By the grace of my higher power

The following powerful testimony was shared as the Candle for Peace, Hope and Justice on Sunday 19 July 2015:

My name is Fiona and I am a recovering addict. Years trapped in the cycle of addiction brought me to my knees. I had lost hope. Towards the end I couldn’t go a couple of hours without withdrawing and needing another hit. Fear was my constant companion. Given 6 months to live, I was dying. I attempted hypnotherapy, detoxes, psychiatry, medication and sheer will power. None of these had worked. The 12 steps tell me I am powerless over my addiction, that there is one power that can help me, and that power is God. This proved a challenge as I was a hardened atheist. Years of active addiction had crushed any faith I may have had as a child. The programme teaches me to have an open mind and I finally surrendered. I was asked, would I rather be right or happy? So I began to pray. Since embarking on my spiritual journey through the steps and by the grace of my higher power, I haven’t craved for over 3½ years. Especially given I struggle with anxiety and depression, this is nothing short of a miracle.

This doesn’t mean I have the whole God-thing waxed. When my head gets in the way, it doesn’t make any sense. I have no idea what God’s plan is for me. The spiritual principles of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness are cornerstones of the 12 steps. All I can do is do the next right thing, which is what I see as God’s will, and along with that comes a sense of serenity. I feel much like a baby learning to crawl. I wasn’t born with the handbook of life. I was incapable of living life on life’s terms. The programme gives me the support and guidance I need to take the next step.

I firmly believe I wouldn’t have gotten out alive without the help of a power greater than myself. I am under new management. This brings much relief and I no longer have to have all the answers. If I put one in front of the other, do the next right thing, life unfolds the way it’s supposed to. I am exactly where I need to be. Having said this, acceptance is often tough. Why am I an addict, why can’t I be normal? It doesn’t end when I put down the drugs. In fact, that’s when the hard work really begins. If I want to stay clean I will have to attend 12 step meetings and work a programme for the rest of my life. Addiction isn’t curable, but it can be arrested one day at a time.

Self-centeredness lies at the core of my addiction. So if there’s one thing I can gleam from being an addict, my higher power has brought me into recovery to help others. The primary purpose of the 12 steps is to help the still suffering addict. For me it gives meaning to my own suffering and ultimately strengthens my recovery. This keeps me going in dark times. It’s not all about me.

Without faith in a higher power, I get lost in the senselessness of it all. Coming to believe has given me hope where I was hopeless. I am learning to let go and let God, hand over what I cannot control. I’m coming to accept my flaws and strengths, I am only human, and that’s more than good enough for me. I now know who I am, and with a higher power working in my life, just for today, I don’t have to pick up.

Please join me in prayer …

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

Amen.

Christians and Pagans

Lenten Prayer of Preparation

Oh God, let something essential happen to me, something more than interesting or entertaining or thoughtful.

Oh God, let something essential happen to me, something awesome, something real. Speak to my condition, Lord and change me somewhere inside where it matters, a change that will burn and tremble and heal and explode me into tears or laughter or love that throbs or screams or keeps a terrible, cleansing silence and dares the dangerous deeds. Let something happen which is my real self, Oh God. Amen.
[Ted Loder]

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In preparation for Holy Week I have been re-reading some works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the German Lutheran pastor who stood fearlessly against Nazi rule. He was jailed and finally executed on 9th April 1945 at the age of 39 just 23 days before the Nazi’s surrendered.

I trust his words about the Cross for two reasons: First, not only did he write about the Cross but he carried his own cross. The cross that is the consequence of a radical faithfulness to the ways of Jesus. Second, because his entire understanding of faith and life and God was shaped by his primary understanding of God as the Crucified LORD…

ON PEACE …

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”

ON SUFFERING …

“It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human order than in the freedom of one’s own, personal, responsible deed. It is infinitely easier to suffer in company than alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer publicly and with honour than out of the public eye and in disgrace. It is infinitely easier to suffer through the engagement of one’s physical being than through the Spirit. Christ Suffered in freedom, alone, out of the public eye and in disgrace, in body and soul, and likewise subsequently many Christians along with him.”

MORE WORDS ON SUFFERING …

“There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart.”

