus,
Is revealed in time and space;
As we share in Christ the feast that frees us:

All are welcome, all are welcome,
All are welcome in this place.

Marty Haugen©

That stuff about love

Can anyone remember these?
They were collectable stickers from (I think?) the late 70’s and 80’s.

 

It is Wednesday morning and I am at the Carpenter’s Shop sitting around a table with a group of mostly young men between the ages of 20 and 30. There is one woman in the group and 3 or 4 older men. We open our time together by checking-in about the week that was.

I ask: “How was Mother’s Day?” “Like any other day”, someone replies. Only two out of the group of 20-odd people had any contact with their mothers. I took the gap to ask how many of them connect with their fathers and learnt that not one person had contact with their father – either because he had died or because they were estranged from him.

We then moved on to speak about love. I asked: “What happens when you fall in love with someone? Let’s make a list together…” At that, I noticed the corners of some mouths begin to stretch into a smile as their mind’s eye focused on a love moment in their recent or distant past.

Love is sharing… yes that is what love is.” Others agreed with the opening speaker – “Ya sharing … sharing your bodies…” This provoked some laughter and some less quotable talk. So I chipped in, “OK, love is sharing. Sharing what?”

Sharing time… yes when I am in love and I am meant to meet her at 8 o’clock I make sure I get there at 7 o’clock”. Followed by some more laughter as well as a couple of “Ya me too … you waste lots of time in love but it’s not really a waste if you understand?”

Love is sharing your money… ya you spoil them too much when you in love.” Everyone agreed. “Love is not cheap.” We went through a quick list: “I buy for her a cool drink on a hot day”, “new shoes” “or we hire a DVD to watch together”.

Love is sharing secrets…” added another. This seemed to resonate with everyone, “… when you love someone you not scared to tell them everything – you don’t hide anything … you tell the truth…” Someone interjected, “Ya, but you don’t tell the one girl about the other girl.” More laughter. “That is sex, not love. You can have sex with many but you can only love one.” another argued back.

This then led to a conversation about how men can “have many” without the woman knowing but woman cannot do so without the man knowing. It was a serious conversation based on “logic”. I found it a terribly disturbing understanding of masculinity and couldn’t help making the link between it and the huge violation (especially sexual violation) of women in South Africa.

And then the same person who started us out on this bumpy road of disturbance turned sharply onto a new path taking us all with him. “Hey pastor, ag I mean Alan, where in the Bible does it say that stuff about love… read it to us… I think it was Petros who said it.” “No you idiot it was Paulos” someone enjoyed correcting him. “Well read it anyway…” he pleaded.

I started to read from 1 Corinthians 13…”Love is patient, love is kind”. “Ya that is the one… read it… you “ous” listen to it… hey shut up and listen… it is telling about love…” So I continued to read: “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…”

We finish our time together by holding each other’s hands – heads bowed – held by the silence. We ask God to help us to trust that we are loveable and to show us that we have love to share with others.

In love – by love and for love, Alan

Limitless, fathomless and all-embracing love

This past week we have been reflecting on the parable of the Prodigal Son or as other more accurately call it the parable of the Waiting Father. The parable is one of death and resurrection – as the Father later confirmed: “This son of mine was dead but is now alive again.”

None of the characters in the parable have names. Their identity comes through their relationships: father, son and brother. To break the relationship is to lose your identity. To lose your identity is to die. No one is an island. I am who I am because you are who you are. We exist in togetherness or not at all. We call it Ubuntu.

Death in the scriptures is not reduced to whether we have a pulse or not. The younger son was still breathing but he was dead because he was no longer living in relationship with his father and brother. He was tempted by the illusion of independence and the lie that you can live a separate selfish life and still live.

Both sons in different ways separate themselves from the Father – or as Miroslav Volf says they try and “un-son” themselves. The younger one travels to a distant land while the older son remains outside in anger. Both cause the Father grief. Grieving. For he has lost a loved one.

When the child returns to relationship he is resurrected. He is born again. We are born again when we live life lovingly again.

On Monday evening I read an extract from a beautiful book called: “Father Joe”. In it the author records a time when he came to Father Joe for confession after many, many years of being in a “distant land” and with “the pigs”. After he shared some of the gory details about his life, Father Joe says to him:

These are great imperfections, dear. But they’re not what you really want to say, are they?” He was right… there was something, but I couldn’t quite reach down far enough to find it. “Say what’s in your heart now, dear.”

“I seem incapable of love, Father Joe. Utterly incapable of feeling it, even thinking it. Even wanting it. No, that’s not true. I want to love, terribly. But it won’t come … I hate love. It feels the way a sin used to. Like when you got a present as a kid and for no reason at all you’d smash it into little pieces…”

“Tony dear, you will only be able to love when you understand how much you are loved. You are loved, dear, with a limitless… fathomless… all-embracing love.”

Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That Jesus is alive and that Jesus is Lord. And we also celebrate that by allowing him to love us we too are resurrected to new life. To a loved life. To a life lived lovingly.

Peace, Alan

The cross of truth and grace

Our Holy Week reflections began with the showing of Incendies on Palm Sunday. The movie took us to the awe-full intersection of truth and grace. Both a terrible place and an inspiring place.

In Incendies a mother is tortured by her own son – though he knows not that she is his mother. He comes to this truth after her death when he is delivered two letters from her.

The first letter is addressed to him as her torturer. The second letter is addressed to him as her son. He is not one or the other – he is both. He is both at one and the same time. That is the truth of the matter. That is the grace of the matter. It is an awe-full intersection. A painful joy.

Letter to the Torturer

I’m shaking as I write.
I recognised you.
You didn’t recognise me.
It’s magnificent, a miracle.
I am your Number 72.
Our children will deliver this.
You won’t recognise them, for they are beautiful.
But they know who you are.
Through them, I want to tell you that you are still alive.
Soon you will turn silent … I know.
For all are silent before the truth.
Signed: Whore 72

Letter to the Son

I speak to the son, not the torturer.
Whatever happens, I’ll always love you.
I promised you that when you were born, my son.
Whatever happens, I’ll always love you.
I looked for you all my life.
I found you.
You couldn’t recognise me.
You’ve a tattoo on your right heel.
I saw it. I recognised you.
You are beautiful.
I wrap you in tenderness, my love.
Take solace, for nothing means more than being together.
You were born of love.
So your brother and sister were born of love, too.
Nothing means more than being together.
Your mother,
Nawal Marwan.
Prisoner No. 72

Today more than any other day we are drawn to the awe-full intersection – the awe-full cross of truth and grace. The truth of our skill to torture – our capacity to crucify. The grace of “whatever you do to me – I will always love you… nothing means more than being together”.

Let us keep company with each other today – in this awe-full place.

With grace and truth, Alan

To travel is to learn!

One of things I learnt on my trip was that C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast. (I always thought he was born in England.) I was taken to the St. Mark’s Church where he was baptised by his Grandfather Rev. Thomas Hamilton who lived in the rectory alongside.

 

The doorknob of the rectory was a bold brass Lion in the centre

of a bright red door and the inspiration for Aslan, the Lion, in

The Chronicles of Narnia.  

 

On a nearby statue of him it reads: “Born 1898 and reborn 1931.”

Lewis once wrote: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

In The Four Loves he wrote: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

In Peace, Alan