CHRISTIANS AND PAGANS …

  1. “People go to God in their need, for help, happiness and bread they plead for deliverance from sickness, guilt and death. Thus do they all, Christians and pagans.”
  2. “People go to God in God’s need, find God poor, reviled, with neither shelter nor bread, see God entangled in sin, weakness, and death. Christians stand by God in God’s suffering.”
  3. “God comes to all human beings in need, sates them body and soul with His bread, dies the death of the cross for Christians and pagans and forgives them both.”

“Christians stand by God in God’s suffering” — this is a Christian’s distinguishing character. This is what Holy Week teaches us to do. See you in the week.

 Grace, Alan

Disarm and rethink

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”

 

Happy New Year on this first Sunday of Advent. Yes, Christian New Year begins with four weeks of preparation for the coming of Jesus. And in Jesus we welcome God’s life enabling vision for all of creation. In Jesus we witness true humanity and true divinity walking hand in hand. In Jesus we witness life lived as life was intended to be lived — in love, by love and for love.

The prophet Isaiah is going to be our guide through these Advent days. The One thing we will soon learn about the prophet Isaiah is that he was not short on imagination when it came to expressing God’s heavenly dream for earth.

For Isaiah the first step for us to prepare for the coming of the prince of peace is to convert our weapons of destruction into instruments of nourishment — ”swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks”.

Sadly his words are yet to be taken seriously. We are still addicted to the lunacy of war. As John Wesley so clearly wrote many years ago:

Here are forty thousand men gathered together on this plain. What they going to do? See, there are thirty or forty thousand more at a great distance. And these are going to shoot them through the head or body, to stab them, or split their skulls, and send most of their souls into everlasting fire, as fast as they possibly can. Why so? What harm have they done to them? O, none at all! They do not so much as know them.
But a man, who is king of France has a quarrel with another man, who is king of England. So these Frenchmen are to kill as many of these Englishmen as they can, to prove the king of France is in the right. Now, what an argument is this? What a method of proof? What an amazing way of deciding controversies!
What must mankind be, before such a thing as war could ever be known or thought of upon earth? How shocking, how inconceivable a want must there have been of common understanding, as well as common humanity, before any two governors, or any two nations in the universe could once think of such a method of decision! If then, all nations, Pagan, Mohammedan, and Christian, do, in fact, make this their last resort, what farther proof do we need of the utter degeneracy of all nations from the plainest principles of reason and virtue? Of the absolute want, both of common sense and common humanity, which runs through the whole race of mankind? 
From: Works (Jackson) 9:221 The Doctrine of Original Sin (part 1)

Our first Advent task is to disarm and to rethink the way we “decide controversies”. None of us are excluded from this task. It involves how we decide controversies within our most intimate relationships as well as the most expansive public policy.

Manenberg Interfaith Prayers for Peace

Grace, Alan

No more hurting people. Peace.

This is 8 year old Martin Richard.
Martin was killed in the Boston Marathon bombing.
His poster reads: No more hurting people. Peace.
At the time his second grade class was studying non-violent
resistance through the lives of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Bobby Constantino (who took the photo) came to speak to the class about his protest march modeled after James Meredith’s 1966
“March Against Fear”. Constantino invited the class to become ahimsakas — a Gandhian term for activists committed to
“doing no harm”.

Every six years Methodist ministers are given a three month sabbatical. A sabbatical is not so much to rest from work as it is to rest in order to work. Of course we all need to rest and that is what holidays are for. Yet a sabbatical is more than a holiday. It is really a wonderful gift that offers the opportunity for one to be renewed, re-charged and re-aligned. Re-aligned to one’s core calling.

I am often surprised when my car goes in for a service to be told that the wheels need to be re-aligned. I am surprised because I didn’t notice they were out of alignment. That’s just it. Our living can be out of alignment with our core purpose or calling and yet we may not even notice it. Quite often we have learnt to compensate for the defect and therefore keep it hidden for longer. The tyres do not escape damage though — with some areas being worn dangerously smooth. The same applies to our lives that become dangerously thin in the very places that should provide us with tread to live. So from June through August I am booking my life in for a “service” – sabbatical.

Stephen Covey – the bestselling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – reminds us of the necessity of “Sharpening the Saw”. Covey tells the story of how a woodcutter became increasingly less productive in his work. So the woodcutter extended his working hours and increased his effort – but his production continued to decline. Why? Because he never stopped to sharpen the saw. So as I plan to sharpen the saw during sabbatical I hope you too will be deliberate to stop and sharpen the saw within your own life.

Sabbatical is not only a gift for the minister but also for the congregation. During my sabbatical you will be given the opportunity to hear the hearts of other preachers. This is so important as it reminds us that we all have a story of God’s grace and truth to share and that no single person has the complete truth. It has been said that a preacher only really has one sermon in them that they find different ways to share over and over again, which means that during my sabbatical you will be gifted with multiple opportunities to engage with truly different sermons. I promise you that you will hear new things and I trust that the change will sharpen the saw of this community.

I have nothing really planned for sabbatical (which is awesome) except that I do hope to take a few days to cycle to Knysna along Route 62. May there be enough oxygen in my lungs and air in my tyres.

In hope of resurrection, Alan

Hoping against hope

On Wednesday morning I was introduced to a new group of participants attending the second semester at The Carpenters Shop. Over the next 10 weeks they hope to learn new skills that will help them find a job. A job is the Holy Grail all of them are seeking. A job and the money that comes with it so that: “I don’t have to steal”; “I don’t have to be part of a gang”; “I can support my family”; ”I can be a man”; “I won’t ever go back to living on the street”; “I can start over”.

I have never really understood St. Paul’s phrase: “hoping against hope” but if it means what I think it may mean then it resonates with this situation. The longing to have a future that is different from the past – “I want a new life” – was said with blunt clarity.

I felt their longing but I also felt the underlying doubt upon which their longing rested. I confess I shared this doubt of whether change was at all likely – after all, where are these jobs going to come from? I felt a despair for our future. To use Melanie Judge’s words that I quoted in last week’s sermon, there are just too many people who have been “actively locked out of livelihoods of dignity”. Locked out by things like a failing education system. This is the primary violence within society that is seldom ever recognised as violence. It results in rage. Suppressed rage. Expressed rage. And ultimately rage that will probably end up being jailed and beaten into submission … resulting in ever more rage.

During the session I had with the group I was peppered with questions: “Where was God when I was stabbed in my face?” “If God loves me then why doesn’t God protect me?” “If God cares for me then why is my life such a mess?” “God may love me but God is up there somewhere – and I am down here”. Each question revealing how locked out they feel. Even locked out from God’s goodness and mercy.

The Easter narratives tell of Jesus coming and standing among his disciples who were locked behind closed doors. With this we are invited to trust that Jesus will always find a way to break into our lives no matter what we are locked behind or locked out of.

He comes, breathing peace and not judgement. He comes focused more on our future than our failed past. He en-courage-s us to start over again believing that we can change.

Payment for receiving this gift is to make it our task. To do to others what Jesus has done for us. To stand among those locked out of livelihoods of dignity. To stand among them breathing peace while hoping against hope that change is possible.

I believe Lord. Help my unbelief,
Alan

Conversation at the Book Lounge:

Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church spilled out onto a Sidewalk by Christa Kuljian

Thursday 25 April, at 6 p.m.

After years of sporadic media attention and posturing by politicians, Kuljian has made it her business to find out exactly what has been going on at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg, where the Church acts as a gateway to the city – an Ellis Island for South Africa, the place where many migrants first go to get their bearings. How did a place of worship turn into a shelter for thousands of refugees? Where did they come from? Why are they still there? Seeking to answer such questions, Kuljian fluently combines many elements: interviews with members of the refugee community and residents of the Church, and key figures like Bishop Paul Verryn, who has often been at the centre of the storm; historical material on the church and its role in the city since the early years; and an understanding of urban dynamics, migrancy, and South African and southern African politics.

The result is a complex, open-eyed book that grapples with some of South Africa’s most urgent social problems as they are refracted through one appalling, frustrating, inspiring place.

Christa will be in conversation with Alan Storey at the Book Lounge.

Create a new future

My travels are enriching as always. The paradox of seeing home more clearly the further away I am from home never ceases to surprise me. To enter into the lives of others in different places doing different things fascinates me.

In Belfast you can’t help notice the huge wall murals/paintings that litter the community. Most of them that I saw were by paramilitary organisations vowing never to forget those who have been killed during the “troubles”. They can be quite threatening like this one …

Another — painted adjacent to the East Belfast Mission where I was visiting was different. This one invited our memory to create a new future instead of holding us captive to it.

Really when it comes down to it, all of us have to make a choice which wall mural we will honour.

Grace, Alan